Baseball Memories and Other Observations

My wife finally got her way.  I recently cleaned out our storage room and worked through everything, identifying the good, the bad and the ugly.  As always, there was a bunch of stuff that could be sold and I have since worked steadily to list the items on Ebay.  Among the items I found was a collection of my childhood baseball mitts.  I initially wanted to list them too on Ebay, but valuations were hard to come by, making a realistic asking price tough to determine.  I decided to ponder the dilemma overnight and in doing so, I realized that each mitt had stories to tell and memories to trigger.

The first mitt I had as a kid (I was about 8 or 9 years old) was a Wilson Ted Williams model outfielder’s glove dating from the late 1930’s.  It came my way when my parents looked at a summer cottage in Croton, New York.  While we inspected the cottage, I spied the glove sitting in the garage.  The seller noticed my interest and soon offered to give it to me.  I eagerly accepted and had my first ever baseball mitt.    And, incidentally, my parents did purchase the cottage.

 

There actually was much more to this than I am letting on.  I later discovered from the seller, an older widow who had a second cottage next door, that the glove had belonged to one of her sons, who had been killed in World War II.  She spoke of him often, as I think back over it.  At the time, I was young and not yet educated (What was World War II anyway? Or, more philosophically, what did it mean to grieve?) but instead had begun to develop the tendency toward self absorption that plagues most of us.  The sense of her gesture was totally lost on me at the time.

Today, I wonder what emotions went into giving away that glove.  Why did she give it to someone she barely knew?  Was I viewed a surrogate for a lost child, using the mitt in his stead and thereby giving him a second life?  At the time, all of this was something written about in books, and few engaged in such contemplation.  Ordinary people simply worked to get by, rising on rare occasions to a powerful, if unappreciated, gesture of kindness and generosity.

The glove itself impacted my dreams of playing baseball.  It was an adult size mitt that engulfed my small hands.  Further, it was a glove that major league players of the 1930’s actually used (I later found a picture of the young Ted Williams using a glove like it).  Its design was far from what is used today.  The ball was caught in the pocket, and if the user calculated the trajectory poorly, the ball was likely to bounce off the oversized padded heel and roll away.  This design explained one of the most commonly heard exhortations heard on the baseball diamonds of the day.  Dads and coaches would yell, “Use two hands!” seemingly perpetually.  It was no use in my case.  I made a ton of errors and naturally blamed it on the glove.  I should have recognized the first clue that I wasn’t destined for baseball fame

I Become A Dodger Fan

Around this same time, I became aware of the usual kid pastimes and started collecting baseball cards and rooting for a local major league team.  We lived in New York at the time, in a tenement on Manhattan’s East Side.  New York then had three teams, the Yankees, the Giants and the Dodgers.  Who you rooted for was a major decision, much influenced by which borough in which you lived.  Manhattan, or at least the section I lived in, was largely filled with Giants fans.  To buck that trend ran significant social risks.

My dad was a bartender for his entire working life.  At this time, he worked in a pretty gritty place, but he did well by it in tips and the occasional gift from a customer who wished to express his gratitude for getting stronger than normal drinks and getting the occasional freebie.   Mobsters were always my Dad’s favorite customers.  “Always give them a bit extra in the drink and they take care of you”, he said, meaning they were big tippers.

One evening, my dad came home with a gift for me that he had gotten from one of his customers.  It was a shiny, brand new jacket.  The assumption was that it had fallen off the truck, to use the vernacular of the day, and that my dad’s customer had arranged the heist.  The problem was that the jacket said Dodgers on the front.  I was aghast.  What would the other kids (all Giants fans) say?  What trouble would wearing it cause me?  I stupidly asked my dad if I could get a Giant’s jacket instead.  The word came back quickly that I would take this one and like it. In those days, we didn’t have the money to be choosy.

So, take it I did and the abuse was piled on at school.  I tried to explain that I was actually NOT a Dodger fan, but no one could believe that a Giants fan would ever wear a Dodgers jacket.  Soon I gave up trying to convince them.  I took the teasing with the knowledge that the jacket would soon be outgrown, but eventually I just reconciled myself to becoming a Dodger fan.

