Bud and Schoolie ©2014 L.E. Taylor

American history lesson, recounted by L.E. Taylor

When you’re crouched down behind home plate, a baseball game looks different than ordinary spectators ever see. Through the steel bars of a mask it’s framed, more focused. The ball gets to the action zone faster than a civilian can imagine.

A late August sun pounds the dusty Jayne Field diamond under a brassy sky. This ballgame has been tied twice over eight hot innings. Now with two outs, the team at bat has a man on second. The pitch comes like a lightning strike and the hitter drives a sharp grounder into right; the charging fielder gathers it up and throws in one motion. The relay and the runner arrive at the plate in a dust cloud of pink clay and chalk. It’s a dead tie.

“Yer-OUT!” the umpire barks.

1944. South Pacific War Zone

The muzzle end of a sawed off shot gun prodded the Jap officer along the deck of the USS Icefish. The yeoman, 2nd Class had plunged into dark waters to pull the guy from his sinking junk. It was the Jap’s lucky day.

They proceeded along the slippery deck, down into the American submarine, the yeoman sailor guiding his prisoner from behind. It had been a violent night of surface fighting. The war was in its last dangerous months and the Japanese were trying to evacuate (sneak) their important personnel back to Nippon, but the Navy was onto it and one prize of this particular patrol off the New Guinea coast carefully descended the ladder, dripping wet and sullen.

In the captain’s cabin, the interrogation began. Nineteen year-old Yeoman Masinick handed the shot gun to a mate and stood at rest next to his Exec, eyes on the Jap. Captain Petersone opened the Japanese-English manual and awkwardly began the questioning. Masinick, also the sub’s scribe (log-keeper), tried to follow along, using his own text. Finally, the prisoner looked at the captain, then quizzically at the young sailor. “What’s wrong with you, don’t you speak Engrish?”

It was twelve years later before anyone laughed.

Julius Masinick was the son of Ukrainian immigrants. On 08 December 1941, graduation from Detroit Eastern High School was just six months away. That morning, one day after the Pearl Harbor attack, his counsellor assembled senior boys in the gym. He said, “I know you want to enlist. Don’t be stupid; get your diploma; you’re gonna be drafted anyway.” Julius listened. In June, he found himself with a high school diploma from the best public school system in America, and by summer’s end, he was getting used to his new home in the United States Navy.

Julius was restless. He was six feet tall, fit, and no dummy. This was a chance that only comes once in a lifetime. So he volunteered for submarine duty. His personality and his physique got him the nickname “Bruiser”. In no time, it got shortened to Bud.

Navy boot camp would consist of eighteen weeks at Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago. Bud had been a good kid-ballplayer in the tough American Legion League on Detroit’s East Side. At Great Lakes he was just another sailor learning the ropes. It happened, though, that the navy’s premier baseball team, the Bluejackets, was also stationed there. The All-Star services league was formed as a morale boost for U.S. troops. Bob Feller, Johnny Mize, Dom DiMaggio, Barney McCosky, Virgil Trucks were a few of the sixty or so pros at Great Lakes who’d put their careers on hold for the Duration.

The Bluejackets team was led by Hall of Fame Tiger manager Mickey Cochrane. For some reason, maybe Bud’s Detroit roots, Cochrane took a liking to the kid. So did the great Tiger pitcher, “Schoolboy” Rowe, star of three pennant seasons and a World Series Championship. By the end of Bud’s boot camp, the green sailor and the veteran pitcher, Schoolie, had spent countless hours talking baseball.

Then the kid was gone, shipped out to sub school in Connecticut.

After New London, Bud found himself in Pearl Harbor for assignment at sea. Passing a practice diamond on his way to the sub pen, Bud recognized a pitcher wearing the distinctive Bluejackets jersey. “Schoolie!” Bud called out.

“Julie!” The big Texan jogged over to the low fence.

“They call me ‘Bud’ now Schoolie.”

At age fifteen, Lynwood Rowe had pitched phenomenally in an adult league, and in 1932 he won nineteen games in the Texas League. The Tigers signed him in ’33. He won twenty-four games for the ’34 American league champs. Now in his thirties, Schoolboy Rowe looked at the submariner insignia on Bud’s collar. “Well, you done it. Why’d you go and do a dumb thang like that, boy? You could get killed.”

Bud laughed. “You only get one chance, Schoolie.” The veteran smacked the ball into his lumpy glove, nodded, and extended his hand. “You got that right, Bud.”

By V-J Day in 1945, Bud had been on five 60-day patrols with the Icefish, in three battles, and had endured the heart-pounding terror of depth charges more than once. “It was like being sealed in an oil drum,” he recalled, “while ten guys beat on the outside of it with baseball bats.”

Postwar found Bud playing first base in the Carolina Leagues, and he went to one spring training with Toledo. But he had a different world view now. It was time to settle down and he got hired by a Detroit chemical company.

“Well, that’s baseball,” old pal Schoolboy Rowe opined. “At least ya made it out alive.”

Bud married and needed extra income. He’d earned a little by “reffin’ ” youth basketball at Franklin Settlement, one of the city’s big housing projects. One day, a friend said the DABF needed umps; lots of ballgames every week, good pay. Bud was thirty-five.

2005. Jayne Field, Detroit East Side

“Yer-OUT!”

The dust hasn’t settled and the kid leaps to his feet, screaming. “Bull sh…”

“That’s enough of that.” Bud Masinick removes his steel mask. “You slid around the plate. You gotta touch it.” The player explodes, his face is inches from the ump’s.

