When I was a kid, Opening Day meant nothing to me. Heck, I was in school when the baseball season started. My teacher insisted I sit and learn something instead of go home and listen to the radio. For instance, she wanted me to learn history (there was a lot less of it back then) and English, and penmanship. Then there was homework (Any of you remember homework?). By the time I was done, the games were over and all I got was the scores on the evening sportscast. Big deal.
But, Opening Saturday was different. I lived with my grandparents and Granddad was a baseball fan. He loved the Cardinals and I was a Dodgers fan (don’t ask). He was absolutely certain that Stan Musial was the greatest player since Alexander Cartwright invented the game. “That fella in Boston is OK, but Musial can do anything and do it well,” he’d say. And me? I loved Jackie Robinson. By the mid-1950s he was no longer the best Brooklyn player (both Duke Snider and Roy Campanella were better), but he still made the team go and I wanted to be him. Somebody finally reminded me that he had a much deeper tan than I, so I decided I’d become the light Jackie Robinson. Turns out I didn’t.
The centerpiece of the day was the afternoon game of the week. There were two on Saturday afternoon, one on CBS and the other on NBC. We’d turn on the TV, see who was playing, pick the game we wanted, then settle down to watch the magic box in the corner. I think there was a rule back then that TV’s had to be in the corner of the room. I didn’t know anyone whose TV was anywhere else.
We had a couple of rules. First, Grandma had to leave us alone. She would fuss around the house telling us we were lazy louts, then go off to sew, or read, or go next door and visit with another baseball widow. We could have cared less because we had two games to watch. That was the second rule. When the commercial breaks came on, we could change the channel and see how the other game was going. This was back when TV’s had knobs (You remember knobs?) and Granddad would leap up at “And now a word from our sponsors”, flip the channel, and God help the network if the other game was also in commercial (I didn’t know Granddad knew those kinds of words.). The third rule was that you couldn’t change channel if either the Cardinals or the Dodgers were playing, especially if they were playing each other. I wasn’t sure, but I had the feeling that changing the channel in this circumstance somehow involved sin and hell and damnation.
When the game ended, Granddad would cut off the TV then start telling me about baseball when he was younger. He’d seen Walter Johnson in an exhibition game somewhere along the line and listened to Babe Ruth on the radio. He never bought off on that geezer idea that somehow the players were all better when he was a kid. He liked and admired the old-time players, but he recognized the greatness of the new generation. “That Mays kid looks like he’s gonna be real good,” he’d tell me, “but that kid pitcher, Drysdale, your Dodgers got seems a little wild.” And what he thought about Koufax’s wildness was not to be repeated around Grandma. Of course none of them was Musial and that was all there was to it.
About five Grandma would call us for dinner. We always had leftovers on Saturday night. She called it cleaning out the fridge for the new week. Grandma claimed not to like baseball and knew we were lazy louts, but there was fried chicken. Every Opening Saturday there was fried chicken, every time. Granddad would always ask “What’s for dinner?” and her reply was always “We had some extra chicken so I just fried it up for tonight.” He’d wink at me as we went into the kitchen. It took a few years to catch the joke.