Sunday, October 16, 2022

The Captain, Baseball, and Me

There are two things needed to understand this: I was born in 1952, placing me in the generation that grew up on television, and I am from New York City. One of the most popular shows of my childhood was the Captain Kangaroo Show, my age’s Sesame Street, Schoolhouse Rock, and Barney all rolled up into one.

Captain Kangaroo was a character portrayed by an actor named Robert Keeshan. He and a cast of puppets, props, and a few actors taught us citizenship, manners, and other “virtues.” The captain was such an iconic figure that his name was incorporated into the lyrics of the 1965 Statler Brothers song recounting “playing Solitaire ‘til dawn/with a deck of fifty-one/smokin’ cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo.” 

That Keeshan himself worked out of New York affects the other part of the equation here. Being a New Yorker background also means I grew up a fan and follower of the Yankees. In 1978, the Bronx Bombers assembled a roster including Hall of Famers Goose Gossage, Catfish Hunter, and Reggie Jackson. A number of players went on to coach and manage: Lou Pinella, Willie Randolph, Don Gullett, and Sparky Lyle. Ironically, Bucky Dent, hardly a standout name, did so well that season he became known by Red Sox fans as “Buckyfukindent.”

The team was led by captain and catcher Thurman Munson, a player so loved by fans that when he died in a plane crash a year later, there was—almost shockingly—an actual moment of silence in Yankee Stadium.

However, the 1978 Red Sox also had designs on winning the championship, and at the end of June, the Yanks were ten games behind Boston and all but written out of any pennant race. But this was the year of miracles, and the team tied the Red Sox at the end of the season and traveled to Fenway Park for a one-game tiebreaker, which they won in what some baseball historical aficionados have called one of the greatest games ever played.

But what happened to me happened before that October.

I was in Manhattan in August. As my day ended, I decided to wait for my train at the Iron Horse Saloon, a watering hole in Penn Station and a precursor to the sports bar and a favorite for sports people of all stripes: fans, ex-jocks, writers, even some players. Pictures of New York pro athletes hung around like stained glass in a church: Walt Frazier driving to the boards, Don Maynard running after catching a Joe Namath bomb, the Don Larsen-Yogi Berra embrace after the 1955 “perfect game,” Willie Mays making his over-the-shoulder catch.

When I sat at the bar, the place was relatively empty, but it was a midweek afternoon. A few seats over sat an older man sporting a distinctive moustache and thick silver hair cut in bangs. I ordered my beer—something domestic—and this portly gentleman turned toward me.

“Why you drinking that crap?” he asked. “Have a real beer.” He pointed to a bottle of Guinness Stout.

Of course, anyone willing to get me a beer of that quality is always welcome to do so. I moved next to him as the bartender cracked a new bottle and poured a fresh glass.

“Bob,” the elderly man said, holding his hand out. I shook it and gave him my name. Like me, he was headed out to the Island although his destination was the South Shore.

The two of us waited for our trains, drinking and talking about (of course) “our” Yankees and the team’s latest exploits.

“Did you catch that game last month,” he asked, “when Guidry struck out 18 Angels?”

If this was a season of Yankee miracles, perhaps no greater miracle existed than Ron Guidry, a tall lanky pitcher and savior risen from the bayous of Louisiana. He recorded an earned run average of 1.74 and struck out 248 batters, including the 18 Bob had just brought up.

“You bet,” I answered.

“Brutal,” Bob shook his head, repeating, “brutal. But I loved it.”

We continued projecting our hopes to an October berth and prayed to unseat the dreaded Red Sox. Eventually, it was time for him to go. He thanked me for the company and bought me another bottle. We parted company with happy thoughts about our city’s baseball team.

Once gone, the bartender returned for the empties and to wipe down the bar. “You know who just got you those beers?”

I shrugged, admitting the guy looked familiar, but I couldn’t place the face.

The barkeep smiled, leaned forward and said, “For the last hour, you’ve been drinking with Captain Kangaroo.”

I don’t care how old or decrepit I get: I doubt I’ll ever forget drinking a brew with the Captain—and he bought.

Bill Cushing lived in numerous states, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico before moving to California where he now resides with his wife and their son. As an undergrad, he was called the “blue collar” writer because of his time in the Navy and as a shipyard electrician. Earning an MFA, he retired in 2020 after teaching college for 23 years. His prose has appeared in print and online. Bill has three poetry books available, most recently...this just in...from Cyberwit. Bill’s current project is a memoir focused on his years aboard ships.