Friday, June 29, 2012


My mother used to say that when I was born I didn’t cry; I coughed.

And I am alive today only because the company my father worked for provided health insurance.

She was overstating things only a little, because when I was born the umbilical cord was knotted around my neck so tightly I was actually not breathing at all. Had she waited to go to the hospital or had me at home because she was uninsured, I might not have survived. And because she wasn’t forced prematurely from the hospital with a newborn, and they soon discovered I had an enlarged heart.

That cough that finally did come and didn’t go away a few months later? The doctor came to our house, listened to my lungs and admitted me to the hospital with pneumonia.

At nine months, when she noticed something wrong with my eye, she didn’t have to wait to bring me to the doctor. A cyst was discovered and removed before causing permanent harm. I gave her a black eye when I hit her with the splints on my arms as I recovered.

For the first two years of my life, perhaps because of an immune system already weakened by birth trauma, I contracted every basic childhood illness, one after the other and sometimes simultaneously; chicken pox, measles, mumps, whooping cough, tonsillitis, bronchitis, and God knows what else. Unknown viruses swept through my body like wildfires. I would go to bed healthy and in the middle of the night my mother would check on me and body would feel so hot she would be afraid to take my temperature. My earliest memories (plural) are all of being bundled in blankets and being carried to the car by my father and then all of us, my parents and my older brother, racing to the hospital in the middle of the night or leaving early after overnight trips to my grandmother’s and stopping not at home first, but the hospital or the doctor’s office. I spent weeks swathed in mentholated oil and breathing humidified air, was fed ice chips like most kids get oatmeal, and my mother lost track of the times doctor’s told her “If the fever doesn’t break soon …”

But because I had health insurance, because they didn’t stop often to think if they could afford it, I always got to the doctor or the emergency room on time, always received the shot of antibiotics, the prescriptions, the around-the-clock care. It didn’t help that I was reckless and accident prone – falling through glass doors, down stairs, getting caught on barbed wire, nearly cutting off my thumb with a butcher knife, driving the staff of a small Fourth of July flag through the roof of my mouth, knocking out my front teeth on the dashboard when my father’s car was rear-ended while parked. When I stepped on a nail, received a tetanus shot and seemed to fall asleep on the ride home, my father didn’t hesitate. He shook me out of habit and when I didn’t awake he turned around and carried me into the emergency room. I was in a coma due to an allergic reaction, making all subsequent encounters with sharp objects (of which there were many, including more nails) problematic. Often the entire wound would have to be excised, cored like an apple to prevent infection.

Between the coughs, the pneumonia, the unexplained fevers that kept coming, the allergy to milk that waxed and waned, the bone disease, an arm broken and healed that we only discovered when we thought I had broken the other one, the weird hives I got after being immersed in cold water, what I remember most about school is leaving; field trips cut short leaving other students seething, visits to the nurse, vomiting in the hallway, searing headaches that made me cover my head and scream. Teachers became as adept as my mother at spotting my rapidly emerging maladies, banishing me from class and sequestering me on a cot in the office before I could infect the others as my fevers formed and began to rage, friends peeking around the door at me as if I were some alien, uncertain if I was contagious. What I remember most from my report cards are the absences; 23 days, 29 days, 18.5 days, 32. In sixth grade, after bouts with both pneumonia (which I eventually had six times that I am certain of), and mononucleosis, I peaked with a high of 47 or 48, something that gave me a curious sense of pride; I wasn’t just a sick kid; I was the sickest. All told, of my twelve years in primary and secondary school, I probably missed class about 15% of the time, something that I blame to this day for certain lapses of knowledge, like how electricity works.

Yet when I was not ill I was robust, all appetite and action, which must have made my periods of illness all the more frightening. Each hospitalization was ever more exotic. I was a course in pediatrics all by myself and younger doctors were often paraded in to examine my chart and poke and probe as if I were some new species. Old drugs stopped working and I was always being given new ones.

I should have been dead a dozen times, maybe more, and even with insurance I remember some nights seeing my mother with a stack of bills and my father sitting at a table and the worry over payment, for even insurance did not pay everything. We were not wealthy by any stretch, or even close; one car, one 600 or square foot house on a half acre plot in the cornfields, and once a year vacation – maybe - to see relatives, at least one of which I recall involving a trip to the hospital.

Yet I survived, and somehow, so did our family. Without insurance I doubt that either would have. I’d have died and my parents likely would have lost the house, filed for bankruptcy and fallen apart. But by high school the rate and severity of my illnesses and accidents began to wane, and as an adult – knock on wood – persistent health has replaced chronic infirmity. The baby born coughing has gone on to write and publish several million words and many books, jog a distant equivalent to the circumference of the earth, play a wide variety of sports as both a teenager and an adult and outlive both parents. A recent physical confirms I am more robust than most people my age. Apart from a brief time in my early twenties, when I was fortunate enough to remain well, I have had insurance, either through my own work or that of my wife, and have not often needed it. My own daughter, now sixteen, has enjoyed the good health I did not. But even she, at age seven, was seriously ill with a bout of necrotic pneumonia that ended up requiring nearly two weeks of hospitalization in two facilities, an ambulance transfer during a blizzard, and several surgical procedures.

