The Alfred Slote Fan Club
By Bill Simmons
When I told my mother about our latest 30 for 30 short film, she laughed and said, “Gee, I wonder who assigned that one.” You couldn’t blame her for thinking her son pushed the idea on everyone else. Once upon a time, I loved Alfred Slote so much that every bookstore trip unfolded the same way. I darted over to the kids’ section, found Slote’s baseball books bunched together on a shelf, became giddy for a split second, realized I owned every one of them, then begrudgingly searched for another book.
And that’s how it went. We didn’t have Google or Amazon back then. There was no way to know when the next Slote book was coming. You just had to hope. During my peak Slote years — second grade through fifth grade, basically — I only knew that Slote lived in Michigan, which doubled as the locale for his sports books. I never knew he wrote space novels in his 30s and early 40s, or that his first baseball book (Stranger on the Ball Club) wasn’t released until 1970, when Slote was 44 years old (older than me right now). I never knew what possessed him to suddenly crank out a barrage of sports books over the next seven years: Jake; The Biggest Victory; My Father, the Coach; Hang Tough, Paul Mather; Tony and Me; Matt Gargan’s Boy; and The Hotshot. I never knew why Slote stopped writing for two years in 1977, after I had already devoured everything, then made his triumphant return in 1979 with … a tennis book? What happened to Michigan’s Little League baseball scene?
For whatever reason, Matt Christopher grabbed the “readable sports books for little kids” corner in the late ’70s and never relinquished it. In my mind, Slote was filet mignon and Christopher was ground beef. My family understood that you didn’t buy me a Christopher book for Christmas — if I unwrapped one, I’d hold it like a hand grenade. Screw that guy. I hated that every bookstore favored him over Slote, and as the years passed, it only got worse. I remember searching for Slote books in the early 1990s for my cousin, Chris, eventually coming to the horrifying realization that Slote’s baseball books were out of print. I looked everywhere and came up empty. Finally, I bought him three Christopher books and resisted the urge to write inside them, “Enjoy your ground beef.”
And look, I’m not going to pretend that Slote was the J.D. Salinger of children’s sports books or anything. But his finest two books transcended the medium. They really did. I read everything as a kid — you name it, I read it. There was nothing out there quite like Hang Tough, Paul Mather or Jake. Mather was a Little League star battling leukemia and hoping to stay healthy enough to pitch in the playoffs. For a children’s book, it’s surprisingly gloomy and even a little profound … but that’s what I loved about it. You never knew if Paul Mather lived or died (even if things looked bleak), and really, it didn’t matter. He was the most couragerous kid I knew. Matt Christopher never could have written that one.
Jake featured a haunting cover: a drawing of a young African American baseball player staring somberly ahead, a bat resting on his right shoulder, looking like he’s posing for a card in Topps’ special “Little League Players With Depressing Family Situations” series. The boy was named Jake Wrather, a brash Little League catcher who lived with his semi-negligent uncle Lenny, an aspiring musician who frequently left Jake to fend for himself. I loved Jake so much that, when I was in the fifth grade, I tried to adapt it into a play and wrote nearly a dozen scenes before giving up. What possessed a 10-year-old child to write a school play about a fictional Little League baseball player? I don’t know. Why did I quit before I finished? I couldn’t tell you. Maybe I wanted to see Jake come to life. Maybe I wanted to be friends with him. Maybe I realized it wasn’t working, and maybe I gave up.
When you grow up, you start to struggle with separating actual childhood memories from memories of those memories. At some point, I didn’t even know if I was remembering things correctly. Did I actually try to write a play about Jake Wrather, or did I just think about doing it, and that’s what I remembered? A few years ago at my father’s house, I pulled my paperback copy of Jake out of a bookshelf. Ten yellowed, folded pages of a play with a child’s handwriting fell out of the book. My handwriting. The memory was real.
