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Short Takes

Umpire Is a Hit Telling Stories at VA Hospitals

June 25, 1989|DICK RORABACK

Dad was a ballplayer, first for the old San Francisco Seals, then for the Cleveland Indians. Young Eddie grew up in the Bay Area, idolizing the "Big Boppers"--notably Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. Edward Montague Sr., as a scout, had signed Mays to his first contract, "and the first time I met him in the locker room, I walked right past (movie star) Jeff Chandler, didn't even see him, and Willie give me one of his gloves, brand new." The connection was strong, loyal, all-forgiving.

"And then," Montague continues, "to come up to the Big Leagues as an umpire and have to call them out on strikes . . . I tell you, it's a strange feeling."

Montague has a thousand baseball yarns and a million listeners, mostly disabled veterans, laid up in VA hospitals. During the peripatetic life of an ump, Montague manages to visit four or five hospitals a month--more in the off-season. He's in town this week to arbitrate the Dodgers' home games, and he'll pop over to the Brentwood VA Medical Center Wednesday to schmooze with the patients, do a few magic tricks, maybe sing a country song or two.

"(Ump) Larry Barnett, who's been doing it for years, asked me in '86 if I'd come along. It was in Boise. We walked into a ward and this fella started to cry. He didn't know who we were--umpires, plumbers. It was just the idea of someone coming to see him. I was hooked."

A softy? Maybe. But woe to the player who tries to work that angle. "I've run (ejected) a few in my time," Montague says. "A little cussing, that's fine. But nothing personal. I have a short fuse. They cross the line, they're gone. They don't have to like me, just respect me, and I'll do the same. But if they get in my face. . . ."

Montague, maybe, is feeling mean on this day. Contacted at a Philadelphia airport hotel, he says: "The travel gets you down. Half an hour ago, I'm cussing the rain clouds. It's a stifling hot day; the bags don't come down on time; you're waiting for the van. I told (rookie ump) Gary Darling, 'If I hit the lottery I'll quit tomorrow.' "

The cloud passes. Schmoozing, something he does best, Montague mellows over his favorite flakes (Jay Johnstone, Mickey Hatcher), about "watching the fresh young talent coming up--the Will Clarks, the Eric Davises," about what he gets out of his visits with the vets. "You've made 'em forget their troubles for a while, put a smile on their faces. You leave with a great feeling," he says. "The world looks pretty good again."

Piano Tuner Strikes a Chord With Hollywood Boulevard

Albert Gage isn't shy. He says he's the best piano tuner in the world. Not in Southern California, mind. The world. And barring a global tune-off, who can argue?

Even more interesting, though, Gage, 69, claims to be the only person still alive who was actually born on Hollywood Boulevard.

"My father brought music to Hollywood," Gage explains with disarming hyperbole. The elder Gage, in fact, moved from Maine to California at the turn of the century to open what is considered the first music store on the boulevard. Papa Gage--who doubled as pianist for the local silent-movie emporiums--sold (and tuned) pianos, sheet music, records (those heavy old 78s) and Victrolas, the kind you had to wind up every other record.

The family lived over the store, in a brick building that still stands on the corner of Hollywood and Whitley Avenue. In a day when doctors routinely made house calls, young Al was born there, on a 1920 day of more than normal confusion. "My brother told me later that while I was being born, my father's assistant charged upstairs to complain that someone in the store was buying just about every record we had. 'Great,' my father said, 'keep selling,' but the clerk was worn out from cranking the Victrola for hours. The customer? Turned out to be Wallace Beery."

Everybody, it seemed, frequented the music store--"Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Pickford, Fairbanks, all of 'em. Everybody knew everybody. I'd walk up Hollywood Boulevard and they'd say, 'There goes the little Gage boy.' Nowadays you have to keep looking over your shoulder."

Of necessity, Gage moved to Woodland Hills, but still challenges anyone "to prove they were born on the boulevard. I'll also challenge any piano tuner on the planet. . . ." But that's another story.

Japanese Poetry Is Visual Experience With 17 Sounds Spaced Five-Seven-Five

A haiku is five

Syllables and then seven

Followed by five more.

This, then, is the immutable, perdurable poetry form of Japan, 17 sounds spaced 5-7-5. It's "constrictive," conceded Mimi Bond of San Diego, but "lyrical; the reader participates by filling in the picture."

Bond was kind enough to send along three of her own, collectively called "Haiku for Lovers," to wit:

A lovers' quarrel

He slams the door, shattering

The chrysanthemums.

We leave the tavern.

Grey cat purrs against my leg.

Ah! The fur of love.

Kiss in the garden.

Into the pond, a frog plops.

Startled lovers smile.

"While these three poems are not strictly classical Japanese Haiku," Bond wrote, "they do, I hope, evoke imagery in the reader's imagination." Oh, they do, they do--especially the last one, with its "plops" and all--and the little prose-verses set us wondering:

Does the haiku lend itself more comfortably to Japanese, as iambic pentameter (or even doggerel) does to English? Are there cabals of Americans busy working out the lacy patterns of the haiku or does one work in monastic silence? Is 17 a mystical number or something?

We called Bond at home.

A man told us she was gone,

Touring in Japan.

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