Even then, insurance paid every cent of her treatment, which included the stint in the hospital that, had I been responsible would have left me bankrupt. More important, had we not had insurance and had to factor caution and cost over concern and waited perhaps one more day for her to get care, it would certainly have killed her.

I knew then how my parents must have felt, and how some parents might feel today.

Glenn Stout is the author and editor of more than eighty books.  For more information see

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Last Pitch

[Note: This column first appeared in Boston Baseball and was also reprinted here in June of 2010]

I can still remember the last pitch.

My father was a fan, but not a big fan. No one in my family was, but baseball grabbed me when I was only three or four and never let go. If it was too dark to play ball when my father got home from work I would have a fit, so he installed floodlights in the backyard. Then, no matter how tired he was from working a twelve or fourteen hour day in construction, we could still play ball.

Most of my memories of my father are somehow wrapped around a baseball - playing catch, him taking me to games or watching me pitch. It was the one way we really connected. But in high school I tore my rotator cuff and had to stop playing. We didn’t have as much to talk about after that.

Almost twenty years later my shoulder healed and I joined an adult league, one in Boston and later, another in Worcester County, where I then lived. For three or four years I was in both leagues and played forty, fifty games each summer, usually pitching and playing first or third.

I’d call home every week and for the first time since I was a kid my conversations with my father were wrapped around baseball again. I sent him the ball after I won my first game since I was sixteen years old, and a t-shirt I got for making the league all-star team. I was as proud of each as of any book I’ve ever written, and so was he.

In April of 1996, the week my daughter was born, Pop was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had ignored the symptoms for too long and his doctor told him he had a year to live, give or take a week , and to enjoy the time he had. That July he and my stepmother loaded up the RV and he came out for his final visit.

I had a ballgame, last of the year. I was new to my team and we were not very good and I had not been much help. We were playing a team that had already beaten us once and needed only to beat us again to make the playoffs.

Half our team didn’t even show up, but it was a beautiful summer Saturday morning and Soldier’s Field sparkled like a postcard, dew on the grass glinting in the sun. My dad and stepmother, my wife and baby daughter, my brother, and our neighbors and their kids all sat together in the bleachers, half the crowd.

Before the game our manager muttered “We’re gonna get killed today.” For the first few innings it appeared as if he were right. We played like we did not want to be there and were trailing 5 - 0 in the fourth when I led off with a line drive single. From the bleachers I could hear his voice again. “Alright!”

That’s the only thing my father ever said at a game - “Alright!” I was happy to get a hit and some sloppy baseball netted us a couple runs to make it respectable. But when our pitcher put a few guys on in the bottom of the inning it looked hopeless. My manager waved me over and even though I had pitched in Boston two days before and my arm was still sore and my legs were shot, I took the ball anyway, just like my father had gone into the backyard after working fourteen hours. I was his son. A pop-up, a strikeout and a groundball wrapped around a walk got us out of the inning.

Something happened. We started making impossible plays and improbable hits, rallying against one of the best pitchers in the league. I wiggled through the fifth and sixth, and in the bottom of the inning, down by one with runners on second and third, I bounced a single through the middle and now we led by a run and I needed only three outs for the win. “Alright!”

I had nothing but somehow got two outs and then, with runners on first and second, the batter hit a ground ball down the first base line. I sprinted over to field the ball and end the game.

It felt like someone hit the back of my leg with a ball peen hammer. I went down hard. The batter raced to first on an infield hit, loading the bases, as my hamstring started to hemorrhage.

I tried to stand and fell. I couldn’t throw another pitch.

I saw him sitting in the stands for the last time and I pulled myself up.

Limping to the rubber, using all arm and one leg, I somehow got the count to 3-2. With two outs, a one-run lead, the bases loaded and all the runners moving, I threw the last pitch my father would ever see me throw, a fastball down and away.

Another grounder to my left. I reacted, but I was too late. My first baseman ranged into the hole to make the play.

I lurched toward first, muscle fibers popping with each stride. He flipped the ball ahead of me. I could hear the baserunner coming down the line as the winning run tore around third toward home.

The throw was wide. I stretched out toward first base and reached out with my bare hand. My hamstring exploded and I snatched the throw from the air. My foot, then the runner’s, hit the base and I fell, holding the ball tight in my fist.



That afternoon I sat on my front porch with my father, drinking beer, a bag of ice under my thigh, talking about the game. He told me he was not surprised I had stayed in and that we had won, that I still played the game the way I always had, hard, just like he had taught me.

