Losing It

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

I'm thinking the summer of '58 or '59, but it's a little hazy. A guess puts it between seventh and eighth grade. I'm laid up and will spend the hot months on the couch, something about a toe (don't ask). I set goals:

1.) Read "War and Peace," which Hemingway has called the greatest war novel ever written.

2.) Learn to type.

3.) Write five short stories.

You know how this one ends: Summer 3, Hunter 0.

What happened, of course, was baseball. Not baseball as sport or baseball as challenge or baseball as ordeal. No: baseball as narrative, baseball as drama, baseball as a stage for character.

The baseball story, in one-game increments, a fable of folly and effort and frustration bitter as the Devil's spit and with only occasional moments of grace, was brought to me, nearly every afternoon, courtesy of a wonderful guy named Jack Brickhouse. He was built, it could be said, like a brick Brickhouse. He was WGN's TV announcer for the pathetic entity, so far from its iconic designation as "America's wonderful losers," known as the Chicago Cubs, or "North Siders," in the lexicon of '50s sportese.

The Cubs weren't cute or nostalgic, and nobody ever called them the "Cubbies." They just stunk, always had and always would. Wrigley Field, the park in which they played, wasn't a cathedral, an arbor, a hall of memories, a vine-laced nest of hopes; it was just a bleak, crumbly industrial application in a crummy part of town where some of the men who won World War II gathered every afternoon to drink seven beers or so and smoke four packs of cigarettes and curse like the sailors or soldiers they'd been, then go home and yell at their wives.

I'm thinking of one moment in particular. The Cubs had a sometime right fielder named Lee Walls. You could look it up, and I will, but I'd say six years in the big leagues, lifetime average around .245. He was a typical Cub, a nondescript journeyman who worked cheap and knew which base to throw to and didn't spit at people.

Anyway: A hot, dreary, low-skyed Chicago summer day, the Wrigleys almost certainly losing, the game is nearly over, and a ball is hit by the opposing team that looks like it'll be a home run, or at least a triple bouncing crazily off the right field bricks. My memory shows me these images had to be in the black-and-white of television transmission before the days of the peacock, so what I saw then now arrives from the memory in those shades. The ball would have been a grainy white streak as it descended toward the bleachers, which were largely dark (no automatic sellouts in those days) and at a certain point the computer in everybody's brain solved the equation and announced to the sentient audience and all 4,567 of us couch-bound losers watching on TV and even to Jack Brickhouse that the ball would not quite leave the park but would instead clatter off the wall about eight feet above the grass and, we assumed, rebound away for extra bases.

Enter, stage right, Lee Walls.

Call it guts, call it a death wish, call it what you will, but at a certain moment the fleet Walls launched. He was airborne. He was for one split second the dream athlete, long of limb, a fount of power and concentration, his glove probing the air for its target, and he intercepted the downward streaking pill just inches from the wall. Then he detonated against the brick himself. Houston, we have a problem. Mr. Wall, say hello to Mr. Walls. Wall, Walls. Walls, wall. "Oh, Brother!" as Jack Brickhouse probably said. A movable object meets an unmovable force. Flesh meets stone. Guts meet nature's utter indifference. Speed meets stolidity.

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