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A Pretty Lucky Man
“Grandad, why is everything always a story?” This quote comes straight from Kaylin, my now-seventeen-year-old granddaughter. She’s a swimmer, and like all her classmates and buddies, she is hardly ever out of eye contact with her smartphone texting in a world that moves way faster than mine. To her soon to be seventy-five-year-old grandfather, everything is a story. That’s how I remember everything.
I consider myself a pretty lucky man. I’ve been married to Cecilia, the most amazing of female creatures for fifty-four years. We have two grown sons, and their families color our charmed lives in forever surprising ways. With zero preparation, I’ve been able to work most of my adult life in a job that most people would love to have, working in TV sports as an anchor and a reporter. Not bad for a guy with a flat average IQ. Most people know me, if they know me at all, for the nine years I played Major League Baseball, mostly for the New York Mets, including the Miracle Mets team that won the 1969 World Championship, but also with the New York Yankees, and briefly with the Expos and Braves in the spring of 1974. A study in the August 2007 issue of Population Research and Policy Review looked at the 5,989 position players who began their careers between 1902 and 1993—that would include me—and found that the average length of a major league player’s career during that time was 5.6 years. With nine years’ service, I was a journeyman who beat the odds. If there is one characteristic that ties all those experiences together, it’s that almost all of my life has been spent around people more capable and more disciplined than myself, all to my benefit. As I say, I’m a pretty lucky man.
Three things happened to me as a kid that could have changed everything. Once, riding my bike when I was about five in the neighborhood where I grew up, Sparrows Point, Maryland, I came out of a blind alleyway just five feet ahead of a point where I would have meshed with the grille of a Buick Roadmaster.
Later, when I was about fourteen years old, a couple buddies and I were destroying the inside of this abandoned house, you know, busting out the windows, tearing up anything we could. But climbing down off the roof required dangling your legs from an overhang and placing your feet on the rungs of a ladder you couldn’t see and could barely feel with your toes extended. Well, my feet went through the rungs and I fell backward onto the ladder from about ten feet high. Fortunately, and totally accidentally, I hooked a rung of the ladder with my knees flexed, breaking my fall. My momentum pulled the ladder from the house down on top of me, and I landed in a shaken but safe heap on the ground.
A few years later, when I was older but not wiser, I took my Daisy Pump BB gun into the piece of woods that stood right across the street from where I lived. I considered myself the scourge of the starling and grackle population around my yard. I hunted them hard, sitting quietly below the mulberry trees where they came to feed. Some neighborhood guys, however, wanted to up the stakes, and proposed a BB gunfight. Diving into sides, we squared off in the woods about 150 feet apart. We’d pop up and shoot at the other guys with only a rough idea of who we were shooting at. Smart, no? You know where this is heading. At some point during the fray, a BB hit me in the forehead about an inch and a half above my right eye, which is what it took for me to grasp the stupidity of what we were doing. So, I ran home, never to do that again.
It is only looking back that you understand, with complete clarity, that any one of these three things could have changed my life completely. It was just luck. I do not believe there are angels lurking about saving kids ready to fall to their deaths from high places, or ride their bikes in front of cars, or take a BB in the eye. It was luck, and all the stories that follow have depended on nothing but luck.
I grew up in Maryland in a community called Sparrows Point outside Baltimore, hard by a Bethlehem Steel plant, once the first and largest integrated tidewater steel manufacturing plant in America. Sparrows Point is tidewater because it’s located on a stretch of land where the Chesapeake Bay gives way to the Patapsco River, which carries oceangoing ships to and from the port of Baltimore, four or five miles to the north. The deep water access allowed the plant to receive by boat the first iron ore from outside the continental USA, specifically, from Cuba, following the Spanish-American War. We’d see those huge vessels coming up to Bethlehem Steel, a massive operation that came into being around the turn of the twentieth century and that, at its peak, produced 610,000 tons of steel and employed 35,000 people round-the-clock. Now, after more than a hundred springs, it’s all gone, and the property is being repurposed.
I was the younger of two boys: a rambunctious, inquisitive kid. My neighborhood was best described as the scruffy suburbs, where the lady with the perfect perm and meticulously tended rosebushes could live next door to a shirtless guy who had an old Ford sitting on cinder blocks in his backyard. We had one, thanks to my older brother, Jack. But it was the kind of place where you felt completely secure, safe riding your bike to school or the playground. During the hot months, we went to what we called summer school, where a teacher operated a day camp with crafts and softball games. Early evenings were dedicated to Little League. Once we learned to swim, we were on our own, at all the available swimming sites in Back River. Everybody knew one another. It was idyllic—a perfect upbringing.