He meant it. After this one small miracle I wanted to think there would be another, but I knew better. The following spring, one week before my daughter’s first birthday, only a few days before opening day, Pop was gone.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Other Side of the Wall

The list of those who have played left field for the Red Sox and won respect for their ability to play balls hit off the left field wall begins with Duffy Lewis and includes other luminaries such as Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, and Jim Rice. Even lesser fielding lights such as Mike Greenwell and Manny Ramirez, otherwise unheralded for their defensive prowess, were surprisingly adept at playing balls off the wall.

There are, however, two sides to the left field wall. The list of those who have played the outside of the wall, the one that faces Lansdowne Street, is much, much smaller.

I think I’m the only one on it.

For nine years running, from 1983 thru 1991, I celebrated Opening Day at Fenway Park by donning an old baseball uniform, consuming a copious amount of “Baseball Marys” and, standing outside the leftfield wall with a Pignose amplifier and a microphone, I recited baseball inspired poetry to mystified early arrivals. When I began I was just a few years out of college looking for a way to combine my two favorite pastimes, baseball and poetry. When I stopped nine years later I was a published author.

In my recent book, Fenway 1912, I contend that Fenway Park is a place that can change your life. That’s not hyperbole, but because in my case, it was true. Playing the outside of the left field wall had a lot to do with how I made the change from “wanting to write” to becoming a writer.

Part of why it was true was the people I met out there – Bill Littlefield, George Kimball, Rick Dunfey, and others – all of whom later played some role in my transition. More importantly, however,standing outside that wall and speaking poetry to the face of baseball made me whole and complete. For the first time the two most important aspects of my life were able to co-exist. Not always easily, mind you. Some people laughed and some threatened to punch me in the face, but a handful dropped coins at my feet and a surprising number stopped and listened, and made me want to come back.

For a few short hours, mixing words and baseball, I was right where I was supposed to be. In these pages each month, and those of Fenway 1912, I still am.

[This essay first appeared in the June 2012 edition of Boston Baseball.  Glenn Stout is the author of Fenway 1912, the only book to ever be awarded both the Seymour Medal and the Larry Ritter Award by the Society for American Baseball Research.]

Thursday, June 7, 2012


Baseball has entered the era of the entitled.

While the game has never really been rooted in the agrarian utopia of its mythology, for much of its existence the game has been relatively blind to class and status. Although the organized professional game was long segregated by race, and women have always had to fight their way onto the field, for its traditional male constituency the game has generally been remarkably democratic; apart from its first few years of existence, you didn’t need to be either rich or privileged to play. The game was played in nearly every available space and the usual pathway to professional baseball, black or white, began in unorganized, pickup games in the sandlots and fields and empty lots of childhood. Players then meandered through a variety of more organized teams sponsored by schools or towns or the local hardware store before the most promising were identified as prospects in adolescence and then provided the opportunity to play for money. It did not matter whether one was raised as an urban street urchin like Babe Ruth, in a small town like Jim Rice, a suburb like Roger Clemens, a potato farm like Carl Yastrzemski or attended a university like Harry Hooper. Talent was far more important than background. A curve ball didn’t care who your parents were, where they were from or how much money they made; the game was the great equalizer.

But not anymore. In the United States the game is more and more a sport for the 1%, the rich and privileged. Long before the game itself sorts out the talent, the dollar already has. The weeding out of the other 99% is done on geographic and economic boundaries long before a kid even has a chance to pick up a ball. Since the game is not played much anymore on an unorganized basis (for reasons both basic and complicated), a boy without access to youth baseball is generally called out before he ever has a chance even to decide if he wants to play. In my rural town there is no longer a baseball program and the door closed before it is opened. Sadly, that is the plight of much of rural America, a condition which, along with abject poverty, is shared with many in our more urban neighborhoods where there are likewise few opportunities to play. The most talented athletes play something else or succumb to the tedium of the television or the streets.

For young people today baseball is almost entirely a suburban phenomenon, and even on those manicured fields the separating of the wheat from the chaff begins at an early age. There are travel teams for kids as young as eight or nine, and select squads that play nearly year around and cost parents many thousands of dollars in travel, equipment and league fees, not to mention wear and tear on the family dynamic. There is nothing very democratic about that, as talented but less well off kids are generally abandoned and squeezed out by their more well-heeled teammates. By the time a player reaches high school if he has not been plucked to play on several of these select, private travel teams, the chances of playing professionally, earning or earning a college scholarship are as remote as winning American Idol. The player who has a chance to play 100 or 150 games a year has a far better chance to improve and be seen than the kid who does not.