Somehow, Jake has remained out of print for 31 years. And if I’d never met Jon Hock, I might never have known anyone else who remembered Slote’s greatest book. Hock and I became friendly when he made a superior 30 for 30 film called The Best That Never Was. When we launched Grantland’s YouTube Channel, the first thing we posted was Hock’s unforgettable piece about following Royce White around on draft day. So we know each other fairly well. One day we were exchanging e-mails, stumbled into an Alfred Slote conversation and ended up having a good-natured “No, you didn’t love him more, I loved him more!” argument. Maybe it took 35 years, but I finally met someone else who loved Slote and resented Matt Christopher, too. We agreed that we were tied for first place in Slote’s fan club. That was the last I thought about it.
And as it turned out, I totally underestimated Hock. Over the summer, he chased down an 85-year-old retired author in Ann Arbor, brought a camera crew and hoped something good would happen. A few weeks later, a rough cut of his next short film landed in my e-mail box without warning. I clicked on the link. There he was … the great Alfred Slote. Talking about Jake. Talking about writing. Talking about life. I can’t explain how much that 10 minutes meant to me, so I won’t even try. But watching one of my favorite writers bring his favorite book back to life while figuring out if his career ultimately meant anything — when it did, it did, it did — was practically an out-of-body experience.
Hock was right — he is the world’s biggest Alfred Slote fan. I’m happy to settle for second place. I’m even happier to present our second 30 for 30 short: Jake, directed by Jon Hock. Maybe someday, Jake will be back in print and the world will make sense again.
The First Two Chapters of Jake
My name is Jake Wrather, which doesn’t mean much to you, and it doesn’t mean much to me either. I never knew my father who gave me my last name, and my mother left two years ago to visit down south and never came back. I room with my Uncle Lenny and he doesn’t care about anything except music. We get along fine because I don’t care about anything but baseball. He plays his music in Detroit at night while I’m sleeping, and I play baseball during the daytime while he’s sleeping, so it works out fine. I like being on my own. Nobody tells me when to go to bed, what to eat. I do what I want to do. I take what I want.
I got an Al Kaline glove and nobody gave me that, or my bat either. I found my bat in a kid’s hands one day over at Sampson Park. I convinced him that I needed it more than he did. I found my glove in a department store when no one was looking.
Does this sound like bragging? If it does, I don’t mean it to. I don’t steal except when I have to. I’m eleven years old. I don’t want to grow up a crook. Just a ball player, and a ball player needs his tools: a bat and a glove.
I don’t have many friends. One good one: John Fulton, the catcher on our team. He’s a tough, quiet kid and we get along fine. I eat at his house a lot. Mrs. Fulton’s got used to my coming around their house about dinnertime. She always grins and says: “Jake, I think we can manage an extra place at the table. Would you like to stay for supper?”
And I always grin and say: “Don’t mind if I do.”
Sometimes I get tired of cooking myself hamburgers and hot dogs. And Mrs. Fulton is a darn good cook. She’s a lot better cook than she is a baseball coach.
That’s right. Mrs. Fulton, up until a little while ago, was the coach of our Little League team. And she didn’t know a thing about baseball. I mean, she once asked Ned Franks who plays left field: “Ned, are you a fielder or a batter?”
Old Ned just gulped and said: “Both, Coach.”
Mrs. Fulton didn’t want to be coach. She just liked coming to the games and sitting in a canvas chair and reading the paper and when John would get up, she’d put the paper down and watch. Or sometimes she’d keep score. We taught her how to do that. But she came to all the games and she was the only parent that did.
And when we lost our coach and they threatened to disband the team unless we got an adult coach, there was only one move to make: ask Mrs. Fulton to coach.
League rules said you had to have an adult coach, but they didn’t say that adult had to be a man.
Fact was: we couldn’t get a man. Not a father on the club had time to coach us, and my Uncle Lenny who could coach us, since he was such a hot-shot college athlete in all sports, was way out of it in his music world. It was either break up the team or get Mrs. Fulton.