My Mom and Dad were working people. They bought a house on Lakeview Avenue that they lived in most of their lives until it burned down years later when my son was living in the upstairs apartment. We didn’t live in luxury, but we never lacked for love or the sense that our parents cared for us, although they surely expected us to be responsible for our end of the deal. Between my parents and my wife, Cecilia, I know that I’ve been loved every day of my life. No small statement. For years my Mom could walk across the dual highway at the top of our street to her work as a secretary at Arcrods Corporation. They manufactured welding rods, coated with asbestos, likely the source of the mesothelioma my Mom was diagnosed with after her retirement. Mom had an artistic streak and loved to arrange flowers. She actually studied it and tried to work for a florist, but the pressure to perform was too much at her age. She also made an excellent crab soup, the Maryland staple. My Dad had been a waist-gunner on a B-29 stationed on Tinian, in the Marianas, during the last five months of the war. When he came back to civilian life, he sold insurance, worked as an automobile mechanic, then a service salesman, and, eventually, a service manager at several auto dealerships in Baltimore. After taking some night courses, he took his last and most fulfilling job, as an auto-mechanics teacher at Eastern Vo-Tech High School in the nearby community of Dundalk.
Jack, my only sibling, was born thirteen months before me, and we were opposites in just about every way possible. Jack liked a little danger; I did not. If you pissed him off, he might take you on a tour of fist city; I resisted that sort of confrontation. Jack had a small physical frame; I would grow to just over six feet and broad-shouldered. He would take great care making plastic models of custom cars with beautiful paint jobs. (I still have one of his creations.) I would throw together the plastic models of ships and airplanes and take them behind our house and shoot them up with my BB gun. When we were kids, I never messed with him. He scared the hell out of me. But then, one day, around the age of twelve or thirteen, we were hanging out with some neighborhood kids in the woods across from our house. I don’t recall what started it, but Jack and I tangled. By then I was as big or slightly bigger than he was, and this time I didn’t give in or run away. Part wrestling, part fistfighting, I stayed at it until Jack called off the jam. I don’t know what it meant to him. To me, it was a rite of passage.
In high school at Sparrows Point, Jack played lacrosse, and I played baseball. In Baltimore County, they were both spring sports season, so I only got to see him play once. He was crease attack and feisty as hell. I remember he spent some time in the penalty box for using his stick more as a weapon. He loved to beat the crap out of people.
My Chinese Granddad
I had a fairly typical upbringing, which is to say, like everybody, there were elements that were unique. Mom’s mother, Agnes, was a tall handsome brunette, a divorcée who liked her men. For years she worked as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant and in 1949 married one of the cooks. That’s how Arthur Wong completed his journey from Canton, China, to our family in Sparrows Point. (Ironically, just a couple miles north on the Patapsco River from Sparrows Point is a Baltimore neighborhood called Canton. With just a slight adjustment in his trajectory, Arthur could have gone halfway around the world and still have never left Canton.)
Not everybody was thrilled with the marriage. Arthur was younger than Agnes and had never been married, which triggered Mom’s alarms. She thought he was a playboy. But when Agnes floated the idea of the marriage past her son, my Uncle John Cramblitt, she got a different reaction. John was eighteen at the time, into motorcycles and hot rods, and engaged to a woman named Sue, who became one of my very favorite aunts. “If that’s what makes her happy, it’s good,” he pronounced. “She has spent half her life with some miserable people.”
And it was true. Agnes had experienced the male animal, but had yet to make any good choices, until she went with Arthur to the justice of the peace. Mom called Dad: “Guess what your mother-in-law just did?” “What?” Mom, aghast, “She married a Chinaman.”
“She’s old enough to know better,” summed up Dad’s feelings. That was the inauspicious beginning of the marriage that lasted the rest of their lives. I was confused with a Chinaman in the family whom I was told to call Uncle Arthur. That worked fine until I was old enough to wonder, “How can he be my uncle if he’s married to my grandmother?” Kids never got the complete explanation of anything.
