Two of a Kind

Will Clemens

For most of the 1970s, we lived in a newly built, two-story townhome in Fairborn, Ohio, sixty miles northeast of Cincinnati. While any given Revolutionary War buff would salute the three-bedroom townhome in the style of the red brick buildings on Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg, a post-colonialist would razz its design amid other Colonial-style townhomes on Charleston Court, Georgetown Court, and Monticello Drive. But where we lived was not altogether Colonial retro. Our detached, two-car garage, for instance, had an electric, remote-controlled door (an invention beyond even Ben Franklin’s imagination), and our family car was a cream-colored, 1976 Plymouth Volaré wagon with simulated woodgrain on its exterior side panels—a zeitgeist like the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser in That ’70s Show. For the year we Americans celebrated the Bicentennial, that Plymouth model was, believe it or not, Motor Trend Car of the Year.

As the summer of ’77 gave way to fall in the only city in the world named Fairborn, my parents were in their early forties, Dad an assistant professor of geography at Wright State University, Mom the learning disabilities tutor at Black Lane Elementary School. About a month into the first grade at Black Lane, I was looking forward to staying up late to watch the World Series on our color TV. But for the first time in three years, my favorite team was not in the series. I had been inspired to tee-ball stardom in part by the Big Red Machine’s back-to-back World Series wins and the comic convergence of Michael Ritchie’s The Bad News Bears. Chris Barnes played Tanner Boyle, the Bears’ raucous shortstop with a Napoleon complex. I was peaceable and tall (for my age) yet identified with Tanner because of his long blond hair and esprit de corps. The summer of ’77, my first season in tee-ball, I batted cleanup and went errorless for my team, whose only name was that of its sponsor, Handyman Hardware.

On a Saturday afternoon in mid-October, we boarded the Plymouth, Dad at the wheel, Mom in the passenger seat, I on the backseat bench holding a new baseball, Ed Bruce’s “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys” on the car radio. We turned left onto Normandy Drive, right onto Stoneybrook Trail, left onto Armstrong Road, headed west along farmland, turned left onto Black Lane, and drove south past the school into the Rona Hills subdivision. As we wound our way through Rona Hills toward Yellow Springs-Fairfield Road, Bruce’s song ended, and Tammy Wynette’s “Kids Say the Darndest Things” began. In the driveway at the Wimsatts’ three-bedroom ranch-style home, Dad put the Plymouth in park, and I gripped my baseball with anticipation.

Curt Wimsatt, my best friend from Black Lane, raced out of the house to our car. He opened one of the cream-colored, faux wood-paneled doors and slid onto the backseat beside me. His mother, Rosie, waved goodbye from the doorway. Curt had freckles and brown hair, but he was also sporting a sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers and gripping his own new baseball, white with red stitching, like the uniforms of our favorite team.

After we arrived at Tatone Buick, just north of downtown Fairborn, next to where State Route 235 abuts Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, we walked into the dealership, where a long line awaited. Several other grade-school boys with ants in their pants were in front of us. Curt and I craned our necks and stood on the tips of our toes to see the Binger Banger seated at a table on a small stage at the front of the line. About fifteen minutes passed—and there we were, looking across the table at our hero in a dress shirt and sport coat. A stack of duplicate, postcard-sized glossy black-and-white photographs of him from the waist up, dressed in his Reds’ home uniform, number 5, stood about two inches high on the table.

“Boys, I see you got some baseballs,” he said with a drawl that I recognized from westerns.

Curt and I nodded, speechless, starstruck.

“You want me to sign ’em?”

“Yes, sir,” we said in unison.

The homer banger from Binger, Oklahoma, took the baseballs one after the other in his lion’s paw. I thought of that famous photo that shows him holding up seven baseballs in just one of his hands. I wondered how a paw that size could fit in a catcher’s mitt.

Curt and I each collected a baseball and a photo autographed by the player whom we knew, mostly from Topps baseball cards, as the 1968 National League Rookie of the Year, 1970 and ’72 NL Most Valuable Player, ten-time All-Star, nine-time Gold Glove Award-winner, and back-to-back World Series Champion with the Reds.

A man, who looked like superstar singer-songwriter Neil Diamond, ushered us from the table and stage. But Curt’s attention turned to a well-dressed, young blonde woman standing next to a new, red Buick there on the showroom floor. Curt asked me if I thought she looked like Jill from Charlie’s Angels. The Neil Diamond lookalike overheard. “She’s Mr. Bench’s girlfriend,” he pointed out.

“Can we get her autograph?” Curt asked.

“Oh, no,” the man said. “Well, wait, hmm . . . wait here,” he revised, chuckling, as if recollecting that “kids say the darndest things.” The man walked over to her and relayed Curt’s inquiry. She smiled, blushed, and nodded. The man motioned us over.

Seated beside each other on the backseat of the Plymouth, heading for home, Curt and I compared the fresh signatures on our new memorabilia.

“You think he’ll be a Hall of Famer?” I asked.

“You can bet on it,” Curt said.

In January 1989, Johnny Bench was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, appearing on ninety-six percent of the ballots. Later that year, Curt and I would see our achievements in sports—American Legion Baseball all-star games, varsity letters, league and state recognition—in the rearview mirror. We took separate roads ahead, Curt to Miami University, and I to Indiana University, each majoring in history.

In 1999, Bench was one of two catchers named to the All-Century Team’s thirty-man roster. In 2015, at the eighty-sixth All-Star Game (played at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati), Hank Aaron, Bench, Sandy Koufax, and Willie Mays were honored by Major League Baseball as the four greatest living baseball players, according to MLB’s tally of 25 million votes by fans between April 8 and May 8. Perhaps the cliché “Behind every great man, there’s a great woman” applies to Bench, who was married to Vickie Chesser 1975−76, Laura Cwikowski 1987−1995, and Lauren Baiocchi 2004−present. Nowadays, a Bench signed baseball may fetch upwards of a Benjamin; a signed postcard-sized glossy black-and-white north of $25.00—but if it has Paula Williams’ signature in red Bic on the flipside, it is, as far as Curt and I are concerned, two of a kind.

Will Clemens earned a BA in English and history from Indiana University; an MA in English from the University of Dayton; and a PhD in English from the University of Cincinnati, where he earned the Ricking Fellowship for Excellence in Doctoral Studies and Research. Clemens edited All Shook Up: Collected Poems About Elvis (University of Arkansas, 2001), which received positive reviews in Chicago Tribune, Crab Orchard Review, and Oxford American, among other media. His criticism has appeared in Arkansas Review, Journal of Popular Music Studies, Pennsylvania Literary Journal—poetry in Alaska Quarterly Review, Reed Magazine, and Southern Humanities Review, among other publications. Clemens served as an assistant editor at The Antioch Review 1997–2004 and has taught literature and writing at Xavier University, Wittenberg University, and Clark State Community College. Among awards for his writing is the 2011 Markham Prize in Poetry.