Baseball? It's All Relative

If the sign of a dysfunctional family is the inability to agree about anything, then I suppose that's what we were. Every time we went out to a ballpark. Of course, no one in a ballpark ever used the word "dysfunctional." But there were a lot of other, more colorful words that meant the same thing, which the people in the stands yelled at the players whenever they booted a ground ball or took a called third strike in the clutch.

Now, Rockies fans may have their little arguments. Is Dante a better hitter than the Big Cat? Who deserves the longer stay down in Double-A--the rag-arm starting pitchers or those Santa Clauses out in the bullpen? Is there a more ridiculous mascot in the major leagues than that hideous purple dinosaur thing? In general, though, baseball-loving Colorado families adore their power-hitting, no-pitching Rockies--as long as the Rox are playing at home, where they can win. The fans remain solid in their admiration for the green glories of Coors Field. They have also come to understand the squeeze play and the sacrifice bunt, although these admirable baseball tools are rarely employed in the home of the nine-run inning. For the most part, the fans are delighted every time their heroes eke out another 15-14 win in a five-hour, seven-hotdog marathon down on Blake Street. We're all in this together, aren't we?

When I was growing up, no such unanimity of purpose and emotion ever paid a visit to our house. In New York in the 1950s, there were three major-league baseball teams. And while some entire families--the Levinsons and the Catanzeritis come to mind--put up an impenetrable front of support for their Giants or their Dodgers or (it pains me even now to say it) their Yankees, individual members of the Gallo family had just one thing in common, baseball-wise--namely, the stubborn, half-psychopathic belief that your club, and your club alone, was The One. Everybody else's club deserved to burn in hell, alongside kidnappers, mean Mr. P. from the candy store and my Uncle Vinny. Vinny was so cheap that he used to count the bottles of Pepsi in his icebox before any of us kids were allowed up in his apartment. He also had a kind of dipstick for his quart of Scotch so he could, you know, keep tabs on my embattled Aunt Lucille's weekly thimbleful.

Anyway. Compared to us, those bickering families Leo Tolstoy dreamed up were models of decorum and intergenerational understanding. We were the Hatfields and McCoys, trapped under the same stadium roof.

The starting lineup, circa 1956:
Danny Gallo (BR, TL, 5-6, 125 lbs.). At the age of fifteen, my older brother could already run a mile faster than most guys on college track teams, and a two-column picture of him had recently appeared on page 78 of the New York Daily Mirror for winning a big schoolboy cross-country race at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Like most people, though, my brother had secrets. He smoked Camels, lots of them, and for years the only piece of real estate he really wanted to run around was the huge green peninsula that was center field at the Polo Grounds. This was Willie Mays country, sacred ground to my brother, and he would gladly have relinquished any triumph on the cinders, past or future, to spend just one afternoon where the great number 24 spent all of his--bathed in the center-field sunshine and the cheers of the Giants faithful.

Danny had his own way of expressing this, as well as his lifelong love for the game:

"Fuck Duke Snider," he would say. "And fuck you, too. Those half-assed pieces of crap over in Brooklyn can't hit their way out of a paper bag. And Newcombe. Don't even talk about Newcombe. I can hit Newcombe. My man Mays eats Newcombe for breakfast. You just wait. Giants'll win two, maybe three World Series in a row, and it'll be all over for, well, you know...those bastards."

As he said this, Danny would be dangling a smoldering Camel from the corner of his mouth in the James Dean style, eyes tragically narrowed. "And Reese!" he would go on. "Reese couldn't play goddamn Little League! Al Dark is twice the player Reese is. Hit .412 in the Series. Yeah. Gimme Dark. Giants all the way again."

Blanche Gallo (BR?, TR?, 5-3, 112 lbs.). My mother never faced live pitching, and she never played pepper between games of a doubleheader. She probably never grasped the strategy of the hit-and-run. Her sport was golf, and had been since just after The War. But as a baseball fan, she had something no one else in our family could claim--a long and undeniable track record. She was, of course, the Yankee fan. To my brother, the Yankees were "those bastards," for whom he held the kind of animus he otherwise reserved for the North Koreans or the recordings of Patti Page. To me, the Yanks had always been a bad dream, or a cut that wouldn't heal, or polio. I hated them, too, and until the Dodgers finally won the Series in 1955, when I was ten years old, I thought they'd never go away.

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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