My grandfather was responsible for the career of Frank Rich. In the orthodox Catholic circles I travel in, this is like being the baseball manager who rejected young Fidel Castro because he couldn’t hit a curve ball, thus leaving the Cuban no other option but to start a communist dictatorship. Rich, whose column appears every Sunday in the New York Times, is arguably the most secular and liberal columnist in America.
Rich drops bombs on all my right-wing heroes every Sunday—readers of Crisis may recognize him as the man who three times denied Mel Gibson. Maybe God is teaching me a lesson with the irony of it all.
Rich got into journalism as a theater critic. His love of the stage began back in the late 1950s when he was taken to see Damn Yankees at the National Theater in Washington, D.C., his—and my—hometown. It would not be hyperbole, at least according to Rich’s memoir Ghost Light, to say that Damn Yankees had an explosive effect on him—indeed, that it set the course of his career. He writes that the play’s “subject was of keen interest to me and my friends in [the D.C. neighborhood of] Somerset: the Senators, our perennially ill-fated major-league baseball team.” Rich was blown away by the production: “The whole whirligig of sights and sounds and bodies rushing forward seemed to be aimed directly at me. And there was no letup…. If only there was a way to hold each moment, to freeze it in time and put it in my pocket and preserve it forever, before it was hopelessly lost!”
What Rich didn’t know until recently was that my grandfather, an infielder for the Washington Senators named Joe Judge, was the inspiration for Damn Yankees. No Cramps, no play. No play, no Rich.
I found all this out by accident when I e-mailed Rich a piece I’d written about obnoxious feel-good preachers. I did it purely on a whim and never expected to hear back. But Rich responded that he liked it. We began to exchange e-mails, and I mentioned my book, Damn Senators, about my grandfather who once played baseball for the Washington team. (I remembered hearing somewhere that Rich had grown up in Washington and had mentioned the play in his book.)
Immediately, he replied. Rich had indeed grown up in Washington. He had been to old Griffith Stadium, where my grandfather had played. He had even recently chosen Joe Judge in a fantasy baseball game. On top of that, the first live play he had seen, the play that really triggered his love of theater and eventually the job as a theater critic at the New York Times, was the first run of Damn Yankees at the National Theater. Joe Hardy, the main character in Damn Yankees, was based on Joe Judge. The play’s author, Douglass Wallop, had dated Joe Judge’s daughter, my aunt Dorothy.
What followed was a brief and friendly correspondence that made me realize that I’d earlier made a serious mistake: Without knowing Frank Rich, I had dehumanized him. Surely I could have anger for what I considered misguided opinions, but as a Catholic I’m to do so with love. What is so often lost in the understanding of the commandment to love our enemies is the very reason why—not because it does us good but because they were created by God and are therefore intrinsically good, though marred, like all of us, by sin. To turn from them—to treat them as unworthy of dignity—is to turn from God’s creation.
The lesson learned, it now looks as if I may have a new friend. Who knows where it will lead? In a couple years he could be a Republican—or I could be an atheist. I do think I have the stronger arguments.