We got Mrs. Fulton. She thought it was a ridiculous thing, and it was, but all she had to do was shake hands with the opposite coach, discuss ground rules (like when the foul balls were out of play, or whether balls hit into the tall grass were doubles or homers) and then go sit and read the paper.
I ran the team. I’m not bragging. I’m just stating a fact. I ran the team. Not because I was the best player on the team — I wasn’t. Danny Kohl, our shortstop, could outfield me, Andy Black our right fielder could outhit me. Jeff Bigler, our hot-tempered first baseman, could outrun me. Dick Williams, our center fielder, had a better arm, and Jerry Jones, our ace pitcher, was better all around than me. But I could do one thing better than any of them: I could out-fight them, outgrowl them, outhustle them. I could chew them out. When they were in danger of falling apart, I could keep them together. And I liked doing it. I was probably the youngest coach in baseball history, but it didn’t bother me. We were off to a good start. Three victories and no games lost, Mrs. Fulton was reading her paper during the games, and everyone was happy except the opposing teams. None of them liked the Print-Alls — that’s the name of our team; we’re sponsored by a printing company — because we were a loose-as-a-goose outfit that would as soon knock you down as spit at you. But they couldn’t do anything about it. I guess the combination of nine tough hard-nosed ball players being “led” by a lady coach, with a big floppy hat and a newspaper under her arm, was just too much to take.
Finally, one coach didn’t take it. His name was McLeod and his team was the McLeod Builders. They were in second place right behind us, and I guess it all got to be too much for Mr. McLeod and his team.
Last year in the Arborville ten-year-old league we beat the McLeod Builders without much trouble. They’ve only got three or four real ball players. But this year, their ace pitcher Pat McLeod — the coach’s son — got himself a little curve ball. We’d heard about it before we saw it. Jerry, our ace, didn’t have a curve yet, though Tony Parker our second pitcher had one that wasn’t much good. Still, Arborville isn’t a big city, and word soon got around that Pat McLeod had a curve ball that could come right at you, and then when you bailed out to avoid getting hit, the ball would drop over the plate. When we met the Builders Tuesday night at West Park, they were two wins and no losses, having played one less game than us, and in second place.
We were up for the game, talking it up. Mrs. Fulton was reading her newspaper and there were about twenty adults in the stands behind home plate, all parents of the Builders. Mr. McLeod was a tall red-faced guy who wore a baseball cap and was always shouting down at his players. They were a well-trained team, you could see that right away, and much improved over last year. He ran that team like a machine, but we have the better ball players, and if Jerry was on with his rising fast ball, it would be as easy as picking peaches.
The trouble with that first game against the Builders was that Jerry wasn’t on. His first pitch of the game was in the dirt.
John Fulton blocked it, even though he didn’t have to, but our hearts sank. When Jerry started out this way he usually got worse before he got better. It then depended on how many runs we could score before he got some sort of pitching rhythm again.
Playing third base, I liked it less than anyone. When Jerry was wild it meant I covered home on wild pitches because when Jerry got wild he also got moody and wouldn’t budge off the pitcher’s mound.
Jerry walked the McLeod lead-off batter Tim Johnson to start the game. The next kid up was Larry Esch who was a lefty and a drag-bunted all the time. Larry hadn’t got an honest hit since he started playing in the Arborville Recreation League three years ago. You won’t believe this, but I heard his father called out from the stands once, offering Larry a dollar if he got a swinging hit. Larry got all right and clutched and struck out.
Walking Tim Johnson was one thing, but walking a powder-puff hitter like Esch would be terrible.
I called “time” and went over to talk with Jerry, to calm him down, for he was kicking the dirt already, disgusted with himself. I felt like kicking him. Jeff Bigler trotted over from first, and that would be no help because Bigler was twice as excitable as Jerry. John Fulton came out from his catcher’s position looking so worried I almost laughed. John could see a whole afternoon of digging Jerry’s fast balls out of the dirt. Catching Jerry had made John the best fielding catcher in the eleven-year-old league.