The kids who get drafted into professional baseball now are primarily the privileged, the select of the selects, the ones who have been told they are special and driven around and put up in hotels for tournaments and provided their own batting practice pitchers and pitching coaches since the age of ten. As a result by the time they reach the major leagues these young phenoms have been so cut off from reality for so long they have no idea that much of their success has come, not from within, but as a result of their station in life.

Maybe that’s why too many of them act so bored and blasé, blowing off the fans and media, hitting the links, and hiding behind the tinted glass of their Escalades and the velvet ropes the rest of us never even see, much less cross.

And then they wonder why we boo.

[This essay originally in Boston Baseball in June of 2012]

Monday, June 4, 2012

Autopsy of Writing

One of the best things about being a writer is that when you are in the midst of writing you are transported to another place, the setting and experiences of whatever you are writing about.  For much of my non-fiction writing career, this has been a rather benign and pleasant process; I have been in Fenway Park at the moment of its birth, alongside Jackie Robinson on his first day in the major leagues, in the water with Trudy Ederle as she swam the English Channel and proved for all time that women were at least the physical equal of men.’

Yet it is not always pleasurable.  Sometimes the act of writing requires inhabiting experiences that can range from the merely uncomfortable to the truly unpleasant, disturbing and actually painful.  A number of years ago I had the good fortune to write a book with two construction workers, Charlie Vitchers and Bobby Gray, who helped spearhead the cleanup of the world trade center, resulting in the book Nine Months at Ground Zero.  Over the course of seventy-plus hours of interviews with these two men, and many times that going over the transcripts and crafting a narrative from their words, in some ways I spent my own nine months at Ground Zero.  By the end of that project I dreams of events I never personally witnessed dominated my nights, and I even developed a physical reaction to the stress of the experience that still occasionally afflicts me to this day.  But it was worth it.  Not only did I have the opportunity to translate that experience and deliver it to others, but I gained an insight and perspective about the experience that has been available to very few others who were not actually on site, and for that I will forever be grateful.  Any personal disturbance was more than worth it, and paled against the impact the experience had for those who were actually there

Almost four years ago, I was introduced to Dr. John Parrish, a veteran of the Vietnam War who spent 366 days in Vietnam serving as a doctor.  A few years after that experience, Doctor Parrish wrote a memorable and potent memoir, 12, 20 & 5, about his experience, still one of the most potent of all Vietnam memoirs.

But that was not the end of his story.  Over the next forty plus year, as Dr. Parrish reached the pinnacle of success in his field as one of the foremost dermatologists in the world, his Vietnam experience continued and affected every instant of his life.

I was introduced to John because of my experience working with the difficult material of Nine Months at Ground Zero and for the way I was able to connect with and communicate with my co-authors.  Since publishing his first book Dr. Parrish had been trying to re-write his first book, to try to better capture his experience.  Unfortunately he had been unable to escape the powerful vortex of his initial experience to translate or process the meaning of the ensuing forty years.

I met John through 400 pages of some of the most visceral writing I have ever read.  Over the next year we spoke and met many times and together we envisioned the book John wanted and needed to do NOW – a book that told the story of his war experience in the context of the remainder of this life, a book that showed that wars do not end but become a part of a soldiers’ ongoing life, sometimes re-emerging unwelcome and unexpectedly, with impacts that could not have been anticipated.    

Over the next two years I was given the task to help John turn those searing but diffuse pages of manuscript into a coherent narrative, using some of it, discarding other parts, determining where he need to reveal more, teasing and cajoling and sometimes dragging and prying those stories from him in ways that were not always pleasant or welcome, but were always recognized as necessary. Along the way, as in the Nine Months at Ground Zero, I was invited to experience a most intimate and private place, where John has lived for the past forty years, a place that is both painful and unpleasant, but also a place of redemption and release.  And like that earlier project, I have found myself taken to another world and another place and another time, in some ways experiencing a war I never fought.  It is my hope that some of this translated to the reader, but I realize that some of it is so profound and so much beyond words that will forever be mine alone

That book, John Parrish’s Autopsy of War, will be published on June 5.  Its’ focus, loosely speaking,  is John’s forty-year struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a subject with obvious resonance in an era in which our soldiers are sent on multiple combat tours and return home to little support.

Although John graciously refers to me as co-author in his acknowledgements, I do not share cover credit in the book.  It is very much his book, and his words, and not mine.  At best I served as a guide to the book writing process, providing the usually gentle organizing principle to his considerable energy and insight, and was privileged to have gained the trust he has withheld from so many others in his life.  The result, I think, is both unlike anything else I have ever read and so necessary to these times, because in Autopsy of War John Parrish tells a story that is both necessary and timely.  In an era in which soldiers return from war every day damaged in  ways that may not be apparent for decades, Doctor Parrish’s survival and testimony is more than essential; it is mandatory if we are ever to learn to understand and avoid the carnage that war entails, and evolve a more human reponse.

I urge you to read it.