Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Hero from a Golden Era

The Coliseum is Wally’s park.
Vin Scully (who also coined the term Moon Shot)

“Why Wally Moon?” my wife asked.

In the seventeen years I’ve known her, including the thirteen we’ve been married, I must have mentioned Wally’s name five-hundred times, easily.  This marks the first occasion, however, in which she actually wants to understand my mania. 
Her sincerity startles me and, to be honest, for a moment my ego feels a bit deflated.  During all this time, have I been talking to the wall about my admiration for Wally Moon?  The disappointment only lasts a couple of seconds, though, because this benign obsession is one of my favorite topics of discussion.
As I prepare to answer the question, my mind reaches back to another era and place: the Dodgers’ arrival in California and their years playing in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
My first memories of baseball date back to 1958, but my recollections as a four-year-old only involve the rich aroma of cigars and the sight of a grayish-blue cloud of smoke hovering above a sea of fedoras as the Dodgers play on a lush green field below.
My family lived within walking distance of the Coliseum, where the Dodgers played during their first four years on the west coast.  General admission—the seats furthest away from home plate—cost $1 for adults and .25 ¢ for children.  Overnight, my father, a baseball fanatic, thought he had gone to sleep and woken up in heaven.  We seldom missed a home game, and although at that young age I didn’t have a clue as to the drama taking place on the field, I enjoyed the atmosphere and the reactions of fans.
With each passing game, however, my passion for baseball and the Dodgers grew.  Within a couple of years I had learned the names of all the team members and, as a faithful collector of baseball cards, I had memorized their statistics.
My favorite Dodger, by far, was Wally Moon.
Why Wally Moon?
A lot of it has to do with place.
Wally, the 1954 National League Rookie of the Year, played his first four seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals before they traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers, in 1959.  In his first year as a Dodger, he became the spark the team needed to take the team from a dismal 1958 season to 1959 World Champions.  But what made me a diehard fan—and created thousands of others as well—were his Moon Shots.  These gravity-defying launches off Wally’s bat made the Coliseum his park. 

The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, constructed to host the 1932 Olympics, is ideally suited for football and track and field.  Baseball, however, is an awkward fit.  The stadium’s unyielding oval shape placed the left field fence at only 251 feet from home plate. A 42 foot-high screen had to be raised to stop every fly ball from becoming a home run.  (To compare: the Red Sox’s legendary Green Monster is 310 feet from the plate and the wall stands at 37 feet.)
A left-handed hitter, as well as something of a scholar, Wally assessed the situation as soon as he learned of the trade and, following the advice of Stan Musial, his close friend and former Cardinal teammate, he modified his swing to one he describes as “inside-out.”  Although he was hitting against the grain in going to the opposite field, he soon mastered the Coliseum’s odd physical arrangement. 

The Moon Shot was a work of art, and I had the great fortune to witness many of them.  I can still recall, and vividly, that when Wally stepped up to the plate, with the exception of the occasional fan demanding a Moon Shot, a reverential stillness would spread through the Coliseum, everyone hoping to see Wally loft the ball over the screen. 
I’d block out all distractions to concentrate on every pitch.  What was fascinating to observe was Wally’s ability to decide, in a fraction of a second, whether to go for a home run to left field or not.  When he did go for the screen, the arc of his swing was discernibly different, and when he connected well, the fans would hold their breaths as they watched the ball rise up and up, like a pole-vaulter steadily ascending toward the top of the bar.  Then, as the ball cleared the barrier, the crowd would erupt in thunderous celebration, and I can still see myself leading the cheers. 
That, to an extent, answers my wife’s question.  To watch a Moon Shot was a wondrous experience—as close to rapture as there is in sports.  What’s more, today I only have to close my eyes for a moment and, once again, I’m a boy seated in the Coliseum stands watching a baseball come off Wally’s bat, climb toward the heavens, and then gloriously descend on the other side of the screen.

*  *  *  *

Most novelists are touchy when discussing future writing projects.  I include myself among their ranks.  We have a deep-seated fear, one that borders on superstition, that if one speaks too much of a tale that has yet to be written, its essence, like a genie whose bottle has been carelessly uncorked, will vanish into an wraithlike realm of lost stories.  It is better to keep the cork on until the novel is well underway or, preferably, until it’s approaching the final draft. 

What prompted my wife to ask “Why Wally Moon?” was my evident excitement over reading Moon Shots: Reflections on a Baseball Life. (Click on title for purchase information.)

Moon started to write his memoirs at the urging of his children and grandchildren, who wanted his story recorded for posterity.  With the assistance of co-author Tim Gregg, Wally completed the Herculean task of documenting his life from the beginning, in Bay, Arkansas, to the present.  Like a seasoned storyteller—his Masters in Education from Texas A&M pays off handsomely here—he escorts readers through his college years on a joint basketball and baseball scholarship; his unorthodox rise through the minor leagues; and his twelve years in the majors with the Cardinals and the Dodgers.  Moon’s accounts of playing alongside many immortals now entrenched in baseball’s pantheon make for fascinating reading. Moreover, although the tone of his narrative always remains respectful, his candor about the issues and people in baseball—then and now—is remarkable.

Moon also writes about his years beyond the sport, giving readers a rare glimpse into the choices a former major-league player of his time could make once his days on the baseball diamond have ended.

Moon Shots: Reflections of a Baseball Life will delight every baseball fan. Followers of the Dodgers will be especially thrilled to get a first-hand account of the team’s early years in Los Angeles.  More important, however, will be the comfort one gets from reading the tale of a man of great character: as a professional ballplayer, Wally took his responsibility as role model for my generation seriously, and he conducted himself accordingly.  Considering today’s tormented world of sports, this book will reassure readers that in spite of the temptations of celebrity, heroes can remain noble, unspoiled persons.

At the peril of jinxing the novel I hope to begin writing sometime next year, I will share this: Moon Shots: A Reflection on a Baseball Life is a godsend for me.  For close to twenty years I’ve toyed with a storyline for young readers that involves growing up in Los Angeles during the 1961 Dodger season, their last in the Coliseum.  I will not say what the novel is about (in large part because I’m not quite sure myself at this point), but one thing is certain: Wally Moon will be an overarching presence from beginning to end.  Thanks to Moon Shots, I can now get the story straight.