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Born to Love Baseball

(this story appears in Old Roads and Shadows, an eBook ) 

Growing up with the Nation's Pastime


I grew up with baseball and was a New York Yankee fan before I ever really knew what that meant. In 1951, when I was a year old, my father took me to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium so that I, as he would remind me, could tell others that I had seen the great Joe DiMaggio play. The transistor radio was a recent phenomenon and since it was small and portable, it allowed sports fans to follow their teams anywhere and everywhere. During the baseball season, my dad always had a baseball game on the radio and I knew about the Yankees just as soon as I became aware of myself as a person.

As it is for humans everywhere, when and where a person comes into the world are the two major determinants of their life, affecting their language, religion, diet, societal and cultural norms, as well as the sports they play and follow. I was born in Manchester, Connecticut, a town situated between the friendly confines of Fenway Park in Boston and the House that Ruth Built in the Bronx. On the many small baseball fields scattered around my hometown, young ball players acted out the time honored tradition of actually being, if only for a few moments, the Red Sox or Yankee stars that they loved so ardently. In 1955, my dream Yankees had names like Bobby Richardson, Gil McDougald, and Mickey Mantle.

In those years, my family took vacation down at the Connecticut shore, camping on Willard's Island at Hammonasset Beach. Willard's Island sported a limited number of campsites located on a small extension of land near Meigs Point, and I loved those weeks of camping down at the beach. Early one cool and overcast day, my father piled us into the family station wagon and we left our campsite on the seashore and started for New York City to take in a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. Aside from that early visit to Yankee Stadium when I was an infant, this trip would mark my first appearance at a professional baseball game when I was old enough to appreciate the experience; my first visit as a fan.

I was ecstatic. On the trip down, my father gave me a small autograph book. It was a cheap little booklet, thirty blank white pages secured within a brown vinyl cover. The Yankee players used a specific gate to enter the stadium and my dad said we might get an autograph or two as players arrived before the game. I had visions of my small book filled with Yankee autographs: Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Hank Bauer, Johnny Sain, Phil Rizzuto, and more, as well as a President or other notable personage that might be attending the game that day. I fretted over the limited number of pages available for actual signatures.

The day in New York City was gray and windy with periods of intermittent rain. The great city frightened me as a child, it was overwhelming and threatening, and in addition to my brothers, I was glad to be with my mother and father. We drove past large foreboding structures for what seemed like hours before the iconic image of Yankee Stadium finally came into view.

My father found the entrance used by the Yankee ballplayers and I stared at the crush of eager young lads that pressed in on all sides against anyone approaching the gate. I looked nervously at my father and he said, "Just be polite when you ask for an autograph and everything will be okay." I was neither confident nor convinced but somehow made my way through the throng to stand alongside the open stretch of asphalt that the players crossed on their way into Yankee Stadium. The men I saw striding down through the crush walked fast and wore suits and ties. No one's visage looked like the smiling sunny face on the front of a baseball card, and many of the men were balding and looked old.

An older man in a brown suit approached the gate and I found the courage to stand in front of him with my arms raised.

"Can I have your Autograph, mister?" I stammered, offering up the booklet and a pen.

He smiled down at me and said, "Sure, kid."

He signed his name and returned the book and pen. I looked expectantly at the signature and saw the name "Ed Lopat" scrawled in large script in the center of the page. I did not know the name or anything about him. I retreated through the crowd and found my father standing with other adults at the periphery of the crush. I showed him the book.

"Ed Lopat," I heard my father say. "He's a great pitcher, a star thrower for the Yankees!"

"Wow," I replied, surprised that I had accosted a real ballplayer, let alone an actual Yankee pitcher.

Dad asked if I wanted to try again but my enthusiasm for autograph hunting in the crush of strangers seeking a favorable position at the player's entrance had diminished. He handed the autograph book back to me and I looked at the signature one more time. We rejoined the family and made our way into the ballpark where we walked along with other spectators up wide concrete walkways. My father turned through a doorway and we followed him upwards through a narrow concrete tunnel towards the light of the afternoon sky.

In a moment, we walked out of the tunnel and into the hallowed vastness of the park itself, standing among the lower level seats on the outfield side of first base. My father was talking and pointing out various aspects of the playing field yet I heard nothing. I stared at the deep green perfection of the infield and outfield grass before turning my attention to the Yankee monuments located in the far reaches of centerfield.

