Clayton Durbin and The Boys of Summer

By Dr. Daniel Durbin | 8/19/13 |


Hayward, California was, to my memory, always 68 degrees with a slight breeze that chilled one side of you while the morning sun warmed the other side.  Hayward was a world of black and white tube television, green that rose to the Oakland hills, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair,” and my older sister’s slumber parties that always seem to correspond to showings of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on television (Kathleen being born on December 10).

One cool fall day of an unremembered year, Clayton Durbin took his two sons to the back of the Eden Avenue property in Hayward to give them their first formal instruction in baseball.  Most kids remember the day they first got the “birds and the bees” lecture.  I remember the day my dad tried to teach my brother and me baseball.

He took a small pile of old worn out baseball gloves (most memorably, a huge monstrosity of a first baseman’s glove that even Boog Powell would have found unwieldy) and dropped them behind the back fence of the backyard.  The property on Eden Avenue consisted of three acres.  Behind the fenced in backyard was a green patch of grass, built as a volleyball court, but, for Clayton and his sons, a baseball diamond in summer, a football field in winter.

I cannot recall anything of that first lesson on baseball other than a somewhat confusing (to a six year old mind) attempt to explain the meaning of bases and the reason there were three and why what should have been the fourth base was called home plate.

That afternoon ushered in a period of my life that lives on with the sort of hazy glow longtime Cubs fans see around Wrigley Field, or Red Sox fans see around Fenway (though, Clippers fans doubtless don’t see around the Staples Center).  It was a time of long afternoons of summer baseball, played with a “wiffle” ball, of standing under the overhanging of a church roof waiting for the rain to stop so we could continue a game, of hearing my mother yell from the back porch that dinner was going to be “stone cold and hard” as my father said, “Okay, just one more play,” of towering home runs over the church and long doubles over the camper shell, of winter football games that seemed to never end even as the sun set orange and red over the San Francisco Bay, of my brother David, any time his team was well behind and my mother was pressing us to get in the house this very second, yelling out that the next touchdown wins.

Four (or so) years after that first lesson in baseball, it all abruptly ended.  During the coldest winter on record in Wichita, Kansas, we moved to that central spot in the United States, little realizing that it would cost us our baseball and football field, and, ultimately, the small world of backyard sports that had come to define our lives.

Of course, I still remember the final apocalyptic football game at Eden Avenue, the one no one wanted to end, because it would signify the end of this time, this childhood fantasy, this secret sports world.  A cold afternoon, the sky darkening and turning black, the score rising to (something like) 72-56, our dinner finally did go stone cold and long before my older sister came out and told my father that my mother was not going to even call anymore but that he had better get his two sons into the house, now.

My brother immediately called out, “Next touchdown wins!”

I, of course, protested since we (my dad and I) were roughly twenty points ahead of my brother, Michael Beal, and James Rooney (the opposing team).  My dad looked down at me and in the calmest, most controlled, and confident voice I have ever heard, said, “Don’t worry, Danny.  They’re not gonna score the next touchdown.”

Years later, I pondered those words.  Had my dad been fooling us all those years in Hayward?  Could he have really taken over any game and won it, if he had really wanted to?

In any case, David’s team, which had the football, was quickly dispatched and my father set about getting us from our “twenty yard line” to the end zone.  A neatly placed pass to me on play 1A (the dreaded three steps forward, fake to the left, run right route) and Michael Beal slipping and falling (laughing the entire time) as I caught the football and ran for the end zone, ended matters.

As my brother yelled at his teammates, I saw the happiest look I had ever seen on my father’s face---and the greatest look of approval I’d ever seen for anything I’d ever done (or would ever do).

“We did it, Danny.  We did it,” he cried as he rushed to me and picked me up in his arms and hugged me.

Living in a subdivision of standardized houses in Wichita, Kansas, with no volleyball court in the backyard, no Michael Beal, no temperate Bay Area weather, the days of endless football and baseball with my father and brother were over.

For decades after, my closest times with my father were spent playing tennis (if I’m fair, on his worst day, he could slice and dice me to pieces on the tennis court), watching boxing on tv, and, occasionally, bowling (an activity for which I find I am wholly unsuited by temperament and by the fact that they give you shoes God only knows how many people have worn at the bowling alley).

Perhaps my strongest memory of my father in Wichita (outside of the regular paternal duties) was his blindly obsessive passion for a joke whose punch-line was “that’s a long way to Tipperary.”  For reasons wholly inexplicable to anyone in the human race, my dad thought that adding a pause and then the word “bird” to the punch-line (“that’s a long way to Tipperary [pause] bird”) made this the funniest joke in the history of humankind.  And, he repeated it endlessly . . . for years . . . to people who had no idea that it referred to a popular song of World War I.

My father developed several aphorisms during the Wichita years.

On tennis-“He who lives by the drop shot, dies by the drip shot.”

On boxing-“If they had a vote to make it illegal, I’d vote for that.  But, until then . . . “

On opponents-“Your opponent is your best friend.  He’ll show you every flaw in your game.”

I have seen my father laugh and I have seen him cry.  He cried hardest over the death of his father in the summer of 1976.  But, I have never seen the look of sheer, unadulterated joy and exultation that I saw that cold winter night in Hayward, California.

All of this comes to mind because I have just finished reading Roger Kahn’s classic “The Boys of Summer” (and its 1993 follow up and its 1999 memorial to Pee Wee Reese).  “The Boys of Summer” may be the greatest book on sports ever written.  Though, it’s no walk in the park.  The book’s narrative focuses on the often difficult and sometimes tenuous relationship between fathers and sons and the place sports, in particular, baseball played in that relationship for Kahn and the players of the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers.

Throughout the book, the theme of death recurs.  The death of fathers, the death of sons.  Always accompanying those deaths is the soaring ache of loss---not for the person or even the memories, but for the moment of time in which you might have said one more word to let him know how valuable he was to you, to let him know how important he was, to let him know you loved him.

My father is 83 years old.  These memories are a belated attempt on my part to, however falteringly, however inadequately, let my father know just a little bit of what he has meant to me.