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1944: The Boys Of a Wartime Spring

FROM the upper deck on Briggs Stadium's third-base side, we watched the men in uniform move out onto the field for the start of the baseball game.

``Who are the men in black?'' asked George Piatrowsko, teasingly. I didn't know. ``Priests?'' volunteered Don Szymkowicz.

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The older boys laughed. It was funny then as it is funny now.

For all of us, this was our first baseball game. It was 1944, the Detroit Tigers against the Boston Red Sox. Rudy York was finishing his last year with the team.

We had earned the tickets by filling the Muirs' two-car garage to the rafters with newspapers we'd collected within a half-mile radius of our Detroit neighborhood. A truck came and hauled the papers away. The tickets arrived in the mail. It was part of the war effort. We were always collecting things: scrap metal, canned goods, clothing. We bought stamps. We practiced air-raid drills in the evenings - lights out when the sirens blared.

We had taken the Seven Mile bus and the Woodward streetcar to the downtown site of Briggs Stadium. The space was enormous, the field acutely green, the activity stylized almost to the point of ritual.

``To know baseball is to continue to aspire to the condition of freedom,'' wrote A. Bartlett Giamatti, the late Yale president and baseball commissioner. ``Baseball is part of America's plot, part of America's mysterious, underlying design.... Our national plot is to be free enough to consent to an order that will enhance and compound - as it constrains - our freedom. That is our grounding, our national story, the tale America tells the world.''

Our group had been born during the Depression. Our stadium, our ordered universe, was our neighborhood. Baseball was but one seasonal engagement - along with green-peach fights, dock on the rock, treehouse building, bike hikes, homemade-kite flying, rafting in swamps, and clambering atop the huge scoops and equipment in industrial yards that were protected by mastiffs.

There were almost 60 of us, if the girls were counted. Donny and I were the youngest, but we always got to play because when sides were chosen we made an even match.

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What was the myth of that generation? What did our sports say about who we were? ``Much of what we love later in a sport is what it recalls to us about ourselves at our earliest,'' writes Giamatti. ``They are memories of our best hopes.''

Our fathers did not take us to games. It was a serious time. We cleared our own fields for games, used rocks for bases, and pooled what equipment we had. We invented our world.

The myth of that time was war, not sports. Our uniformed heroes were the Seabees, marines, infantrymen. The mirror at Jack's barbershop was festooned with photos of young men in military gear. A rush of excitement swept through the congregation whenever a young soldier on leave revisited his church. The United States flag meant more than any sport franchise pennant.

The freedom quest played out in baseball, too: Jackie Robinson would break the color bar in 1947.

The war did end. Most of the soldiers returned. And society radically changed. With the GI Bill the veterans could go to college. Automobile production resumed and women took to driving. Low mortgage rates led to the spate of family formations and suburbanization that created the '60s generation.

On April 10, 1968, I took two of my youngsters to our only game, the season opener at what was now named Tiger Stadium. The Red Sox won 7 to 3, although the Tigers went on to win the World Series. The Vietnam War was creating turbulence in society. Detroit was settling into a racial depression from riots.

Giamatti meditates on home base, the resting point of the diamond, in ``Take Time for Paradise'': ``So home drew Odysseus, who then set off again because it is not necessary to be in a specific place, in a house or town, to be one who has gone home. So home is the goal - rarely glimpsed, almost never attained - of all the heroes descended from Odysseus.''

The diamond symbolizes permanence, ``home'' a return to familiar relations, the game a season for setting things aright.

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