Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Baseball, Ball Players, & Family

The first time I that I remember baseball playing a big part in my life I was about four years old. We lived in Corona, Long Island, New York. My whole family lived less than a mile from each other. Somebody was over somebody's house at any time any day. I went over my Aunt Tessie's apartment in a two family house for some reason or another. My Aunt Tessie was a die hard Brooklyn Dodger fan even though we lived in Queens. But she loved Cookie Lavagetto. She always sang, "Lookie, Lookie, Lookie here comes Cookie!". But her son Tommy, was a Yankee fan and had pictures of Joe DiMaggio all over his room. I idolized my older uncles and cousins. I walked into his room and the radio was blaring the Yankee game, Mel Allen was shouting something like"A Ballantine Blast!". My cousin was happy. I was happy. The Yankees won. It seemed to me that the Yankees always won and the Dodgers always lost but had a good excuse if you listened to my Aunt. My Uncle Rock might have been a New York Giant fan but I think he just liked to argue with the Yankee and Dodger fans, or I should say needle them whenever he could. Everybody in my family liked Baseball and when they talked Baseball they were happy so it was easy for me to like being happy so I gravitated towards Baseball. My family also idolized guys like Joe D., Cookie, and all other Italians who were making good. Back in the day the Italians weren't accepted so readily by our fellow Americans so having the Ball Players doing some heroic, athletic things was a good thing for us Italian-Americans. I had other heroes like the heavyweight champ and American hero, Joe Louis. His last name was spelled the same as my first name. But while like every American before and during World War II I idolized him, he wasn't Italian and most important I couldn't fight like he did. So as I said it was easy to be drawn into the world of baseball which by the way I COULD play pretty good!

The first game I saw was around 1942 or 43. My Mother knew how crazy I was for the game but only had radio (no TV back then) she decided that she would take me to see the Brooklyn Dodgers on Ladies Day. Ladies day let the ladies in for free or a quarter and I got in for the kids price which was about a quarter, I'm not sure because I didn't pay she did. She got all gussied up in a pretty dress, nylons or whatever war substitute was available, a nice hat and high heels. We took the subway from Flushing to Brooklyn, a long way with a change or two, for only a nickel each each way. All I remember is Ebbets Field  a real nice small easy field to sit in and watch the game. Almost a decade later I had my try out there. They moved to California in 1957, "dem bums".  Anyway, Chicago Cubs won the game and Stan Hack hit a home run. Hack was a veteran third baseman probably playing because all the young ball players were in the service.

No later than 1944 my cousin Tommy, the one I mentioned at the beginning of this story, took me with a friend of his to see the Yankees play at Yankee Stadium, the one built in 1923. Boy that was a big stadium. I was at a Red Sox game and a Cleveland game when I was older that had 74,000 packed into the place. This was a day game. We drove to Wood-side  Queens and took the Subway to the Bronx with a change or two, and the price was still a nickel, five cents.  My cousin Tom went into the Army shortly after that and was shot up pretty bad in the Battle of The Bulge. Left for dead on the battlefield but finally picked up and brought back for many operations. He still carries some bullets and shrapnel in his 89 year old body. And he still has to fight for his veteran benefits. BUT that's another story for another day. So here we were at Yankee Stadium but Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto and the rest were in the Army. In center field was Johnny Lindell  a converted pitcher. He was about 6'6" tall and he could hit and field. On one play, I can still see it in my mind's eye, he came in for a shoe-string catch (they don't make those catches today) Caught the ball in his glove hand and did a tumble sauce coming up on his feet running in showing the ball in his glove held over his head. I was in love. He was a pretty good player through the glory years that followed for the Yanks and I wore his number whenever I played with a uniform on, number 27. Lindell finished his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates as he started, a pitcher, relief instead of a starter, had a knuckle-ball that was pretty good.

I patterned my stance after DiMaggio. Purchased bats that were too heavy because I read that Babe Ruth used a 44 ounce bat, mine was 36 ounces, 36 length. I knew all the players. There were only 16 teams, 8 in the National and 8 in the American league. Had a stack of cards with pictures on the front and statistics on the back. We'd flip them in a game where the second one who flipped had to match the ones the first one threw. I hardly ever lost. Those cards would be worth a fortune today but my Mom threw them out with all the comic books my brother and I had because she was a neat freak. I say all this with great but bitterly felt love! The years that followed included TV and going to games. The thrill of those games I saw as a kid were never matched. Radio and newspapers were our connection with the game. Marty Glickman, a well known sportscaster of times past, had a 15 minute replay show with recorded and edited game replays which we listened to with great attention even if we heard the game on the radio only a few hours before. Everyone I knew, except for Clifford Von Ark, one of the few guys that got A(s) in school, wanted to be a ball player. The off season was called the "Hot Stove League" because the newspapers said in the "old days" in the winter men would sit around a wood burning stove in the general store and discuss baseball. We didn't have a big heater to sit around but we discussed baseball waiting for spring training to begin.

The was a comedian named Bill Dana who used a made up ballplayer called Jose Jimenez who used to say in a Spanish accent, "Baseball's been very very good to me!", and it always got laughs. But in truth Baseball has been very, very good to me and all the kids I grew up with. The game brought us closer as a family. This family includes my relatives, Father Mother, cousins et. al., and my friends I grew up with. Somehow our love, excitement, many thrills and heroes are all connected to the great game called Baseball.

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