By Bill Pruden
Today is my younger brother Robert’s 67th birthday, and I am not sure that wishing him a happy birthday in this forum is wholly appropriate. However, baseball has been a special part of our lives and our relationship. My birthday wishes for him are offered against the backdrop of many baseball-related memories that the last six-plus decades hold, for while the intensity has ebbed and flowed, the game and our affection for it have always been there, forging a bond that has transcended most other aspects of our lives.
As I reflect back and think about my relationship with my brother, baseball is a constant - a centerpiece of our lives and something that, despite living on opposite coasts for over four decades, we always shared. We have not always agreed on politics, family matters, or even our parents in the midst of a contentious divorce, baseball always provided a common meeting ground.
As we have gotten older, phone calls inevitably turn to the game with the conversations often bouncing from decade to decade of baseball history to the latest news, always in a way that guaranteed that our lines of communication remained open. While differences may exist, baseball could always bridge the divide, offering some immutable things upon which we would always agree - like the fact that Sandy Koufax would be our choice for a must-win game—and we both would expect him to go nine innings for the win.
Like many, I first learned baseball from my father. He taught me to throw and bat, but as much as I enjoyed and treasured that, the arrival of a little brother added a new dimension to my baseball efforts. In little time, I no longer had to wait for Dad to come home. Instead, Rob and I could undertake the daily ritual of playing catch before pitching to each other in front of the increasingly-battered garage door, tracking the number of balls we each hit over the row of evergreen trees that marked the property line and made for a forbidding center field “wall.”
Such adventures soon gave way to involvement in our town’s organized leagues where baseball games were family affairs. Our mother was always in attendance, and sisters were usually dragged along to watch games for which my father sometimes served as a coach. If he didn’t, Rob or I was casting a discerning eye on the other’s efforts. While our two-and-a-half-year age gap meant we never played together, we were a baseball duo.
While I don't remember the origin story, I am pretty sure that part of the reason Rob became a catcher was that I had pitching aspirations and needed the other half of the battery. But as I worked on my pitching two things became clear. First, despite wearing glasses beneath his mask, Rob was a better catcher (and hitter) -- indeed a very good one -- than I would ever be a pitcher. Second, I was better suited for first base where my strong fielding skills--there is a reason that Keith Hernandez has always been one of my very favorite players--kept me in the line-up despite my often-inconsistent performances at the plate.
In the end, baseball was something central to our shared experiences for some very important years before I went away to boarding school at 14 and our interests began to change - me to track and politics, Rob to tennis and movies. We did not lose our love of baseball. It remained a common interest as well as an unbreakable bond no matter what else was happening or how many miles separated us. Throughout those years we collected and traded baseball cards and devoured Sports Illustrated, Sport, Sporting News, and the daily newspapers for all the baseball news they offered.
Now at almost 70, the relationship is recalled in memories big and small. There was October 1, 1961, when my father, reading the Sunday paper suddenly exclaimed that we could see history made that day and decided to make the drive from our northern New Jersey home into the city and Yankee Stadium where the three of us witnessed Roger Maris’s 61st home run. History for sure, and a memory that I have treasured for decades. Of course, that was not the last game we saw because baseball mattered very much.
That was certainly clear in 1964 when my parents, failing to foresee that the World Series would go seven games, arranged for our move into a new house that very day. Happily, understanding the game's importance, they arranged for our grandparents to pick me and Rob up at school and bring us home where the television had been set up in the new family room. There we sat, glued to the set, offering periodic updates to the moving men passing back and forth through the house, and watching Bob Gibson pitch the St. Louis Cardinals to victory over the New York Yankees, securing their first World Series title since 1946.
Admittedly, while the love of the game and many of the adventures are shared, there have been a few discordant moments or causes for envy along the way. For all the excitement of seeing Maris set the record back in 1961, I have to admit, over 60 years later, that at the time (and apparently still today) I felt a certain amount of resentment over the fact that this historic event represented my younger brother's first major league game, a milestone that I, over two years older, had achieved only months before.
I still remember the fall of 1967, when my sixth-grade brother and his class, one of whom toted a portable television set, came into my homeroom for English after lunch where my homeroom teacher allowed them to watch the World Series. In contrast, my classmates and I headed off to a destination overseen by a less enlightened teacher.
And while my globetrotting sisters might disagree, my brother's framed and autographed Koufax jersey is the most distinctive and treasured item any of the family members can boast and that includes treasures collected on a variety of continents and the wildlife trophies my grandfather had bagged in another era.
In two months, my brother and I are meeting in Atlanta, the closest major league ballpark to our homes now that Rob has left the west coast, to see the Los Angeles Angels play the Atlanta Braves. We are excited at the prospect of seeing Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani as well as the Braves’ stable of young stars, going on the Atlanta stadium tour, and seeing the city’s historical offerings. It has been a long time since we went to a game together, but I know that like our phone calls, we will settle in, and the new rules notwithstanding, pick up where we left off, musing about the demise of the complete game and the too many hitters intent only on hitting home runs, while wondering what Maury Wills, the base stealer extraordinaire of our youth, might have done with the now larger bases. One thing is for sure - while baseball may have changed, the bond it forges between brothers remains everlasting.
Bill Pruden is a high school history and government teacher who has been a baseball fan for six decades. He has been writing about baseball--primarily through SABR-sponsored platforms, but also in some historical works--for about a decade. His email address is email@example.com.