One of the Boys (a tale of two slides) December 29, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Autobiographical Essays (Roger), One of the Boys (a tale of two slides).
Tags: baseball, dodgers, father, irvington, irvington herald, little league, new jersey, reseda high school, roger hollander, sports
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(For my entire childhood, I don’t think there was anything as important to me as baseball, both as participant and spectator. Who would have thought that this sports crazy youngster would grow up to be a wild-eyed political radical?)
The Boys. The Boys. The Boys. Always the Boys. The Boys this. The Boys that. For Charlie his two boys were everything. There was no mistaking it. Everyone knew it. Everyone said so. My boys, he would say, and then off he would go with one tale or another of their myriad accomplishments. Charlie’s boys.
I was one of those boys.
When Charlie died, my daughter Malika spoke at a memorial held for him for the Toronto family and friends. She said that what was so wonderful about Grandpa was that every moment you were with him he made you feel that you were someone special. We boys surely knew that.
Of course, as much as it is a cliché, there is truth to the notion that everyone is someone special. The problem is that not enough of us feel that way, or are made to feel that way. Without being necessarily conscious of it, my parents made sure I knew that I was someone special. It never bothered me when big brother would tease me about being adopted (I wasn’t) or that they love me more than you, because it was so patently untrue. Mom and Dad always made me feel special, and I suppose it was because I was genuinely special to them. And with Charlie, so much of it was expressed, particularly in my childhood, in the context of our shared passion for sports.
Saturday mornings the three of us (Mom, a 1940/1950s housewife, naturally excluded) would open the sports page and, on a separate piece of paper, one of us would copy down in pencil the schedule of major college football games and add three columns: Charlie, Neil, Roger. Each one of us made our pick for who would win the game, which was duly noted in the appropriate column. Princeton over any Ivy League rival, of course. Those were Princeton’s glory days with triple threat tailback, Dick Kazmier. And only a dodo would pick against Army with Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard or Notre Dame with Johnny Latimer. Then, on Sunday mornings we two boys and Charlie would gather again around the sports page to tally the winners. This was before television had arrived in our home, and none of us had ever seen a college football game on the air, much less a real live game. Nonetheless, I seldom guessed less than three quarters of the winners and usually came out on top, this despite the fact that, with all the irrational loyalty of a diehard Brooklyn Dodger fan, I always picked the hapless Brooklyn College over whatever rival was sure to trounce them.
As a child, I was ahead of my time with respect to my own athletic ability. It just happened that sports enthusiasm resided in my brother’s circle of friends and not very much in my own. So I hung with Neil’s gang, kids two years older than me. Baseball was our métier. Because of good hand-eye coordination, I somehow kept up with the older guys as a hitter, if barely. I played right field or second base on our team, the Lancers, in the Irvington municipal league. Never was I trusted with a more strategic position like first or short. And I always batted ninth, even behind the pitcher, Jimmy DeWitt, who possessed a mean bat to go along with a sizzling fast ball.
In contrast, on those rare occasions that I played with my own peers, I was the star. It felt like swinging three bats (today the pros attach lead disks) while in the on-deck circle so that, when you came to the plate, your bat felt as buoyant as balsa wood against those soft lobs thrown up by pitchers my own age. Playing with the older kids was a weighty challenge that had made me feel as light as a feather when I played with my own kind. In the sixth grade, my class played softball at recess, and, for my drives over off the Augusta Street School chain-link fence into Ball Street (that was its name!), my first ever male teacher, Mr. Palmiotti, had dubbed me “the Bambino.”
My good hand-eye coordination and the honing effect of the age-stretch competition, more than made up for what was almost literally my Achilles heel: I ran as slow as a girl. Well not quite. But slower than just about anyone older or even my own age.
Speed, or rather the lack thereof, was responsible for the two shared stories that my father told at least a thousand times to anyone who would listen and to many who would have rather not. They are true stories, and while they may have gained a bit of artificial sheen from constant polishing over the years, the very fact that these things actually happened to me and were such a bond of love and friendship with my father makes them as precious to me as the most valuable diamond, an apt metaphor you will agree.
The Little League came to Irvington, New Jersey, in 1953, when I was in my twelfth year. It was a dream too good to be true. Uniforms. Team sponsors. Real managers and coaches (Charlie had managed the Lancers, and he did a good job; but having your father as the manager just didn’t feel like the real thing). Little League regulation ball fields that seemed like miniatures to me after the big league regulation sized fields of the municipal league. Box scores appearing in the Irvington Herald. And kids my own age or younger! From playing with fourteen year olds I would now be challenging kids as young as eight. It was to be my year of baseball glory.
At the Little League tryouts I naturally wowed the grown-ups, not only with my hitting and fielding, but also with my throwing arm, which had been only ordinary amongst the two-year-older gang, but which put me on a par with the best of the Little League. A mound whose distance was so short compared to what I was used to with the older kids, that I felt I could whiz the ball right through my catcher’s glove. I was given number 14 for my team, the Amvet Cardinals (sponsored by the “Amvets,” which stands for American Veterans; I was their first “draft pick”), which I was proud to wear along with one of my heroes, the great Dodger first baseman, Gil Hodges. 42 would have been better, but I knew that Jackie would understand.
