Friday, July 21, 2006

Meeting A Hero- And Seeing The One Right In Front of You! - Part One

Editor's note: this article is a departure from our regular coverage of our beloved Mets- it is a tribute to my father, Al, who is about to celebrate his 77th birthday, and to all of those father's who encouraged our love for the game of baseball, like Jonathan's, and yours, I'd bet, and to the knowledge that heroes are sometimes simply the person who loves us enough to share that which they love- in this case, the game of baseball.

There is a famous song, "my heroes have always been cowboys"...well, mine have always been baseball players, besides my dad, of course, and sometimes meeting ones' hero isn't as great as the idea of meeting that hero...and sometimes, the person you are meeting isn't the person you thought you'd be meeting, as someone else's hero might end up becoming your own, as the following stories will point out...

During the time of my father's childhood, the youngest son of immigrants who found heaven in Brooklyn, New York, there was no television to turn on, and poverty was everywhere- my dad's fortune to be born the same year as the "great depression". Baseball was a game that every boy longed to play, because you merely needed a ball and a bat, and the rest was up to the imagination! Radios were still a luxury, but you could hear the sounds of games from such magical places as Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field, and then the next day, if you were a Giants fan, you'd become Mel Ott batting against your friend, the Yankee fan, pretending to be Waite Hoyt, or some other Yankees' pitcher...while your buddy, the Dodgers fan, was the last to be chosen. Stickball ruled supreme, and man-hole covers became home plate all throughout the city. Baseball was everywhere, the great equalizer, the sport that brought you together to root for your commonly loved team, regardless where your ancestors came from. Your favorite player was on your mind more then any other person could hope to be, and you lived to be like him, taking that swing that would win the ballgame in the bottom of the ninth, or throwing one right by the other teams' cleanup hitter to strike out the side to win the game! Radio left tons to the imagination, and without such current luxuries as ESPN & the internet, it was up to the listener to see Dimaggio or Cochrane or Greenberg at the plate in the stadium of their minds. Heroes were wart-free, as the reporters who covered their exploits left out those that happened outside of the lines, counting many of those same players as drinking buddies on the long train-rides between cities. Kids need simply copy a swing or a motion, with parents not worrying about them copying steroid use or poor attitudes. I was born to someone who grew up during such a time, and was fortunate that my father regaled me with tales of his childhood at an early age, most of which, I might add, had some attachment to a sporting event or athlete of one sort or another. Although my dad wasn't ever keen about getting autographs (remember, this is the person who shook Babe Ruth's hand and DIDN'T ask for an autograph- he was only 5 or 6, but man, my brother NEVER would have had to take out a student loan!), he encouraged us to do so, and I always loved the thrill of waiting for that signature, whether it was Skip Lockwood's (as I coaxed him to hand his baby back to his wife & sign for me- sorry, Skip) or Mickey Mantle's. This is the story of getting the Mick's autograph; it is also the story of how I got Willie Mays' autograph; it's the story of how sometimes, meeting one's heroes is not all it's cracked up to be, and sometimes it's even more; but mostly, it is the story of a love affair between a father and his two sons, and the sharing of the game we love so much, baseball!

In 1978, my dad decided to take my brother and I to a baseball card convention at Hofstra University in Uniondale, Long Island. My brother was 10 and I was 14, and we were very excited to go. We were all huge baseball fans (and still are), and there was going to be a special guest signing autographs, one Mickey Mantle! Although my dad has always hated the Yankees, he did meet Babe Ruth when he was a youngster (although the Babe was a coach with the Braves at the time), and that meant a lot to him; therefore, if there was ever a chance for his baseball-crazy sons to meet a legend of the game, he would take try his best to arrange something for us. My dad, at the time, was a 6th grade teacher in Belle Harbor, Queens, and one of his car-pool buddies was the school librarian, Addy Hochberger. Addy was always nice to me, and I spent a lot of time in her library whenever I visited my dad's school. On one visit, when I was about 8 or so, I noticed that the library was having a book sale, as they often did, and there were 3 paperback books that were NOT part of the sale - "The Quality of Courage" by Mickey Mantle, "The Baseball Life of Mickey Mantle" and "The Baseball Life of Willie Mays." All three had been read often, chiefly by me, and Mrs. Hochberger decided she would put all 3 on sale just for me! I happily gave her 30 cents from my savings (10 cents per book) and went on to read and re-read each book at least 20 times in the next few months. Like everything else in ones' childhood, things like books and toys have a limited shelf-life, and within a year or so, I put the books onto my bookshelf, to be forgotten about for many years...actually, for about 6 years, or until my dad told me that Mantle was going to be the main guest at the card show.