No sooner did we get together than Mr. McLeod shouted: “Make them move the game along, Ump.”
“What’s eating him?” Bigler said.
“Ignore him,” I growled. I turned to Jerry. “These guys are bums. What’re you throwing the shovel ball at them for?”
Jerry gave me his hard look, which didn’t bother me one bit. Jerry’s big and strong, but we both knew I could wrestle him to the ground. Jerry and Andy are the other two black players besides me and they’re both very different from each other. Jerry’s moody and gifted. I mean, he can hit, run, field, pitch. And he’s going to be a great basketball player. Andy’s big and strong and like a rock. He never gets mad, never gets happy. I figure him for a fullback. Being black players on the team, you’d think we’d be buddy-buddy. But we’re not. No one’s buddy-buddy with Jerry because of his temper.
“Listen man,” I said to Jerry, “old Fulton here’s got good at handling that old shovel ball of yours but in the end you’ll bust his hands.”
John’s worried expression changed into a smile. It had taken little John three whole games to figure out that a shovel ball was a ball that digs holes in front of the plate before it hopped up and hit you in the neck.
Jerry didn’t think I was funny. “You take care of your position, Jake, and I’ll take care of mine.”
“I got no position to take care of if you keep throwing shovel balls.”
“Hey Ump,” Mr. McLeod bellowed from his third-base coaching box, “make them play ball. It’ll get dark in an hour.”
The relatives in the stands started shouting too, that we were stalling. Truth was, it did get dark early at West Park, and there were no lights here. But I wasn’t going to leave Jerry to kick dirt and rattle himself.
Every adult was shouting at the umps to move us along, except our coach Mrs. Fulton. She was reading the paper, oblivious to it all.
Jerry kicked the dirt disgustedly. “I’ll get ’em over, Jake.”
“Don’t throw so hard,” Bigler advised.
Jerry glared at Jeff Bigler. “Don’t you start telling me what to do. Jake’s bad enough.”
“C’mon, kids,” the plate umpire called out, “let’s play ball.”
“Oh, shut up,” Bigler said through gritted teeth.
I had to grin. We were eleven years old. The plate ump was about fifteen and he was calling us kids.
“C’mon, Ump,” Mr. McLeod shouted, “time’s wasting.”
“Quit stalling, Print-Alls.”
“You guys come to play ball or talk?”
“Looks like a ladies’ sewing circle.”
Mr. McLeod turned and spoke loudly for the benefit of the McLeod team’s parents in the stands: “This is what happens when a team plays without a coach.”
If he was also talking for Mrs. Fulton’s benefit, she missed it completely. She just turned the pages of her newspaper.
“Boy, I’d like to sic your Uncle Lenny on that guy,” Bigler said.
“Forget him,” I said. “He’s all wind. You get them over, Jerry, or I’ll stomp you after the game.”
Jerry grinned. “You’re always stomping someone, Jake.”
“I mean it,” I said. And walked back to my position. “This kid can’t hit. He’s a bunter,” I shouted.
And to prove my point, I moved in along the third base-line until I was only about twenty feet from the batter.
“Look at the hot dog, guys,” the McLeod team began shouting.
“Hit it down his throat, Larry.”
“Cream him, Larry.”
Jerry was grinning as he put his foot on the slab.
“Don’t change-up on me, Jones” I shouted. For if he did that, Esch would really ram it down my throat. I was counting on Jerry’s fast ball.
He threw it hard and it went into the dirt. John Fulton blocked it with his body, keeping the ball in front of him, pounced on it, and cocked his arm to throw to second, but Tim Johnson wasn’t going.
Mr. McLeod yelling at him for not going.
“The next time that ball’s in the dirt, you go,” he shouted. A mean-type father-coach, I thought.
“Pitcher’s wild,” their bench started chanting.
“Pitcher’s going up, up, up … ”
“Hey, pitcher, pitcher, pitcher … ”
“C’mon, Jerry,” I called out, “no batter in there.”