It began to rain and we retreated to the concession concourse for a hot dog and a soda. Eventually, the umpires postponed the game because of rain. Making the best of a bad situation, the family went to the Bronx Zoo for the afternoon and then returned to our camp on the Connecticut shore. That was the last time my father and I ever entered a professional ballpark together.

That visit to Yankee Stadium occurred in 1955 and I possess only a precious few memories of that day and of my father at the storied ballpark, memories that linger dimly somewhere deep in the recess of my consciousness. Yet, that rainout in New York City did not end my love affair with baseball or with the Yankees. As for that lone autograph, I learned that Ed Lopat compiled a fine 166-112 record over twelve major league seasons and that for six years, from 1948 to 1954, he was one of the big three starters in the Yankees pitching rotation.

As I grew older, I continued to follow the Yankees. After the Mantle and Maris era, I suffered stoically through the CBS years and felt rewarded when George Steinbrenner purchased the team and said he was determined to rejuvenate the franchise and restore both the park and the team to their former glory.

The Steinbrenner years were heady times for the Bronx Bombers. I was lucky enough to attend several American League playoff and World Series games at Yankee Stadium. I saw Pearl Bailey and the Metropolitan Opera star Robert Merrill stand on the grass near home plate and sing the national anthem before sold out World Series crowds. I can also recall the iconic voice of Bob Sheppard, the longtime Yankee public address announcer, as he slowly intoned, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I direct your attention to the home plate area where the great Yankee Clipper, (pause) Joe DiMaggio, (pause) will throw out the ceremonial first pitch. (pause) Joe DiMaggio." A lone figure then slowly walked to the pitcher's mound as the applause grew in intensity, tipping his cap to the adoring crowd as he turned in a circle, making sure he did not omit a gesture to any part of the large assemblage that poured out its love and appreciation, a tear coming to my eye.

In 1978, I had the distinct privilege to visit Yankee Stadium and attend Game 3 of the World Series. The Los Angeles Dodgers had a 2-0 series lead and it was crunch time for the Yankees. We had seats in the upper deck behind home plate, high up the nosebleed section next to the lights. The CBS journalist, Mike Wallace, nattily dressed and wearing a camel's hair overcoat, came walking up the stairs carrying a tray of beers. My friend Larry yelled out, "Hey Mike. Who did you ask to get these seats?" Mike smiled and gave out a quick laugh, along with everyone else within earshot of the question. This was an important game; just having a seat was enough. During that game, Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles made several brilliant plays at the hot corner, killing Dodger rallies, saving runs, and leaving runners stranded. The Yankees went on to win the game, and eventually the World Series.

Over the years, I visited the friendly confines of Fenway Park scores of times for Red Sox games. Yes, I loved it when the Yankees beat the Red Sox but I never hated Boston or the players; truth was I loved the small green ballpark that the Red Sox called home.

On September 12, 1979 I was at Fenway Park and saw the great Yaz, Carl Yastrzemski, get the 3000th hit of his magnificent career. The hit came in the eighth inning as the Red Sox battled the Yankees. The Red Sox fans showed their class by giving the late Jim 'Catfish' Hunter a standing ovation when the Yankee manager pulled Hunter for another pitcher in the fifth. The crowd stood and applauded knowing that here at the end of a great hall-of-fame career; this was Hunter's last appearance at Fenway Park. Catfish tipped his hat to the crowd as he entered the Yankee dugout.

I lived in Georgia for several years and on one unforgettable October night I was in the sold-out Atlanta Fulton County Stadium enjoying game four of the 1996 World Series, the Braves leading the series against the Yankees 2 games to 1 at the time. Jim Leyritz, a defensive replacement for New York in the sixth inning, hit a dramatic eighth inning 3-run homer. The Yankees won the game in extra innings and knotted the series at two games apiece. The Bronx Bombers went on to capture another World Series championship.

In addition to these memorable big game moments, I fondly remember and cherish all of the wonderful evenings, nights, and sunny afternoons when I sat in various ballparks around the country and enjoyed regular season games, appreciating the national pastime with my friends and celebrating the simple joy of being alive.

I never did see a professional baseball game with my father, but he instilled in me a love of baseball that has endured my entire life. As a five year old, I will never forget that first glimpse of the emerald green grass in Yankee Stadium, or the feeling of awe that swept over me when I looked at the famous Yankee monuments in deep centerfield. And somewhere in the basement of the family house on Parker Street in Manchester, in an old cardboard box containing the forgotten and forsaken moments of my life, is a small nylon-covered book with the name "Ed Lopat" scrawled across a page.

Laudizen King
Los Angeles 2011