Sunday, May 20, 2001

Tribute to a fan

Irv Bollinger had a lifetime love of the game

By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I lost a friend last Sunday. I didn't know it until Monday night when I arrived home from covering the Reds game and learned from my voice mail that Irv Bollinger had passed away at 90.

The Enquirer honored Irv Bollinger in 1999.
        There was something about Irv. One of my favorite things about Cincinnati is its baseball fans — and for me, Irv typified them ... the best of them. I never heard Irv say — not even once — that he was turned off to baseball because of the amount of money the players make nowadays. Money has affected the sport, no doubt, in the players switching teams so frequently, in TV dictating the late starting times of World Series games, in the inability of the smaller-revenue teams to compete for a World Championship. I'm sure Irv complained about those things — as have I, as has every other fan — but Irv didn't stop following baseball avidly because of it. He knew that the game is the thing.

        Irv loved baseball, because it was part of him, growing up as he did as a young sandlot player in Fairview Heights, where he watched the 1919 World Series through the lens of a telescope set up by a friend on Fairview overlook. Two years ago, when I was working on a story about Irv, I went over to Roy Tailors Uniforms where old Crosley Field used to be.I looked up at the hill. I couldn't see eight-year-old Irv and his buddies gathered around that telescope, but I knew they were there.

        Irv brought Crosley Field alive for me. I never had the opportunity to go there. From Irv, I received my first real sense of what the Sun Deck was like, when I heard him describe hearing Edd Roush call off the right fielder named Burns on a ball hit in the gap: “Take it George!” The Sun Deck was right on top of the center fielder and right fielder, and you felt as though you were there. During a Saturday game at Crosley Field in the late 1950s, when rain combined with the cool night air and set the 140-pound Irv to shaking, his four sons wrapped him in the only thing available — newspapers. That was Irv. What, leave your seats and miss a great game? Stan the Man Musial was in town that night.

        I knew from day one that Cincinnati youth baseball was great, a tremendous producer of college and pro players, many of them major leaguers. But it wasn't until I learned from Irv's friends that he ran 19 teams each season in the 1950s that I truly understood how one relatively small city could do it. There wasn't a single future major leaguer among Irv's players — at least not that Irv knew of — but it was Irv's dedication to the game, typical of the older generation's, that created the climate that fostered the culture that produced an inordinate number of major leaguers. Not until I read Irv's obituary in Tuesday's paper, though, did I learn my favorite thing about Irv:, in 1953, one of his teams was denied entry into the city tournament because he had allowed a girl to play.

        Irv was a master craftsman, taking his first full-time job as a lamp repairman for Cincinnati Gas & Electric in the late 1920s, later parlaying his skills as a carpenter into a variety of jobs around town, while also helping his wife, Virginia, raise their four sons and two daughters. I always thought there would be a good book in tracing the building of Cincinnati and the Reds franchise through the eyes of Irv — through his life, the everyday life of a Reds fan. That chance is gone now. The best stories are the ones you let slip by.

        Still, it was great getting to know you, Irv. You reminded me that baseball's not only about the players; it's about the game. I loved that twinkle in your eye when you talked about wanting to see Great American Ball Park in 2003. The first game you saw was at Redland Field in 1920, a game that was preceded by a Reds' oldtimers' game. I figured that you had seen, in one form or another, every great Reds player of the 20th century.

        For this, and for Irv's involvement in youth baseball, we named him in 1999 The Enquirer's “Fan of the Century.” I didn't know until last Thursday how vocal Irv could be at the ballpark. At the funeral service, family and friends talked about Irv being the original trash-talker, but always funny. The Reds opponents always knew when Irv was in the ballpark — as well they should. He didn't boo the Reds unless one of them was dogging it.

        Irv brightened a lot of lives, and the words of a Guy Clark song came to me when I was thinking about Irv the other day, the way he loved baseball, family gatherings and singing.

        “Oh the sun was hot and the dust rose up like smoke. So we hid beneath the elm tree, watched the watermelons float, there in a big ol' tub of ice. We'd split 'em open with a kitchen knife, and everybody got a slice. It was a watermelon dream.

        “Ain't nothing sweeter than a watermelon dream, 'cept sittin' on the front porch eatin' that peach ice cream. When life is really sweeter than it seems, that's what you got to call a watermelon dream. With sticky hands and faces, we fought the yellow jackets to a draw, then we used the rinds for second base and played a little hardball.”

        Thanks for sharing the view, Irv. You made it sweet.


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