Inevitably, when people find out I’m from New York, someone will ask, “Are you a Yankees or a Mets fan?” I can honestly answer that I’ve been both.
My earliest recollection of Major League Baseball is the 1960 season. Being undersized and often picked on, I became a Yankees fan because they personified winning, something with which I’d had little experience. I was an avid baseball card collector, and I knew the face and position of every Yankee. I can almost reconstruct a typical lineup without the aid of Google.
I can’t remember who led off, so let’s try a process of elimination. Tony Kubek batted second and played shortstop. Mickey Mantle was in center, batting third. Roger Maris batted cleanup and played right field. The next year he would break Babe Ruth’s single season home run record, albeit with an eight game longer season.
Moose Skowron played first and batted fifth. Yogi Berra and Elston Howard rotated behind the plate. They both may have batted sixth or seventh. Clete Boyer held down third base and probably batted seventh. Bobby Richardson, always stellar at second but never much of a hitter, batted eighth, before pitchers like Whitey Ford, Ralph Terry, and Luis Arroyo. That leaves Héctor López playing left field and batting first.
That’s the way I remember the team. I may be wrong, but as true baseball fans always say, “You can look it up.”
The 1960 season was a heartbreaker for the Yankees. They did fine during the regular season, clinching the American League Pennant early in September. It was the World Series that brought the pain. That was where Bill Mazeroski became the unlikely batting hero who won it for the Pirates with a walkoff home run in Game 7. I cried.
The next year the Yankees had essentially the same team. This was before free agency, and players stuck around—or were held captive by owners—year after year. The Bronx Bombers won the Pennant handily and defeated the Reds in the series. They were my team. And then they weren’t.
Kubek was gone in ‘62, replaced by a guy with the godawful name of Tom Tresh. I hated that name, and I missed my shortstop. Then Joe Pepitone started playing first. I could not imagine life without the Moose at first. The Yankees were losing my allegiance.
The 1963 season was special for Pop. That year, although my former heroes, the Yankees, won the AL Pennant, they lost the series four straight to the Dodgers. Pop finally forgave the Dodgers—almost—for moving from Brooklyn when they beat the despised Yankees. I remember listening to one of the games on the radio in a Jahn’s ice cream parlor.
Pop had loved the Dodgers all his life. They were his “Bums.” During their greatest seasons they would still manage to lose the NL Pennant to the Giants or the Series to the Yankees. But it didn’t matter in the long run. The Dodgers were the Dodgers. There was always next year. They were Pop’s team. They were never really my team.
My team was created the year I gave up on the Yankees, 1962. They were the New York Mets, who lost more games their first year than any team ever in a single season. I fell in love with them. Who wouldn’t love a team with players’ nicknames like “Iron Hands” and “Doctor Strangeglove”? They were so bad they were wonderful. They were the “Amazin’ Mets” long before they won the 1969 World Series.
Every child remembers their first trip to a Big League stadium. Mine was to see the 1963 Old Timers Game that was played before the June 23rd Mets game at the ancient Polo Grounds in Manhattan, where the team played their home games before Shea Stadium. Pop took me there to see his old heroes from the Brooklyn Dodgers. Old time Yankees and Giants played in that abbreviated game too. Later the Mets lost. I really didn’t care. I was in another world from the moment we went through the turnstiles.
There’s a moment in the movie The Wizard of Oz when everything changes from black and white to the primary colors of Munchkinland and the greens of the Emerald City. The Polo Grounds was my Oz. Emerging from the entry tunnel was like seeing color for the first time. Never, no matter how Pop tried with his side of the yard, had I seen grass so green. It glowed. The baselines were whiter than the freshly done laundry in TV commercials.
Pop and I settled in to watch batting practice. Then the old-timers were introduced. Some of them went clear back to the 1930s. Sal Maglie, Dodger nemesis when he played for the Giants, received a cheer. A lot of the players I’d never heard of, but they were warmly welcomed back to New York. And then the crowd hushed as Roy Campanella, the Dodgers’ legendary catcher, was wheeled to home plate. Five years earlier, Campy broke his neck when his car skidded on an icy Long Island road. He’d been in a wheelchair ever since. The crowd—Dodger, Giant, and Yankee fans— roared their admiration for the future Hall of Famer.
What I most remember about that day, after Campy’s appearance, was the smell of Major League Baseball. First, you had cigarette and cigar smoke, pungent and biting. To that you added beer, yeasty and sour. Then there was the scent of aftershave and cologne on faces of the predominantly male spectators. To this day, when someone wearing Old Spice passes by, my nose goes back to that day at the Polo Grounds and dozens of games at Shea Stadium.
If you want to understand how special Shea Stadium was to New Yorkers, watch the documentary Last Play at Shea. For me and my best friend, Scott, it was home away from home during my junior high years.
My favorite photo from the players’ lot featured then player-coach Yogi Berra. Yogi was a legend for his unique way with words, like the way he described a popular restaurant, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.” He was pretty frugal too. While other players drove into the lot in Monte Carlos and Cadillacs, I got a great picture of Yogi behind the wheel of his 1965 Chevy Corvair.
We soon learned a Shea kids' secret. If you want to actually meet the players, you needed to wait before the game at the entrance to the Diamond Club. There the players walked in, having deposited their cars at a less conspicuous location than the players’ lot.
We never waited after a game to talk with players. In the mid-sixties, the Amazins were still losing most of their games, and no one wants to talk to kids after a loss. So we’d intercept our heroes before the game, and with great success. I have autographs and wonderful photos of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jerry Grote and other Mets greats. Imagine if we’d been able to take selfies back then.
The games themselves were often less than memorable; still, I bought a scorecard every time and meticulously charted every play. Pop taught me the art of scoring a game, and I believed his was the only right way to do it. Mr. Robins taught Scott the same technique. Some years later, when a bunch of us Bible college kids went to a Phillies game, I discovered there was at least one other way. It seemed Pennsylvania people filled in the box completely when a run scored. Pop and I merely completed our little diamond shape within the box.
When I wasn’t at Shea with Scott for a day game, or in the box seats with Pop for a night game, I was often perched in front of our TV watching Ralph Kiner and Lindsey Nelson call the game for WOR-TV. A Sunday afternoon game in 1966, watched with John and Pop on our old Crosley, led to my first of three “athletic injuries.”
The 1966 Mets weren’t as bad as in previous years, but they were still one of the worst teams in the league. And yet we loved them. We loved Ed Kranepool’s consistency at first base. We loved Ron Hunt’s ability to turn the double play. Above all, the Baisleys loved right fielder Ron Swoboda, even though he never lived up to the potential the team saw in him.
That Sunday afternoon the Mets had battled back from a deficit. In the bottom of the ninth, they were down by only a run with a man on base. One of my favorite players, utility infielder Chuck Hiller came to the plate. He took the first pitch for a strike. Then, from the quiet of his easy chair, Pop’s voice rang out,
“Watch him pole one.”
Hiller was a man of few home runs, more of a scrappy singles hitter. Good bat in a clutch situation like he was in, but only because he’d likely not strike out or hit into a double play. He might even hit a double and bring the tying run home.
“Watch him pole one.”
With Pop’s words still hanging in the air, the next pitch came at Hiller.
Crack! The ball sped from Hiller’s bat toward the outfield. And it kept going. As it cleared the fence I leaped from where I’d been sitting on the floor, totally elated.
I came down directly on my right big toe, breaking the bone and damaging the nail. The next day, Dr. Scalise to a look at it and said the bone would heal okay on its own. However, I needed to have the ingrown toenail removed a year later. It was worth it.
Read more about athletic injuries and their connection to my love for ice hockey and football in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.