A Beautiful Blue Marble

Finding meaning in the universe, however large or small

By Jim Dodson

While digging out an old flower bed this summer I found, of all things, a beautiful blue marble buried more than a foot deep in the earth.

I decided it was either evidence of a lost race of marble-playing pioneers or simply belonged to a kid who lost it in the dirt when our house was built. That kid would now be over 75 years old.

Either way, this beautiful blue marble, resting in the palm of my soiled palm, reminded me of an image of the planet taken by the crew of the final Apollo mission as they made their way to the Moon. The photograph was dubbed The Blue Marble because it revealed a fragile blue world that is home to “billions of creatures, a beautiful orb capable of fitting into the pocket of the universe,” as NASA elegantly put it.

Some experts say marbles are the oldest toys on Earth, found by archeologists in the tombs of ancient Egypt and the ashes of Pompeii, mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Even America’s Founding Fathers were known to play a mean game of marbles when they weren’t busy forming a nation.

The earliest marbles were made of dried, molded clay. In the mid-19th century, however, a German glassblower invented a pair of special scissors that could cut and shape molten glass, making glass marbles affordable for the first time. Glass marbles quickly dominated the market, particularly after industrial machines made them more efficiently, further lowering their price. “Valued as much for their beauty as the games played with them,” the National Toy Hall of Fame notes, “marbles inspired one 19th-century enthusiast to describe the twisted spiral of colored filament in glass marbles as ‘thin music translated into colored glass.’”

Because my family was always on the move during my first seven years of life — following my father’s newspaper career across the Deep South — I had few if any regular playmates and plenty of time to fill up on my own come endless Southern summers. Books and marbles and painted Roman armies filled those quiet hours when the air sounded roasted by cicadas. Everywhere we lived from Mississippi to South Carolina, I found myself a cool and comfortable patch of earth beneath a porch or a large tree where I played out the Pelopennesian War or shot marbles in a large ring scratched into the dirt.

I excelled at shooting marbles, often whipping my dad when he came home from work. His necktie loosened, he would come outside with a cold beer to see if I had any interest in coming to supper, squatting to play me a quick game before we went in to eat. The object of the game we played was to knock as many marbles outside the ring without having your “shooter” wind up outside as well. I forget who told me that it was good luck to play with a marble that matched the color of your eyes. Accordingly, my shooter was always blue.

I could spin and skip marbles like nobody’s business in those days, and even carried a small sack of my favorites with me whenever my family went on vacation or visited elderly relatives. Politely excused, advised not to wander far, I could slip outside and find the nearest patch of earth for a little marble- shooting practice.

Then along came the spring of 1964. I watched Arnold Palmer win his final Masters green jacket on TV and began swinging a golf club in the yard, making a list of 11 things I intended to do in golf. At the top I hoped to someday meet the new King of the game.

That summer I made the Pet Dairy Little League and began reading about Brooks Robinson, the “Human Vacuum Cleaner” in the sports pages. Robinson played third base for the Baltimore Orioles. I laid hands on an official Brooks Robinson fielder’s glove, vowing that in the unlikely event that I didn’t grow up to be the next Arnold Palmer I might become the next “Mr. Hoover,” as Robinson was also called.

In effect, I lost my marbles that summer of ’64 — or at least put them away forever.

Arnie won the Masters, and Robinson had his best season offensively, hitting for a .318 batting average with 28 home runs. He also led the league with 118 runs batted in, capturing the American League’s MVP Award and his fifth Gold Glove. In the American League MVP voting, Robinson received 18 of the 20 first-place votes, with Mickey Mantle of the Yankees finishing second, much to the delight of my colorful uncle Carson.

He took me to my first Major League ballgame when I got sent up in late summer to spend a week with my uncles and their German wives in Baltimore. Uncle Carson was a big Irishman who worked at a tire factory and had season tickets to “the Birds,” as he fondly called them. He couldn’t abide Mickey Mantle. “I’d like to knock that smug smile off that overpaid showboat’s kisser,” he said to me during the pre-game warm-ups as both teams took the field in Memorial Stadium.

