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 BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. He can be reached at [email protected].