I know how men in exile feed on dreams of hope.
In the early 1960s, Jim Powers was a man in exile. He lived in Connecticut and worked in New York, but it was all Siberia to him. To hazard a shakier metaphor, his world had become a large cell. The bars were pinstripes. There were pinstripes on his commuter train, pinstripes on his subway and pinstripes in his office, all reminding him of those damned pinstriped Yankees winning pennant after pennant up in the Bronx. Powers hated pinstripes and he hated the Yankees. He wasn't of this town: He had been raised in Uxbridge, Mass., 36 miles from Fenway Park, and he was a lifelong Red Sox fan. In the early '60s, the Yankees were still winning almost every year, so New York was a tough town for a Sox fan to live in.
Because of his persuasion he was shunned and ridiculed by his peers. As Aeschylus knew, exile doesn't dampen the inner flames, it fans them. Powers walked about Manhattan subsisting on his unreasonable dreams of hope, becoming leaner but prouder and more defiant. Such citizens are dangerous, and by 1965 Powers was poised to commit a desperate act.
He was sitting at the bar of J.J.'s Cellar, a restaurant on East 55th Street, hidden in a sea of pinstriped suits at cocktail hour. Significantly, Powers was not alone. He was huddling with others who shared his misery. The names they whispered were foreign to midtown Manhattan. Not Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle and Joe, but Ruth (as a pitcher), Foxx, Williams and Dom. The group recounted bygone Boston glories and dared to predict future victories. From such hushed intercourse, movements are born.
"We'd get 12, 14 guys together and have a couple of cocktails," Powers says casually of those early meetings. "We were basically transplanted New Engenders. We didn't call ourselves the BLOHARDS then. That came a couple of years later, when I was thinking about that benevolent loyal order stuff of the Grangers back in Uxbridge."
The BLOHARDS: the Benevolent Loyal Order of Honorable and Ancient Red Sox Diehard Sufferers of New York. Although it took some time and rumination to come up with the official acronym, these guys were always BLOHARDS—that's what brought them together. Like Powers, who is now ad director of USA Weekend, many of the founding fathers were in the media business. And they all were lost souls.
The BLOHARDS gained in organization and sophistication, its membership growing to 150, 250, 350 and more. Officers were selected by Powers, and he became president. "He is the always-and-forever leader," says one member. "The BLOHARDS without Jim would be the Vatican without the pope."
The BLOHARDS convened, perforce, behind enemy lines: in the New England Room of the Hotel Lexington, in the 50th-floor dining room of the McGraw-Hill Building in midtown, even in the Combo Room of Yankee Stadium. Can you imagine 138 BLOHARDS no more than a short fly ball from George Steinbrenner's private box?
Over the seasons the BLOHARDS grew stronger, and their ever more reckless bravado proved irresistible to recruits. A lonely Henry Berry was riding a late-night train to his home in Darien, Conn. in 1965. He had just been to the Stadium, where his Red Sox had lost, naturally, to the Yankees. "I was deep in my thoughts of despair," Berry remembers, "when all of a sudden, from the back of the car, I heard four or five voices raised in song." It was the refrain of a folk song indigenous to New England: "Better than his brother Joe, Dominic Di-Mag-giooooo!" Curious and emboldened, Berry made his way through the car and found Powers leading the chorus. "He seemed to resemble the immortal 'Nuf Sed McGreevey, a leader of the Royal Rooters of the early 1900s. I introduced myself by offering a toast to the great Jimmie Foxx. You see, by mentioning Ol' Double X, you can promptly identify yourself as a real Red Sox fan."
Powers recognized a staunch and courageous leader when he saw one, and it was not long before Berry was a lieutenant in the BLOHARDS. He narrated the slide shows at BLOHARDS gatherings and introduced honored guests, who came to bolster the troops. Johnny Pesky has met with the BLOHARDS twice, and DiMaggio, Dom, addressed a gathering at the New England Room in '68. Cleveland Amory and Peter Golenbock debated the relative merits of the Sox and Yanks at a BLOHARDS-sponsored forum. Managers talked strategy.
"Billy Herman was the best of them," remembers Berry, "but Zim [Don Zimmer] is not gonna win any after-dinner awards."
Berry's banter at club dinners, and his dedication, loyalty and inestimable courage, earned him the senior vice-presidency of the club. Powers, Berry and treasurer Walter Teitz became and remain the heart of the BLOHARDS' lineup. Powers rules, Berry regales and Teitz collects the dues, much of which is channeled to various anti-Yankee activities. Rumor has it that some of the money is earmarked for the ceremonial case of Narragansett Beer, the essential ingredient of the quintessential BLOHARDS function: Henry Berry's Opening Day Bus Trip.
For 16 years the exiles have traveled back, literally and figuratively, to the homeland. They seem to become younger by the mile as the bus rolls north through New England. As they get closer to Boston, the BLOHARDS start to have fun.
Join them now, on last year's trip. It is the Sox versus the Yanks at Fenway, an especially important day. Come along and meet the BLOHARDS.
The school bus pulls away from the curb in Westport, Conn. Inside, 40 animated, excited BLOHARDS squirm in their seats. The bus is a sea of Red Sox caps and painter's hats embossed with icknames like DEWEY, BIG FOOT, HIT MAN. On some of the older hats: YAZ. The BLOHARDS break out the beer and cigars.