“Lay it in the old glove, Jerry, ” I heard John call out from behind the plate.
Jerry looked fussed. He kicked some more dirt as though that would improve his pitching.
I looked over at Mrs. Fulton. She was still reading the paper. Maybe a little humor would loosen Jerry up.
“Hey, Mrs. Fulton,” I called out, “you think we ought to put this dude on?”
Mrs. Fulton looked up startled. “Put him on what?” she said.
That cracked Jerry up. He threw the next pitch five feet over the batter’s head and Tim Johnson took second standing up.
Jeff Bigler screamed at me. “Stop clowning, Jake.”
At shortstop Danny Kohl shuffled his feet nervously. “C’mon Jerry. These guys are nothings.”
“Pitcher’s wild, wild, wild,” the McLeod kids started chanting again.
“Take another pitch, Larry,” Mr. McLeod called out, with a big grin. “He won’t get it in there.”
“Hey, the hot dog’s moving back,” one of their kids called out.
I was moving back because with a man on second and Jerry throwing those terrible pitches, we might have a play at third. But I didn’t go all the way back because Esch would surely bunt if he could.
Jerry didn’t give him a chance to bunt. He threw the next pitch in the dirt, too.
“He’s coming Jake,” Danny shouted.
I hustled back. John had the ball blocked. He was quick as a cat. He grabbed it and fired the ball down to me. A perfect throw. On my left side, my glove side, and I was waiting for Tim Johnson. He came in headfirst which was too bad for him because I slammed the ball socko onto his head and Tim never even reached the bag.
“You’re out,” the bases ump shouted, jerking his thumb in the air.
Johnson just lay there. Mr. McLeod ran over. He pushed me out of the way even though I wasn’t in the way.
“Hey, mister, watch it,” I said.
“Tim, are you OK?”
Tim Johnson nodded. He was OK, just humiliated like he should be, trying to steal third on John Fulton and Jake Wrather. And the only reason he’d gone was because his coach had screamed at him for not going before when a ball was in the dirt. If anyone was to blame for me putting the skull tag on, it was the coach.
Mr. McLeod straightened up and came over to me. His hands were balled into fists. Was he going to hit me? I couldn’t believe it. I stepped back. I wasn’t ready to take on a six-foot adult, not yet. For the first time in my life I wished my Uncle Lenny was around. Nobody, but nobody tangled with Lenny.
The bases ump, a tall skinny fifteen-year-old kid, stepped between us.
“Take it easy, Mr. McLeod,” he said.
“If ever I catch that Wrather kid tagging one of my players like that again — ”
“He came in headfirst,” I said. “Where else could I tag him?”
“You didn’t tag him. You hit him.”
I didn’t say anything because there was a bit of truth to that. But that’s baseball. You play hard-nosed and you beat the guys. You manhandle the team you can manhandle. You get them scared of you, and you pull your own team together. Look at Jerry right now. All the itchiness was gone out of him. That skull tag straightened him out just the way it did the runner — only for a good purpose.
“Anyway,” I said, and winked at Jerry, “everyone knows the skull’s the hardest part of a guy’s head.”
That got a big laugh from our guys, but Mr. McLeod got all red again.
“How about throwing him out of the game?” he asked the bases ump.
I got scared then. We only had nine guys. And you could get tossed out for sassing a coach.
But the ump shook his head. He turned to me. “That’s a bad joke, Jake. OK, guys, now let’s play ball.”
Mr. McLeod wasn’t happy. He wanted me out of the game. He stomped back to his coaching box, complaining loudly for the benefit of the fans.
“Sore loser,” Jeff Bigler called out from first. McLeod whirled, but I whirled faster. I still had the ball and I threw the ball at Bigler.
“Shut up, Bigler,” I shouted.
