Wednesday, April 12, 2006

ART JACKSON

In my first couple years of Gay softball (men’s slowpitch) I played shortstop. I had enough skills and knowledge to do an adequate job but my main contribution was field generalship. The biggest failing of once-a-week softball players is that they throw the ball around too much.

The classic play is the miss-hit dinker in front of the plate that the catcher (usually the worst fielder) throw wildly past the first baseman. When the right fielder (usually the second worst fielder) finally retrieves the ball the batter-baserunner is on his way to third. The right fielder makes a terrible throw past or over the third baseman, and the batter-baserunner scampers home. Ill advised, inaccurate throws are the bane of a softball defense.

I used my loud voice and extended arms to demand the ball from the outfielders, then turn, show the ball to the ump, and request time-out. The only time I’d make a throw was when there was nothing to lose. The most important thing was to preserve the force at second. Force-outs at second base are the foundation of good softball defense.

In the early days of Gay softball, this was 1980, many teams were formed around some affinity, and terrible players played next to pretty good ones. This particular year Tommy Shirk was trying to put together a powerhouse, and of course he wanted me.

Then, there was word that Art Jackson was recruiting a team to play out of the Pendulum bar, which catered to black guys and those who like black guys. Art was able to recruit a couple of key black players, including a recent major-leaguer, from Tommy’s team and suddenly Art Jackson’s became the “stacked” team. They invited me to play third base. I decided to go to one practice, even though I felt kind of committed to Tommy. Art understood that I was “just coming to a practice.”

I played plenty of third base in my softball career. Twice I was involved in my favorite third-base play, which is rare partly because the catcher is usually the worst fielder on the team. Situation: bases loaded, less than two outs. Third baseman playing even with the bag gets a two or three-hopper, steps on third, then steps back into the field, throws home and yells, “Tag him.”

I hadn’t focused much on Art Jackson. I mostly remember he was short but commanding. I saw him again years later at a memorial gathering for Glenn Burke. Glenn had died of AIDS after a downhill slide into drug addiction. Glenn had played for the Dodgers and the A’s before become the best Gay softball player in the country. He told me that he’d hit the ball out of every park in the major leagues (in batting practice). His career was short, his stats weren’t great, but Glenn will be remembered as the originator of the high-five. Check this page, scroll to the bottom. Glenn started in center field in the world series for the Dodgers—I’m impressed. Glenn had defected from Tommy's team and would play shortstop for Art.

So after Art's first practice we go back to the Pendulum for a drink (or ten). At one point Art gives me raffle tickets to sell for a team fundraiser. By disposition and upbringing I loathe selling raffle tickets. So that was annoying.

A while later Art gestured for me to come join him at the bar. He was sitting on a stool looking away from the bar. When I got close enough to hear him in the noisy room, he said something about me being a good ballplayer and reached around and grabbed my ass with both hands, squeezed hard, and pulled me toward him. I gracefully extracted myself. Ass grabbing in SF gay bars circa 1980 was as shocking as gambling at Rick’s.

At the time I was a dashing 32 year old, in really good shape, and it seems that some people found me attractive. And, I was a highly desirable softball player. I think what turned me so off about this incident was the completely demented idea Art must have had about our power relationship. In almost every way I had the power. And Art didn’t realize it. I wasn’t embarrassed or particularly offended. I guess it was surprise, that Art, who seemed like a smart guy, could be so wrong.

When I called Art to tell him I was sticking with Tommy-Lee’s team there was some discussion of my returning the raffle tickets. I just threw them away. The next time I talked to Tommy he said he’d heard I was playing for Art. “Of course not, “ I said, “I just went to one practice.” Still, Tommy was disappointed about the defections. So, we had the second best team

Art’s team, starring Glenn Burke, was the best Gay softball team, people said, ever assembled. Despite being a little shaky at third (meow), Art’s team had a perfect record including local Gay Softball League play, two out-of-town tournaments, and the Gay World Series. They were the Gay Softball World Champs. They won every single game—except one.

It was a best-of-three post season playoff between Art’s team and Tommy’s team. I was playing shortstop and batting third for Tommy. In the last inning of the second game (Art’s team won the first) we faced elimination, behind by three runs and with two outs. Then yours truly gets up with two runners on base and hits a towering home run to tie the score. Tommy still mentions it, even twenty years later, when I run into him, calls me Clutch. We held on and finally punched across a run after holding Art’s team scoreless in two extra innings. This was truly a glorious moment for our whole team, and for Tommy.

Glenn was so pissed didn’t come out to shake our hands (actually high five). Art actually had a cooler of champagne on hand, but it remained unopened. They had to wait till the next day for the third and decisive game, which they won. They went on to be otherwise undefeated World Champs, but the bloom was off the rose. So, Art, I thought at the time, that’ll teach you to grab my ass.

I’m smiling right now, thinking about it. Earlier today my friend Michael called to say that Art had died. Michael suggested that this story would contribute an additional edge to Art Jackson’s cubist obit.

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6 comments:

sfmike said...

I loved Glenn Burke and always thought Art Jackson was extremely creepy, for no particular reason I can put my finger on. Seeing him and his raspy voice in his declining years on San Francisco Government TV, as the president of the Taxicab Commission, was always surreal.

Let's make sure we go to his memorial so we can add a few more blocks to this cubist obit.

And congrats on the studly victory over the Pendulum Pirates (I think they beat my "Chaps" team about 40-0) back in those ancient years of gay identity athletics. Must have been sweet.

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