Little League tryouts. It’s April in Minnesota. And young Wayne Johnson is both excited and sick to his stomach. He’s feeling inferior, dressed in his too-large cleats and his hand-me-down clothes and toting his beat-up, old Rawlins mitt.
And there’s Wayne’s sort-of friend and frequent foe Artie and his fresh, perfect glove.
“His glove, of course, was right out of the box. It was a Stan Musial special, bright orange leather, and it looked the size of an Easter ham. Artie Cavanaugh’s glove glowed. It looked like it cost three hundred bucks. It had a gazillion rawhide strings on it, and little flags with world titles and statistics written on them. It seemed them it had everything on it but the word Excalibur, but that’s what the thing was supposed to be.”
This vivid moment is one in a delectable string of distinctive, colorful scenes from Baseball Diaries – Confessions of a Cold War Youth. Wayne Johnson’s memoir begins in 1963. Both Wayne and Artie are sons of World War II aviators. Their mothers were both members of something called the Bachelor Buttons Garden Club. (Doesn’t the club name say it all?) Vietnam looms. A cousin comes home in a body bag. Johnson’s youthful adventures, and the non-stop tussling with Artie Cavanaugh, are at times carefree. But there’s an undertow of foreboding, of the real world about to come crashing into the idyllic settings and the boys’ tension-filled relationship.
“And could we have known that morning we met, odd and irritating as we’d found each other, that we’d be sharing everything for the next decade, from Indian Guides to dangerous hobbies to homicidal bullies, trouble with girls, dope, explosives, home-made stun-guns and other weapons, strange Halloween candies, and somewhere in it all, one timeless, unforgettable game of Little League baseball?”
There, I’ve just laid out the “plot” of this memoir—well, that paragraph is from Johnson’s prologue, so it’s not much of a spoiler—but non-baseball fans should know there’s some baseball but it’s backdrop for the most part with the exception of that one “unforgettable” game. (I can see why.) And by the time the game rolls around, we’re all fully invested in seeing if Wayne can come out on top that they could have been playing volleyball or tiddlywinks. (Except baseball is perfectly iconic for this particular battle.)
Johnson avoids sentimentality as he looks back. Okay, maybe a touch here and there. He grounds the tales in terrific, often quirky detail. The memoir spans from building childhood go-carts to smoking dope as teenagers. Young Wayne yearns for the aloof neighbor Diane. Wayne listens to Sgt. Pepper ‘ad infinitum,’ watches The Time Tunnel and tries to sneak into the movie theater to watch “Barbarella.” He delivers newspapers, tries to sneak peeks at Playboy in the drug store, falls out with Artie, rides around town on his Schwinn bike, grapples with bullies, reconnects with Artie, remains “struck-dumb smitten” with Diane, and poaches liquor form adult stashes when possible. Young Wayne learns that a bottle of Red Dye Number Four can stretch a bottle of Dewar’s to “fantastic limits.” But both Artie and Wayne know they are good kids bound for good careers, maybe doctors. The antics and fooling around are what’s expected. They want to be popular and have fun because that’s what you do.
Baseball Diaries is not an angst-filled psychological drama. It’s the story of an odd but completely recognizable friendship and the pair’s mutual adventures. Johnson recounts the adventures with a self-effacing warmth—foibles and all. Mary Karr (The Art of the Memoir) wrote that “memoir done right is an art, a made thing. It’s not just raw reportage flung splat on the page.” Johnson’s Baseball Diaries is certainly proof of that.