The intriguing story of Joba Chamberlain, a twenty-one year old sensation with the New York Yankees, has immense human appeal. Let me present part of the story in the moving words of Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal Star. I include virtually Christopherson’s entire article because the details of this wonderful story are worth savoring.
“The eyes of Harlan Chamberlain were flickering. He had dared to dream this moment could arrive and now it was being realized. On this Friday afternoon, almost 8,000 fans had filled Haymarket Park to watch his boy, Joba, pitch for Nebraska in an NCAA tournament game. “This is awesome. What a blessing,” said Harlan, scanning the ballpark with a prideful look. “My God! Look at all these people.” [Harlan, a Winnebago Native America,] said these words as he sat in a motor scooter overlooking the third-base line. His legs are crippled. Polio has ravaged the left side of his body, slowly making it deteriorate over the years. He can’t hear out of his left ear because of the disease. And still, the son will tell you, the man is stronger than most men who walk without a limp. “He exudes confidence more so than I do in myself sometimes,” Joba said. “He’s my stepping stone and building block for everything I’ve done in my life.” While pitching, Joba will sometimes look up to the stands and gives a secret signal. It’s intended only for Dad and isn’t to be shared with others.”He’s not only my dad, he’s my best friend,” Joba said. On Friday, whenever Illinois-Chicago would threaten to put runs across on Joba, that friendly voice would dominate the air: “Let’s shut ‘em down, son.” And when the son did shut ‘em down, the father would howl: “Yeeeeeeeeeah. Yesssssir, buddy!”
The man deserved to howl. When Joba was a boy, Harlan would sit in his scooter and play catch with his son for about 25 to 30 hours a week. The father would catch the ball in a glove on his right hand. Then, he’d take the glove off and throw the ball from that same hand.”It was something I could do,” Harlan said. “I couldn’t really go out and shoot a basketball with him, but I could sit there and throw ball after ball.” Baseball was breakfast, lunch and dinner. When Joba was really young, Harlan thought his son was sometimes scared of the ball. So he bought some catcher equipment for $3 at a garage sale. He put the equipment on the boy and threw at him until he didn’t flinch.”I used to throw at his legs, his head, his chest, everywhere,” he said. While Joba was always a fairly good ballplayer–he hit .505 one high school season–the Lincoln Northeast product didn’t even pitch until his senior year of high school. “He could always throw hard. But that’s just what he was, a hard thrower,” Harlan said. He was a good enough thrower to play at the University of Nebraska at Kearney last year. But he wasn’t a good enough pitcher to sport better than a 3-7 record for the Lopers. “What woke my son up is when he got to UNK and realized everyone he’s pitching against is someone’s all-star somewhere,” Harlan said. Over the summer, however, Joba began to turn some flab to muscle. He strengthened his off-speed pitches. Confidence budded. He began to pitch. He came over to Nebraska last fall and earned a starting spot for the Huskers. By the Big 12 season, the sophomore was regarded as Nebraska’s ace. During the season, he compiled an 8-2 record and was National Player of the Week once in February. Said Harlan: “I’ll have people come up to me before games now and say, “So, your son is throwing tonight?” And though they won’t know I’m correcting them, I’ll say, Well, yeah, he is pitching.’” And you best believe people are always coming up to Harlan at Husker games. Everyone wants to tap him on the shoulder and say hello or ask how he’s doing. Before Friday’s game, one guy who seemingly had never met him asked: “How many Ks today?” Harlan responded: “Well, I dunno. How many ever the Good Lord gives us. “Turned out Joba would get four strikeouts. He pitched 5.1 innings–bothered by a right hand he injured fielding a grounder early in the game–and didn’t factor into the decision.
That people could care so much about his son is quite unbelievable Harlan. “I’ll have people I don’t know come up and say, “I think you’re awesome” or We’ve been praying for Joba,’” he said. “Those people to wouldn’t have to say anything. They get nothing for it. But they do it anyway.” Of course, Harlan also goes out of his way to communicate with the people. During the seventh-inning stretch of the game, he flailed his arms at the crowd like a choir director while “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” played. At one point, he also shared with those around him one of his son’s superstitions. “See that gum out there on the mound behind the rubber?” Harlan asked. “Joba puts a piece of gum out there after each inning. If he doesn’t do it, he’s in trouble. He’s very superstitious.” . . . .
He was a guy given what most would consider a terrible lot in life, acquiring polio before his first birthday. His family couldn’t afford the expenses to treat the polio. He ended up leaving the Winnebago Indian Reservation and living in many foster homes. That all came only after spending more than six years in a Lincoln’s children hospital. He’s had numerous surgeries since. And perhaps worst, because of his sickness, he was separated from his brothers and sisters. But yet there was his one brother, Keith, at the game on Friday. Joba’s success, it turns out, has helped bring a family once forced apart closer together. Their sister, Judy, was following the game on the Internet from Texas. So when Joba said after the game that “a lot of dreams are coming true,” he didn’t seem to be speaking for just himself. After all, three years ago, while Harlan was working as a staffer at a Husker regional baseball game he allowed his mind to wander for a few minutes. “I was sitting there dreaming about the possibility of Joba playing here one day,” Harlan said. “Now, that it’s come to pass … “His eyes were still flickering.’” Harlan’s dreams came true and then some.
Because I have dear friends in Lincoln, Nebraska,
where I lived for three years in the early to mid-seventies, stories about this hospitable city on the plains typically trigger memories of a place and time I still cherish. My last year in Lincoln, while collecting unemployment insurance, I worked part-time as a bouncer in a bar. The bar–Casey’s–was a favorite watering hole for a diverse group of people, and indeed, I hung out there even when I wasn’t working. But money, for me, was scarce and at one point I didn’t have a place to stay. One evening I was talking with some of the folks in Casey’s about the possibilities of finding a room. One of them kindly said to me “You can move in with me if you want.” That guy was Harlan Chamberlain and we lived together for three months. No, Harlan never taught me how to pitch. But if his generosity had been less pronounced–who knows?–I might have had the supremely unwanted experience of living as a street person. Thanks, in part, to Harlan, I was able to make it through that year before moving to Evanston, Illinois to teach philosophy at Northwestern University.
For me the story of Harlan and Joba is so precious, partly because it illustrates an indomitable spirit possible to overcome and even thrive in adversity. But more importantly, because of the relationship Harlan has nurtured with his son, the story has authentic resonance for intimate family relations generally. Any father, whose child considers him to be his best friend, has succeeded as a father par excellence. Harlan deserves the rewards of his efforts which, of course, include Joba’s pitching successes. But even more important than baseball, Harlan has raised a child whose connection to his father is as solid as a rock. That’s the true success here and the real heart of this compelling story.