Uncle Carson’s seats were a dozen rows back along the third base line. He encouraged me to bring my new Brooks Robinson fielder’s glove along because he was confident I could get it autographed by “the greatest third baseman ever.”

Sure enough, when Robinson appeared on the field, stretching and chatting with other players, including several on the detested Yankees team, Uncle Carson sent me scurrying down to the dugout where a crowd of kids clustered, seeking autographs.

When Robinson ambled over, I asked him for his autograph and he smiled and said “Sure, Kid. Where you from?” At least I like to remember it this way. Honestly, I was too tongue-tied and in the throes of awe to remember what he actually said.

Up in the stands, however, as Mickey Mantle sauntered past, Uncle Carson cupped his massive hands to his mouth and hollered, “Hey, Mantle! You’re a stinking bum! You couldn’t hit the side of a barn if they pitched underhand to you!”

For the record, I’m not sure this is precisely what Uncle Carson yelled at Mickey Mantle, either. But it’s certainly within the ballpark, as they say, because Uncle Carson was a world-class heckler, a one-man leather lung, the ultimate obnoxious Oriole. Mickey Mantle just laughed and kept walking.

When I got back to our seats, Uncle C was buying a couple of cold beers.

“How old are you now?” He asked as the vendor moved along. He was holding two large cups of beer.

“Eleven,” I answered truthfully.

“That’s old enough.” He handed me a National Bohemian beer, my first ballpark beer. A moment later, facing the field of play, he calmly remarked, “Just so you know, Squire, some things need to stay at the ballpark.”’

I knew exactly what he meant.

Funny thing about life on a beautiful blue marble. 

I failed to become the next Arnold Palmer. But at least I grew up to collaborate on his memoirs, becoming a good friend of the game’s most charismatic figure.

Some years ago, I even had the chance to tell Brooks Robinson about Uncle Carson at a dinner where I was the guest of honor for my sports journalism and books. The event’s hosts had secretly invited the greatest third baseman of all time to sit beside the honoree, who was nearly as tongue-tied and in awe as he was in 1964.

“I think I remember your Uncle Carson,” Robinson told me with a laugh. “Or at least a few hundred others like him — especially up in Yankee Stadium. They made your uncle look like a minor league heckler, I’m afraid.”

We had a fine time chatting about the Oriole’s golden seasons and lamented their cellar-dwelling ways these days. In 1966, Robinson was voted the All-Star Game Most Valuable Player and finished second to teammate Frank Robinson in the American League Most Valuable Player Award voting, and the Orioles went on to win their first World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In the 1970 post-season, Robinson hit for an average of .583 in the American League Championship and tagged the Cincinnati Reds for a pair of homers on their way to a 4–1 shellacking and their second World Series title. It was Robinson’s defensive prowess that snagged the Series MVP, however, and prompted Reds manager Sparky Anderson to quip, “I’m beginning to see Brooks in my sleep. If I dropped this paper plate, he’d pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.”

At the end of his final season in 1977, having collected 16 Golden Gloves, Robinson’s No. 5 jersey was retired. Six years later, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot. “It all seemed to pass so quickly,” Brooks Robinson told me that night we ate supper together. “But what amazing memories.”

As another hot summer ends, as overdue rain and cooler nights heal my withered garden and herald the post-seasons of golf and baseball, my friend Arnold Palmer is gone and this month the Birds — per usual — are dwelling deep in the American League cellar, their glory years just a pleasant memory.

Having lost all my marbles but having found a blue one buried in the earth of my own garden, I’m probably where I should be at this moment and time on this fragile blue planet, lucky to have a quieter world I can hold in the palm of my hand.  PS

Contact Editor Jim Dodson at jim@thepilot.com.

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