He had another name, An King Ben, and the suggestion that he came to America through New York under that moniker at the age of fourteen with his father. His Chinese friends called him Wong Fuk. He served in the U.S. Army, which led to his citizenship. All we really knew was that suddenly we were eating a lot of Chinese food. He showed me how to use chopsticks before I was twelve, and to this day I only eat Chinese food with chopsticks. We loved to visit Frank Chu’s restaurant, where Arthur met Agnes. Plucked chickens soon to be in the moo goo gai pan and chunks of roast pork hung in a screened-in enclosure above the prep tables. When my brother, Jack, and I walked into the kitchen, Mr. Chu grinned, calling, “Oh, Jackie-Ronnie, good to see you!” We made his day. He never forgot us. Mr. Chu imported a Chinese wife. She wanted to be called Doctor, because she claimed to be a midwife. We called her the Dragon Lady behind her back. She informed us kids at dinner that in China it was good manners to slurp your soup and burp loudly. Mom said, “Save that for when you visit China.” Uncle Arthur treated Grandma Wong like a queen, and our family learned to love him as he evolved into Grandpop Wong.
After working his ass off for other people, he opened his own Cantonese restaurants in Maryland: one that failed in Silver Spring in the suburbs north of Washington, D.C., and a carry-out shop in Turner Station, a black neighborhood not far from my home. I helped him run the register and take orders. I watched him work the Chinese stove where everything was cooked in a wok. I didn’t care for egg foo yung, but I liked watching him make it. He’d grab three eggs in one hand, breaking them one at a time into a sauce pan, scooping in diced onion and pork, for exactly the right number of patties cooked in hot oil. Then, as he cleaned out the wok and got ready for the next dish, he passed me the carton of egg foo yung. He did all of this while smoking a Viceroy cigarette with an extended ash that defied gravity. Today, where we live in New Orleans, there is a small Chinese restaurant that makes several Cantonese dishes, including egg roll and pork fried rice exactly the way Grandpop Wong made them.
He was a marvel at multitasking whose dexterity should have enabled him to drive a Ferrari at Le Mans. But he was the worst driver to hit the road. Uncle John Cramblitt fixed Grandpop up with a mid-sized Pontiac. It accumulated scrapes and dents like Pig-Pen accumulated dirt. Grandpop’s story was that he was always getting hit by somebody in the parking lot. Unfortunately, there were witnesses. My cousin Steve was a passenger one time with Grandpop at the wheel. Steve called it the most frightening time of his life, including his hitch as an MP in Vietnam. Red lights meant nothing to Grandpop. I don’t know if he was color-blind.
At the stove, Grandpop always sipped from a small glass. He said it was tea. His tea turned out to be VO. Maybe he was boxed when he left work. Outside the restaurant, Uncle John asked if he was okay to get behind the wheel. Grandpop said, “I drive like snake in grass.” He backed squarely into the side of a car and pulled off down the road, never looking back. How he avoided a fatal wreck, killing himself or some innocent soul, is a miracle.
Grandpop was a city boy who preferred running with his Chinese buddies, playing mahjong, and gambling. When he came up to the woods I’d bought in Maryland with my World Series share, seventy acres of black, white, and red oaks, he was terrified. He swore that there were tigers lurking in the quiet woods, a lesson from his boyhood in China. He called them “cotton foots” because they walked so softly. You couldn’t make him believe there weren’t tigers. We had white-tailed deer but no cotton foots. It brings to mind that wacky scene in Apocalypse Now, the tiger chasing the saucier through the jungle: it’s the cook, in danger of becoming a meal, who escapes the tiger.
Agnes grew up on a tobacco farm in Annapolis. (Irony: cigarettes, cigars, snuff, chewing tobacco … I hated the stuff.) In her mid-seventies, with Grandpop Wong cowering at the campsite, Grandma would hike through the woods alone, up and down the steep trails that crisscrossed the property. She lived into her late eighties, outlasting her husband by a dozen years.
Mom and Agnes collected Chinese art, watercolors, vases, painted porcelain figures, and wood carvings of Shou Lao, the God of Longevity—things I still have.
According to Grandpop Wong, the usual fate of Chinese cooks in America was to stand in front of a stove until their legs gave way. When they could no longer work, they were put in a room to die. Our family saved my Grandpop from that end, and he more than returned the favor. He brought a new world into our white-bread American family. And that occurred because Agnes was a liberated woman, before they invented the phrase.