I dug through my bookshelf (not a small task, as by this time I had been reading on a college level for about 3 years already and my shelves were jammed with everything from Hemmingway to Marvel Comics), determined to find those Mantle books. "The Quality of Courage" was in bad shape, as the cover was held on by a thread. "The Baseball Life of Mickey Mantle" had fared better, as the cover had already been taped on and overall was in pretty good shape. I always took good care of my books, but my baseball books were like trophies in a case, which is probably why I still have most of them some 35+ years later. Armed with the best ammo I could find, I prepared to meet the idol of millions, and in particular, my cousin Joe. A small aside - my cousin Joseph was like an older brother to me, growing up, and we did a lot of things together, from watching the original Star Trek every Friday night on our color tv (he didn't have one yet) to attending railroad "fan trips" at least once a month. I worshipped Joe like any "little brother" would, but there was one thing we just could not agree on - baseball teams! Yes, sadly, he was raised a Yankee fan, even though he was born and bred in Brooklyn, and even though my dad, the HUGE Giants fan and his favorite uncle, became a Mets fan! We decided early on, through unspoken agreement, to each let the other root for their favorite team without ribbing, and he even took me to a few Mets games including one in which I watched Tug McGraw, in the storybook season of 1973, kick a Spalding (nee Spal-deen) rubber ball up to the bleachers all the way from field level!!! In return, I attended the last official game at Yankee Stadium before the renovations that would leave them a tenant in our beloved Shea Stadium! I even kept the 45 RPM Record that they gave out that day (--->) for almost 20 years, until it got thrown out by accident- and yes, I even listened to the great Mel Allen narrating some of the greatest Yankees' moments of the half century that the record covered, and I could almost understand why Joe was a Yankees' fan - ALMOST! Anyway, I got into the car with my dad and brother, and the excitement I felt at going to my first baseball card show was overwhelming. I had been to many comic book shows over the years, and my dad, being the great sport that he was (and is), even tried to take me to the famous Star Trek convention in NY that the fire marshall had to close down because there were way too many people there then the facility could hold - I can still remember the sight of my dad barrelling through people to protect his little boy from the onrushing of the huge crowd of Trekkies who would have run over me like roadkill for a chance to meet one of the actors from the legendary show! (I was never quite as big a fan after that convention, sorry Joseph). Hofstra was about 40 minutes from our house, and on the way to the show, my dad gave us a rundown of the careers of everyone that was going to be attending the show as designated "signers". He couldn't believe that we would have to pay $3 each to get a Mantle autograph, but would gladly pay for us so that we would have the chance to meet, in his words, the SECOND greatest centerfielder in NY history- behind, of course, Willie Mays. Little did we know at the time that this would be the first time ever that a player would receive (what was then) big bucks to sign autographs for fans, as Mantle received some $2000 for signing that day. (See- my dad exposed us to the best history lessons of the day!) Of course, I always believed that the rookie card to the left belonged to Jerry Koosman, while my dad insisted it was Nolan Ryan's rookie card. When I told him year's later how much it was worth (at the time, somewhere around $500), he chided me for not having traded for more of them, like he had once recommended! See- he WAS ahead of his time!

By the time we got to Hofstra, and paid for our autographs, the lines for the Mick's autograph was huge. My dad, not the most patient man in most ways, continued to regale us with stories about baseball, particularly about his reaction to perhaps the greatest moment in New York baseball history, the "shot heard 'round the world!" My dad was 5'8", build like a lineman, strong like an ox and played roving center (the precursor to middle linebacker) in high school. He is not someone with whom you would associate cartwheels with. And yet, here he was, in the middle of Brooklyn, a sole Giants fan watching the game on a television not his own, and the joy of Bobby Thompson's shot caused my dad to change course and, sure enough, he engaged in his first, and last cartwheel! Of course, this was much to the chagrin of all of the Dodgers' fans around him, and he had to run for his life, a story which he later told to ESPN when they filmed a 50-year tribute to that famous game (and yes, my dad made it onto the show for all of posperity!) I remembered this story years later, as throughout the mid to late 70's, Yankee fans came out of the woodwork to root for their once-again, successful team, while we labored with some of the worst teams money couldn't buy! In 1986, I was in college at Stonybrook University, and I had a chance to ram it down the throats of a ton of Yankee fans when we beat Boston- they had nowhere to turn, as however the series finished, either their hated division rivals would win, or their hated cross-town rivals would win! I didn't do a cartwheel, but I did throw a tennis ball further and harder then I had ever thrown a ball, before or since- a tennis ball, by the way, that said "I hate the Yankees" on it...


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