My father took us — my mother, my sister and me — to the first game the New York Mets ever played at Shea Stadium. I don’t remember much about the specific game except I was happy I was allowed to skip school that Friday. The Mets lost to the Pirates by a score of 4-3, and Willie Stargell hit the first home run at Shea leading off the top of the second inning.
My mother was the baseball fan, grateful for the arrival of the Mets as an expansion team in 1962 after the loss of her beloved Dodgers who left Brooklyn for Los Angeles at the end of the 1957 season. I know my father found baseball boring and was more interested in the novelty of being able to say he was at the first Mets game at Shea Stadium. The date was April 19,1964, the year of the New York World’s Fair, and though we lived in northern New Jersey at the time, my sister and I had both started school in Flushing, Queens, where Shea Stadium opened, and the World’s Fair was held, moving when I was near the end of second grade.
At the game, our seats were up near the last row far above left field. Walking, more like tiptoeing, up the concrete steps in the aisle, I was somewhat scared by the unsettling feeling I was going to lose my balance and topple off and out, down toward the field below. Once secure in my seat, I had no plans of leaving until the end of the game unless something unexpected happened. Fortunately, those were the days when vendors still patrolled the upper reaches of the outfield stands with frequent regularity, selling soda, and hot dogs, and beer.
I knew my father had never played baseball because he was born with a disability in which his spine was a bit crooked, and one foot was a couple sizes larger than the other. He never appreciated the nuances of baseball, or the strategy involved with each individual game as situations warranted, and yet, he was willing to take me to doubleheaders, at my insistence. I always thought why not go to two games instead of just one and was not aware at the time of how much difficulty my father had sitting through a single game.
My poor father took myself and a friend from down the street to my first doubleheader the last day of May during the Mets first season playing at Shea. My favorite team, the San Francisco Giants, mainly because Willie Mays was my hero, were in town to play the Mets.
I’m currently reading an interesting book, Where Nobody Knows Your Name, by John Feinstein, about life in minor league baseball. In his book, Feinstein writes, “professional athletes’ memories rarely extend back more than about fifteen minutes” and then goes on to say to most young players today, “Cal Ripkin Jr. — who retired in 2001 — was an old-timer who played in a lot of games, Willie Mays is a distant memory, and Babe Ruth is the name of a league for teenage players.”
I don’t like to think what that means for me in terms of age because I can still vividly picture Willie Mays running out to play centerfield during the doubleheader my father took me to on May 31, 1964. What’s more, as an added bonus, Juan Marichal was the starting pitcher in the first game and I never got tired of watching his high, extended left leg as he went into his windup before releasing one of the best fastballs in the game toward the plate. Marichal easily beat the Mets with a complete game victory, raising his record on the year to 8-1.
Who could ever guess that the second game would last 23 innings? From about the 12th inning on, my father kept wanting to leave, but he gave in to my protests until finally in the 17th inning he could take no more and we left for home, learning while listening on the radio during the drive home that the Giants won the game on a pinch hit double by Del Crandall, a catcher nearing the end of his career, which had started with the Braves in 1949 when the team played in Boston before moving to Milwaukee, and ultimately Atlanta, where the Braves play today,
Once again my memory is somewhat hazy concerning the two games between the Mets and Giants that day, though I have been able to confirm some of my recall as very much intact. The Giants swept the Mets in the doubleheader. I can still see the Mets pulling off a triple play in the top of the 14th when, with Jesus Alou on first and Mays on second, Orlando Cepda hit a sharp line drive right at veteran shortstop Roy McMillan. Bing, bam, just like that, McMillan caught the ball, stepped on second, and threw to first and the inning was over just like that,
The Yankees were more a part of my childhood with my father than the Mets ever were. I was recently reading a book on the history of the Yankees and chanced upon the exact date of the first ever New York Yankees “bat day,” which I was at with my father. I didn’t remember anything about the day, not even that it was a double header against the Minnesota Twins, only that each kid under twelve, accompanied by an adult, was given a free baseball bat with the autograph of a Yankees player on it.
