My grandfather owned a powder blue Plymouth Fury—the model with the tall fins sprouting out of each rear quarter panel. One summer, he and my grandmother drove the Fury down from Chicago to visit us in South Carolina. We took them camping at the Isle of Palms, which seems strange that they would drive fourteen hours just so we could stick them in a tent, but what did I know at ten? This was sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, when the Isle of Palms wasn’t much more than a couple rows of paint-peeled beach houses, a shrimp shack, and a big campground on the beach where Wild Dunes sits now.
I don’t remember anything about the camping, except my grandfather bragging about how brown his left arm had tanned, driving down from Chicago with it stuck out the driver’s side window. What I do recall in clinical detail is the ride home. I sprawled across the long back seat of the Fury, wearing cheap sunglasses and clutching a giant roll of grape LifeSavers. During the hour and a half back to Kingstree, I lay in the sun, sucking down the huge pack of candy, listening to the Atlanta Braves pouring from the radio. I guess it was that steady sun and all the LifeSavers and the rumble of the Plymouth Fury under me, but when I got home, my grandmother sat with me in the bathroom and said sweet things while I threw up purple for a half hour. To this day, I hate grape candy. But I love the Atlanta Braves as much as ever.
And I know this is love. It has to be. Because no matter how many times the Braves break my heart, we still drift back together at some point. Every spring I read reports out of training camp about the new version of the Braves, and every spring I feel like it’s going to be 1995 all over again, the last time Atlanta won a World Series. Usually, by July, I’ve come crashing back to reality when the Braves are twenty games under .500. But when times turn dark like that, I think backward, and I remember what we’ve been through, the Braves and me.
But when I think about the Braves back then—before I’d hit high school—the sounds are so different. And the colors are brighter. The grass smells somehow greener.
I’m well aware what a dangerous, addictive concoction love plus nostalgia can be—especially at my age. Folks in time machines tend to wear rose-colored shades. But when I think about the Braves back then—before I’d hit high school—the sounds are so different. And the colors are brighter. The grass smells somehow greener. The Braves of my youth roar back, in little vivid postcards, delivered to my mind’s eye.
Like that night in April, 1974, when I sat on the couch with my dad, and we watched Hank Aaron break Babe Ruth’s home run record. The national telecast was on; in fact, the only reason the Braves were on television was because of Aaron and the record. While he trotted the bases after #715 left the stadium, we jumped up and down in the living room, my dad yelling “Hot Dog!” like he always does when he’s happy for somebody else’s success. Then, I didn’t know about all the racist death threats Aaron had endured, but there was my dad, a Chicago transplant, happy for a black man he’d never met. Without even realizing it, I think I learned something about how to treat people the right way.
Or driving through those late north Georgia nights on the way to Alabama, my mom fiddling with the radio dial, trying to pick up Milo Hamilton and Ernie Johnson broadcasting the game on WSB. And even if I was fuzzy with half-sleep, I always knew Atlanta was losing in the ninth when Milo said, “Gotta go get ’em, Braves!” Milo said that a lot in the early ’70s. The Braves didn’t carry many leads into the ninth.
Or the summer I decided to mimic Rico Carty when I batted in Little League, that strange bent-wrist drooping of the bat in front of his left shoulder. It worked for Carty, who won the batting title in 1970. Didn’t work for me when I was the starting catcher for Kingstree Manufacturing. The first game I tried to swing like Rico, I struck out on three pitches and almost snapped my pencil-thin wrists in half.
Then, I didn’t know about all the racist death threats Aaron had endured, but there was my dad, a Chicago transplant, happy for a black man he’d never met. Without even realizing it, I think I learned something about how to treat people the right way.
Back then, I knew all the Braves’ nicknames. Félix “The Kitten” Millán. Ralph “Roadrunner” Garr. I did the Chief Noc-A-Homa dance when somebody left the yard, just the way he did. I could imitate Cecil Upshaw’s sidewinder delivery perfectly. I remember the first time my dad took me to a game at the old Atlanta-Fulton County stadium in downtown Atlanta. The chalk foul lines didn’t meander and wiggle like the ones on our Little League field. The ball sounded different against the bat inside the stadium. I don’t know if the Braves won or lost that day; I wasn’t old enough to worry about the score. My head was filled with too much to care about numbers. I mean, during batting practice Phil Niekro walked by and said hello. Niekro trumps anything, anywhere.
I will never have a son. Time and the urologist have taken care of that. But I often wonder what I would tell a son of mine about the Atlanta Braves. Sure, I could talk about their run of success in the ’90s through 2005, when the Braves won fourteen consecutive division titles. I could say things changed in ’76 when Ted Turner and TBS turned the Braves into “America’s Team” and we had to share them with people in places like Idaho.
But I think if I’d had that chance, I would have told him what it feels like to lie in the sunny back seat of a wide Plymouth Fury and suck down grape LifeSavers and listen to Milo Hamilton’s silky voice flowing out of the radio. “Gotta go get ’em, Braves.” It doesn’t even matter if you get sick from the candy, son. Love is worth it.
Scott Gould is the author of the story collection Strangers to Temptation, a series of 1970s coming-of-age tales based in Kingstree, SC. Gould is also the creative writing chair at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities, and his essays have been featured in the Kenyon Review, The Bitter Southerner, The Raleigh Review, and more. For more information about his work, visit scottgouldwriter.com.