Actually, it wasn’t a bad trade off.  The Dodgers had just won their first World Series in 1955 and beat out a young Braves team to get into the World Series the next year.  The Giants on the other hand, were on the downswing, with lots of aging players, the great Willie Mays being the exception.  The team spent the next couple of years battling tail-enders like the Pirates and Cubs to avoid last place.  That only changed when the Giants got to San Francisco and added the likes of Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda and the Alou brothers. 

The Yankees of course were royalty and seemed to be in the World Series every year, so much so that the fan debate was always which National League team would get to face them.   Despite that, few in our neighborhood rooted for them.   The word on the street was that you only rooted for the Yankees if you were the occasional fan who knew next to nothing about baseball.  Like Notre Dame in football, the Yankees were the team for those who had only a nodding acquaintance with the game.

A Trip to the Ballpark

I attended my first baseball game in 1956, when my dad took me (after much pleading) to Ebbets Field to see the Dodgers play the Giants.  The teams remained bitter rivals despite the different records of success, so this promised to be a great experience.  Ironically, today I remember very little about the game, not who pitched, not who homered and not even who won.   It’s funny what I do remember.  Two things stand out, one in the stadium and the other outside it.  Inside, the event etched in my memory involved the legendary Jackie Robinson. Robinson made an out to end an inning and took off his batting helmet to put on his baseball cap back on.  His hair was snow white!  This absolutely amazed me.  To a nine year old, it never occurred to me that there might be players so old that their hair had turned.  Of course Robinson was still in his 30’s, which hardly qualified as old, but to a kid my age, white hair meant you were ready to collect Social Security.

The second event was more meaningful.   I cajoled my dad to give me fifty cents to buy a souvenir after the game.   The stadium was surrounded by vendors, so I had plenty of choices.  I finally settled on a fellow who sold buttons with a player’s picture on it.   The button I settled on (after much coaxing from the vendor, who every few minutes would say, “Are you going to buy something or not, kid?”) depicted the Dodger’s ace pitcher, Don Newcombe.  I paid my fifty cents and walked away with the treasured button.

Don Newcombe (called affectionately Big Newk) was one of the premiere pitchers in the National League in the 1950’s.  He had a big wind-up and was a true power pitcher.  He was the Dodger’s pitching leader over most of the decade and peaked in 1956 with 27 wins.  Today he is much underrated.

I ascribe this to the idiocy of the sportswriters of the time.  I don’t know who it was, but one of them started to write that Newk was “gutless,” whatever that means.  The implication, I guess, was that he didn’t finish his games.  While he didn’t lead the league in this category, his numbers are more than respectable.   Never mind that, other writers picked up on it, and a negative reputation was made.

As an aside, there is nothing as silly as a writer who gets on one of these jags.  My favorite story of all time on this involves basketball’s Calvin Murphy, an undersized guard who played at Niagara University.  Murphy had a career average of 33 points a game and once scored 68 points against Syracuse.  Calvin scored from all over and single handedly took the Niagara program to post season contention.  To score a lot, you need to shoot a lot.  So Calvin would go 20 for 40 and get his points.  A sportswriter at the time criticized Murphy for missing 20 shots.  “That’s a lot of shots to miss,” he wrote.  The writer, by zeroing in on the one questionable number in Murphy’s portfolio, inadvertently proved Mark Twain’s famous remark that there are lies, damned lies and statistics.

In any case, I ran to my dad who was waiting nearby, eager to show him my purchase.  He was greatly displeased, and asked why I picked Newcombe.  “ You should have chosen Stan Musial instead.”  I was puzzled by this.  Wasn’t Newcombe a Dodger and Musial a Cardinal?  Why would I pick Musial?   No time was wasted to fill me in.  Newcombe was a (fill in the N word).

This was sadly normal language to use.  No one ever asked why we called someone that.  If they did, the disappointing answer would probably be “Well, that’s what they are”.  It was a different time and people had derogatory language for almost every group.  Jews were Kikes, Poles were Polocks (that was us), Italians were Ginnies or Wops , Irish were Micks and so on.  Each group seemed to have a latent animus toward the others.   They did, however, find common ground in African Americans.  All the groups disliked them for some reason.

