"Either this nation shall kill racism, or racism shall kill this nation." (S. Jonas, August, 2018)
"Take me out to the ball-game, take me out to the crowd. Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks, I don't care if I ever get back. Let me root, root for the home team, if they don't win it's a shame. Cause it's one-two-three strikes you're out, at the old ball game."
Taking a break from dealing with the fascist threat and other related matters for a week this column is a personal reminisce about baseball and me. It starts with me and my original team, the New York Giants, with a particular focus on the Great Willie Mays, who "came up" to the Giants in the early days of my rooting for them. It concludes with some thoughts on a terrific and moving experience I had on August 27, 2022, which was watching the telecast of the first New York Mets (Metropolitans) Old Timers Day in over 20 years with my son Jacob. Because of his rooting interest in them, I had become a Mets fan. Jacob and is Mom and sister and I had started going to Mets' games in 1980-or-so. But first some historical background on how I first became a baseball fan to begin with.
The earliest baseball play that as a young child (I was nine at the time) I was aware of was Enos Slaughter's grand score-from-first-on-a-single that won the 1946 World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals against the then much-benighted Boston Red Sox. (I know, I know. Slaughter was considered to be a racist, something he always denied, but still it was a great play [even if some observers considered the hit on which he scored to be a double rather than a single].)
Sometime in that winter (1946-47) I decided to become a baseball fan. (Yes, even back then I did such things in a rather intellectual way.) The next issue was "which team should I root for?" New York City had three at the time: the New York Yankees, the New York Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Again, thinking the way I was already thinking, at the age of 10, since I lived in Manhattan --- the Upper West Side of Manhattan as it happened, not too far from the home of the Giants, the Polo Grounds --- the choice was easy: a Giants fan I became.
There was one obstacle in the way of making that decision, however, one that was (surprise, surprise) political. I grew up in a household in which The Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party/USA, was on the kitchen table every morning. Along other progressive forces, the Worker had engaged in a campaign to desegregate Major League Baseball from some time in the 1930s. But it wasn't until 1946 that Branch Rickey, then the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, carefully picked the right player, both in terms of his skills and his intellect, to be the first Black in the Majors. I remember when it was announced that Jackie Robinson had signed with the Dodgers and would be spending his first season in what was then called "organized ball" with the Dodgers' top farm team, the Montreal Royals. He had a great season with the Royals, and was called up to the Dodgers in 1947. So that did create something of a conflict for that 10-year-old boy. Would he follow his politics or his geography?
Well in those days Brooklyn (which actually had been a separate city until 1898) seemed SOOO far away from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. And the Polo Grounds was just six stops on the subway and a short uphill walk away from where I lived. And so, I made my choice. Politics was put aside and the New York Giants became my team. They themselves would soon become integrated, with Hank Thompson and Monte Irvin joining them in 1949.
So why am I going through all of history, you might ask. Because it goes through one of the greatest baseball players of all time, of any color, Willie Mays. In the spring of 1951, the Giants, a potentially contending team in the National League, had a farm team in Minneapolis, MN, the Millers. And the star of that team was a then-19-year-old Black player from Westfield, AL. He was hitting .477 (which, if you are not a baseball fan, means that that player was extraordinary). In those days, for the most part one listened to broadcasts of the games on the radio. I tuned in for at least one of Willie's first three games, during which he got no hits in 12 at-bats. After the third game, so the story goes, Willie asked the Giants manager, the legendary Leo Durocher, to send him back to the Millers. Leo refused, and I clearly remember hearing the broadcast of Willie's first hit in the majors, a home-run against one of the greatest left-handers in Major League History, Warren Spahn of the then Boston Braves, over the left-field roof at the Polo Grounds.
Willie went on the have a legendary career himself, first with the New York Giants, then with the San Francisco Giants when the team had moved there following the 1957 season. He hit a total of 660 home runs, and if he had not spent two years in the military in his prime (1952-53, during the Korean War but seeing no action, fortunately), he might well have gone over 700. But then, at the end of this career, he came back to New York with the Mets (Metropolitans), for the 1972 and 1973 seasons. The Mets had been one of the first two National League expansion teams, created in part to re-establish National League baseball in New York City, following the departure of the Giants and the Dodgers, both in the National League.
The first principal owner of the Mets, Mrs. Joan Whitney Payson, had been the only member of the Board of the New York Giants to vote against the move to San Francisco. She also had been a huge Willie Mays fan, so when she was able to arrange a trade with the San Francisco Giants to bring Willie back to New York in 1972, to end his career there, she jumped at the chance. Among other things, when Willie retired at the end of the 1973 season, Mrs. Payson promised him that his number would be retired for the Mets, meaning that no future Met would ever wear that number. The promise plays a role in this story, at its end.
