Tuesday, September 21, 2010
51. "Pete" Petrzilka by guest author Scott Simkus
This is the first of what I hope becomes a semi-regular "Guest Author" series of cards. I enjoy finding and researching my own ideas, but I thought it might be really interesting to collaborate on stories with authors and researchers who have a particular interest in a player or time period and would like to share it with a wider audience and give it a card of its own. I have already asked a few people to participate but if anyone else has an interest in writing a story, feel free to email me and maybe we can work it out...
This week's piece is by Scott Simkus, who along with Gary Ashwill is the proprietor of the outstanding "Outsider Baseball Bulletin" a weekly, subscription e-zine devoted to baseball history. Each issue features original research, statistics, personal essays, and humor. There are also be stories about baseball-related car crashes, sex scandals, home decorating and... murrrrder!! I highly recommend it if you enjoy the characters who I feature on my site. Scott and Gary have graciously offered a special free trial subscription to the readers of this site, information located at the bottom of Scott's story...
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I had three grandfathers.
The gentleman featured on this baseball card is my mother's father. He'd be grandfather number *two,* if you're keeping score at home, and it's worth mentioning that I never knew him. In fact, my mother never knew him.
His name was Joseph Petrzilka, he was the son of Czech immigrants who lived on Chicago's south side, and although his name was Joseph, he was known by friends and family simply as "Pete." Pete was, by all accounts, a devoted husband, a good man. He aspired to be a great father. When my mother was born, Pete was attending night classes, working towards attaining his degree in accounting. He was, as far as I know, the first person in our family to attend college. This is back in the late 1930s.
He was also, by all accounts, an outstanding athlete. He ran track, excelled in gymnastics, won medals in A.A.U. competitions. We have an old photograph of him performing a perfect handstand, muscles tense as he balances atop a wooden ladder, in the back yard of some forgotten three-flat in a working-class neighborhood which no longer exists. We have fading pictures of him at the beach in Michigan, smiling in the sun, flexing his muscles, mugging for the camera. My grandmother, young- much younger than I am now- is present in many of these black and whites, smiling in the background, laughing at her future husband. Fawning over the future grandfather number two.
And we have pictures of him in baseball garb. Baseball! There he is, in the baggy woolen uniform, black leather shoes, tiny fielder's glove. He apparently batted right, threw right, played for a high school team or semi-pro outfit, or both. I have no idea what position he played, or whether or not he was any good at the game, or if he struggled with the curve ball or had trouble with pop ups, but I can tell by the smile on his face that he loved it in some way, that it meant something to him. But it was baseball for goodness sakes, and baseball means something to all of us, right?
As my grandmother neared the end of her pregnancy, Pete didn't feel right. He was run down, tired. He was working full-time as a bookkeeper during the day, taking advanced classes at night. Perhaps the pressure of burning the candles at both ends, a baby on way, supporting his wife: perhaps this stuff was getting to him. I'm guessing he might have thought this, and soldiered on through each week, until he couldn't take the pain any longer. He was young- twenty-six- and still in athletic condition, still in great shape.
About twenty-five years ago, a strange man showed up at my parent's front door, said he'd been a classmate of Pete's. He didn't give his name, but instead he handed over a crumpled, brown paper bag filled with text books and papers, said he wanted us to have them. They were science and math books, Pete's signature on the front, his hand-written notes and doodles covered the pages inside. Everything dated from 1930 or 1931. The strange man was in his car, driving away, before anybody thought to ask any questions.
Other pieces have Pete have drifted into our lives over the years. The baseball pictures were buried in an old box, and discovered later on. A journal with his meticulous, hand-written notes (detailed income calculations, shopping lists, goals, memories from his honeymoon trip to Kentucky with my grandmother) was discovered in my grandmother's basement, when she was being moved to assisted living fifteen years ago. Courtesy of the internet, I've discovered that Pete's younger brother (the uncle my mother never knew), had been a college quarterback and team captain, back during the early 1940s. I also learned, in the Chicago Tribune archives, that his other younger brother, Fred, died tragically at the age of 8, after falling into the Chicago River. Turns out, Pete was there, maybe ten years old at the time, playing with his little brother when the kid slipped in. They tried to save him, Pete and some friends from the neighborhood, but it was too deep, they were too late.
