On what would have been my grandpa Fran’s 101st birthday — July 16, 2011 — I wrote about how he played catch, and our last time tossing the ball around.
TOWER GROVE — Whether we were tossing a baseball or chucking a football around outside his home in Sarasota, Fla., or at The Dells, the game with grandpa was always to transfer the ball from catch to throw as quickly as possible. He was a master at it. I remember how he could catch a football and throw it back all in one slick, swift motion – his left hand controlling and redirecting the ball into the right hand and then firing it back underhand, spiral and all. This wasn’t catch as much as it was a ricochet. Gramps would do this faster and faster and faster until, inevitably, I would laugh too hard to keep up, holding the ball until I caught my breath.
Grandpa would just stand there, grinning.
He won. Again.
Today would have been my grandpa’s 101st birthday. Fran Goold was born on July 16, 1910, in Baraboo, Wis., and it was always easy to calculate how old he was. My parents were determined to give me as much time with grandpa and grandma Verna as possible. That meant a winter visit to Sarasota and a summer trip to Wisconsin. I learned manners from my grandma, who refused to sit by me and my grits at breakfast if I misbehaved. I learned more than hot-potato catch from my grandpa. Like humor: One day at the beach, I caught him watching a couple coeds as they strolled by. I elbowed him and pointed to grandma. “Hey,” I’ll never forget him saying. “Just because you’re on a diet doesn’t mean you can’t look at the whole menu.”
When grandpa was a youth in Baraboo, he was so good at basketball – he claimed – that they nicknamed him Buckets. Driveway games of 21 with Buckets and the boys at my uncle’s house or in Lake Geneva, Wis., were rites of passages. I remember when I was old enough to first play with the older cousins and grandpa. I never remember winning. I once saw Grandpa pitch in a game, though it’s one of those false memories that I only know from being told about it. He had to be in his late 60s. I’m convinced Gramps played baseball or softball until his body wouldn’t let him. And even then …
I’ll tell that story in a moment.
It was Grandpa who was the first St. Louis Cardinals fan I met, complete with the faded red mesh hat he’d often wear when we went out to play catch. He was the one who taught me about Stan Musial, his favorite player, and Lou Brock and the others that he would follow wherever he was via KMOX/1120 AM, his tether to his favorite team and the reason why the Cardinals were his favorite team. For all I knew, KMOX was a local channel in The Dells because we’d get it on the deck and listen to games. Grandpa told me how major leaguers played the game, and his frenetic style of catch was a lesson – one borrowed from the old-timers he no doubt watch perform their glove-shovels and behind-the-back tosses before games. A deft transfer could be the difference between a double play and a runner on first, he explained. So, he would dare me to keep up. And as I got older I figured out ways to be as quick with my hands as the old man. The catch and throw had to be seamless, with my throwing hand following the ball into the glove, and the glove carrying its momentum into the start of my throw.
It was during one game of catch that I wondered why I had to use the pocket of the glove at all. If I could catch the ball on the outside of the glove – on the backside of my fingers – with my throwing hand in control, I’d be one step closer to firing it back at grandpa. That’s what I started doing. It became so second nature that I once did it on a soft line drive during practice with the freshman baseball team and doubled off the runner at first. When the coach gave me a quizzical look, I shrugged.
“My grandpa taught me that,” I explained.
It is fitting then that my last game of catch with grandpa was the slowest. A year before he died in 1994, Gramps couldn’t walk that well, and he was using a walker to get around. But he wanted to play catch, because, darn it, that’s what we did. That’s what we always did. So, he tugged on his Cardinals cap, grabbed his old glove and walked out to the street, his walker going ka-chak, ka-chak, ka-chak the whole way. Grandpa needed the walker to keep his balance. He could throw with his glove hand resting on the walker. He could not catch without help. I would walk the ball to him and drop it in the open glove. Gramps would then shuffle his right hand along his walker to the glove, grab the ball and throw again. We did this maybe a dozen times. It took awhile.
And that’s OK. Speed may have been the goal, but it was never really the point.
Spending that time together was.