By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Sept. 20, 2022) — Jason Love has written an entertaining book filled with an abundant amount of fascinating facts, rich anecdotes, and fun tales about players, endearing personalities and traditions that have shaped baseball in America for decades.
“Slices of Americana: A Road Trip Through American Baseball History,” published in June 2021 by Sunbury Press, is 132 pages. Indeed, Love didn’t set out to write “War and Peace,” “David Copperfield” or another generation’s epic, but he deftly packs a lot of variety and thematic highlights into the book’s seven chapters: Babe Ruth, Cooperstown, Little League, Judy Johnson, Father’s Day, Lollygagging in North Carolina and Opening Day.
Love’s approach, both light-hearted and the essence of passionate fandom, shines through in his juxtaposed elements — the here and now during his road trip contrasted with sights, sounds and smells that remind him of something from his past or American baseball history. A keen observer and a sentimental storyteller, with a sincere appreciation for baseball culture everywhere and anywhere in his homeland, Love found the proper foundational structure for his book. In the preface, he writes, “(Each chapter) touches upon a certain aspect of America’s pastime.”
With that in mind, he weaves in stories about Negro League baseball, Little League baseball, Minor League baseball (including the Tobacco State League), Father’s Day, Joy of Opening Day and trips to Waffle House.
Waffle House is showcased as a family (and cultural) touchstone in the book. Road trips aren’t complete without a visit to Waffle House. Exhibit A: A stop for breakfast at Waffle House off I-95 in Elkton, Maryland. And as the book moves from this trek to the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore (Dec. 26-27, 2019), to later journeys in 2020, to-go only orders become part of Love’s ritual, often with his children, Delia, Sophia and Ian, along for the ride and the reality of COVID-19 restrictions impacting their activities.
Before the global pandemic changed everyday life in America, Love traveled to Cooperstown, New York, to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum with his son. Over two days in early February 2020, Love’s quest for baseball knowledge and enjoyment of its history gave him ample material to jot down in this chapter. Included in his reportorial summary: The Hall of Fame library has “a file on every single player who has appeared in a Major League Baseball game.” Good details.
Readers also learn about the Hall of Fame’s Shoebox Treasures exhibit for baseball cards, a remarkable collection spanning 700 square feet.
And Mariano Rivera’s Hall of Fame induction in July 2019 still seemed like it just happened when one usher commented to Love about the tranquil village of Cooperstown teeming with people for Hall of Fame weekend, telling him locals were asking out-of-towners to shell out $40 to park a vehicle on their lawns.
With a humble approach, Love portrays himself as a regular guy with working-class roots and a genuine appreciation for simplicity in his life, including during his trip to Cooperstown. This makes him a likable character/narrator. And after one activity-filled day, the author admits relaxation was a top priority.
“Sometimes, just spending time with family and friends in a low-key way is more enjoyable than running around Disney World or standing in line at a buffet on a cruise ship,” Love writes. “It’s the simple things. I had a few beers in the room while Ian scrolled through whatever kids scroll through on his phone. Outside, the ground was covered in a blanket of snow.”
As the book finds its rhythm and progresses from Cooperstown tales to Little League history, Love reminds us again of his appreciation for baseball history, tracing the formation of Little League Baseball in 1939 (with three teams) in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. One of the players on one of those teams, Lycoming Dairy, would make pro baseball history. Who? Allen “Sonny” Yearick, a catcher in 1938 who spent four years in the minors in the Boston Braves farm system, becoming the first former Little Leaguer to do so.
In addition to plenty of info on Little League Baseball, Love gives a quick intro to American Legion Ball, established in 1925 as the nation’s original youth baseball organization. He name-drops future MLB stars who were American League alumni: Yogi Berra, Ted Williams, Frank Robinson and Dusty Baker.
The reality of the coronavirus’ impact in 2020 pops up again in the Judy Johnson chapter, which highlights not only the legendary Negro League third baseman (1921-37), but also the widespread closure of countless public places.
During his May visit to Delaware, not far from his New Jersey residence, Love observes, “In 2020 Major League Baseball was scheduled to have various events to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Negro League Baseball. Unfortunately, with COVID-19, Major League Baseball was essentially shut down for the fans to visit the ballparks. Even the Negro League Baseball Museum had to shut down on March 14, 2020, due to the coronavirus.”
But Love and his children still take a road trip to Wilmington, Delaware, and saw the Judy Johnson statue in front of Frawley Stadium, home of the Carolina League’s Wilmington Blue Rocks. The entire minor league season was canceled due to COVID-19. So part of Love’s quest for adventure involved finding where Johnson lived from 1934-89 in a suburban neighborhood. Mission accomplished. Photos were snapped outside the home.
Was it a cathartic experience while coping with the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic?
It seems to have been. Visiting Waffle House in neighboring Maryland, too, even with the COVID-19 restrictions.
“Delia, Ian, and I ate our Waffle House food in the parking lot,” Love writes. “The food was good, but it just wasn’t the same. The restaurant was next to a gas station. Not exactly great ambiance. We watched trucks and cars pull in to fill up on gas. In New Jersey, we are used to a gas attendant coming out to the car to fill up the gas tank. I believe the Garden State is the only one where people cannot pump their own gas. Part of the fun in eating inside the Waffle House is watching the waitresses and cooks manage 20 different orders. They are like magicians. I do not know how they juggle all the different orders, serve the food so quickly, manage the register and all with a smile.”
Again: This isn’t a strictly nuts and bolts sports book, though there are plenty of eye-popping statistics and descriptions of great players’ achievements, including Catfish Hunter, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Gaylord Perry.
Love’s descriptions of the enjoyment of (and joy from) participating in baseball-related activities with his son are some of the book’s best passages.
For example, their Father’s Day visit to FirstEnergy Stadium in Reading, Pennsylvania, where the Reading Fighting Phils, Double-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies play their home games. But not in 2020 with the season called off. Still, the Reading franchise played a part in providing positive vibes for ballpark visitors on the day of the Loves’ visit. A maximum number of 250 people would be permitted to enter the park.
“Families streamed in and took in the feeling of being back inside a ballpark for the first time this year,” Love observes. “A few of the regulars greeted the employees. One could tell that many people were season ticket holders or attended several games per year. This proves the point how minor league teams are a large part of the community.”
Adds Love: “Ian and I headed to the outfield, which had the most space. Like in the movie Field of Dreams, fathers and sons (and quite a few daughters) enjoyed the sunshine, blue skies and had a catch at the ballpark. It was just nice to be outside after the longest winters (and a just as long spring). The electronic billboard flashed a ‘Happy Father’s Day’ message, and music was piped in through the sound system. We threw the ball back and forth for about 20 minutes or so and soaked up the positive energy.”
Baseball history shines through in “Slices of Americana,” with many interesting asides enhancing the overall structure of the book.