Calling the Pen: To Pop Pop, baseball and beer -

Baseball Essays

Calling the Pen: To Pop Pop, baseball and beer

Photo Illustration: Joy R. Absalon

I grew up knowing only one grandfather. He was on my mother’s side, and I called him Pop Pop. We spent more time with the relatives of my father, whose dad died when he was 6, so I mainly saw Pop Pop on holidays and birthdays until I got older. Pop Pop wore suits to work, with white starched shirts and neatly knotted ties. I was more accustomed to men wearing uniforms or work clothes for manual labor. He also wore some stylish fedoras. When they became worn, I would mold them into cowboy hats, pretending to be the western characters I saw on TV.

Pop Pop was under 5 feet 8, but he looked taller because he stood ramrod straight. He combed his hair the same way, straight back, and it always seemed to stay in place. He worked in an office, although he didn’t talk much to me about the work he did. My grandmother told me he once drove a laundry truck, but Pop Pop denied that he did manual labor of that sort. It didn’t fit the image, and I don’t remember him ever driving, so I went with his version of the story. His thirst for beer also didn’t fit the image.

He had a good laugh, which I remember hearing more while sitting around the table after Christmas dinner. Sometimes I’d hear it in his kitchen when we’d talk about the Orioles and baseball. That was our common language. Pop Pop was a huge baseball fan, one who grew up listening to the game on the radio. He listened to the game with a newspaper spread out on the kitchen table and a beer nearby. Later, when there was a color TV in the living room, he still listened to the games that way – my grandmother sitting by herself watching her shows.

Following baseball was something I shared with my grandfather. I’d pick up things at the barbershop when I’d go for a haircut with my dad and listen to the barbers and other customers discussing the sport. I started reading the boxscores in the local newspaper we got at home, The News American. In the early 1960s, I started to learn names and develop favorites. My first on the Orioles was Steve Barber, a left-handed pitcher who won 20 games in 1963, the first Oriole pitcher to win that many.

When I was in junior high school and high school, I looked forward to going to the rowhouse my grandfather and grandmother shared in Catonsville to cut the grass, even if it was with a push-blade mower that never produced the even cut I desired. I knew after I finished that Pop Pop and I would listen to some baseball, in the kitchen away from the Game of the Week on the color TV. In 1968, we listened to the final innings of Tom Phoebus’ no-hitter against the Red Sox. In high school, Phoebus pitched just down the street from Pop Pop, at Mount St. Joseph.

For me, it was still an age of innocence — ballplayers whose flaws were mostly shielded from public view and a grandfather who shared my passion for baseball. I was more aware of the newspaper on the kitchen table than the beer nearby. They always seemed to go together. A radio, a newspaper and beer. But not just one.

As I look back on it, I remember a few incidents that should have opened my eyes to how much Pop Pop liked his beer. The first came when we lived in the city and I was allowed into a bar near Benkert Avenue because it was where my grandfather went. I was 5 years old, and the men gave me a root beer. The problem was, my mom didn’t know where I was and it was getting dark. I came walking out of the bar to find what seemed like the entire neighborhood looking for me. I think my grandfather got in more trouble than I did.

Another time I remember him falling down the basement steps at the house in the city, which frightened me badly. He fell pretty hard. I remember my grandmother yelling at him, which I thought was because it scared her, too. Later, when he had moved to Catonsville, I remember him letting me join him at the Paradise Tavern, where I played shuffleboard and drank more root beer. Again, my mom wasn’t pleased.

She adored her dad, as did his other three children. After he died, and after I learned that alcohol had contributed to his death, she still didn’t think of him as an alcoholic. It implied bad character rather than a bad illness. It’s not the kind of thing families would talk about, or say.

I remember a man who loved to listen to his baseball games with a beer next to his newspaper. I didn’t pay attention to the case of Carling Black Label that was delivered to the house each Saturday I was there. I didn’t notice all the beer ads during baseball games. It just seemed to be part of the fabric of the sport. No different than a box of Cracker Jack.

I remember when he died feeling as if I should’ve seen and realized more. The Pop Pop I saw went to work every day in his neatly pressed suit. He showed up on holidays and birthdays. He helped me develop my love for baseball. He treated me more like an adult when we talked about a kid’s game. He was a hero, just like the baseball players I idolized.

I don’t remember him watching the color TV he and my grandmom bought in the late 1960s. The newspaper was black and white then, as were the boxscores he scoured. Maybe much of Pop Pop’s world was, too. Comedians got laughs by playing drunks, often with a cigarette in their fingers. It was a different time — when some of the things we thought were harmless weren’t. Some of the things we thought were funny weren’t. Maybe we weren’t as easily offended. More likely, we weren’t as sensitive, or aware, as we should have been, or would be later.

It doesn’t change the way I feel about Pop Pop, because he had an illness. As much as I can remember, it never affected the way he treated me. But it affected me when he died, part of my innocence dying with him. It was time, I guess, but it was easier talking about baseball and boxscores and looking at a sports section that mostly wrote about games and the heroes who won them, or perhaps the goats who lost them. It wasn’t complicated. It was black and white.

And the beer on the kitchen table was just part of it. No different than a box of Cracker Jack.

Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. He can be reached at [email protected].



