THE UNFORGETTABLE CHARLIE BROWN

THE UNFORGETTABLE CHARLIE BROWN

From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

The Unforgettable Charlie Brown

Charlie Brown was standing on the pitcher’s mound before yet another pounding as his Beethoven-loving catcher went over the signs.

“One finger will mean a fastball, which isn’t very fast anyway,” Schroeder said. “Two fingers will be your curve, which doesn’t curve at all. Three fingers will mean your change-up, which hasn’t fooled anyone yet. Four fingers is a pitchout, but we won’t use that one.”

“Why not?” Charlie Brown asked.

“Everything you throw looks like a pitchout.”

Cartoonist Charles Schulz chose many ways to torture Charlie Brown—having Lucy always pull away the football, entangling him in the kite-eating tree, paralyzing him with fear before the little redheaded girl. Yet his favorite motif was baseball. Over his fifty years of drawing “Peanuts,” Schulz made Charlie Brown the game’s most lovable loser.

No pitcher yielded more homers or squandered more games as a manager. Line drives disrobed him. Fastballs baffled him. He didn’t need a tape measure for his team’s home runs because, he muttered, “Our hits can be measured quite adequately with an eighteen-inch ruler.”

Charlie Brown got so tired of his team’s ineptitude that one day he ran a classified ad, searching for a new managerial job. He received one reply—from his own team.

But the losing finally ended for Charlie Brown on February 12, 2000, when Schulz died from colon cancer at the age of seventy-seven. Baseball gave Schulz his most longstanding device. He gave back by giving us some of its best laughs.

Charlie Brown’s team, the losingest, silliest, what-in the-world-are-they-doingest of all time, lost all but a handful of games over fifty years, sometimes 40–0, 123–0, even 200–0. His classic double-play combo featured Snoopy catching balls in his mouth and spitting them to his second baseman Linus, who toted his ever-present security blanket.

Charlie Brown’s favorite player, Joe Shlabotnik, once got demoted to Stump town of the Green Grass League after hitting .004. (Shlabotnik later was fired as a manager because he called for a suicide squeeze bunt with the bases empty.) Charlie Brown got so consumed with his baseball failures that the sun, then his own head, turned into a baseball. He asked his psychiatrist, “Is this the last of the ninth?”

In one of his more sadistic moments in the ’60s, Schulz had Charlie Brown’s love for baseball betray him at what could have been his finest moment. In his class spelling bee, he was asked to spell “maze.”

“M-A-Y-S.”

“AAAAUUUUGGGHHH!”

Some years later, Charlie Brown had just given up yet another home run when his fussbudget right fielder, Lucy Van Pelt, walked on to the pitcher’s mound.

“I wonder why I do this,” Charlie Brown grumbled. “I wonder why I stand out here day after day losing all these ball games. Why do I do it?”

“Probably because it makes you happy,” Lucy said. To which a perturbed Charlie Brown yelled, “You always have to be right, don’t you?”

Schulz was unabashed in his love for the game. “I could draw baseball strips every day,” he once said. “It really is funny. Baseball is ideal because little kids do play it at that age, and they aren’t very good. But they do suffer at it.”

Schulz suffered at it, too, growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota. He enjoyed going to St. Paul Saints minor-league games at old Lexington Park and cherished the Ollie Bejma souvenir bat his father bought him in 1938. But his fondest moments came when he played—even though he once did actually lose a game 40–0.

“We had teams that we would just make up in the neighborhood,” Schulz said. “There was no league. We’d find out that some other neighborhood’s kids had a team and so we’d play them.”

It has been said that we are a nation of failed baseball players, and Schulz was no exception. His own persona as the hapless underdog was cast as a good-field, no-hit catcher and third baseman. Later, as a sergeant stationed in Germany during World War II, Schulz got one of the thrills of his life simply by playing a pickup game.

“I was so flattered that these guys should like some unknown guy from Minnesota to be on their team,” Schulz remembered. “Isn’t that funny? Something as totally meaningless as that, really, in the history of mankind and baseball, a game played in an unknown area that didn’t mean a thing, and yet it meant so much to me. That’s what sport does for us.”

The first cartoon Schulz sold after the war displayed a little boy and girl with the caption, “Judy, if your batting average was just a little higher I could really fall in love with you.” He began “Peanuts” in October 1950 and soon began using real baseball events in his work.

In 1962, when Willie McCovey lined out to the Yankees’ Bobby Richardson to lose the World Series for the Giants, Charlie Brown cried to the heavens, “Why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball even two feet higher?” Seven years later, Charlie Brown joined major-league baseball by lowering his pitcher’s mound because, he explained to Lucy, “It seems that we pitchers dominated the game too much last year.” (Lucy walked away howling.) Charlie Brown later wondered if he could trade her to Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley—noted fussbudget himself.

Schulz did finally get a little sentimental in 1993 by allowing Charlie Brown to hit a game-winning home run. “I think it’s a mistake to be unfaithful to your readers,” Schulz said, “always letting them down.” Soon, however, the losing began anew, to the delight of readers of twenty-six hundred newspapers in seventy-five countries and twenty-one languages.

“Winning is not funny,” Schulz explained. “Winning is great, it’s wonderful, but it’s not funny. Victories are fleeting, but losses we always live with.”

Charlie Brown’s will live forever.

Alan Schwarz

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