Saturday, May 24, 2014

Roy's Rat Pack

Pre-word: I mentioned Roy Baker in my May 22 piece ("Bests and Wursts") as the smartest person I have ever met. Truth be told: He was much more than that. Ergo, today's essay on this indelibly memorable man.

Roy Baker was too young to have been my dad, too old to have been my friend back in the day. The day of cookouts in our backyard—which could foment at a moment's notice. Charcoal, Old Spice and Rheingold in the air. Is it possible that every such day was sunny at the Holleran Manse? I think so.

Roy would be there, the quietest of the bunch. His niece, Alice, was in my class at St. Ann's. Seventeen years older than I, Roy was still a grown-up.

I didn't truly get to know him until years later, down at The Sons of Sweden, where he would occasionally tend bar. I was off the road and between marriages. Roy had been through the service, a career in insurance and a marriage that produced three daughters.

For some reason, the same group of us—with a revolving cast of characters—would convene at The Holy Rail on Tuesday nights, when Roy usually had the stick. Forget the apricot flips, peach bloom fizzes and all those cotton-candy libations. Shots and beers were the fare.

And what a cast! Dinky, Tweezer, Digger, Caz, Dicky Pizza, Iodine—plus various and sundry Avenue denizens who would saunter into "The Black Hole," as we had renamed the club. Finally, one night as a clot of us shoehorned into the bar, Roy said, "Look out. Here comes The Rat Pack." Said sobriquet stuck. And stuck good.

In essence, Roy was more of a referee than a mixologist. For the debates would rage: music, sports, politics, Black Rock legends and some really deep trivia. One of my favorites was the 50 Home Run Club (there was an august group of baseballers who had accomplished this in a single season). Mind you, this was before the list became distended with SterRod types who were shooting up liquid Pledge and gobbling equine tranks the size of Milk Duds.

We'd launch our spitballs. First, the usual suspects: Maris, Mantle, Mays. Ruth, Kiner, Greenberg. Then the outsiders: George Foster, Jimmie Foxx.

One of us would say, "C'mon, there's gotta be one more."

"Hank Aaron." Nope.

"Lou Gehrig." Ixnay.

Then the inevitable would come. The Rat Pack would dummy up like an EF Hutton spot. We'd all turn to Roy, who'd be washing a glass or making change.

He would say, ever so quietly, "I think it was Johnny Mize." Bullshit. Roy knew it was Mize (who did it for the Jints in '47). He would just never blurt it out. Ever. That wasn't Roy Baker.

One time, an outsider wanted to consult a copy of The Baseball Encyclopedia ("The Bible," as we called it) that was well-secreted behind the bar. He got a big stare-down from the Pack. Iodine snarled, "What the [deleted] do we need The Bible for? We've got Uncle Roy." QED.

And his knowledge wasn't limited to sports—even though we learned he had skipped class in high school to go to the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951 and witnessed perhaps the most storied home run in baseball history as Bobby Thomson cannoned a Ralph Branca fastball into the Manhattan gloaming.

Aside from rock 'n roll, there wasn't too much Roy couldn't cover with his fecund acres of knowledge. If we were at the club for Jeopardy, most of the crew would blurt out answers. Perhaps two or three times per show, we'd look to Roy, who would barely whisper, "Admiral William Halsey" or "Des Moines, Iowa."

My favorite times would be later in the evening, after most of the Rat Pack had melted away. Sometimes, at closing, Roy would say, "Hey, Tim. Why don't you stay and help me close up?" I would jump at the opportunity.

And, yes, we would bat it around. Big time. Virtually no tome was unstirred: opera, classical music, history, geography. Stuff that would have given Alex Trebek apoplexy. And we swung for the fences. He would rarely allow vignettes from his own life. And I learned—with each session—a new strain of admiration for this wonderful man.

Maybe we'd even have a second dram ("It would be a shame if we didn't," Roy would say.). And that would be it.

But—no word of a lie—it wasn't Roy's knowledge that soaked into me as much as his self-effacing manner. He would demur demurely, never bragging, but without false modesty.

Funny part is, I never saw Roy socially unless we happened to run into each other. I talked to him only once on the phone in his later years as his health began to waver.

He fathered three beautiful—and wise, of course—daughters. Caz had a crush on one of them; myself on another. Cazzie was cautious about asking a fabulous Baker girl on a date.

"She's Roy's daughter!" he'd argue when we pushed him. This was a measure of how much we respected him.

Roy Baker passed on June 19, 2009. Rat Packers carried his coffin. I was asked, but had to refuse due to caring for my son.

I have no doubt that no other person's coil-shuffling (other than my parents') has affected me more deeply, more achingly than Roy's. I am not ashamed to be reaching for Kleenex as I write.

Some people have friends, soulmates, mentors, Svengalis, gurus.

Roy Baker was my hero.

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