Happy Father’s Day from Tommie Agee

My father is the single most influential person in my life, I love baseball because he taught me to love baseball when I was a little kid, and the way I love baseball today is largely a product of how he taught me the game. I suspect that there are only fifteen or twenty million other American men for whom that sentence is true.

My baseball experience isn’t really a fan’s experience. I attended two Phillies games in person before I went to college–in fact, I saw the Phillies play at Camden Yards and Turner Field before I ever saw them play at Citizens Bank Park. Attending games in person wasn’t all that important or convenient, so we didn’t. My dad wasn’t a big baseball player growing up and all the kids in my neighborhood were bigger hockey than baseball fans, so I grew up playing hockey instead. I played baseball until I was 12, until, after six years of being the kid for whom they had the rule that said everyone has to bat at least once and play at least three innings in the field, I quit. I moved six months ago and forgot to pack my baseball glove, and being without it doesn’t particularly bother me.

Doesn’t sound like much of a baseball fan’s upbringing, does it? Well, that’s not how I experience the game. I’m a terrible athlete, I don’t like big crowds or the summer heat and fresh-cut grass makes me sneeze. My dad didn’t buy me tickets and equipment and jerseys: he bought me books and magazines. Just absolute oodles of them–biographies of Greg Maddux and Barry Bonds, collections of short stories, novels and old newspaper and news stories. I owned, for all intents and purposes, the entire collected works of Dan Gutman, a writer who lived two towns over and had written dozens of children’s novels and nonfiction books about baseball. I can still cite, chapter and verse, Gutman’s book on the five best World Series ever.

My father taped Ken Burns’ Baseball when it aired and let me watch it over and over until I had it more or less memorized. My friends’ parents taught them how to throw a curveball and how to properly swear at Bobby Cox from the 700 level at the Vet. My parents bought me Baseball Weekly and showed me where to find Jayson Stark’s column in the Inquirer.

By the time I was ten years old, I was imagining my own lineups and trades. I couldn’t run or hit worth a crap, but I could tell my Little League teammates about Ozark Jeff Tesreau‘s role in the 1912 World Series and Joe Adcock collecting 18 total bases in a single game. I really wasn’t a player or a fan as a kid–I was a historian or a folklorist. In short, a nerd.

My dad also watched a ton of games with me on television–I’ve told the story here a million times how I discovered baseball as a six-year-old, through the 1993 Phillies, a team I started watching because my dad always had them on while he was cooking dinner or folding laundry or something. And when the game was over, he told me about the perennial loser from his childhood who came out of obscurity to contend for a title. And thanks to my dad growing up in a different time and in the wrong end of New Jersey, that team, for him, was the 1969 Mets.

Which brings us to Tommie Agee.

I was probably about 20 years old before I realized that Agee wasn’t a borderline Hall of Famer. I paged through my own well-worn copy of Bill James‘ New Historical Baseball Abstract on Friday to see where he ranked among the all-time greats. James rates Agee as the 78th-best center fielder ever, among such luminaries as Ellis Burks, Jose Cardenal and Ron LeFlore. Agee was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1966 and led the Mets in home runs, RBI and runs scored in 1969. He was, apart from his childhood teammate Cleon Jones, the best position player the Mets had that year. He had, looking at the stats, about five good seasons, two with the White Sox and three with the Mets, and never really contributed much of anything beyond 1971. He was out of baseball soon thereafter and went on to run a bar near Shea Stadium and do charity work in New York and his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, until he died of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of 58.

I didn’t know any of that until this week. I knew Agee’s 1969 stats by heart, and the two amazing catches he made in the World Series and that the way my dad talked about him sounded a lot like the way I talked about Lenny Dykstra. I revered Tommie Agee because my dad told good stories about him, because I already knew about Tom Seaver and was interested in a player who wasn’t so obvious.

I get accused (though not as much as you might think) of being the kind of joyless empiricist know-it-all who only cares about the numbers and not the game. That’s simply not the case. Numbers and statistics are a means to an end. To hell with the numbers. Numbers help you understand baseball, and understanding baseball helps you tell a better story. Sometimes the numbers themselves are the story and help you realize how special that thing you’re watching is. But I’m not into baseball because looking at box scores is fun (though it is), or because drinking beer in a parking lot and screaming terrible things at Chipper Jones is fun (though it is).

The reason I love baseball, to the point where I spend all my free time thinking about it and watching it and reading about it and writing about it, is because of the folklore, the history and the sense that what you’re watching can be special. I got that as a kid, watching Ken Burns’ miniseries and reading Jayson Stark’s columns.

But you’re reading this now because of my dad, and because he used to tell me stories about Tommie Agee.

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9 comments

  1. JettMartinez

    June 16, 2013 08:16 AM

    Wonderful story. I think that’s what baseball has over the other sports, it means something different to everyone. I was also the mandatory at-bat and 3 innings in the field. To me baseball was ballgames at the Vet with my dad, but also Harry Kalas on the radio. Our neighbor, Bob was blind and would sit on his porch every night listening to the game, hopefully with the most beautiful green field pictured in his mind. Sometimes Dad and I would sit and listen with him, sometimes I’d pause for just a few minutes to catch the score before running off to find my friends. Sadly Harry, Bob, and Dad are all gone now, but they are why I’ll always love baseball.

  2. WayneKerrins

    June 16, 2013 11:26 AM

    Love loads of things about US sports generally and especially baseball. However didn’t and don’t get the piss up in the car park vibe.
    Give me a decent boozer or even McFadden’s all day long.