At the time, I had no awareness that the great New York Yankees were on the decline from previous years in which they regularly appeared in the World Series. How could I know that the idea for Bat Day was in response to declining attendance? I was eleven years old at the time. Some 71,245 fans turned out that day during a season in which overall attendance was down by 92,000, as the Yankees dropped from being in the World Series the year before to finishing in an unheard of sixth place.
As my father and I waited in line to get into the stadium, there was a somewhat chubby kid ahead of me with his immense figure of a father whom one would guess worked for the Department of Sanitation or as a union foreman on the docks of Manhattan right out of the movie On the Waterfront. The chubby kid accepted the bat he was given, looked down and scowled, then turned to his father and whined, “I want Mickey Mantle.” The father towered over the bat vendor and said in a measured but threatening tone, “Give me a Mickey Mantle bat.” The fumbling vendor quickly sorted through his stack of bats until, with extreme relief, he handed the desired bat to Longshore father guy, who, in turn, passed it on to his kid, who accepted it with the satisfied smile of a true bully.
I was next and was handed a bat with Ray Barker’s autograph on it. My father looked down and said, “Wow, Ray Barker, that’s quite a bat,” unintentionally confirming he knew nothing about baseball, or the Yankees. And yet, I see now that the first Yankees Bat Day was on June 20th, my father’s birthday, proving how close he felt toward me, how he was willing to do something on his special day because it meant so much to me. In a further surprise, although the Yankees lost both games of the doubleheader, batting for pitcher Al Downing in the bottom of the fourth, Ray Barker came up and actually hit a two run pinch hit homer. It was one of seven homers Barker hit all season.
That day was the last time I think I ever felt close to my father. I knew instinctively if I ever had a son, he would end up with a Ray Barker bat and not a more coveted Mickey Mantle one, so we weren’t all that different. But my father changed over the years, as did I, inevitably, entering adolescence and then adulthood. I learned from experience and maturity, though my character tended to reflect continuity, whereas my father either became someone different as the years passed, or was exposed as being other than the type of person my siblings and I thought he was, but that’s a story for another time.
It’s strange, but I can see how my interest in Major League Baseball in a sense served as a foreshadowing of my relationship with my father. We moved to Queens when I was four, right at the tail end of the heyday of New York City baseball, a time when the Giants were still in the city, as well as the Dodgers, and of course, the Yankees. From the time of my birth until the first Yankees Bat Day, the Bronx Bombers were in the World Series nine out of eleven years before dropping to sixth place in 1965, and coming in last in the American League the following year, which was absolutely unimaginable.
The world was changing, the Mets actually won the World Series against Baltimore in 1969, something which seemed inconceivable a few years before. The Yankees thrived, playing in the World Series every year John F. Kennedy was President, while the crosstown rival Mets became world champions while Richard Nixon was in the White House. During the turbulent Sixties, most would associate the Mets with JFK rather than Tricky Dick, but it just goes to show you can never know what to expect in baseball.
Flipping channels on television the other night, I came across a game where the Colorado Rockies and Chicago Cubs were tied 3 to 3 in the 13th inning at Wrigley Field. Since these were two National League teams, there was no designated hitter, and after the Cubs exhausted its pitching staff, catcher John Baker came in to pitch the top of the 16th.
One of the announcers groaned, “National League, bring on the designated hitter.” No way, I thought. With the designated hitter, I would not be watching the drama in which Baker, who was never expected to pitch that night, or any other, got through the inning, retiring the Rockies without giving up a hit.
It was only fitting that Baker led off the bottom of the inning for Chicago with a walk. A sacrifice bunt and Baker was on second with one out. The next batter was hit by the pitcher. With runners on first and second, a bloop single loaded the bases. And then a sacrifice fly to right and Baker scored the winning run, to post a 1-0 record as a pitcher for the season, as well as his career.
So, once again, the great Yankee Yogi Berra’s words were prophetic, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” And, it wasn’t until it was, and I called it a day late into the night.