Bud looks directly into the blazing eyes of the eighteen year old. “Son, you didn’t hear me. Play’s over. Go sit down.” The tantrum continues, spittle and curses fly. “Son, you’d better go back to the dugout and sit down.” Bud leans in closer to the kid and whispers, “Or you’re gonna have to explain to your friends why you got knocked on your ass by an eighty year old man.”

Bud walks away, pulls out a bandana. “That’s baseball, Schoolie,” he says softly to no one. He wipes the sweat from the inside of his mask. “Yep. That’s baseball.”

Fat Bob, Patriot

Memorial Day remembrance of a friend, by L. E. Taylor

By 1965, the J. P. McCarthy drive-time radio shows were the highest rated in the Midwest. Boomed from WJR-Detroit (“The Great Voice of the Great Lakes”), they were part ‘platter’ with a lot of chatter. The afternoon “Focus” show was also call-in. One afternoon, as a novelty, J.P. played part of a recording by Robert Merrill, power-tenor of the Metropolitan Opera. Merrill had begun to get visibility as an occasional National Anthem performer for the Yankees.

McCarthy’s phone lines lit up and he took the oddest of the listeners, a plumber calling from a job site. Bob Taylor had a Master Plumber’s license, but singing was his passion. He informed a disbelieving J.P. McCarthy that Merrill had not sung the aria properly. With a hint of patronizing amusement, McCarthy asked, so how should he have sung it?

Taylor took a chest-full of wind and sent the needles on the control panel flying, along with the producer’s headset. With Bob’s credibility established, the conversation resumed. This was the beginning of what’s known in showbiz as the Big Break. Call-ins by “The Singing Plumber” became frequent, and he quickly became a regular, over the years, booking the show’s most appearances of any celebrity.

By summer, Fat Bob, the Singing Plumber had become the star National Anthem guy for the Detroit Tigers, then special guest performer at Lions and Red Wing events. The new descriptor, “Fat,” was Bob’s own invention. He was blessed with a handsome photogenic mug, adorned with trimmed black Van Dyke, and a full head of well barbered hair. He could sing both tenor and baritone, each clear and strong. And sensual. He was judged more romantic than Robert Goulet, more elegant than John Gary, and even more robust than Merrill of the Met.

But Bob Taylor was five-foot-three. Furthermore, he had a hard, muscular 52-inch waistline that brought to mind not Sir Lancelot, but the Vernor’s Gnome. So, with good humor and fearless brio, a great singer re-packaged himself and got on with his own American dream.

When my Dad and I took my son Christopher to his first game at Tiger Stadium in 1970, the place was SRO and we sat in the second deck, well down the left field line. The field cleared of player warm ups, and presently a tiny, round speck of a fellow strode across the infield and up onto the pitcher’s mound. The spectators were still; we stood at attention and faced the flag. He adjusted the mike downward and, a cappella, Bob Taylor did his thing. Instantly, we saw the rockets’ red glare as never before. Our hearts pounded with the peril of the nightlong bombardment. When Bob completed his magic before 55,000 citizens in “the home of the brave,” the cry of “Play ball!” jolted us back to reality. I looked at Dad. Eyes moist, he choked out, “Nobody does it better than that.”

It happened that Bob Taylor lived in Ann Arbor. Not only that, he lived in a modest house just one block from mine. We’d never met. One September afternoon in 1976 I walked up to his front door. From inside came a powerful double-woof. When the door came ajar the first thing I saw was the massive head of a St. Bernard, about belt buckle high. Bob moved the giant brute away by her studded collar and peered out at me. He wore bib overalls and a friendly smile. His free hand was on the vacuum cleaner he’d been running athletically when the bell rang. He mopped his face with a bandana.

I introduced myself and came to the point. My Dad, Elgan Taylor, had been dying of cancer for most of the year and would be leaving us within the next week. He’d always believed that Fat Bob was the greatest singer he’d ever heard personally, and I wondered if Bob would sing at his funeral. Quickly, Bob said, yes… emphatically yes!

In a few days, I dropped off the music. I’d had to make a few small changes to Stephen Foster’s 19th century classic “My Old Kentucky Home”. Bob said, “Consider this job done, my friend. I know where the funeral home is, I’ll be on time, just say when, and we’ll send your dad off in style.”

And he did. I gave the eulogy without embarrassing myself, and Fat Bob replaced me at the lectern. Everyone was thrilled with his soft, keening operatic rendition of ‘Old Kentucky Home’. When he glanced at my mother and smiled gently on the brave words, “Weep no more, my la-dy…” it took one’s breath away.

After a career of regional fame, appearances on The Merv Griffin Show, offers from the NY Met (declined), a couple of successful pop albums, and plenty of Las Vegas exposure, Fat Bob passed away in 1995. He’d hosted a mid-day radio show of his own in Ann Arbor, then bought a farm in the rolling green Michigan countryside not far away. He raised his own produce… and some goats.

There’s more, but on this Memorial Week, I must leave you with my favorite memory of Fat Bob Taylor. He was a red-white-and-blue patriot. He disapproved of the Vietnam War, as we all did, but he despised even more the radical America-haters and their attempts, both violent and subversive, to destroy our nation and our institutions. Occasionally, when the notion struck, he would adjust the mike at Tiger Stadium and deliver an unexpected stanza from “The Star Spangled Banner”. This is what we heard:

Oh, thus be it ever, when free men must stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Power that made and preserved our great nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just.
And let this be our motto: “In God is our trust”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Yes, it was the flag-burning, tantrum-ridden, dope-smoking sixties and seventies, and yes the final verse was in-your-face defiant. But the singer knew his heart and his audience. No one ever told him don’t do that. (Nobody could sing along with him anyway.)

Bob Taylor had decided long ago what was right and where his heart belonged. And he was a Canadian.

Onward.

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