  3. Fish Fry

    June 16, 2013 10:02 PM

    By the lack of comments over the past week, I think we all know the season is over. So much for powering through the easy part of the June schedule, still think we’ll end June 4 or 5 games over .500 pencilfish? If they fire CM without discarding RAJ, it’ll be a travesty.

  4. Ryan

    June 16, 2013 10:32 PM

    I find it interesting that you love baseball so much after sucking at actually playing it.

  5. Iatrogenes

    June 17, 2013 07:48 AM

    I fell in love with baseball with my first-best team, the 1948 Philadelphia A’s. Joost to Suder to Fain, the greatest double-play combo of all time. Ferris Fain hit .300 only twice, and led the league in hitting both times. Catcher Buddy Rosar had a year with a fielding percentage of 1.000. Alex Kellner, a rookie, won 20 games and their second-best pitcher was Lou Brissie, who won 17 games with a partially-shattered leg from the war. I can still recite the entire starting lineup, and remember as a kid seeing Connie Mack in the dugout wearing a black suit with a starched white collar and tie. As the Phillies started to get better, my allegiance switched to the Phillies, and saw on TV Ashburn throw out Cal Abrams at the plate in the 9th inning of the last game of the 1950 season to allow Dick Sisler to hit his historic game-winning 3-run homer in the 10th.

    Ain’t baseball a great game, PEDs notwithstanding?

  6. Jonny5

    June 17, 2013 08:03 AM

    My son (11) got us tickets for a Phillies game in July for Fathers day. And we’re driving down to Baltimore to see the O’s vs. Stros at the end of the month just to check Camden Yards off the list of stadiums I want to visit (all of them). So yeah, Dads bring your children up the right way. With baseball.

    As a side note. My Dad was not into baseball. He taught me everything I could ever imagine to learn about hot rods, muscle cars, etc.. A real motor head. I found baseball by myself, by accident, and have never turned back.

  7. Jerome

    June 17, 2013 11:32 AM

    My experience is very similar to yours – a lover of stories and stats. I have seen many more games on TV (or radio) than in person. I don’t care much for crowds and overpriced concessions, but I do like to get to a couple games a year. I’m much more content watching the game on mlb.tv and pulling up stats left and right as I watch.

    My love of baseball started earlier, but always encouraged by my father.
    -When I turned 2 years old, I could barely speak, but I asked to go to a baseball game to celebrate. I was in Houston at the time, developing a love for my (still) favorite team, the Astros
    – When I turned 4, my father taught me how to read so that I could read the baseball game summaries, standings, and stats on my own. To this day, my phonics skills are limited, thanks to learning words like “Philadelphia,” “Milwaukee,” and “Pachycephelosaurus” (I also loved dinosaurs) before I learned words like “dog,” “cat,” and “boy.”
    – When I was 4 I also started collecting baseball cards, and began memorizing stats. I also picked my favorite player, this (as of then) little-known Astros rookie named Craig Biggio. I will cry tears of joy when he gets elected to the Hall of Fame.
    – When I was 5, and moved to the Philly area, I began reading Jayson Stark’s writing, and fell in love with statistics, especially weird ones. He brought a whole new sense of magic to the game.
    – When I was 9, the Phillies made the World Series. I was still an Astros fan, so to tick off my parents I rooted for the Blue Jays. When I was 10, I experienced a lot of regret for doing so. I then decided to follow the Phillies as my second-favorite team, as it remains today.
    – As I got older, my love of baseball faded a bit, until I left college. None of my high school or college friends cared much for baseball. But once I was out on my own, baseball came back full-force, mostly due to the rise of the Phillies. That gave something for my father and I to talk about, and to this day I enjoy my weekly Phillies run-down with my father. He works a lot in Norway now, but he listens to the games on Gameday audio, and we talk over Skype. It’s one of the highlights of my week.

    I also sucked at baseball. Funny enough, though, I seriously thought I could play professionally until I turned 10. I should have known better WAAAAAY before then!

  8. Western Dave

    June 18, 2013 11:12 PM

    I used to sort my older brothers’ baseball cards when I was growing up. The one I loved best was a picture from the 1969 World Series with “Agee Makes the Catch” as the legend. My brothers would point out the jar in the upstairs bedroom that contained the dirt from the Shea infield, the patch of grass in the backyard where they put the piece from the Shea outfield. And they retold the story behind those relics. How my brother jumped on the train instead of coming home from school. How he walked into Shea around the 7th inning and was part of the crowd that mobbed the field. How he stuffed the relics in his pockets.

    Do I love baseball? Hell, yeah. And I think I was the only kid in all of Manhasset PYB who went 0 fer career.

  9. Burl Nash

    June 23, 2013 06:24 AM

    My baseball experience isn’t really a fan’s experience. I attended two Phillies games in person before I went to college–in fact, I saw the Phillies play at Camden Yards and Turner Field before I ever saw them play at Citizens Bank Park. Attending games in person wasn’t all that important or convenient, so we didn’t. My dad wasn’t a big baseball player growing up and all the kids in my neighborhood were bigger hockey than baseball fans, so I grew up playing hockey instead. I played baseball until I was 12, until, after six years of being the kid for whom they had the rule that said everyone has to bat at least once and play at least three innings in the field, I quit. I moved six months ago and forgot to pack my baseball glove, and being without it doesn’t particularly bother me.

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