Wednesday, April 15, 2020

My Favorite Iowa Fan

A couple weeks ago my wife and I were blessed with a son, our first kid. It’s been an incredible time of constant new experiences, terrifying moments of self-doubt, and a feeling of awesome responsibility. All of which is heightened by the fact that he entered the world at a time of, um, *gestures wildly at everything*. The experience of bringing him home after his delivery and knowing there was no nurse call button if we needed help, no way for his grandparents to come see him or give us a few hours to sleep, was one I’ll never forget.

The evening he came home, MLB Network was showing a huge moment in my life: Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Sitting on the couch, holding my new son, I got to relive those memories in early-90s resolution, and tell him about that great season as if he understood.

As a 9 year old baseball-obsessed kid I stayed up late (on a school night!) with mom to watch the game.  In the 10th Inning when Gene Larkin sent a deep single into left center field over a drawn-in outfield and Dan Gladden jumped on home plate, we hugged and cried and jumped around the living room. Moments after the game ended our phone rang and I answered knowing who it would be. My grandpa’s voice on the other line was filled with happiness as he told me to remember this moment; it was special and even if I was lucky there would be few like it. Then he said something else: “Keep the book. You’ll never forget this.”

After my son went to bed I pulled out a giant, dog-eared book I hadn’t looked at in years: “Total Baseball: Second Edition” by John Thorn and Pete Palmer. It’s a massive book, 2,600 pages and 8 pounds of baseball history and statistics up to 1990. Grandpa had lent it to me after watching me spend hour upon hour with it at his house. On the inside of the front cover in the poor handwriting of a 9-year old is this:

Grandpa was right. In his memory, this is the story of my favorite Iowa fan.

My grandpa was born in 1928 in a small town in northeast Iowa. His father was the son of German immigrants who owned the local meat market. Nearly everyone in town was either a German immigrant or a 1st or 2nd generation American. Services at the church his grandfather had helped found and build were still in German until 1942, and the cemetery in is thick with German inscriptions in Teutonic fonts.

He was the middle of three kids and musical talent ran in the family. His older brother was a talented trumpet player, his younger sister a great singer, while he played trombone and tuba. But as much as music, he and his brother loved baseball. His brother, taller and more athletic, played for the local town ball team until being interrupted by World War Two where he was an aircraft mechanic in the USAAF, and then an emergency infantryman during the Battle of Bulge. He came home from war a different and troubled man and never played baseball or trumpet again. Grandpa was too young, only 17 in 1945. He eventually spent two years in the Navy during Korea, posted to a naval reserve air station in Kansas after training at Naval Station Great Lakes in Chicago, where he spent his only day “at sea” on Lake Michigan.

Like many rural kids west of the Mississippi before major league expansion, grandpa adopted the closest possible teams to follow: the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago Bears, and the Iowa Hawkeyes. His Cubs and Bears fanhood was necessarily limited to radio and newspaper until he finally got to Wrigley Field during naval training. However, an occasional trip into Iowa City was possible even for a rural kid and he had detailed memories of playing his trombone and tuba during high school band days at Iowa Field (now Kinnick Stadium). Planning to be a music teacher, he started at Wartburg College, a private Lutheran school in northeast Iowa because he was able to get financial assistance through his church. Naval service interrupted his studies and he never graduated, though he went on to have a very successful career in mortgage banking.

He was married in the early 1950s to a girl from a nearby small town and they had two daughters; the oldest was my mom. They moved all over Iowa as his career progressed, and then in the mid-1970s a promotion brought them to Minnesota. By then grandpa had added the Minnesota Twins to his teams due to proximity and his company's readily-available box seats at Met Stadium, but he maintained his Bears and Hawkeyes allegiances. He made it to Iowa games most years, especially to see his nephew in the marching band. His fanhood fell somewhere in between casual and die-hard; I don’t have strong memories of watching Iowa sports with him, but he spoke glowingly of Bump Elliott, Lute Olson, Hayden Fry, and Nile Kinnick.

I’m sure it’ll shock you to learn I was a weird, awkward kid. Cripplingly shy, challenged at making friends, and afraid of doing most things. My parents were concerned but their efforts to get me interested in what “normal” kids were interested in like sports and music mostly failed. I read encyclopedias for fun.

Luckily I grew up a 10 minute drive from my grandparents. In the summer of 1989 my recently-retired grandpa told mom to bring me over for a day. When I got to his house he had laid out three ring binders, plastic sleeves, and multiple boxes of brand-new baseball cards. He told me we were starting a baseball card collection and we spent the whole day sorting cards by league, team, and alphabetical order. He told me about his own collection, how valuable it would have been if his mom hadn’t thrown it out while he was away at college. He told me stories about the 1927 Yankees, Murderer’s Row, Carl Hubbell’s 1934 All-Star Game, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, and the player he had grown up idolizing, Lou Gehrig. Lou came from German immigrants too.

