Thirty-six hours before my father died, he recited for the family the starting lineups of the 1936 Major League Baseball all-star game. Depleted and disoriented by the cancer that had taken him from the hiking trail to a hospital bed in less than three months, he willed his memory to push out the players’ names and positions in wispy breaths. He noted with his authoritative gruffness that Joe DiMaggio, the New York Yankee great who had died only days before, was in his rookie season that year and despite obvious talent was not selected to be an all-star – in case anyone listening were to make that error. At such a time, many men would be making peace with their creator, asking forgiveness for their mortal sins and seeking assurances of salvation for the unknown ahead. But my father asked only to be allowed to live for another Opening Day, to see that first pitch, to hear one more time the crack of a ball on a bat, to smell the sweet spring grass and the moist earth of the infield. The fact he came up three weeks short is, in a peculiar way, a reflection of his lifelong credo: It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.
My father, Donald Herbt Edward Carlson, played the game hard until the end. Along the way he won some and lost some, but he always played with hustle, fairness and a graceful modesty so rare in this age of self-congratulatory grandstanding. Like DiMaggio, my Dad was not boastful or showy, preferring instead to let his work impress those around him. It did.
As one so impressed, I find answering the question, “What was he really like?” akin to explaining with authority the theory of relativity. The record book shows that Don Carlson was an eldest son orphaned in his early teens, a brother to two siblings, husband of 58 years, father of five, grandfather of six, newspaperman, business executive, baseball player and scout, coach, skier, sailor, hiker, handball player. What it does not show is the passion with which he approached life, the dedication that shaped his family and professional lives, the patience he used so effectively w hen encouraging others to follow their stars, and the curiosity that made him ever restless to learn why the world worked the way it did.
A young boy could not have asked for a better dad. Whether he was playing catch with my brother, Tony, and me, building a skating rink in the back yard for the neighbourhood kids or braving 4 a.m. peewee hockey practices in the dead of winter, he proved again and again that family always came first. Before the Blue Jays came to Toronto, the three of us would travel all over the Midwestern and Eastern United States by car to watch weekend ball games. I thought I had died and gone to heaven when Dad wrangled tickets to the 1968 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals, my favorite team. And if personal sacrifices are any measure of love, consider this: In the late 1960’s he turned down a career opportunity that would have led him to even greater professional heights, because it would have meant moving the family to the United States and exposing his sons to the Vietnam draft.
As a professional, he was among the few for whom integrity and credibility far outweighed personal recognition. Modest and artfully understated, he eschewed the label of journalist, considering it too lofty a term, and a demon that had created the “me” generation of first-person reporting. He considered himself a newspaperman pure and simple. He repeatedly counselled young reporters, including me, to remember the purpose of newspapers and the power of the relationship they had with readers. That relationship was a privilege, not a right, and the insight it gave into the human condition was the equivalent of a Ph.D in behavioral science for which reporters should be grateful.
As a coach and mentor, he taught his charges to play hard, play fair and play with dignity. For him, the superstars in any field were those who “made it look easy”, not those who celebrated in orgies of self-love. Those who made it look easy worked hard like DiMaggio. They were the ones doing extra wind sprints and taking extra swings in the batting cage, not babbling on to the television cameras about how much money they made. To make this point, he would take us to the ballpark long before games began to watch the players warm up. It was during practice, he told us, that we would learn what it took to be a real professional. He also warned against growing “rabbit ears”, a condition that occurred when one listened too closely to hecklers. “Keep your eye on the ball,” he would say. “A hit will shut them up.”
As a man, he was a peculiar mix of tastes and compulsions. He revelled equally in Shakespeare and Benny Hill, Tennyson and Monty Python. He loved Gershwin and Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson and the big bands of the Swing era. He would study weather patterns for days, as if planning a circumnavigation, in preparation for an afternoon sail on Lake Ontario. He would play handball and hike 20 miles on the same day, then sink into his easy chair with a scotch and soda, wondering aloud why he was so tired. And he was forever searching. That is important to remember, lest anyone thinks a man on his deathbed asking for tickets to a ball game rather than eternal peace is without faith. But as any good reporter knows, it takes three reliable sources to confirm a story, and it is not clear whether the Holy Trinity swayed him. Not that he was disrespectful. He spent his life seeking explanations for everything – why airplanes flew, why curve balls curved, why politicians never accomplished anything. Religion was no different. A voracious reader, he consumed as much as he could about opinions, ancient and modern, on religion, faith and God. Whether he found any answers no one can be certain, but I suspect that if he arrived at the Pearly Gates, he had more questions of St. Peter than the angel had of him.
For proof of my father’s sense of the sardonic, look no further than his own funeral service. To the chagrin of those officiating, the ceremony was liberally sprinkled with secular elements, including renditions of Frank Sinatra’s Blue Moon and I’ll See You Again, piped in from a tape deck in the church narthex, and a rousing chorus of Take Me Out to the Ballgame played by a most indulgent organist. My brother told the congregation in his eulogy. “As much as Dad would appreciate your being here, he would probably prefer that we were all at the ball game.”
Indeed, baseball was probably as much religion to him as that offered by any church. There was sanctity to the ball yard, a spiritually cleansing pace to the game. It was clear to him that because baseball was not ruled by the clock, and the dimensions were so exquisitely designed to test human reflexes, the game could only have been inspired by a higher force. With apologies on my father’s behalf to Abner Doubleday, man himself could not have concocted such a beautiful thing as baseball. And that, in a way, may be a profession of faith in itself.
Many people may be uncomfortable with the notion that with fathers and sons, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, particularly if the tree casts a complicated, unconventional shadow. I can only hope that in my case the notion is true. To have spent more than 40 years on this earth with Don Carlson is the most priceless gift. And isn’t it peculiarly human that only in retrospect does the true value of such things become clear.