As for the continuation of my baseball fandom after the NY Giants left town, I rooted for the San Francisco Giants for the first few years, when many of their best players, like Mays and Willie McCovey, I knew from their playing days in New York. But when most of them moved on to other teams or retired, my interest dissipated (that dissipation helped by two years that I spent in London, England, doing a post-doc fellowship in 1963-65). And so, I lost interest in baseball altogether (and certainly could NEVER be a Yankees fan), that is until my son started developing a rooting interest in the game at about the age of 7, at the end of the 1970s.
In fact, we went to Mets games frequently at the old Shea Stadium, to see. Among others, the fabled Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry (two great Black players of the 1980s-90s) develop with the Mets. On television we saw the famous "Bill Buckner Play" [what is there NOT a Wikipedia entry for?] against the then still-benighted Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series, and the Mets comeback win in the 7th game of that series. Although they never again made a World Series in that era, they were a very good team and fun to watch, at the Big Shea and on television.
(On a side note, Jacob and I actually got to meet Willie Mays at an American Booksellers Association meeting in Anaheim, CA in 1985 [which I was attending to promote a couple of my books]. Late one afternoon we exited the convention center and there was Willie, waiting for his ride. We went over to say hello. He was nice as he could be and gave me a big smile when I told him that I had been following him from his first days at the Polo Grounds in 1951.)
After Jake went off to college, I continued to follow the Mets on and off right down to the present time. Which brings us to the Old-Timers Day/Game of this past Saturday (August 27, 2022), which we chose to watch on television. That indeed turned out to be a much better experience than going to Citi Field, the Mets' present ballpark for the event. On television, one saw everything. All the interviews, up close and personal. All the highlights of Mets history that were presented. All the details of the game action (and they actually did play a couple-of-innings-plus, some of the younger invited old-timers moving around pretty well, as did a few of the older old-timers as well). But the most impressive things about the event the event were that: a) it was held, for the first time since the last one in the mid-90s (the hated Yankees hold one every year), b) that there were Mets players invited going all the way back to that first team in 1962 (e.g., Jay Hook, a starting pitcher for that team, who actually threw a couple in the game).
To name a few, there were the greats, like for example Dwight "Doc" Gooden, Darryl "Straw" Strawberry, Keith Hernandez (no nickname), Mike Piazza (none for him either), Mookie Wilson, Pedro Martinez, Bartolo Colon (a way-overweight but still very good pitcher when he was with the Mets in his 40s and hit his first major league home run at age 42), and John Franco, as well as the not-great-but-very-good, like Todd Ziele (now a pre- and post-game commentator for the Mets and a very good one at that), Steve Dillon, 79 (and still in shape) a pitcher from Baldwin, Long Island, Ed Kranepool who was on the 1962 team and played for 17 years, Cleon Jones, an outfielder who made one of the great-catches-of-all-time for the Mets in the 1969 World Series, and Ron Swoboda who made one of those too in the same series. They actually played a game of two-plus innings and I think that everyone of the 65 who wanted to get on the field (a significant number being way-overweight with a lesser number being physically handicapped) did, in one way or another.
But the highlight of the day for me, and the reason why I wanted to write a non-political column for once, was an event that took place after the old-timers' game itself was concluded. And that was the retirement of Willie Mays' No. 24. Willie, still with us at 91, could not be at the game because he is recovering from a hip replacement (at 91!!!). He was represented by his son Michael. There have been a series of owners of the Mets since Mrs. Payson sold the team, some good, some, like the present one Steve Cohen really good, and some, like the Madoff-saddled Wilpons not-so-good (that's actually an understatement). But whatever you think of Steve Cohen (yes, he's that Steve Cohen who close to ten years ago pleaded guilty to insider-trading), he has lots of money and he is spending it liberally in all aspects on the Mets. And so, it was Steve Cohen who decided to set up and pay for this first Mets Old Timers Day for over a quarter-century, and who decided to finally have the team honor Mrs. Payson's promise to Willie and retire his number 24. (The Mets have only six other retired numbers, plus Jackie Robinson's No. 42 which is retired for every team in the Major Leagues.)
And so, coming full circle, it was actually very moving for me, at age 85, to see retired the number which Willie wore for the New York Giants, the San Francisco Giants, and the New York Mets. Willie is still my all-time favorite player, whose first hit for the New York Giants I did not see but certainly heard, over the radio, and remember that hearing of it down to this very day. Willie's number will be ensconced up there on the Citi Field upper deck facing along with those first six. WOW. What a feeling.
(Article changed on Sep 01, 2022 at 2:56 PM EDT)