By Father Gabe Costa
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Guest blogger Mr. Ray Aumack has written for this blog in the past. In this installment of By The Numbers, Ray invites us to take a trip down Memory Lane.
Ray Aumack: It is a day when multi millionaires prance around the baseball field like European royalty on a polo field. It is a litigious time when team owners and players organize lockouts and strikes in battles over labor relations. For better or for worse, individual players are hailed like the stars of the studio movie era.
It is a time when the cost of tickets for a family to watch these guys play is greater than three weeks of my father’s paychecks. To keep perspective on a game that America continues to love, it is important for me to look back on my experience of watching major league baseball.
There was an era from the 1920s to the forties when the stands would be filled with gentlemen fans dressed in double breasted suits and fedora hats, an attire as much required for a baseball game as a tuxedo was required for an opera. These fans could lose themselves in a baseball game to shield themselves from the harsh realities of life of the period. At a time when you could barely muster enough money to feed your family, you could still find enough money to buy a ticket to a game. They were that inexpensive.
When I was eight years old in 1945, I can remember arguments with my friends about who was better among the players. We knew all the players on all sixteen major league teams and their batting averages on any given day. We had baseball cards that were printed on the backs of Dixie Cup covers, four ounce ice cream containers. You kept your favorite players and with the duplicates played a game of flipping the cards with your friends. If you flipped your card with the player’s face up and your opponent did not, you won his card. It was later on that we had the rectangular cards in full color from bubble gum brands and Dixie Cup covers were relegated to movie stars.
And the players were great. There was a recent documentary with Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto discussing their fellow Yankees. When they talked about outfielders, Hall of Famer, Reggie Jackson, who was part of the discussion, asked where he would fit in that outfield. Rizzuto laughed and said that he would not have made that team. Yogi said that maybe he would be the fifth or sixth outfielder. Yogi then talked about Gene Woodling, Hank Bauer, Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, and Cliff Mapes. Mapes had an arm like a cannon. He could catch a ball in the outfield, read all the words on the label and still throw out a runner from third base with a perfect strike. Reggie was a great ballplayer but he played in a different era when there were more major league teams and the level of talent was watered down a bit.
Not only were they great players, many of them were distinguished combat veterans who donated the prime of their careers to the defense of our country in WW II. The best of the era, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, and Stan Musial were among many others who gave up three years at the peak of their abilities. Yogi himself repeatedly drove landing crafts onto the Normandy beachhead during the invasion of Europe. These guys were not shrinking violets who bailed out of games for a hangnail. They were special and you can see why they were our heroes. Their baseball script was written on the pages of heroism.
When I was eight years old I had pneumonia in the fall. These were the days before antibiotics and pneumonia was a life threatening illness. My father bought a portable radio, an inappropriate luxury for the time, and I would listen to the ball games each afternoon while my mother napped at the foot of the bed.
I was a Yankee fan. We also had the Giants and the Dodgers in New York. I knew every player on those teams and their place in the lineup. We never really hated the opposition except when the Yankees played the Dodgers or the Giants, and then only in the World Series. The Yankees and the Giants played each other every year in the Mayor’s trophy game. We always enjoyed the quality of the baseball they played and some of them are my favorite players to this day.
I have great memories of the baseball games where I was actually present. I remember a game I attended with one of my brothers. It was against the Baltimore Orioles. Both teams were vying for first place in the American league. Mickey Mantle had been publicly chewed our by Casey Stengel for blowing bubble gum bubbles while he was on base. Those were the days when the more spectacular foibles of players were ignored and even covered up by the press. Blowing bubbles on base was a big thing, though.
Mantle was booed uncharacteristically during his first at bat. He hit the first pitch so hard it never went more than ten feet off the ground and if you blinked your eye you would not have seen it smash into one of the seats in the right field stands. He walked in his second at-bat. Two innings later he singled to center field. The game was tied in the last of the ninth when Mantle came to the plate, this time to cheers. We were seated directly behind the plate with an expansive view of the field, the same perspective that the catcher had. Mantle was batting right handed this time. He hit a ball that went so high I thought it would go out of the stadium.