  1. cedar

    April 7, 2018 at 9:34 am

    Thanks for sharing your memories of your Pop Pop. My dad had that same illness and it fractured his marriage and alienated his family. However, our mutual love of all things baseball helped us to relate to each other and form a bond that perhaps might never have been formed. Baseball, with its history, it’s numbers, it’s storied players, and the memories I made with my dad, will for me, always be more than just a game.

    • Jack Gibbons

      April 7, 2018 at 11:23 am

      Thank you, Cedar for sharing the pain and the healing bond that baseball offered. Baseball is about relationships, and I’m glad that it brought you and your dad together.

  2. TxBirdFan

    April 7, 2018 at 10:08 am

    Great story Jack, and welcome to the bar! The story of your Pop Pop resonated with me. Now I have that old Carling Black Label jingle in my head and can’t get rid of it. Throw in a bag of peanuts and I’ll meet you at the Yard!

    • Jack Gibbons

      April 7, 2018 at 11:25 am

      Thank you, TxBirdFan! A warm day at The Yard sounds good right about now.

  3. Orial

    April 7, 2018 at 10:26 am

    Welcome Jack. Tremendous essay. A polar change from the 60’s till now has taken over this country and its lifestyle. You conveyed beautifully. I’m in my 60’s and have experienced this change also. Keep up the good work as we await your next installment.

    • Jack Gibbons

      April 7, 2018 at 11:30 am

      Thank you for your encouraging words, Orial. Baseball keeps producing memories, including last night’s game and the play at the plate by Joseph and Givens.

  4. Bremen

    April 7, 2018 at 12:01 pm

    Thanks for the memories, Jack! We are all blessed to have so many memories produce by sports, including everything from Little League to High School baseball to our visits to Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards. It seems that whenever I smell a cigar, certain cigarette brands, and even popcorn, I go back to Memorial Stadium where I first encountered that mingling of things now associated with baseball and the Orioles! And, oh yes, that popcorn megaphone was a treasured remembrance, too!

    • Jack Gibbons

      April 7, 2018 at 3:37 pm

      Thanks for sharing your memories, Brem. I had forgotten about the popcorn megaphone, but not my days at Memorial Stadium.

  5. wirpls

    April 7, 2018 at 12:39 pm

    Love the story Jack.

    I had a Pop Pop also and almost everything you wrote describes him to a “T” with one exception. He didn’t always sit and listen while reading the paper at the kitchen table. Oftentimes that News American was there to hold the dozens of steamed crabs that we would consume on a Sunday afternoon. The beer was ever present. He called it “his strength”. It accompanied him everywhere, as did the radio tuned to WBAL with our best friends Chuck and Bill.

    Thanks for stirring those memories and, I’m not ashamed to say, a misty eye or two.


    • Jack Gibbons

      April 7, 2018 at 3:45 pm

      Appreciate your thoughtful response, Bill. We also used The News American for crabs on occasion. Before they were steamed, I remember one crab climbing out of the basket and chasing me across the kitchen floor with its claws poised to pinch. And you’re right, Chuck and Bill seemed more like friends.

  6. Steve Cockey

    April 7, 2018 at 1:25 pm

    What a great first story, Jack. I’m sure this hits home for a lot of us in a lot of different ways. Can’t wait to see what comes next with this feature. Welcome aboard!

    • Jack Gibbons

      April 7, 2018 at 3:48 pm

      Thanks for your warm welcome, Steve. You and Dan should be proud of the website you’ve built. Thankful to join the team.

    • Steve Cockey

      April 7, 2018 at 3:57 pm

      That means a ton coming from you, Jack. Really appreciate the kind words.

  7. JoeFundo

    April 7, 2018 at 3:13 pm

    Jack, that was the BEST read I have had in a long time. Typing with tears rolling down my face is not so easy. Thanks, Jack! <3

    • Jack Gibbons

      April 7, 2018 at 3:51 pm

      Joe, Thanks for sharing your tender heart and encouraging words. I’m grateful that the essay connected with you and others.

  8. MBlizzard

    April 8, 2018 at 7:27 am

    Thanks for the great story. It brought back memories of my Grandfather when I would spend a few weeks at his house in the summer. Every night we would sit in the basement in total dark listening to the game on the radio and you couldn’t talk during the game.

    • Jack Gibbons

      April 8, 2018 at 9:15 am

      MBlizzard, I’m glad it triggered memories. It would be difficult not to talk, but it also would require you to use your imagination. I remember listening to the games in the dark on my transistor radio when the Orioles were on the West Coast. It provided a different dimension.

  9. phildell

    April 8, 2018 at 12:57 pm

    Thanks Jack! Those of us who grew up in a simpler time remember sitting with our pop pops and dads listening to the O’s on a transistor radio. Or the smells that greeted us as we walked up the ramps upon arriving at Memorial Stadium. Those are memories pressed into our minds forever.
    I look forward to your next essay!

    • Jack Gibbons

      April 8, 2018 at 3:36 pm

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and encouragement.

  10. cawdearing

    April 8, 2018 at 10:15 pm

    Your memories are special…and good.

  11. molly

    April 17, 2018 at 9:51 pm

    What a wonderful gift to Baltimore readers! Thank you, Dan, for creating this space and entrusting it to Jack Gibbons. And thank you, Jack, for sharing your memories of Pop Pop. Looking forward to more wonderful story-telling from the best damned sports editor Baltimore has known.

  12. Jack Gibbons

    April 24, 2018 at 9:18 am

    Thanks, Molly. I worked with the best people.

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