The pilgrimage always follows the same route, Westport directly to Fenway (or to Jake Wirth's saloon if it snows). "The trip starts in front of Mario's Bar," Powers says, substantiating the notion that taverns play a large part in BLOHARDS lore. If this club left plaques to mark its memories, many would be affixed to various watering holes throughout the Northeast. When confronted with that theory, Powers demurs. "We're a nice, quiet, refined group," he insists. "For instance, on the bus trip there is a rule, 'No drinking until the bus passes Bridgeport [nine miles from Westport] unless absolutely necessary.' "
Powers is in good spirits this morning and is resplendent in his bright Red Sox sweater and a pair of nearly as bright lime-green slacks. Although he's a man of more than 50 years, today he's a teenager.
The bus passes Bridgeport, and Berry announces that the bar is officially open. This is greeted with laughter, because the BLOHARDS annually ignore the Bridgeport rule.
They laugh at Berry in Bridgeport, but they never laugh at him in Hartford, Conn., a place that has assumed a hallowed significance in BLOHARDS legend. Berry was born in Hartford, where he "grew up under the spell of Sox radio announcer Fred Hoey." Berry is the grandson of Bunts Berry, the first man in the history of Hartford to bunt, having laid one down in 1878. The Ballad of Bunts Berry is dutifully recited each April as the bus passes the old East Hartford cutoff. The bus is rumbling past that exit now, and an emotional Henry Berry delivers this year's rendition of the legendary tale.
As Berry sits down, copies of the 1985 BLOHARDS Quiz are handed out. It's a simple test for any dyed-in-the-wool member.
•Which of the following never hit a home run in a crucial Yankee-Red Sox game? a) Bucky Dent, b) Johnny Lindell, c) Roy White, d) Jim Rice.
•The last bunt at Fenway Park: a) rolled foul, b) was not scored as a sacrifice, c) occurred during the father-son game, d) was called a "waste of time" by Don Zimmer.
•The Fenway "bleacher bums" are: a) now attending Boston College hockey games, b) credited with inventing the "wine cooler," c) opposed to baseball's drug rules, d) seldom invited to Mark Clear's house.
•The American League hitter most feared by the Red Sox is: a) Eddie Murray, b) Dave Winfield, c) Kirk Gibson, d) Glenn Hoffman.
To the BLOHARDS, that last one's a howler. They are loosening up now, the exiles are laughing out loud.
Yeah, claims one BLOHARD, I was at the '78 playoff game. (That gives him points, even though the game featured every BLOHARD's darkest nightmare: The Bucky Dent Home Run.) I went to that entire last series against Toronto (more points). No, says another, I honestly was not at Game 6 of the '75 Series (deduction), but I went to an earlier Series game (add a few). Frank Malzone? Bill Monbouquette? Three and two to Eddie Bressoud? Sure—saw 'em all as a kid.
"Our membership seems to get younger and younger," says Berry. "Very few are left who remember Black Jack Wilson and Fritz Ostermueller from the 1930s. Still, the club is prospering. There has been serious talk of starting a BLOHARDS chapter in Chicago—there are plenty of Red Sox fans there. Most of them don't recall Irene Hennessey and her 'Have a 'Gansett' jingle, but they root for the Sox. That's all that counts."
With the BLOHARDS, that really is all that counts. Breeding, position, intelligence, wealth—these things don't mean much when you're wearing a baseball cap. This becomes obvious as the bus parks behind Fenway, and the unsteady BLOHARDS pile out and head gleefully for the window to pick up the 44 tickets left by Arthur Moscato, the estimable Sox ticket director.
There are more BLOHARDS inside Fenway. Down on the field singing the national anthem is Suzyn Waldman, introduced to the crowd as being from New York (boos) and Boston (cheers). Waldman is a BLOHARD, her dues are paid up. Her dog is named Fenway.
There is a big BLOHARD in Section 22, Row 21, Seat 14 (name withheld for good reason). He is a school administrator from Manhattan and sheepishly admits that he is "playing hooky."
There's a BLOHARD sitting next to him who is in private debate over the wisdom of ordering a beer "even in this frigid weather." (He orders two.)
Let's meet the BLOHARD in Row 19 (name withheld for very good reason). He's in the end seat next to a pretty young Bostonian. He could be her father, but that's not what he's trying to be.
The BLOHARDS are having an active and exciting day at Fenway, and so are the Red Sox. The Sox eventually beat the Yanks 9-2, and the game immediately becomes part of BLOHARDS lore. Attendance at this opener is something that will earn points at future club functions. Happily, very happily, the BLOHARDS head back to their bus. They settle into their seats, crack open 'Gansetts and start chattering again in BLOHARDS fashion: "Surely Oil Can Boyd will win 20 games this season, and surely the Sox will score 900 runs.... Surely we'll finish ahead of the Yanks, surely we'll win the pennant.... Surely we'll be World Champions, just like we were only yesterday, in 1918...."
One by one, BLOHARDS fall asleep. Whenz they awake they'll be back in New York, exiles again, feeding on their unreasonable dreams of hope.