Memoir Tells Story of 'Madness and Baseball' Author Nicholas Dawidoff has written a newly published memoir, The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness and Baseball. He talks about his fondness for listening to Boston Red Sox games and about his father's struggle with mental illness.
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Memoir Tells Story of 'Madness and Baseball'

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Memoir Tells Story of 'Madness and Baseball'

Memoir Tells Story of 'Madness and Baseball'

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It's getting to be that time of year again when young men and women who should be doing homework or at least pretending to listen to baseball games on the radio.

Nicholas Dawidoff, who grew up in the New Haven of the 1970s or, as he puts it, in a city of dying elms called the Elm City on a street with no willows called Willow Street, listened to the Boston Red Sox games

Nicholas Dawidoff, a Pulitzer-Prize finalist for his book, "The Fly Swatter" and currently the Anschutz Distinguished Fellow at Princeton University, remembers those days in his memoir, "The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness and Baseball." He joins us from New York.

Mr. Dawidoff, set the scene for us, please.

Mr. NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF (Author, "The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness and Baseball"): Yes, well, every night when I did my homework, I'd spread my books out on the bed, and then I would turn on the baseball game, and I would listen to it, and it would be sort of the great joy of my day, and it was also a great comfort in lots of ways because I grew up in an apartment in New Haven in which there was only my mother and my sister.

So there were no men in our house, and the wonderful, beautiful voice of the Boston Red Sox announcer describing the heroic adventures of these great men, the Boston Red Sox baseball players, it was incredibly comforting and also exciting simultaneously because you could easily imagine that these people who are so good at baseball and brought so much happiness to you because of their athletic skill also somehow were good at everything.

And I felt, I suppose, a manufactured closeness to them. They were, in some ways, the men in the house.

SIMON: Let me get you to read a section from the book where you remember your young self sitting, listening to baseball games.

Mr. DAWIDOFF: Okay. The radio was to my left on the night table, and as I did my homework, the team broadcaster, Ned Martin, said: Welcome to Fenway Park in Boston. And right then, a part of me zoomed down the I-91 Highway entrance and lifted out of New Haven.

Martin and his commentating partner would discuss the game to come, building the anticipation until Martin cried here come the Red Sox, as he introduced the players position by position - Jim Rice, left field; Fred Lynn, center field. It was like having the cast of characters read aloud to you from the beginning of a Russian novel.

All quieted as the crowd rose to listen while an organist played the national anthem, and I stood, too, put my hand to my heart, and with no flag in the room to gaze upon, instead stared fixedly at a red, white and blue book spine on my shelf for the duration of the song.

My mother began to come in and watch me standing there in still, patriotic tribute. At first, I wished she would just leave me alone, but over time, I began to like her observance of my observance, and when the door didn't open, I'd reach toward the radio and raise the volume to let her know she was missing the anthem.

SIMON: All of your childhood, dare I say your life, has been dominated by the shadow of your father's illness.

Mr. DAWIDOFF: Well, I would say that's true in some ways. I mean, my father was severely mentally ill, and this was a great tragedy for him because he was a man of real promise who was struck down by something which, as a child, I didn't really understand.

So in some ways, certainly it was a shadow. You never really knew what was going to happen, and you felt like you were getting maybe only half of what life had to offer from a parent.

SIMON: Could I get you to tell the story about a Thanksgiving when your father showed up in costume?

Mr. DAWIDOFF: Yeah, although the thing is that with anybody who's really sick, they don't know that it's costume. The problem is, with my father and with anybody who suffers this kind of disease, that you never know what they know to be real.

I used to spend Thanksgivings in New York with my father's side of the family, and there was a day when he arrived, and he was dressed as though he was a rabbi, but he was carrying a Christian Bible, and very quickly he became incoherent, and holidays are always particularly hard for people like that, who are lonely and suffering, and I would say from right before Thanksgiving through New Year's Day, my father was at his worst.

And it was horrible to see him that way, and it was also, I have to say, excruciating for many of us to be around him.

SIMON: You are assiduous about writing, though. I think your phrase, which I much admired, was something like that the pain he caused you could never keep pace with the pain that he felt.

Mr. DAWIDOFF: That's definitely true. You know, one of the reasons that I began writing on this subject is because when I was a kid, I really had no clear idea what was going on with my dad. I knew that something was very, very wrong, and I was frightened, but I was also unsure of what it was, and that was a time in America where people didn't much talk about mental illness. Certainly, that was true in our family, too.

There was a conspicuous effort in our family to sort of take care of him as much as possible because he was a man who couldn't take care of himself.

SIMON: Your father died when he was 65. You say here that you - now that you're grown, you have an appreciation of the courage it took for him to get there that maybe you lacked when you were a youngster.

Mr. DAWIDOFF: That's definitely true. The older I get, the more admiration I have for my father's fortitude. Anybody who struggles with a terrible disease and keeps on is someone whose determination and whose diligence we can admire.

But when it's a terrible disease that nobody can see, that really isn't talked about much in his time and is something that creates a great fear and a great horror in most of the people who you're close to and who ultimately makes you unable, really, to be close to anybody, that you keep a sense of optimism, as my father did, I find both heartbreaking and truly admirable.

It's - you know, when my father was - my father was the first son in his family, the first child and the first son, and he was first-generation American on one side of his family, and he went to Harvard, where he became one of the stars of the Harvard lacrosse team, and it wasn't that he was a great athlete, it was that he tried harder than everybody else.

At the end of the day, everybody else would be taking a shower. My father would be out on the field running extra laps until, you know, until nightfall, and I think of that in a sort of metaphorical way, too, for how he spent his life.

As his life darkened and darkened, he was still out there, trying and trying to make something more of himself, and while he was, really because of his disease, an impossible person to be around, as I look back on him and whatever distance there was created the opportunity to really have a great admiration for his lifelong determination against something that was a truly, truly horrible plague.

SIMON: Nicholas Dawidoff. His new memoir is "The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness and Baseball." Thanks so much.

Mr. DAWIDOFF: Thank you. It was nice to talk with you.

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