My mother was born in early October, the day after Gabby Hartnett hit his famous 'Homer in the Gloamin,' and six weeks later my grandfather Pete simply hit the wall. He couldn't take it anymore. The excitement of becoming a father couldn't temper the pressure of working everyday, studying every evening, and getting very little sleep at night and on the weekends. Around Thanksgiving time, he finally went to see the doctor about the pain and fatigue. They took some blood, did some tests, told him to enjoy his holiday and they'd get back to him the next week if anything was wrong.
There's a haunting photograph in the Chicago Tribune. My great-grandmother standing on a bridge under an umbrella, as she watches the police drag the water below, looking for Fred's body as the rain comes down. Little pieces of Pete's life, both happy and sad and indifferent, continue to find me. Although my attention is almost completely monopolized by my own family and my baseball writing career, little glimpses into Pete's vacations and athletics and academics keep poking me in the side, demanding my attention.
Hey! I know you're busy, but you gotta take a quick look at this. Here!
The first week of December, the doctor sits Pete down in his office and tells him he wishes he had better news. You're sick, he told him. I don't know of any better way to tell you this, to convey the gravity of the situation, other than you are very, very sick.
Doctor said he had something called leukemia, and although they didn't have a set course of action, they had some experimental things they could try. By this time, it was January of '39, and hospitals back then tried a lot of things which didn't work. After a couple weeks of medicines which had no positive effect, they finally tried a blood transfusion.
It was devastating to the family, but just six short weeks after the diagnosis, the young man who once performed handstands on a ladder in the backyard, the guy who won A.A.U. track medals and played baseball in the neighborhood, the father of a newborn daughter, passed away. He was in his mid-twenties.
My grandmother was twenty-two, a widow, and single mother of an infant daughter. My grandmother's name was Libbie.
Libbie and Pete were childhood sweethearts. They lived on the same street, next door, in fact, to one another. Pete was a couple years older, used to walk my grandmother to school, carry her books. My grandmother told me these things before she passed.
Their houses were small ("cottages" was the way my grandmother used to describe them), and situated so close to one another, Libbie and Pete could pass notes through their bedroom windows. That's how they got to know each other. That's how they fell in love.
Everybody who knows me realizes I lean toward the agnostic side of the fence. Sometimes, I'm in full-blown atheist mode. Other times: Catholic-agnostic. Most times: Not worrying about it one way or the other. Once we're gone, we're gone, and I'm perfectly okay with that. Makes me want to get up every morning and enjoy as much of this fleeting existence as humanly possible.
Of course, I don't believe those who've gone before us can communicate from the great, unknown beyond. I don't believe it for a second. But I have changed my position in at least one respect: with the advances in technology, the digitization of papers and shipping manifests and other documents; with the photographs and old home movies, with out expanded understanding of DNA, and with the treasure-laden fragments of stories which have been passed down…we're getting better.
Those who have gone before us can't speak to us, but we're getting better at reaching out to them.
Hey! I know you're busy, but you gotta take a quick look at this. Here!
Scott Simkus is the publisher of the Outsider Baseball Bulletin (www.outsiderbaseball.com), a weekly ezine devoted to baseball history. In 2009, he helped the Strat-O-Matic Game Company create their first Negro League set. His work as a baseball researcher has been been profiled in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and the USA Today, among others.
Get a FREE 4 week trial subscription to the Outsider Baseball Bulletin (where they can see more of my illustration work). No obligation to subscribe, all you have to do is email Scott at email@example.com and put GARY in the subject line and PRESTO you'll get four weeks of free issues to check out.