Babe Ruth was a Baltimore boy who wore the Yankee pinstripes and played right field. So was I. Near the end of my two and a half seasons with the Yankees, struggling to find something that worked, I ordered a half dozen R43 bats, Ruth’s model. Grandpop Wong had seen the Babe play in the original Yankee Stadium. He came to my games and loved to tell me, “You hit the ball like Baby Ruth.” Once in a great while it was true.
Uncles at the Morgue
Grandpop Wong was the wild card on my mother’s side; my uncles played that role on my Dad’s.
My Dad grew up with three brothers and two sisters near Lexington Market, an open-air fresh food market in downtown Baltimore. My brother, Jack, and I heard Aunt Frances dying from lung cancer in the days before they quieted that up with drugs. She was in bed moaning her way out of the world. That scared the crap out of us kids. At ten years old, I had no concept of death. That changed during the funeral. She was in an open casket, and I kept thinking how uncomfortably quiet she looked lying there with a soft, shiny pillow under her head. I went to bed with that thought, and it troubled my sleep.
Dad’s oldest brother, Robert, a welder and union shop steward at the Bethlehem Steel plant, lived across the street from us. For some reason, or reasons, I was never comfortable around the fellow. Dad had to remind him not to walk into our house without knocking. His son flashed my mother from his bedroom window. Do people who make you uncomfortable feel uncomfortable around people? I suppose they do.
Uncle George was the youngest of the brothers. His past could have included anything, and I do mean anything. He dropped out of school to run with Baltimore street gangs. Dishonorably discharged from the army, he worked at the city morgue. He was never mentally the sharpest knife in the drawer, but Uncle George had manliness about him, authenticity. He came at you directly. What came out of his mouth never sounded like bullshit. When Jack and I were fifteen or sixteen, Uncle George was the first grown-up to tell us dirty jokes and make us feel like we were close to being in the adult club. When he saw us with girls around, he asked me if we were hosing them. Hosing? I’d never heard it put that way. He cleared it up with fucking. Jack’s answer was silence. Mine was,“No!”
The fascinating uncle was Bill. Laboring outdoors for the Baltimore Parks Department and getting fried in the sun, he read in the Sunpaper about a job opening at the morgue. He took the test, passed, and for eighteen years worked as a diener with Uncle George. They apprenticed driving the wagon, scooping stiffs. They handled and cleaned up the bodies, preparing them for autopsies. In time, they did the scalpel work, opening up chests and sawing the tops off skulls for craniotomies. When I visited, they lightened up the gruesome scene with jokes. Uncle Bill talked about dieners cutting open bodies with one hand while eating sandwiches with the other. I don’t think he was one of them, but who knows? It was an odd lot employed in the place. One man they always talked about, Mumford, who got his job through political patronage, never learned to read. At a murder scene, Uncle Bill called a detective by his first name. “It’s Inspector to you.” The cop was a neighborhood crony of Mumford, who strolled in, slapped the guy upside his head, and said, “Hey, Dirtyneck, what’s going on?”
The morgue building was a gloomy industrial structure right on the harbor in downtown Baltimore. It sat somewhere astride death and gallows humor. On a Saturday afternoon, Jack and I would “visit the stiffs” to see what had been collected on a Friday night in Charm City. The drill was to call the morgue to find out if our uncles were there and if anything on display was worth the ride from Sparrows Point. They would mess with us. A dead guy lying in a tray with a lit cigarette in his mouth, and my Uncle Bill saying, “I told you smoking wasn’t any good for you.” Neither was getting shot in the face. Uncle Bill, clipboard and pen in hand, addressed a body with a 2×4 sticking out of its chest, “When were you first aware of the pain, sir?” Sick, surreal, perfect for teenage boys.
Jack knew I had a weak stomach. I could only take the macabre up to a point. He’d always offer to stop at Gino’s for a hamburger, but not because he thought I might be hungry. Gino’s was named for Gino Marchetti, the great defensive end for the Colts, and a fast-food pioneer. We loved the food, but Jack knew that after a couple of autopsies a medium rare cheeseburger with catsup could no longer be considered food. Nothing in the morgue experience made me want to follow forensics for a living.