Discrimination was rampant and all groups experienced some of it.  Again, African-Americans had it the worst.  I remember another story from my youth that show the depth of the problem.  We had family friends, actually a girlhood friend of my mom’s who had married a painter (houses not art) named Joe Robinson.  I recall Joe as a lively guy who could always make people laugh.  We would say he was good company.  The place where Joe worked was unionized and Joe decided to run for shop steward.  The company had painters of all races, although Joe was white.  He lost the election big time.  He found out afterwards that many white painters didn’t vote for him, because they thought anyone named Joe Robinson must be black.

I Get a New Glove

My second baseball mitt arose from my attachment to the Dodgers.  The Ted Williams glove wasn’t working and I needed to get something up to date.  One of my good friends had a Wilson Billy Loes model glove that I admired, and that influenced my thinking some.  I didn’t want Loes, who had by then been traded away from the Dodgers, so I settled on something even better.  The new glove was a Clem Labine model.  Labine, of course, was a star reliever for the Dodgers in a period where star relievers were few and far between.

I was admittedly unsophisticated in the art of mitt selection and inadvertently I had wound up with a pitchers glove, which, while a definite improvement on the old Williams, it was, well, designed for a pitcher and less user friendly than infielder or outfielder gloves.  Think about it – how much fielding does a pitcher do?  Mostly it’s picking up bunts and covering first base.  In other words, it wouldn’t be built to be demanding.

As I read what I just wrote, I recognize it may be a bunch of malarkey, but suffice it to say my fielding didn’t improve with the new glove.  I guess I shouldn’t have blamed the glove after all for my fielding problems.  Maybe I should just become a pitcher, to limit my exposure.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t practical.  Pitcher was where everyone wanted to play and usually the best athlete got the job (I knew that wasn’t me).  Besides, throwing was another area in which I was challenged.  I think I had the worst arm in the neighborhood.  I had the potential to turn into a one-pitch guy with a 50 MPH fastball, who couldn’t throw strikes.  It didn’t sound promising.

I was clearly running out of options.  I couldn’t field and couldn’t throw.  In all honesty, my hitting was also sub-par and I ran as “slow as molasses in January”.  (I use this expression to salute the 50’s and 60’s, which was the last time it was popular.  Today, people probably don’t even understand what it means).  In retrospect, I was starting to remind myself of Harry Wismer, the owner of the New York Titans football team in the old AFL, who once boasted he would have been a great football player if he were able to run, pass or catch.

I Become a Catcher (For a Few Minutes)

This conundrum led me to acquire my third and final childhood glove.  It was a Sammy White model catcher’s mitt.  I recognized that I had many of the attributes of the catchers of the day, so maybe that would be a position I could fill.  After all, I did have the speed of Gus Triandos and the bat of Hobie Landrith.  Catching didn’t seem to require a lot of complicated fielding.  I didn’t ponder the need to throw, since no one ever seemed to throw anyone out in my sand lot games.  In fact, it was sometimes better not to attempt a throw, which would often wind up in centerfield with the runner taking an extra base.

So, I got the catcher’s mitt.  Why I picked a Sammy white model, I am not sure.  By then, he had been traded to the Phillies from the Red Sox, and was never a real star to start with.  I suspect it was because I got some sort of discount on it, though I honestly don’t remember. 

Despite the new catcher’s mitt, I soon found out that maybe it wasn’t what I wanted after all.  The mitt was built to take every pitch in the pocket, meaning every pitch hurt like heck.  I tried the usual wisdom and put a foam piece between my hand and the mitt, but I felt very little relief.   I have always viewed pain in sports as God’s way of telling you that you are overdoing it.  Who was I to argue with God?  The conclusion was obvious.   I needed to recognize that baseball wasn’t in the stars for me and move on to other things.

That was the sad end to my baseball mitt saga, but pondering it allowed me to relish a few meaningful moments from my past.    I’m now thinking that maybe I won’t sell my old gloves after all.