Thursday, February 21, 2008

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

A fan of the NY Giants, my old man, loved baseball
as much as any man I ever knew.

Remembering Papa: At the same time, it was the
greatest and most terrible experience of my life
by Charlie Leck

My old man, from the time he was a boy, until late in the 1950s, was a wildly loyal baseball fan of the New York Giants. Of the detailed memories I have of him, those revolving around his love for baseball are most keen. He often spoke of his young years, when he would go to the Polo Grounds, to watch the Giants, on nearly every day that they played there. He had an early shift job that allowed him to go from work by trolley to the ball park. By the time he started going there, this was actually the third stadium known as the Polo Grounds. The original Giants baseball team played on a field at 111th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues that was called the Polo Grounds. They built and opened a stadium on Coogan’s Bluff, further north on West 159th Street in 1891. They named it the Polo Grounds after their original location. It burned down in the spring of 1911 and a new stadium was built to replace it and was ready in time for the Giants and Philadelphia Athletics to play the 1911 World Series there in October.

The new stadium, though oddly shaped like a horseshoe, was an absolute wonder and my father enjoyed reminiscing about it. The box seats were set off in rectangles of Italian marble. On the larger railings there were ornate American eagles and on the roof, 30 feet apart, flew blue and gold flag-like banners. The Polo Grounds opened as the finest ball park in America.

I didn’t see the historic ballpark until approximately 40 years after its opening. I will never forget the night, though I can’t put an exact date on it. I think it was in 1950 because Willie Mays was not yet playing with the team. The Giants were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates in a night game. We took a bus from our little town out in rural New Jersey. The bus was chartered by a group of local fellows and the mood driving into the city was a very light and joyful one. I sat next to my father and beside a window that was partially opened. I remember the wind blowing through my hair and I remember the sounds and sights of the city as we neared it. I had a ball glove on my left hand and I continuously pounded my right fist into it, feeling a great sense of anticipation.

However, everything turned to absolutely knee-buckling excitement when we walked through one of the concourses of the stadium and turned on to a ramp that led us up into the grandstands. As we neared the end of it, looking down from this upper deck, I saw the greenness of the grass. I was nine years old and had never seen grass so beautiful and so vividly green. My heart pounded and I struggled to stay calm. My father must have sensed it. He was gripping one of my small shoulders in his big, strong hand, steadying me.

Oh how I enjoyed that game. I wasn’t a Giant fan. A big brother, to whom I looked up with great respect and admiration, was a fan of the Saint Louis Cardinals. Because of that, so was I and I was sure Stan Musial was the greatest baseball player who ever lived. So, I had no horse in this particular race and I just sat back and enjoyed it when I wasn’t jumping up and down enjoying it.

Geez! I’ve just realized that you probably are not getting or enjoying any of this if you’re not a baseball fan; yet, I want you to understand that this little essay isn’t about baseball. It’s about a little kid and the range of experiences and emotions he can have in one little day.

Ralph Kiner hit a thunderous home run for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Well, it seemed thunderous to me, anyway. Even sitting high in the upper deck, I could tell it was towering. The fences at the Polo Grounds, down the lines, were not very far away, so it may not have been as gigantic as a kid remembers it. No matter! It was the most extraordinary shot I’d ever seen. It was my first big league ball game and I wanted it to be perfect.

I have no idea which team won. I remember the incredible grass and the beautiful reddish-brown dirt of the infield. I remember the bright white lines that ran down to the corner bases and on out through the outfield to the foul poles. I remember the long staircases that led up to the big clubhouse straight out in centerfield. I remember the big packs of Chesterfield cigarettes that were affixed to the balustrade between the lower and upper decks in left field. The flags were waving and flapping and the lights made the entire field look as if the sun was shining brightly.

I didn’t want to leave. I wanted the ballgame to go on forever. I had never sat next to my dad for such a wonderful, long time. It did end, though, and then there was the awful, frightening ride home.

It’s possible that I was the only kid on the trip. It was a group of grown-up guys who had swigged some beers during the game and had plenty of beer in the bus for the ride home. They were staggering when they boarded the bus and they were in a real partying mood. My dad alternated between trying to shelter my eyes and ears from what I was hearing and what I was seeing.

