I lived to play baseball.
Growing up in New England, I had several professional baseball teams to choose from. We lived close to New York City. In those days, the New York Giants were still there at the Polo Grounds, as were the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. And of course, there were the dreaded New York Yankees at the original Yankee Stadium, called “The House that Ruth Built.” Just up the coast were the hapless Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. I was a die-hard Dodgers fan. There were no New York Mets then.
I had accumulated a sizeable baseball card collection. I had Nellie Fox, Mickey Mantle, Moose Skowrun, Yogi Berra, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Whitey Ford, and the list of my boyhood heroes goes on. No doubt you have all heard folks like me intone a lament with hang-dog face that goes something like this: “If I had those baseball cards today . . . . I could retire!” I’ve been heard to say the same thing about my childhood comic book collection.
The first of June was always very exciting for me. There were so many wonderful experiences to be enjoyed in the next few months. Memorial Day Parade. School would be letting out in early June. Little League was in full swing (pun intended). Flag Day. The Fourth of July. The All-Star break came in July. To be perfectly honest, I could hardly sleep at night knowing I would be joining my buddies the next morning to play baseball.
Anybody could play. Living just outside New York City, we had kids from every ethnic group, background, and belief system. Dominic, Frankie, and Ritchie were Italian-American. Seymour and Mitch were Jewish. Arthur and Terry were Black. Johnny, Gene and Peter were Irish-American. None of us cared about all that. We just loved to play baseball.
If there weren’t enough guys to play a game, we’d play “Flies Up.” This was great fun. It was actually called, “Three Flies and You’re Up.” What this meant is you stayed in the batters-box until you had hit three fly balls that were caught. Then the next guys would step in to bat, and you would grab your mitt (short for mitten) and head for the outfield. We would play for hours. After my step-father came home in the evening, we’d play “catch” in the backyard. I loved that.
As you have undoubtedly surmised, I’ve been reflecting on those days recently. They are warm, comfortable memories. I can still smell the linseed oil we used on our baseball gloves to keep them moist and supple. We’d tighten the leather thongs that held the various oversized fingers together. Then we’d place a baseball in the palm of the glove and curl the glove around the ball, using rubber bands, to create the “perfect pocket.”
We didn’t have much money, and baseballs were expensive, something like $1.50 to $1.95 each. So, after we had hit a ball until the leather cover was ripping off, we’d grab a roll of black electricians tape and wind it around the ball which would last us for a few more days.
My Dodgers won the World Series in 1955. It was glorious! It was especially sweet because the Yankees didn’t win it for a change. Just in my brief life the Yankees had won the World Series in 1949, 50, 51, 52, 53, 56, 58, 61, and 62. In fact, they have won the World Series twenty-six times. It was about time my Dodgers, known then as the “Brooklyn Bums,” won the big prize. Even today, I still don’t like the Yankees! I root for any team that is playing them.
Probably the saddest day in my life in those years came in 1958. I kept hearing that the Dodgers were going to move to California. What? How could this be? The world as I knew it was about to change – forever. I remember asking my step-father about this. He was a long-suffering Red Sox fan. How he would have loved to see his Red Sox last fall destroy the Yankees on their way to becoming World Series Champions after an 86 year draught! Anyway, I said, “I’m hearing that the Dodgers are moving to Los Angeles. Is this true?” He said it was. I said, “Can they do that?” He assured me that they could.
I was stunned. The universe was out of alignment. The earth was knocked off its axis. Stars plummeted from the sky. I fell into a blue funk.
The “Bums,” indeed, moved to Los Angeles. The Giants moved to San Francisco. Why couldn’t the Yankees have moved – to the dark side of the moon?
My baseball days died an ignominious death two summers later when my step-father, venturing into a new business, moved the whole family to Paris, France. I packed my glove and favorite black baseball bat. I needn’t have bothered. The French don’t play baseball. I reverently placed my bat and glove in the closet, and learned to play soccer. My mortification was complete. I was now a lost soul.
Those summer days in the ‘50s were good days. I miss them.