I left that day hooked, and went back to grandpa’s house several times that week to watch the Twins and the Cubs and learn the game. My parents saw a transformation start that summer; dad didn’t have to force me to play catch in the side yard. I started to make friends at school, getting invited to birthday parties and sleepovers. I started playing little league and nearly every day we played pickup baseball at the field near my house. Sundays were always for watching baseball with grandpa. Kirby Puckett was my Lou Gehrig but I liked Kent Hrbek too since I was a 1st baseman.

After the magic 1991 Twins season I doubled-down on baseball, digging deep into the history, player, and team statistics. The math I learned from SLG, OBP, and ERA did more to prepare me for a career in chemistry and healthcare than high school algebra. I used Total Baseball statistics to build all-time Twins teams into my Nintendo games. No internet on my family’s IBM PS1, after all.

My baseball “career” ended in high school when I realized it was too late for me to learn to effectively hit curveballs and I focused on music instead, which led me to the University of Minnesota. I talked in more detail about that decision on the most recent TAWpod. That said, my parents were from Iowa and didn’t go to college, so my allegiance was at least theoretically up for grabs. But grandpa never pushed Iowa on me though I’m sure he would have been thrilled to see me go there. When I picked Minnesota I wondered what he would say; I needn’t have. He was thrilled because I was going to be in the band, and he said Hayden Fry had called Minnesota a “sleeping giant”. 

In college he was there for most concerts and watched every game he knew I was playing at, hoping for a glimpse on TV. When he saw me in the front row at Williams Arena he made sure I knew. When I was home for Christmas he asked what it was like to get to see a future legend like Marion Barber III. He doubted Dan Monson was going to turn the basketball program around and was right. He tried to learn hockey but his eyesight made it hard to see the puck. He never stopped following Iowa, and while I wouldn’t say he became a Gopher fan, he was always my biggest fan. Close enough.

After college the Twins got better and we talked more baseball again. Now we watched college basketball and football together too. He was still always there for me, in my career and personal life. He helped me prepare for my job, gave me life advice, picked me up when I was down. He slowed down, in body and mind as age and idleness caught up with him. But there was always a shine in his eyes when we were together.

In November, 2014 he suffered a bad fall and broken hip, then another fall that severely injured his neck, followed by more complications that led to a month of hospitalization. Thanksgiving was spent in the hospital, and by Saturday, November 29th it was becoming clear that he probably wouldn’t leave. I spent that day in his room with him. There were difficult things to discuss; surgical options (risky), medical options (none), and the inevitable what-ifs that eventually come for us all.

Despite the constant stream of friends, family, doctors, and nurses, he didn’t want to talk about that. Iowa had lost to Nebraska in overtime the day before, and he was hoping for some measure of revenge on the universe by a #22 Minnesota win at #14 Wisconsin. The constant interruptions prevented us from watching the game so I gave him score updates from my phone. When Minnesota was up over Wisconsin by two touchdowns in the first half it was the happiest I’d seen him in weeks. As the lead slipped away in the second half he remained optimistic; as a Gopher fan I knew it wasn’t to be. I don’t remember much from that day but what I do remember is that when the game ended he grabbed my hand (no small feat with all the tubes in his), smiled and said “Don’t worry, we’ll get ‘em next year.”

Unfortunately the Gophers did not, in fact, get ‘em next year and regardless he wasn’t around to see it. He died in his sleep in hospice on December 3, 2014. After a long day my parents had taken my grandma home to get sleep and I was alone with him, holding his hand as he took his last breathe. I had a silent moment with him between the time the nurse confirmed he had passed and my parents return. So much of what I am, my love of music, the fulfillment I find in sports, the ability to make friends, my sense of self-worth, and occasional bursts of confidence was due in large part to him, a man who decided to spend an idle summer day in 1989 starting a baseball card collection with his grandson.

I had not opened Total Baseball: Second Edition in nearly a decade. When I did it two weeks ago it didn’t bring me sadness. The memories were all good, and the legacy he left me will live on for my son. Someday this book will belong to him, if he wants it, in memory of a great-grandpa he never got to meet but would have undoubtedly loved and supported him in the same unconditional way he loved and supported me. I can only hope to do half as well as he did.

2,600 pages are a lot, but it’s time to read it again. Much love, grandpa. I hope you got to meet Lou Gehrig.