I batted lead-off and pitched every game, with a 6-1 record, losing only to the White Sox, our major rival. No one kept track of my batting average, but I was the best hitter on the team and probably batted well over .400. Our Amvet Cards won the league, and I made the Irvington All-Star team that would compete in the inter-city play-offs that eventually lead to the Little League World Series in Westport, Connecticut.
Now I had come to this point in my baseball career with extensive preparation on the proverbial sandlot, stickball included, but this was supplemented by constant advice and instruction from my father. Keep your eye on the ball. Don’t look up when fielding a grounder. Two hands on a fly ball. When on base, always be thinking ahead of what you’re going to do in any possible circumstance. He taught me to bat. He taught me to field. And he taught me an esoteric manoeuvre on the base path that might make up some for my slowness.
My famous hook slide.
The Irvington Little League All-Stars’ first play-off game was against Livingston, on their ball field. I was the number three pitcher on the All-star team behind two of my seventh grade school mates, Arnie Willner, a diminutive right handed twelve year old who already knew how to throw a nasty curve, and Cliff Sermon, a big guy with a blazing fast ball but with control problems. Arnie was to start against Livingston, and I was in left field, hitting second in the line-up because of my prodigious bat.
Arnie was dominating on the mound that evening, and pitched a two-hit shut-out. The Livingston pitcher was just as effective. I got Irvington’s only hit of the game to spoil his no-hitter, a single up the middle in the fourth inning. At that point the score is tied at zip, and I am our team’s first and, it was to turn out, only base-runner. I don’t know what got into me. Maybe it was because in our league most of the catchers had pretty weak and inaccurate arms, and I had stolen my share of bases despite my snail-like speed. But this was against Livingston’s best. What was I thinking when I took off for second base on the very first pitch?
The pitch, a fastball down the middle, was a called strike, and the Livingston catcher made a perfect throw to second base. I was about ten feet from the bag with the ball waiting for me firmly ensconced in the Livingston shortstop’s mitt. It was one of those moments of truth in one’s life when disaster looms a split second away. There is no time to think. One acts out of some primordial instinct. One does what one subconsciously knows to do although one does not know he knows it. What everything in my life up to that time had prepared me for that life-defining moment.
I executed a perfect hook slide.
Doubt me if you will. It was filmed on 8 mm. so I have proof. Had, anyway (this was 1953, for God’s sake). It was the most graceful moment of my life, before or since. I am a rather clumsy guy, but that day you would have thought me a candidate for the Bolshoi. The hook slide Charlie had taught me is a combination of mental and physical deception. Eye contact with the short stop tells him that I am coming directly at him full force, hoping for a collision that will knock loose the ball from his glove. As he lowers his glove in front of the base for a sure tag out, I hit the ground sharply to my left (that is, towards the pitcher’s mound) so that my body is at a right angle to the base, with my right leg curved in a semi-circle dragging along the ground, eluding the glove and catching the southeast corner of the bag. A hook slide that was to go down in history (at least in our family).
What happened next was critical, if anti-climatic. I advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored the game’s only run on a ground out to second. Final score: Irvington 1, Livingston zero. I was a hero, and I thoroughly enjoyed the adulation of my team mates and their parents at the post-game celebration at the local Dairy Queen. Nonetheless, it was a character building lesson for me when the team manager later took me aside and told me that if I ever pulled a dumb stunt like that again – making an unauthorized attempt to steal a base in a close game – I would watch the rest of the play-offs from the bench. But no matter; in the long run it was the hook slide and not the stupidity of the attempt that everyone (at least in my family) would remember.
For the record, we were eliminated from the playoffs in our next game against Orange, where Cliff Sermon started on the mound for us, yielding walks to half the opposing team, followed by a couple of homers, thereby giving them an insurmountable lead in the first inning. I came in to relieve from left field to mop up in a losing cause.
I was a whiz at Math at Reseda High School in the San Fernando Valley, but when I got to Berkeley and faced world-class competition, I was cut down to size and had the wisdom to change majors. In like manner it was at Reseda High School, only three short years after my Little League glory days, where my baseball stardom came crashing to its inglorious conclusion. Whatever zip I had on my fastball was gone on a regulation sixty feet, six inches pitcher’s mound, and I never could learn to throw a curve. My hitting impressed no one, and my fielding was even worse. I tried out, but I didn’t even make the Reseda High B team.
Nevertheless, baseball remained my passion. There was no question about it being my destiny. Did not my beloved Dodgers follow me out to Los Angeles from the East coast (our family got there in late 1954, the Bums made it for the ’58 season)? Does anyone really believe this was mere coincidence?