Bigler couldn’t talk and catch at the same time and he caught the ball and had the sense to shut up. He tossed it to Danny who tossed it to Tony who threw it to me and I threw it to John Fulton and there we were tossing the ball around the infield as though nothing had happened. Mr. McLeod stood there, furious but baffled, and finally he walked off the field, muttering again how teams without coaches shouldn’t be permitted in the league.
I was pretty sure it was Mr. McLeod who had tried to get our team broken up when Mr. Parker changed jobs and couldn’t coach us anymore. McLeod called a meeting with Mr. Fredericks, the league president, but by then we’d come up with Mrs. Fulton and they didn’t know what to say.
All in all, fighting to keep ourselves together as a team had really made us a tightly-knit ball club. Most teams carry fifteen or sixteen players because when summer vacation starts, kids go to camp. None of our guys go to camp. That’s good. But what’s bad is that sometimes a guy gets sick or, worse, gets thrown out of a game. Bigler especially was very good at getting thrown out of games last year. League rules say you can play with eight guys but not with seven. So I guard the team real carefully after Bigler gets thrown out. Especially Jerry, because Jerry’s temper is almost as explosive as Jeff’s. I’m the team cop. My job is to keep everyone cool and loose.
Like right now, we’re cool and loose and the skull tag did it. Jerry’s got three balls and no strikes on Esch but he looks more relaxed. He knows he’s got a hot fielding team behind him, and knowing that he can get a rhythm and chuck away. It’s when a pitcher starts thinking he’s got to do it all himself that he tightens up and loses his stuff.
With no runner on base I moved down the line again until I was only fifteen feet away from Esch. I was playing the position like a softball third baseman in a fast pitch game.
“Ram it down his throat, Larry,” they yelled.
“Let’s see that little old bunt, Larry,” I said, grinning.
Jerry kicked, reared, and fired. It smoked in for a strike. Esch never took the bat off his shoulders.
Our hearts lifted; our voices sang out.
“Way to go, big Jerry.”
“Throw the hummer, big Jerry.”
Jerry poured a second strike in there that Larry just blinked at. The McLeod voices died down. They wouldn’t touch Jerry now.
“Keep burning in there, big man,” I said, and spat toward the McLeod bench. They were very silent.
Jerry kicked, reared and instead of throwing the smoke ball, he threw a change-up. Larry Esch, who couldn’t see the fast ball, got a good look at this. And there he was, swinging toward left field with me fifteen feet away.
Keerack! I ducked, sticking my glove up to protect my face. The ball breathed hot air over me. I turned to see where it had gone.
“It’s in your glove, Jake,” Jerry said laughing.
“Way to go, Jake, ” John Fulton said. “Let’s go over those signals again, Jerry.”
“Nope,” Jerry said grinning, and I knew he’d thrown that change-up on purpose. To keep me on my toes.
“I got a notion to belt you one,” I said, throwing the ball back to him.
Jerry laughed. “Had to see how quick you really were, man. You’re quick, OK.”
“Next one Jake’s going to catch with his head between his legs,” Tony Parker called out.
“Haha,” I said.
Even silent old Andy in right field got into the act: “My, oh my Jake,” he called out.
I growled at all of them, but deep down I was pleased. We were loose now. The skull tag and the crazy catch had done it. Pat McLeod, their pitcher and a good hitter, was up next. But Jerry reared back and poured the smoker three times right across the plate, and after the third pitch John Fulton flipped the ball up to McLeod and said: “Fast, ain’t he, Pat?”
And whopping it up, we ran in.
“What’s the batting order, Coach?” I asked Mrs. Fulton. She put down the newspaper and reached for the lineup I’d made out.
“Kohl, Parker, Wrather, Black.”
“Way to call them, Coach.” I said to her.
Mr. McLeod, who was crossing the diamond, thought I was sassing him again. He turned and gave me a dirty look.
Bigler laughed. We all laughed. Mr. McLeod got red in the face. It was a dumb thing. We were making a real enemy out of him, and in just a few minutes we were going to pay a price for it.