For someone sadly under-schooled, Uncle Bill had a sharp mind. He gained a seat-of-the-pants education in forensic pathology. I’m told that cops and, once in a while his boss, the coroner, valued Uncle Bill’s opinion when a cause of death wasn’t clear. The morgue fed right into his professional sense of comedy. He told me about a suicide who had stretched himself across the railroad tracks. The train wheels divided him at the belt line. A state trooper, standing at the head of the tray, needed the dead man’s statistics for his report, so he asked the diener, “Race?” “Caucasian.” “Color of hair?” “Brown.” “Approximate weight?” “About 155 pounds.” “Approximate height?” The diener, grabbing hold of the corpse’s shoes, dragged the stiff apart, its guts falling into the tray. “How tall would you like him?” The cop, puking through his fingers, swore at the morgue attendant, “You hump, if I ever catch you on the highway, I will shoot you.”
On a night shift, if it got slow, the menace was medical alcohol mixed with Cokes. It wasted you fast. A wagon driver got good and stiff on it and passed out on the lawn in front of the building. Uncle Bill took a phone call from the neighborhood, inquiring if they had dropped a body on the way in. Uncle George spiked the punch bowl at a family party. People who didn’t drink, and didn’t think they were drinking, turned into a room full of Crazy Guggenheims.
One day when I was a teenager, my grandmother Agnes Wong came to one of my Leone’s Boys Club baseball games at Swan Park. She’d sprained her ankle coming in. At the end of the game it was too swollen to walk. Uncle Bill and Uncle George carried her away in her lawn chair, both of them giggling. Grandma Wong asked what was so funny. Uncle Bill said, “This is the first time we’ve picked up anyone who was still alive.”
Clientele checking into the morgue had no use for the clothing they arrived in. My uncles had no compunction repurposing the apparel. For three years in high school, I wore a brown corduroy car coat, a gift from Uncle Bill. Uncle George found a nice pair of dress boots on a man who met his end in a car wreck. In a bar near the morgue, Uncle George was talking about this unlucky soul. “I’d hate to be in his shoes,” someone said. Uncle George added, “It ain’t as bad you think.”
At family gatherings, Uncle Bill stationed himself at the kitchen table. We’d feed him beers, and he supplied the jokes all night long. Everything in the conversation reminded him of another one-liner or a funny story. You couldn’t tell him a joke he hadn’t heard. It was performance. Sitting next to Dad at the Moose Club, Uncle George listened with a slow burn to a guy ragging my Dad about his bald head. When he’d heard enough, Uncle George reached across the table and grabbed the Moose by his tie, so he could use it as a lever for a series of left jabs. Not a new move for my uncle. This time a clip-on tie snapped off in Uncle George’s hand. The table cracked up, including Uncle George and the Moose, who never knew how close he came to eating a knuckle sandwich.
Morgue life ended for both uncles. Never far from a can of beer, drinking in the morning when he got up until he shut it down at night, Uncle George died of cancer years after doctors removed his larynx. Uncle Bill, well into his second marriage to a disagreeable woman, blew his brains out with a .38 pistol one evening in the basement of his home. The wagon came and took him to the new morgue building where he had worked only a couple of years, before being dismissed.
The Nice Guy
One man who had a tremendous impact on me was our next-door neighbor named John Rider. He worked as a night watchman at the Bethlehem Steel Plant, and he was the law. Behind his house he tended a half-acre flower and vegetable garden, a pigeon coop, and two frog ponds with a family of Maryland snapping turtles that fed on the frogs. Rising eight feet from the strip of ground between the ponds was a triple-decker birdhouse, home to the purple martins when they flew up from the south. John Rider was what I thought of as a naturalist. He’d take me fishing in Back River and fill the boat with white perch. He made baskets from the shells of his snapping turtles. Once, after he dispatched a turtle to make soup, he cut the heart out and put it in my hands, still beating. What a constitution.
John Rider is what I refer to as a closet nice guy. His gruffness said, Don’t tread on me, and I never did. I could hit all the baseballs I wanted over the fence into his garden. If I kept to the garden paths and remembered to close the gate, I had nothing to fear from John Rider.
Joe Clark, a kid from up the road, didn’t get it. He decided he needed to explore John Rider’s garden world. I warned him, be careful. Joe wasn’t the careful type. When he hoisted up one of John Rider’s bullfrogs and waved it in the air, I told him he’d better stop. He persisted. Suddenly out of the back of the house jogs John Rider. The next thing I see is him grabbing Joe by the back of the neck and kicking him in the ass as he crab-walked him out of the garden.
The first time I talked to John Rider, he told me with a straight face that when he was growing up, if kids were no good they were taken out back and shot. I believed every word. And he had guns, lots of guns. He wouldn’t have to worry about me. We had a wonderful, enduring relationship. Summer evenings after I’d played baseball all day, I’d ride home on my bike, glove strung to the handlebars. If he was sitting on the bench by the ponds, I’d park my bike, say hello, and sit talking with him. He seemed to know everything I wanted to learn about nature. I bombed him with questions.
