Baseball? It's All Relative

On Opening Day up at majestic Yankee Stadium, in the third-base boxes, my mother might wear a spring hat and a smart suit from Lord & Taylor, because that's how many women dressed for the ballpark in those days. Besides, the Yankees were the kind of team that demanded respect in every detail. Look again at Mantle out there. Gliding across the outfield grass during batting practice with that big number 7 on his back, like the golden-haired prince of some unattainable kingdom. Look at cocky Billy Martin, small and lean and businesslike as he devours ground balls at second and zings them over to Skowron. Don't mess with Billy Martin. Tear your head off.

In the House That Ruth Built, with its heroic dimensions and bright white facings and air of Wall Street superiority, my mom would sit with her pale, well-sculpted hands folded in her lap and a hint of triumph in her voice. "Well, here's another season," she would say, faintly world-weary. The die was cast, and she knew it. "Who's that over there? Washington? I'd forgotten they had a team down there. The Yankees won't have any trouble with a team from Washington."

She was right, of course. But I always had a theory why Mom was a Yankee fan. If you grow up in a Catholic orphanage on the East Side, in a room full of white-painted, steel-pipe beds, and every Christmas they give you a used book and an orange, you want to join the winning team when you get older. And Washington is not the winning team.

Your Correspondent (BL, TR, 5-4, 110 lbs.). At eleven, my speed hadn't come in yet, and I couldn't break glass with a throw from shortstop. Truth be told, I couldn't hit my weight back then, either. I was a late bloomer in most things, a little whiny, defensive.

"Oh, yeah?" I had said to Johnny Huggins, who had recently defected from the realm of the faithful to join the swaggering Mantle-Berra-Ford camp. "They won it last year 'cause of Podres and Sandy Amoros's catch, and they're gonna win it again this year. You just wait. You wait."

In the ninth at cozy, colorful, untidy Ebbets Field ("Hit sign; win suit"), brother Danny feigned lack of interest as Hodges swung and crashed a huge three-run homer over the center-field roof and the little ragtag brass band in the first-base bleachers erupted, its out-of-tune honkings drifting through the park on a breeze scented with stale beer and sauerkraut. Mom, in her hat and suit, applauded politely. I leaped into Dad's arms, shouting hoarsely into all the other shouting and waved my blue cap with the white "B" on the crown. The final score: Brooklyn 4, Pittsburgh 2. Then, a detail as vivid today as it was then: Jackie Robinson, number 42, neck glistening with sweat, tossed his bat into the rack, removed his cap and vanished down the darkness of the tunnel steps. I knew, absolutely knew, I would never be this happy again. Danny muttered and smirked. Mom smiled.

Doc Gallo (BR, TR, 5-8, 165 lbs.). He was, of course, the only one of us who really knew the game. Great speed, arm like a gun, had played left and short for the Elmhurst Indians in the semi-pro leagues of Queens. Now he presided in splendid isolation over his family's bickerings and divisions, like a wise priest. Or a good doctor, which is what he was.

"See that man?" my father asked. We were in the Polo Grounds, on a bright Sunday afternoon, sitting low on the first-base side, when here came Stan Musial in road grays and red piping. "That's one of the finest ballplayers in the world, and it doesn't matter what uniform he's wearing," Dad said. "He can run, field, hit for power, and he gives it all he's got--every day. Remember that. They call him Stan the Man, but it wasn't the St. Louis fans who put the nickname on him. It was the people over in Brooklyn, because they respect him so much. Remember that, too."

My father was a baseball fan, not a Yankee or Dodger or Giant fan. He took us frequently to all the New York parks--including more than a dozen World Series games --but the only side he took out there was the side of skill and heart. "DiMadge was the best I ever saw--until I saw Mays," he said. My father was wearing a gray suit, because that's how many men dressed for the ballpark in those days. "Some day you'll see a player greater than Mays. But don't worry too much about who he plays for. Don't worry about owning him. Just enjoy it. And respect him."

Then my father gave me the kind of look I once saw him give Uncle Vinny the time Vinny spoke something unrepeatable to Aunt Lucille. It was a hot, steady look that meant business, just like Billy Martin, but one that had something besides business deep inside it.

I miss that look. I miss him. When I go to the park now, I miss all of them.

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