A Notable Anniversary

Olin Howlin plays the pensive “Firebrand Lefty MacDonald” as he shares his melancholy with Nurse Carol Adams

Lost in the pantheon of baseball-related books, movies, and entertainment is a small forgotten gem.  On August 5 we will mark the 65th anniversary of the  1953 Kraft Television Theater airing of a live performance of Old MacDonald Had a Curve.  The short play was at once comedic and painfully insightful.  Olin Howlin and Jack Warden starred in a farcical look at an old man tantalized by an unlikely return to the game of his youth.  Suspending the rules of time and the realities of age for just a moment the play opens a window through which we can see the larger realities.  The up-and-coming 29 year-old playwright would make such twists of life and suspending its constricts into his stock in trade.  His name was Rod Serling.  The Twilight Zone was six years into the future.  But, the roots of the weekly show were firmly on display in MacDonald.

Left to rot in the Carterville Home for the Aged sat cantankerous “Firebrand Lefty MacDonald.”  He had achieved notoriety for his time with the mythical Brooklyn Nationals from 1903-1912.  Prone to exaggeration of his on-field accomplishments Mac had bragged a resume to his compatriots at the Home rivaling Walter Johnson.  Armed with an almanac the group debunks his claims casting him into a deep funk.  Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, the Nationals are in a terrible slump.  The Public Relations Director and the Manager point at the 1912 World Championship team picture pining for one good arm like old Firebrand MacDonald had.

The one sympathetic ear in the Home belonged to the nurse.  She patiently listened as the old guy looked back longingly on his days in the Bigs.  “I just want to be cheered one more time.”  Eventually she convinced him to go play horseshoes with his tormentors.   A few shoes into the game he threw his shoulder out of joint.  But, this was no ordinary dislocation.  There was no pain whatsoever.  And, everything he threw curved in a complete corkscrew.  Grabbing a baseball he threw a curve beyond the wildest imagination of any Whiffle Ball champion.  A bus ride later he was at the Nationals’ stadium in his 1912 uniform ready to snap their slump and restart his career.

The Manager, a cranky and dispirited old soul, was having none of this.  He sent Mac out to pitch to his best hitter and then turned his attention elsewhere.  The players returned minutes later simply gob smacked.  “Inhuman.”  “It hangs like a football hanging on a rubber band.  You cut at it, and it ain’t there.  It just ain’t there.”   Signed to a contract Mac warms up every game to packed houses and incredulous reporters.  But, he doesn’t play.  The Nationals go on a torrid hot streak.  Mac signed an endorsement deal that funneled money to the Home. The Baseball Commissioner requires Mac to have a daily physical in part to check that he’s still alive.  Eventually, he mandates that the old man start a game.

MacDonald takes the mound he had last visited 41 years ago.  Before the first pitch, amped with adrenaline he threw the rosin bag to the ground with exaggerated force.  It popped his shoulder back into place.  He dejectedly calls out the Catcher, “I’ve lost my curve.”  With glory within sight but out of reach he returns to the Home as a reluctant hero to his contemporaries.   A few rounds of horsehoes later the shoulder popped again.  The play ends with MacDonald on the phone calling Leo Durocher, the Giant’s Manager.  The curve was back!

Old MacDonald was written during a brief window in the early 1950s when baseball was the subject of several now-timeless books.  In 1952, Bernard Malamud wrote The Natural.  Loosely based on Cubs and Phillies’ first baseman Eddie Waitkus, with elements of Shoeless Joe Jackson intertwined, Malamud’s work is a depressing study of human frailties and the brevity of youth.  The book ends not with a home run as the 1984 movie did, but a strikeout.  Still, it is difficult to watch the movie’s ending as the sparkles fall from the light standards at Buffalo’s “Rockpile” Memorial Stadium without imagining each one to be an unfulfilled moment in Roy Hobbs’ truncated career.  It is a story of lost time and opportunity.  Soren Kierkegaard said that, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

In 1954 Douglass Wallop wrote, The Year the Yankees Lost the Penant.  The book would form the foundation for the Broadway musical and later film Damn Yankees.  Middle-aged Joe Boyd was frustrated to tears by the failings of the Washington Senators.  The Sens would finish the 1954 season some 45 games behind first place.  Boyd makes a deal with the Devil, becomes young star slugger Joe Hardy, and then takes down the Yankees.  At the end, left to claim stardom and a bright career in exchange for eternity in Hell, or a return to his wife and unremarkable life, Boyd goes home.  Baseball glory has its limits after all.

Connecting all of these is the linkage baseball has to the collective youth.  Unlike most vestiges of earlier life the game remains fully on display.  It hides in plain sight behind a barrier of tempered glass.  Studs Terkel in his book Working said he was constantly amazed by how many Tradesmen he encountered in their late 20s and early 30s who earnestly thought they could play the game at the highest level if they took the time to pursue it.  The game looks that close and simple.  Serling, the ex-Paratrooper and war veteran knew first-hand the inherent fragility of life.  Youth and dreams are even more delicate.  He wrote that with age, “…the muscles become antiquated.  The mind and heart, inconveniently enough, don’t age proportionately.”

In the end, MacDonald wanted a solitary thing that encompassed much more; to be cheered just one more time.  Don’t we all?

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