I hung around parks and continued to play sandlot ball, participating in pick up games wherever I could find them. One fine bright sunny Southern California afternoon (excuse the redundancy), Charlie and I happened to be hanging out at Reseda Park to watch a league game when I was asked to fill for a team that was one player short. I believe it may have been American Legion ball; I knew some of the guys and they were of high school age. I was put in right field and slotted to bat ninth in the line-up. Naturally.
I came up to bat for the first time against a pitcher with a good if not overpowering fast ball. I cannot remember what the count was, but he served me up a fat one, straight and fast and right down the middle. I swung for the fences, as was my wont. Like a tennis racquet, a baseball bat (in those days, all bats were made of wood, no aluminum) has a sweet spot, right in the center of its circumference and about four fifths up from the handle. My Louisville Slugger met that buzzing fastball right on that delicious sweet spot, and it was by far the biggest blast of my entire baseball career. A high hard bombshell to left center, a fence clearer in any ballpark in any league.
But this was no regulation ball park, it was Reseda Park, and there was no outfield fence. Left field extended into a patch of eucalyptus trees and then out onto Victory Boulevard. I didn’t have to look to know that the ball had soared well over the left fielder’s head. It had home run written all over it. But there being no fence to clear, I had to run it out. I think that, drunk with overconfidence, I began a slow celebratory trot around the base path; but soon, at the insistent urging of my team mates, I began to hurry it up. My father says the ball rolled all the way into Victory Boulevard, well over four hundred feet plus from home plate. The left fielder, however, was much swifter afoot than I was. He ran the ball down, fielded it, and made his throw towards home plate. The short stop relayed it to the catcher.
The round trip from home plate to home plate consists of four 90 feet stretches, a total of 360 feet, or 120 yards. As I approached third base I was surprised to see my team mate who was coaching there give me the signal to hold up. Forget it. This was to be the greatest home run of all time, and there was no way I was going to let the longest drive ever hit at Reseda Park result in a mere triple. I rounded third and headed for home.
The opposing team’s catcher that day was Joe Castellano, Reseda High’s second string backstop, a short muscular Paisan with varsity experience, and this, unfortunately, included knowledge of how to block home plate from an incoming base runner.
Alas, unbeknownst to me until that second pivotal moment in my life, a hook slide is of absolutely no value coming into home with a catcher blocking the plate. It was a closer play than at Livingston, but I was nonetheless clearly going to be tagged out as I attempted to elude Joe’s tag. The only effect the hook slide had was to put my head instead of my feet in the path of his hands, a costly mistake. I cannot say whether Joe had the ball in his hand or whether he conked me on the head with his glove. But it was a world-class tag, and it knocked me unconscious.
I was “out” in more than one sense of the word.
Since that fateful day in the summer of 1957, I have driven past that park maybe a hundred times, often in the company of my father. No one who has ever had the (dubious) privilege of riding in our car at such a moment has gotten away without hearing about the “shot heard round the world,” second only to Bobby Thompson’s Devil-inspired grand-slam homer in the seventh game of the 1954 National League Playoffs against my beloved Dodgers. When my father told the story, his focus was always on the gigantic blast that had come off my bat and not the eventual tragedy of the outcome. Only privately did he once confide to me that he had been worried sick at the time about my being knocked silly.
I don’t buy that hogwash about baseball being a metaphor for what America is. It was just a coincidence that baseball was the center of my life as a child and thereby an apt medium for creating a bond with my father that I will always treasure. I don’t think my father was ever as passionate about baseball as I was – I can still give you the starting line-up of those amazing 1950’s Dodgers: Campy behind the plate, Hodges on first, Jackie Robinson on second, Peewee Reese, team captain, at short, Carl Furillo, the old rifle arm in right, the Duke (Snider) in center, left field was always up for grabs: Hermanski, Pafko, Cal Abrams, among others; and the greats on the mound: Ralph Branca (the team owner’s son-in-law, whose name will live forever in infamy for that one pitch he served up to Bobby Thompson), Carl Erskine, Don Newcombe, Preacher Roe; Koufax and Drysdale were to come later. But because it was my passion, it was also my father’s.
Well, there you have it. Two childhood incidents indelibly forged in memory that has absolutely no significance outside of a small circle of family and friends; and, even there, of dubious note. I myself, in fact, probably would have pretty much forgotten them had they not been woven over the years into a narrative tapestry of comradeship and heroism between me and a loving father.
Now this love was not mine to enjoy exclusively. My brother, who connected with Charlie through their shared passion for fishing, amongst others, has similar tales to tell. Neil’s one and only lifetime poetic moment, as a teen-ager he set to verse his passion for the enterprise and entitled it “Trout.” Although, in my humble opinion, not quite as compelling as my hook slides, the poem has parallel standing our family iconography.
In no other area of my life – in work, in political office, in social situations – has it been my bent to aspire towards male bonding, towards being considered “one of the boys.”
But at home, as on the base path, there was no greater honor.