I swear that it was hit higher than the light towers in the old Yankee Stadium. The ball soared over the 365 foot marker in right center field and finally fell at the back of the bull pen about a foot from the outside wall. Mantle was forgiven for blowing bubble gum. The cheers were ecstatic. The Yankees took first place with a walk off home run. Mantle crossed the plate with his head down and touched the brim of his cap to the crowd, his traditional reaction to the cheers. I still remember the thrill of being a spectator at that game.
When I was in grammar school we had easy access to Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium, the home of the Jersey Giants of the International League. This was a triple A league and most of the players from our two local teams, the Jersey Giants and the Newark Bears, eventually made it to the majors.
My friends and I went to many games at Roosevelt Stadium. One of our neighbors, the brother of one of my grammar school classmates, Lou Scalfane, played second base for the Giants. He was the local hero and the one for whom we cheered. But the game I remember best was one where the Giants pulled off one of the most spectacular plays in baseball. Monte Irvin was on third base. There were two outs and the score was tied. I was watching Irvin very carefully as he took his lead at third base, a lead he extended just a little after every pitch.
Then it happened. The pitcher blinked and by the time his eyelid was open again, Irvin was halfway home. He slid in safely and the crowd went wild. I close my eyes and picture the sequence now almost sixty-five years after it happened and relive every moment of the thrill.
We didn’t have Little League in those days. We had to learn how to play baseball on our own. No one taught us how to hit or catch. We just kept trying until we became good at it. We organized our own teams and played in local leagues. We imitated the stances of our favorite players while batting. I always thought I could hit like Joe DiMaggio if I imitated his stance. It never really worked for me but it never discouraged me from enjoying the game.
Nowadays, the costs are so prohibitive; kids can’t go to baseball games at random like we did. When my children were little, my wife and I used to take them to Shea Stadium to see the Mets play. Those were the days when the Mets were really an exciting team to watch.
My wife is a rabid baseball fan and used to take the kids and their friends to Yankee Stadium on opening day and frequently throughout the season. My children will have these memories for the rest of their lives.
My boys were pretty good baseball players. One boasted hitting the longest homerun in a high school game at Skylands Stadium, a minor league stadium in north Jersey. Of course, the stadium was only open for about a month but that doesn’t change a lifetime memory. Another son still plays in a summer league in his 30’s on a team that he organizes and savors and enjoys every minute of the experience. One of my daughters played varsity softball in high school and was on a team that won the north Jersey championship. Another daughter became renowned for hitting towering home runs in a community league but never really got into the sport. However, I heard her telling my grandson the other day about her hitting ability.
I always enjoyed watching my children play ball. One day I was watching my son play ball in a community league and I was chatting with a fellow who was there to watch his grandson. We were having a good time and I introduced myself. I had recognized him and couldn’t place him so I told him my name and that I was embarrassed that I couldn’t remember his name. “My name is Larry Doby,” he said. Immediately the memory of the first major league game I attended flashed before me. I was eight years old and my aunt and uncle took my brother and me to Yankee Stadium to see the Yankees play the Cleveland Indians. I said, “Mr. Doby, I was present when you first appeared in Yankee Stadium.”
“That was not a good day,” he said. “I struck out three times.”
I couldn’t believe he remembered that but I did as well. He laughed heartedly when I told him I was impressed with his mighty swing.
He was the first black man to play in a major league game in Yankee Stadium. I remember how the crowd booed him. I asked my aunt why he was being booed. He hadn’t done anything bad yet. She told me that he was playing the same position as the great Joe DiMaggio and the crowd was just letting him know who their hero was.
I thanked him for all the great baseball memories and his tolerance for putting up with everything that it took to break the American League racial barriers. He told me that he appreciated that and thanked me for an enjoyable afternoon.
We collected our children and went our separate ways.
A few months later he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
What are your favorite MLB memories? Let us know in the comments below…