Wednesday, April 3, 2013

No. 428 – Pinball Wizard

Performer: The Who
Songwriter: Pete Townshend
Original Release: single, Tommy
Year: 1969
Definitive Version: Live at Woodstock, 1969

The Kids Are Alright turned me on to The Who, as I mentioned. Believe it or not, Dad introduced me to The Who, through this song.

He got the 45, which I now have, because he loved the famous riff. It was one of my first experiences with stereo sound, and I would crouch down in front of the big cabinet record player to hear “How do you think he does it?” “I don’t know.” “What makes him so good?” coming out of either side. I couldn’t figure it out.

The Who, of course, were a seminal band when I was a teen, so I might as well write about a seminal event from my youth. The closest shopping center to where we lived on Norway Drive was Kingsdale. Kingsdale, which has been totally redone after nearly dying last decade, was a bustling center of store names that long have passed from existence: Big Bear grocery, Madison’s, The Union. Another store name that started in Kingsdale you might have heard of: The Limited.

My favorite store was Kresge’s. The name, of course, is long gone, but the company isn’t. You might know it now by its larger-store name: Kmart. Kresge’s was a dime store that had a soda counter/diner in the front corner of the store. While Dad shopped for hardware or some housewares item, Mom took me to the soda counter.

I don’t remember why we were at Kresge’s in April 1970, after this song's stereo sound had wormed its way into my consciousness, but I’ll never forget what happened that day. I was looking at the Hot Wheels, as was my wont. Seeing nothing that I had to cajole my parents into getting for me, I turned my attention to the candy aisle.

When I got there—and I still can see this in my mind’s eye—a bunch of stuff was scattered on the floor. They wee these small cardboard pictures of guys all dressed up. The pictures had gray borders with words I could barely make out in white cursive. The larger block letters on the pictures I could read quite well, but the words—Pirates, Angels, Pilots—meant nothing to me. I took them to show Dad, and he explained they were baseball cards.

Until that moment, I don’t know that I knew what baseball was. I knew what kickball was and how to play that, so I suppose I had some understanding of baseball in general, but I had no concept of Major League Baseball or baseball cards.

The cards were cool, and it seemed that the kids who bought them wanted only the gum and left the cards on the floor. (More likely, as I later realized, they merely opened the packs and stole the gum. Either way, given how things turned out, imagine that: They wanted the GUM, not the cards.)

Well, finders keepers, losers weepers, right? I found the cards, so they were mine. I don’t know whether Dad paid for those cards, but I know that he bought me a couple more unopened packs at the checkout counter.

When we got home, Dad translated for me the inscrutable acronyms on the card backs. Before long I was arranging and stacking them based on who had the most home runs and things like that.

I didn’t get anyone great—the best players were Mel Stottlemyre and Jimmy Wynn, who usually ended up on top of my stack—but I remember a lot of the names: Grant Jackson, Earl Wilson, Dave McNally, Sandy Alomar, Carlos May. The only Reds card I got—red was my favorite color—was a two-panel rookies card of Bernie Carbo and Danny Breeden.

Soon after that fateful day at Kresge’s, Dad took me to see the soon-to-be-departed Columbus Jets minor-league team—my first baseball game. I remember only snippets of that game—mostly that I wanted to catch a foul ball and none came close.

Later that fall, I paid attention to my first World Series—the Reds were in it—and I endured my first sports outrage when the Reds got jobbed by the umpire on a controversial call at home plate that involved none other than Bernie Carbo. That name now meant something to me: Hey, I have his card!

No, I didn’t become a baseball fan that day at Kresge’s, but the experience—my first baseball cards in 1970—definitely began the process. The next year, in May, I think, Dad brought home a bunch of packs of cards, and the very first card in the very first pack was Johnny Bench. It had it all: the red lettering contrasting with the crisp black borders, the smiling bat-on-shoulder pose, the MVP numbers on the back, the bubblegum smell.

The process was complete at that point. The rest as they say, is history.

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