"Can you imagine startin' here and getting to pitch for the championship of the World Series in New York City?...One thing makes a feller sad is knowin' that's behind, and what's wrong with him is nothing that giving back twenty years wouldn't cure. 'Cept they don't do that, do they?"

These are the words of my great-uncle Preacher Roe,  who pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers after growing up in Ozark country, then moved back to those hills to live out much of the rest of his life. This quote comes from The Boys of Summer , which I'm currently plowing through on the recommendation of my friend Matthew Goodman, whom I've thoroughly regaled with stories of the Ozarks, my Kansas youth, and the obsession with New York City - Brooklyn in particular - that brought me to the greatest borough on earth.

I've been thinking quite a lot lately about Preacher, whom I never knew but my Uncle Jim shared letters with late in Preach's life until his death in 2008, which I mention in my piece "I Was Young When I Left Home." Last Christmas, Uncle Jim gave me one of Preach's old gloves; I never played baseball myself, and in fact I was petrified of being hit by baseballs anytime I was near a diamond (okay, I still am), but I like to put that old glove on every once in awhile now and imagine his life.

I also mention another great-uncle in "I Was Young," my grandmother's brother Ollie, who was also from Arkansas Ozark country but never achieved much fame, dying somewhere in France in 1944 after being drafted during World War II. I keep thinking of Preach's words above, spoken when he was 55 years old, and then thinking of my Uncle Ollie, who was 19 years old when he died. They both came from Arkansas hill country. One died young enough that I can say without reservation that he hardly lived; the other lived to be old enough to regret growing old. One achieved a fame bordering on immortality in sports history in a city that welcomed him; the other died violently, alone and unknown in a land he didn't know. Both seem, to me at least, tragic.

AuthorJohn Proctor