In a wondrous poem called “An Ancient to Ancients,” Thomas Hardy wrote of “the thinning of our ranks each year.” What Hardy knew continues in our time.
Pee Wee Reese, the great shortstop and champion of integration of the Major Leagues. Ring Lardner Jr., so quietly heroic. Woodie Broun . . . was there ever a more congenial gentleman? And now Casper. I’m reminded of lines Grantland Rice addressed to Charon, the ferryman on the River Styx: “Why do you always look my way? Why do you take my friends?”
But we are not here for a dirge but for a celebration of a most extraordinary life. I’m sure others can recall Casper at his cultural landmark, the Algonquin. Casper the cultural landmark at a cultural landmark. Myself, I’m concentrating on Casper at the Bat.
Forty years ago we played tough fast-pitch softball usually against each other, on a splendid green and brown and white ball field in East Hampton. At 10 o’clock on Sunday morning the church bells rang and our doubleheader began. Eli Wallach played and perspired into my favorite glove, ruining it. Cy Rembar played a first-class shortstop. A local laundromat person, Buna O’Connor, threw with a major league arm. We did not have set teams. That would have been dangerous. Competition was ferocious and we agreed that each Sunday morning we’d choose up sides, the way children do. The same softball teams week after week would have led to fist fights.
Casper liked to play third base. He did not have the greatest hands on earth, but no third baseman—Cox, Robinson, Nettles—ever faced drives more bravely. Casper stopped many with his glove. He stopped just as many with his chest and gut and forehead. If you catch the sense that Casper was a competitor, you get my drift.
One Sunday, for forgotten reasons, third baseman Citron had to play left field. Casper was not only a talk-show host, he was a talky ball player, always chatting in a way designed to make you lose your concentration. He’d get you mad. You’d over swing. Pop up to short. On this one afternoon when he was way out in left, he had to holler to be heard. Casper hollered. I came up with winning runs on base and I heard from Casper, “I’m playing this guy shallow. He can’t hit one over my head.” A pitch I never saw before or since came in—a perfect pitch to hammer—and on this one occasion I had a hammer. I was into my best home-run lope, rounding second base when I thought, “Where is everybody? The fans, the gorgeous girls, my cheering team mates?”
Everybody was rushing out to left. To prove that I couldn’t hit a ball over his head, Casper had jumped to the planet Pluto. Landing, he ruptured a mess of blood vessels in one leg. Painful sounds followed. Rather than cheer my hit, my whole team and the gorgeous girls turned themselves into paramedics. Forever after I’d say to Casper, “You owe me one moment of glory.” “Fine,” he said, come down and do my show.”
We did a bunch, but the one I remember most vividly was the last one. I was staggering through a book tour and I showed up sleepless and dull. “Were you at the greatest game in Ebbets Field?” he asked me.
“Which one was that?”
“Don’t you know?”
“Er-um, Jackie Robinson’s debut?”
“Wrong. I was there. It was the night Johnny Vander Meer threw his second consecutive no-hitter.” That was, I can tell you, June 15, 1938. I looked it up.
The moral, I suppose, is never do a Casper Citron Show when not fully awake. His great intelligence demanded no less.
If there is a great baseball diamond in the sky, as spring comes, Casper is trotting out to play third base. He’s being welcomed now by Pee Wee, Ring and Woodie. Casper would like that very much. He loved good company and he was good company.
Hail and farewell.
—Roger Kahn, given at the celebration of Casper Citron’s life at The Historical Society May 10, 2002 Courtesy of Christiane Hyde Citron
This year’s Artists & Writers Game on Saturday, August 20 at Herrick Park in East Hampton. Batting practice starts at noon and the first pitch goes out at 2 p.m.
Visit artistswritersgame.org for more info.