A Wonderful World
It was 1961. I was 12. It was a beautiful sunny Saturday.
It was about as close to heaven as I would ever get.
My friend, Buzz, and I took the bus from our totally white enclave in Bergen County to the old Port Authority bus terminal in the city. From there we’d hop on the subway and get off at 161st Street in the Bronx.
Climb up the steps from the subway and there it was, a church, a place of reverence, a place of dreams. The big blue letters identifying Yankee Stadium, a perfect, monumental white structure. Passing through the turnstyles was like going through the pearly gates.
I was and still am a rabid Yankee fan though my boyhood idealism has been heavily tarnished through the years.
All I knew was the Yankees. I’m 70 years old and can still recite the starting lineups. Moose Skowron at first, Bobby Richardson at second, Tony Kubek at short, Clete Boyer at third, Yogi Berra in left, Mickey Mantle in center, Roger Maris in right, Whitey Ford on the mound and Ellie Howard catching.
I didn’t know that it had been 14 years since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. And the Yankees still had just one black player, Elston Howard, a very good catcher.
The question of race was not in my consciousness. My hometown of Paramus was 100 percent white. It was illegal to refuse to sell a house to a black family. The Realtors got around it by redlining which towns would be “best” for prospective black home-buyers.
For a privileged 12-year-old white kid from Bergen County, it was a wonderful world. I knew nothing about the realities away from Yankee Stadium; realities that seem very much like today.
It was the year that “Freedom Riders” traveled throughout the South to test and promote integration measures. One Freedom Riders bus was fire-bombed near Anniston, Ala., and the civil rights protestors were beaten by a mob of Ku Klux Klan members.
Another time, Freedom Riders were arrested in Jackson, Miss., for “disturbing the peace” after getting off their bus.
Alabama Governor John Patterson declared martial law after race riots broke out in that southern state.
And President John F. Kennedy sent 18,000 military advisors to South Vietnam, setting the stage for the war.
But that was not my world. My world was the Yankees. I felt excitement that bordered on the sexual as Buzz and I walked through the darkened catacombs of the stadium to the ramp which would take us to our seating area. You walk up the ramp and there it is. The grass was so green, like emeralds. So perfect. The infield clay was red like rubies.
The Yanks were playing the Orioles that day. The Orioles had finished their warm ups while the Yankees were taking fielding practice, catching grounders and tossing them effortlessly to first base. Even such routine matters would be inconceivable for mere mortals.
Third base coach Frank Crosetti, who played for the Yankees for 17 years, was using a skinny bat to hit fungoes to the outfielders. I don’t know what I thought these Yankees were made of or where they came from but they were not like anything in my world.
An elderly Yankee usher wearing a Yankee cap showed us to our seats, wiping them down with the fuzzy red and blue glove he wore and waiting obviously for a tip, which we provided. The seats were on the third base side, upper deck, meaning that for some plays, you had to bend your neck to see around the steel support girders. The girders came down with the new Yankee Stadium years later.
Batting practice was ending and the workers for the grounds crew were dragging a large metal net across the infield to smoothen it and remove any stones that could turn a routine grounder into a nightmare for the fielder and a base hit for the batter.
Yankee manager Ralph Houk and Oriole manager Paul Richards were on the way to home plate where they would give starting lineup cards to the home plate umpire who would explain the ground rules that both managers could recite in their sleep. Houk was in his first year as Yankee manager, replacing the irreplaceable Casey Stengel.
That year, the Orioles finished in third place,14 games behind the Yankees. The Tigers were in second, eight games behind, by the time the last game was played. The Yankees finished with a record of 109–53, and won their 26th American League pennant. They later went on to win the World Series to defeat the Reds four games to one.
And by the way, it was the year that Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, smashing 61 homers and getting an asterisk in the record books because Maris broke the record in 161 games and Ruth did it in 154 games.
It was approaching game time and Bob Sheppard announced the starting lineup over the public address system. Each name reverberated, echoed as if it refused to go away.
Playing centerfield and batting fourth, Mickey, Mickey, Mickey, Mantle, Mantle, Mantle. He was my Yankee hero. Who knew he was a womanizing drunk? All I knew was how he set up in the batter’s box, took a few practice swings and if the ball was right, swatting it so far that nobody could actually see it landing in the stands.
Soon it was time to settle down for the game. We got hot dogs and sodas and I was ready with my scorebook. I was meticulous in recording hits and outs for players on both teams, but especially the Yankees.
And when the Orioles scored the third out in the top of the ninth inning, it was time to find the subway to the bus and back to my world of make believe.