Guys were urinating out the windows, targeting automobiles that we were passing. Some fellow upchucked and the odors got stronger and stronger as we drove through the New Jersey night. My father needn’t have worried so. I had already heard most of the cuss words they used. It’s just embarrassing for a kid to hear them in the company of his father and for the father in the company of his kid.

A fist-fight broke out. Someone ended up on the floor. I grew pretty terrified. Why must something so exciting end with such terror? Guys were struggling to separate the combatants and someone fell back against my father and he slammed into me and I into the wall and window of the bus. I wasn’t hurt so much as I was frightened and I couldn’t stop crying. My wailing was more embarrassing for my father than all the previous discomforts. I tried to stop. He kept asking me to, but I was gulping for air and needed someone to slap my back to help me catch my breath.

Finally I calmed. Someone had berated the grown men for their terrible behavior. They quieted down somewhat and I was relieved when we rumbled down Main Street and the bus slowed as it turned into the parking lot at the Fire House.

It was only a block’s walk home from there. It was a warm night and the twinkling stars were spangled against the black sky. My dad had an arm around me and one hand rested again on my shoulder. Things were wonderful once more.

The Giants left New York in 1957 and so did the Brooklyn Dodgers. My old man was one sad dude and he was angry too. In the sixties, the old Polo Grounds ballpark was torn down. It was destroyed by the same wrecking ball that battered down Ebbets Field in Brooklyn only a few months before.

Remember the old and sentimental Frank Sinatra song about the ball park that is no more? This might be a good place to print the lyrics.

And there used to be a ballpark where the field was warm and green
And the people played their crazy game with a joy I'd never seen
And the air was such a wonder from the hot dogs and the beer
Yes, there used a ballpark right here

And there used to be rock candy and a great big Fourth of July
With the fireworks exploding all across the summer sky
And the people watched in wonder, how they'd laugh and how they'd cheer
And there used to be a ballpark right here

Now the children try to find it
And they can't believe their eyes
`cause the old team just isn't playing
And the new team hardly tries

And the sky has got so cloudy
When it used to be so clear
And the summer went so quickly this year
Yes, there used to be a ballpark right here
Ah, he could be singing about both the Polo Grounds and old Ebbets Field out in Brooklyn on Bedford Avenue, where the Dodgers played when I was a boy. My dad took me there, too, to a Dodger game against the old Boston Braves and I got Sam Jethro’s autograph and it was a really wonderful night. As a teenager I got into New York often. My grandparents still lived there. While my grandpa was alive he, too, would take me to some ball games. I went out to the Bronx, to Yankee Stadium, a few times also; however, I didn’t like the American League and I didn’t like the Yankees, so I didn’t go there often.

Bob Neyer, of ESPN, wrote parenthetically of a possible disease that may trouble me as well as him.

“It occurs to me that perhaps I’m afflicted with some sort of curse that leaves me more fascinated with the dead – dead ball parks, dead ballplayers – than with the living.”
I would give anything to walk into the Polo Grounds again and see grass that green one more time. I know the truth, however, and grass shall never be that green again for me and I know I will never again see nor hear those exciting sounds and sights – except, of course, when I close my eyes and hear the mighty crack of the ball against Ralph Kiner’s bat and I see the ball rise up into the lights and I watch it flying against the dark sky. Then it descends into the waiting crowd of people and it is lost forever.

Now I am an American League fan. I watch and love the Twins. We’re getting a brand-new ballpark here in Minneapolis. I’ve seen the big model of it and it looks like it will be great. I can’t wait for a night game in a real ball park, where you can see the ball rising into the dark sky, heading for the fans sitting in the outfield seats. No more domed stadium with plastic grass and a Teflon roof. How exciting for an old guy. It’ll turn me into a kid again.

But a kid’s first big league ballgame is the greatest one he or she will ever attend. It’s magical and I shared it with my old man. We didn’t have many moments like that one and now, myself an old man, I cherish the sweet memory.

“And there used to be a ballpark where the field was warm and green
And the people played their crazy game with a joy I'd never seen
And the air was such a wonder from the hot dogs and the beer
Yes, there used a ballpark right here.”

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