He was the guardian of the songbirds. He sat on the bench with his Winchester pump action rifle under his leg, loaded with .22 birdshot. He’d quit using bullets after an unfortunate ricochet off the birdhouse pole clipped him in the chest. When nuisance birds like English starlings came around to bother the purple martins, robins, and certain sparrows, John Rider would deal with them.
His workshop was in a long shed on the back of his house, and it was an amazing place, full of guns and tools, where he made his birdhouses and the turtle baskets. He lacquered the shells to preserve them and fashioned handles out of the turtles’ breastplates. The baskets held nuts and nails. It didn’t occur to me that in my lifetime I would ever make as good use of my hands as John Rider.
John Rider was still living when I left to attend the University of Maryland in the fall of 1962. On breaks from school, I’d find him by the ponds. When I left to play professional baseball a year and a half later, I got word he had died. His house and property sold. The frog ponds were filled in. There was no more garden, no more pigeons, no more purple martins. Dad lived next door until his passing on April 22, 2018. A couple years ago I saw a snapping turtle burrowing into the bank of a stream running along the back edge of the property to build a nest. I enjoy thinking that maybe there is a piece of John Rider still left in that place.
The constant was baseball.
At nine I was in a cap-and-T-shirt league in Edgemere. Everybody seemed better than me. At thirteen, I played at Lynch Point on a small diamond with Richie Golph, tall and loose, called “Slimy Ligaments,” and one-armed Frank Knorr. There wasn’t enough grass on the field to tell the difference between infield and outfield. When the equipment was unpacked, the catching gear had a peculiar odor that, in the way your olfactory holds the oldest memories, has stayed with me the rest of my life. Amongst these guys I was just another kid trying to play ball, nothing special at all at that time.
At fourteen going on fifteen, Charlie Butts, the father of Larry Butts, a classmate at Sparrows Point, who is still a good old friend of mine, took us to a tryout with the Gordon Stores squad, the best fourteen to sixteen age group team in Baltimore City. The tryout was on an invitation-only basis from the coach, Sterling “Sheriff” Fowble. He had coached Al Kaline, who at age eighteen left Southern High School in Baltimore for a Hall of Fame career with the Detroit Tigers. Larry, a left-handed pitcher, made the team and I landed the last contract Sheriff gave out and played third behind Dave Pivac, who went on to play football at Notre Dame and with the Los Angeles Rams. We played four or five days a week in different leagues in and around Baltimore. We were good, but we never got as far as the title game in the Cardinal Gibbons Tournament, the city championships, which was played at Memorial Stadium, then the home of the Baltimore Orioles.
The next season, Sheriff Fowble moved me to the outfield, an indignity at the time, like being cast out of the Garden of Eden, but it was the best thing that could have happened in the long run. My first game in left, I ran down a ball hit over my head and fired it back in to the relay man, who threw the hitter out at third base. Not bad. It was still baseball out there, and I came to love it. We won the Cardinal Gibbons Tournament that year and although I wasn’t the star, I hit a home run in Memorial Stadium just over the fence down the left field line. If I were scouting myself, I would say I had some power and was developing a good arm. But dreams of playing in the big leagues were just that—dreams!
The next summer, after my senior year in high school, I played for the Dolphin club. I was in the lineup every day, but learned nothing. The upshot was landing a workship at the University of Maryland, which is the same as an athletic scholarship, except you had to work, cleaning the floors in a four-story dorm. I was the first college man in my family. At Maryland, I played freshman ball, studied, and cleaned the dorm to pay for my room and board. Nice work if you can get it.
I technically majored in physical education, but I was actually majoring in baseball with a minor in phys ed. And frankly, I couldn’t have cared less about phys ed, but it had its benefits, particularly the gymnastics workouts, which immeasurably helped to improve my strength and overall conditioning. Being a phys ed major also had some odd requirements, one of which was a ballroom dance course. We took it for credit; the girls in the class took it noncredit because, we assumed, they wanted to meet us jocks. I had not gone to school looking for a girlfriend or a wife, just to play ball and see where that led me. But before the class could even be called to order, there was this burst of flaming red hair and a smile that made me wish with all my heart that it was for me. That was Cecilia. She just lit up the room.
