The Secret Of ‘Pitcher Pollock’

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay also appears in this week’s issue of TimeOut Chicago, as part of our weekly web-to-print partnership.

Dad grew up in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan.

The events of his life would shift that loyalty over time. In the Navy, while his destroyer escort was docked in Brooklyn he would meet, date, and propose to my mother, whose father was a devoted Dodgers rooter. While training in a Manhattan gym around the same time (my father was an amateur boxer) he would befriend a man named Bob Fishel, then the public relations director for the New York Yankees. Bob would eventually offer Dad a job, and from his first season with the Yanks, which ended in the epic seven-game World Series vs. the Pittsburgh Pirates, and certainly after his second season, which produced the legendary home run race between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, he was a converted pinstripes man.

Or he was at least until 1970, when he joined the Pirates as their PR Director.

Ten years after that he would move on to the Baseball Hall of Fame, eventually becoming its vice president.

I still root for the Pirates in the National League, but I’m otherwise a White Sox fan, that allegiance having been forged in my advertising days, working on the Good Guys Wear Black campaigns of the nineties. But the baseball loyalties of my childhood were more ecumenical.

In Cooperstown, there were as many Red Sox fans as Yankees fans as Mets fans. Thanks to TBS, we probably saw more Braves games on TV than anything. The Cubs banner wasn’t flown by many folks in upstate New York, but it was carried most proudly by Niles Curtis, who owned the Agway store in town. In the early eighties Niles bought a satellite dish specifically to get the Cubs games, and it wasn’t one of those DirecTV windowsill jobs either. His yard looked like a location from the movie “Contact.”

My Dad, the secret Cubs fan, always felt a special connection to Niles the Cubs fan.

I know because Dad had this framed photo of the 1945 Cubs. He never hung it on the wall, but it was always around, sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, or tucked behind a bookcase, kind of like the way you might keep a picture of an old girlfriend.

What Dad didn’t know, though, was that the books on those shelves were hiding a real piece of Cubs history, safe and out of sight as the decades passed.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to appear on a television show to talk about baseball and literature. A few weeks before the taping, I visited my parents, who by that time had retired to Indiana. My Dad had a lot of baseball books, hundreds and hundreds of them, and so I asked if I could borrow a couple for this TV program, and he said sure. I packed a small box with Malamuds and Tunises and Harrises. I threw in some non-fiction, too: the Rogers—Kahn and Angell. And an old musty novel that I had seen around the house for decades but never read. “Pitcher Pollock” by Christy Mathewson.

Mathewson (pictured above), of course, was one of the great Major League pitchers of all time, and an original inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I don’t know what kind of writer he was. Probably no one does, because he didn’t write this book (it was ghostwritten by a guy named John Wheeler), but it seemed to be a typical early-century sports novel written for young boys about other young boys who think their playing careers are over when they lose a finger, say, while playing in a train yard and then find themselves suddenly able to throw an unhittable curve with their deformed hand. I don’t really know what “Pitcher Pollock” is about, but that’s pretty much how I remember all those books going.

So I took this stack home and it sat on the floor of my office for a couple of weeks until the day of the show, when I started looking through them for interesting stuff to talk about on TV. I picked up “Pitcher Pollock,” and as I fanned through the pages, this little piece of pink and orange cardboard, with a string attached, popped out of the book and fluttered to the carpet.

I picked it up and almost couldn’t believe what I was holding. A press pass from Game 2 of the 1929 “World’s Series” at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Cubs vs. Philadelphia A’s. Apart from a crease through the middle, which itself was probably 80 years old, it was in almost original condition.

I thought, How did this get here? My father had been a baseball executive for almost forty years, fifteen of them at the Baseball Hall of Fame. His appreciation of history and for memorabilia in particular was finely tuned. There was no way Dad knew this artifact had been sitting between the acidic pages of a deteriorating book in his home office.

There was a name written across the face of it in pen, and as I deciphered it—K. D. Smith of the New York Graphic—I started to piece together the journey of this little piece of paper.

Ken Smith had been an old-time sportswriter and a friend of my dad. In fact, we bought our house in Cooperstown from Ken and his wife, Emmy. I also knew Ken had been a friend of Christy Mathewson. I knew this because as they were handing my parents the keys to our new home on Lake Street, Emmy Smith showed my father a plant in the garden that had been grown from seeds given to them a half century ago by Christy Mathewson, and she described in great detail the horrible curse that would be placed on our family should this flower be allowed to die.

This is the way I had it figured: Mathewson gave “Pitcher Pollock” to Ken as a gift. In the fall of 1929, as Ken returned to his New York apartment after a long train ride from Chicago, he unwound this press pass from the button of his jacket, and absent-mindedly tossed it between the pages of the book. More than 50 years later, since Ken and Emmy had no children or grandchildren of their own who might want to read it, Ken gave the novel to my dad. And it sat unopened among Dad’s things for another 30 years, until I drove it back to Chicago and pried it open in my own office.

Last month I published a short memoir called “A Drive into the Gap.” It’s about my father, Bill Guilfoile, his career in baseball, and his current struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also a detective story about a Roberto Clemente bat that hung in my bedroom as a kid. And some papers I discovered recently in my dad’s office indicating that this bat, and not the one on display in the Baseball Hall of Fame, might be the bat Roberto used to get his 3,000th and final hit 40 years ago this month.

I write in that book that with every piece of sports memorabilia, it’s not the object that’s valuable. It’s the story attached to the object that’s priceless. Christy Mathewson died in 1925. I believe the only reason Ken Smith never threw out this crappy old children’s novel is that it had his friend’s name on it. Like the flower in his yard, that book was a little piece of their friendship.

I believe the only reason my dad kept that book around was that it was a gift from his friend Ken.

And in that way, Christy Mathewson, star of the hated New York Baseball Giants, fierce rival of Chicago’s own Hall of Fame pitcher Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, preserved for us a little piece of Cubs history.

Now that is how a ghost writes a story.

Some parts of this story originally appeared in a different form on the blog theoutfitcollective.com.
STORY ART: Lead image uses photo of Christy Mathewson, courtesy Kevin Guilfoile.

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