The Family Pastime

December 19, 2010 at 4:11 am (Uncategorized)

As I grow older, I have a tendency to look back with increasing nostalgia at certain things that have influenced my life and family relationships. Baseball is one of those things.

Ah, baseball. Sitting behind third base with your dad on a sunny afternoon. Hot dogs and peanuts. The crack of the bat. Praying for a foul ball. The crispness of the air as the calendar turns toward October and the World Series. Memories of Mickey, Yogi, the Scooter, Whitey, and the Moose. Mel Allen screaming, “That ball is going, going, it is gone!” The Yankees win! All is right with the world. What could possibly be better than that?

When I was a child, baseball was the ONLY game. Professional football was just coming into its own, basketball was a minor sport, and nobody watched hockey. We couldn’t afford golf or tennis in our family, and we never even heard of soccer or lacrosse. Baseball was the sport to watch… so much going on at once if you just knew what to look for. And it had a leisurely pace to it so that you could carry on a conversation or argue over who the best players were while you rooted for your favorite team.

My first real exposure to this wonderful game left memories so vivid that it seems like only yesterday rather than almost seventy years ago. In those days, Italian families always enjoyed Sunday dinner at Grandma’s house, which, in our case, was on Summit Avenue in Cedarhurst. After eating, the women would clean up while the men went into the living room to watch the ballgame on an eighteen-inch black- and-white TV. Now I know that’s no longer considered politically correct, but that’s just the way it was. Anyway, one particular summer afternoon, when I was just becoming aware of baseball, my uncles, my father, and my grandfather sat down to watch the Yanks play. They were all devoted Yankee fans except my Dad, who, for some strange reason, was a misguided Giants fan. And nobody, but nobody, rooted for the Brooklyn “Bums”.

 This probably took place in 1950, when I was about seven years old. My male relatives felt that it was time I learned the game of baseball, so I reluctantly settled down with them after dinner as the Yankees broadcast began. I remember that the immortal Joe DiMaggio was at bat. The “Yankee Clipper” was a big hero in our family, but he was near the end of his career at the time. A restless seven year old watched impatiently as DiMaggio fouled off one pitch after another from that wide stance of his. Finally I could bear it no longer and dashed outside to play. As I passed the living room window, I heard a loud commotion. Grandpa Bevilacqua was shouting, “He did it! He did it!” After fouling off half a dozen pitches, the great DiMaggio had hit a home run! This was the watershed moment that propelled me on my way to becoming a devout… no, make that fanatical, Yankee fan.

I should add that in the late nineteen-forties, my grandfather ran the public address system at Yankee Stadium for several years. He often pestered me to go to the games with him and meet the players, but sadly I wasn’t yet interested in baseball at age four or five. You can imagine how many times since that I’ve kicked myself repeatedly for missing the chance to go into the locker room and say hello to DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Phil Rizzuto among others. By the time I developed my love for the “Bronx Bombers”, Grandpa no longer held the Stadium job.

In 1955, when I was eleven, Mickey Mantle was in his prime. One night I was listening on the radio in my bedroom as “The Switcher” hit TWO home runs in one game. I had never heard of such a thing! Mickey immediately became my favorite player, and remains so today, although Aaron Judge is slowly gaining on him. Every year near my birthday, my Dad, my godfather Uncle Dinnio Oliveri, and Grandpa Bevy would go to Yankee Stadium, where I’d keep my eyes firmly riveted on my idol. We always got tickets for a Sunday double-header so we could see two games for the price of one.

In 1956, we watched the Yankees beat the White Sox handily in the first game. During the nightcap, Mantle hit a homer left-handed, but the game was tied going into the bottom of the ninth inning. Mickey came to bat and promptly hit a second home run right-handed to win the game. The roar of the crowd was deafening. When the umpire signaled “Fair Ball”, I was in hero heaven! As we were leaving the stadium, someone tossed a drink cup from the upper deck that landed squarely on my head with a resounding “TOINK” and raised a nice lump, but even that couldn’t spoil what was to me a perfect day.

That afternoon is seared into my memory, never to be forgotten. My Dad, Uncle Din, and Grandpa Bevy are all gone now, but they live on in the glorious images of that day carefully preserved in the recesses of my brain.

During the World Series, when the Yanks always seemed to play the Dodgers, our teachers at Number 5 School would let us listen to the games on the radio. Since the Series was only played during the day back then, we had to run home at 3 o’clock to catch the last few innings. The Yankees usually won, but then came that black day in 1955 when the “Bums” finally beat them for the first time! I was in shock. How could that happen?

Many of you probably have your own baseball memories to cherish, and the game is nothing if not a statistical paradise laden with seminal moments like those I recall with such pleasure. Records are kept for hundreds of different accomplishments. And, yes, the records are made to be broken. Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in one season (broken). Lou Gehrig’s 2130 consecutive games played (broken). Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak (not yet broken). In no other sport are statistics revered so much as in baseball. And the stats continue to fuel our fervent arguments over who the best players of all time were.

So treasure our national game, folks. Someday you, too, may have the pleasure of telling your grandchildren about the exploits of the great Derek Jeter, when baseball was played exposed to the elements before the new domed Yankee Stadium was built. There’s a certain comfort in knowing that the lore of the game is passed on this way from generation to generation, and that the grand old sport of baseball remains relatively unchanged over the last 100 years. It’s difficult to explain, but to me the game fosters a sense of security that all will be well and life will go on. Baseball has kind of an eternal feel to it, especially when the last icy vestiges of winter fade, the world begins to turn green, and pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

Play ball! Lord, how I love it!

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2 Comments

  1. Bonnie Caporale said,

    Another home run, Jim. As the daughter, wife and mother of die hard Yankee devotees (more than fans) I have always loved the game. Thanks for bringing me back again…keep sending these “love” letters…they are just great! P.S. Prayers for our Mariano…

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