Later, in the spring, when I was on the field with the U of M freshman baseball team, I noticed her in the stands. Hell, with that screaming riot of red hair, Stevie Wonder would have noticed her in the stands. Then, one Sunday morning, through some magic of happenstance or kismet, we ran into each other. We lived in the same dorm complex and took the same path to church. On this particular morning it was raining, and I had an umbrella or vice versa. So, if it was happenstance, it was the most pleasing happenstance of my life. The whole world seemed to brighten up when I spent time with her; she was just so authentically, wonderfully enthusiastic. We started dating, which was more like going for a burger now and then. She was an English major, exactly what I wasn’t looking for, which, of course, turned into the best thing that ever happened to me.
After the end of the following semester, when I left for Florida to start my professional career, Cecilia tied a bundle of Doublemint Chewing Gum, a favorite of mine, to the door handle of my car. As anybody who has ever been in love knows, it’s those small gestures that show a person cares for you. She made it clear.
So we wrote letters and did all we could to stay in touch. When I was playing in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Cecilia came with my parents for a visit. When she said, “I want what you want,” it was the most exciting sentence I had ever heard. And so it happened.
The summer after my freshman year was my last as an amateur, and I spent it playing for the Leone’s Boys Club team, coached by the late Walter Youse, a grumpy old baseball lifer who also scouted for the Baltimore Orioles. Walter was the real deal; before Youse was through, he could boast of having coached a Hall of Famer named Reggie Jackson, Twins pitcher Dave Boswell, a bunch of us who played in the majors, and dozens more who had creditable careers in college or the minor leagues. It was a great summer, playing games every day and twice on Sunday. For Walter, you played like a pro and were expected to act like a pro. He helped you find out the two most important things: (1) did you want to play, and (2) could you play? There were no breaks to go on vacation with your folks. You signed up for the duration, and that amounted to more than ninety games.
The culmination of the summer with Walter Youse and Leone’s was our trip to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and the AAABA tournament. It was played against teams from all over America, including an all-star team from New Orleans, coached by Rags Scheuermann, the Walter Youse of the Crescent City, whom I would come to know and respect when I arrived in New Orleans as a TV guy in 1981. Rags’s son, Joey, played at Tulane. I always said he looked like coaching material, especially with a bat in his hand at home plate. Today Joey walks in his Dad’s shadow, coaching the Delgado Community College team and the New Orleans All American team in the summer. He still takes that squad to Johnstown.
I had a great tournament, knocking two or three balls out of Point Stadium on our way to the finals, where we lost to the Brooklyn Cadets. When I wasn’t awarded the MVP, Walter marched us off the field. Now I’m in the AAABA Hall of Fame, inducted in 1998 alongside my manager, Walter Youse.
There was a lot of talk that I was going to get a contract offer from the Orioles. That seemed to make sense—Baltimore boy? Walter Youse discovery? But it didn’t quite work out that way. The Orioles splurged and gave a $70,000 bonus to a right-handed pitcher named Wally Bunker. Bunker played only nine seasons before arm trouble ended his career, but the Orioles can’t say that they wasted their money. He won 19 games in 1964, and in Game Three of the 1966 World Series outdueled Claude Osteen and beat the Dodgers 1–0.
Having emptied the vault for Bunker, the O’s passed not only on me but on another top prospect from Maryland: Dave Boswell. They never made me an offer. Fine, I said, I’ll go back to school. Then the Mets popped up and offered me $35,000. Take it or leave it. I signed.
To say the Mets were a bad team is an enormous understatement of the word “bad.” An expansion team, they played their first season in 1962 and finished in tenth and last place. The team went 40–120, setting the still current major league record for losses, with this thought: if it hadn’t been for two rainouts, they could have been worse. One expects expansion teams to be bad, but the other expansion team that year, the Houston Colt 45’s, had a record of 64–96, and finished eighth. Respectability was possible, but not for the Mets. They settled into last place like it was a rent-controlled apartment, and didn’t give it up for years. During one of those years in the 1960s when the Dodgers were racking up titles, their star pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale showed up on a variety show in their classy white-and-blue uniforms. When Milton Berle came out in a Mets uniform, paunchy and saggy and hopelessly unathletic, he got a huge laugh.
In my rookie year, 1965, I met Uncle Miltie in Dodger Stadium, in the ground level seats where the celebs could look right in our dugout.
Copyright © 2019 by Ronald Swoboda