Red and Me: A baseball memoir

When my mother was dying last month, my sister Janice and I tripped into recollections of our father’s death twenty years earlier. Late at night, a little punchy, we retold the most memorable – and funny – episode from that time.

I was alone with my dad when he died in JFK hospital, near West Palm Beach. He’d had a stroke a couple of days before, and never regained consciousness.

Suddenly, he stopped breathing, his eyes popped open, and that was that. (I closed his eyes, as I’d seen done in movies.)

I phoned Jan at our parents’ house nearby, and gave her the news. “He looks different,” I warned her.

Soon enough, the family arrived at the hospital. Jan and my daughter Kate walked into the wrong room, where a Hispanic man was lying in bed.

When they caught up with me, Jan said: “You weren’t kidding. He does look different.”

A dozen or so years before my dad died, I read Russell Baker’s 1982 memoir of his childhood, titled Growing Up. It was rich with family history, and I realized I knew little about my parents’ lives before I was born.

My dad and I had one strong bond – baseball. So, I phoned him from my home in suburban Toronto and began a series of interviews focused on his baseball career.

His memories, the names and places, painted an enchanting picture of the Depression era sandlots of New York.

I wrote a 4,000-word story, which I called Red and Me, and gave it to him on his birthday.

After he died, at the age of 75, I found a copy in his house and extracted an excerpt to read at his funeral.

Here – on the day after his birthday and a few days before Father’s Day – is the full story:

My father was a left-handed shortstop. When I was a boy, and he was in his early thirties, I’d tag along to his softball league games on Sunday mornings.

Watching him field ground balls, seeing him go to his right, deep into the hole, I often feared his legs would tangle and he’d topple trying to pivot and throw. But he never did. He always made the play.

He was such an exceptional ballplayer that his left-handedness did not restrict him to first base or the outfield. Besides, he had experience.

When he was ten, at P.S. 106, in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, his English teacher, Mrs. Busch, coached the school’s baseball team.

In class, Mrs. Busch honored the rules of the New York City school system – forcing her left-handed students to write with their right hands.

But on the ballfield, at St. Raymond park, she championed the unconventional.

“Never mind that you’re left-handed,” she told the skinny, little red-haired boy. “You’re the best ballplayer in the school and you’re my shortstop.

It was 1929, the year of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the stock market crash, the dawn of the Great Depression. But my father’s horizon extended only as far as Jerome Avenue and 161st Street, to Yankee Stadium, the House that Ruth Built and still inhabited.

When my father wasn’t playing ball he was watching the Yankees: Ruth, Gehrig, Dickey, the double-play combo of Leo “the Lip” Durocher and “Poosh ’Em Up Tony” Lazzeri.

For four bits, my father would scramble for a place in the centerfield bleachers. On summer weekdays, he would grab a free seat in the upper deck, with thousands of other kids, guests of the Yankees’ benevolent despot, Colonel Jacob Ruppert.

Every boy on every sandlot in New York City dreamed of playing on that holy turf in the West Bronx.

When Hy Becker graduated grammar school, after the eighth grade, Mrs. Busch wrote in his autograph book: My wish is to someday see you in a Yankee uniform.

“I really thought I’d be a big league ballplayer,” my dad told me many years later.

***

The photograph shows a knobby-kneed toddler in bloomers, holding a tiny baseball bat in a left-handed stance.

It was snapped in July 1948, at a bungalow colony in Rockland County, north of New York City.

On the back, in my mother’s script, it reads: Kenneth at 20 months.

I have no recollection of the time or place. But I know who positioned me in that left-handed batting pose.

I was born in the Bronx and lived my first five years there, on Walton Avenue, a dozen or so blocks from Yankee Stadium.

I retain only two images from that time: Playing catch with my mother on the sidewalk in front of our apartment building; my dad and I walking hand-in-hand along Jerome Avenue, toward Yankee Stadium, on a sunny Sunday morning.

We stop at Macombs Dam Park, across 161st Street from the stadium. We sit on a bleacher bench along the first-base line.

A game is in progress, between teams of black players. My dad points to right field. “Your dad used to pop them over that fence all the time.

“Son,” he adds, caressing the back of my neck, “most of the big league parks are set up for left-handed hitters.”

It is now afternoon and we are inside the stadium, between games of a doubleheader. We are standing at a field gate, just up the line from the Yankee dugout.

My father is talking with a player in a Yankee uniform. “Son, this is Eddie Lopat. We used to play ball together.”

But I’m not interested, tugging at his trousers.

“I don’t want to talk to him,” I cry. “I want to talk to Joe DiMaggio.”

***

My father was born in Brooklyn on June 12, 1919, the second son of Henry Becker, a first generation American of German-Jewish origin, and Bessie Becker (nee Agran), a Polish immigrant.

He was named Hyman and denied the option of a middle name. When he was four, his family moved to the Bronx, where he would live for nearly 30 years and always be known as Red.

In 1933, Red left P.S. 106 and enrolled at DeWitt Clinton High School. He chose the all-boys school because of the reputation of its baseball team.

Clinton would afford him citywide competition, some of the best school-league baseball in the country.

When my father entered high school, Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg was batting .300 in his rookie year with the Tigers; Frankie Frisch, the “Fordham Flash,” was the player-manager of the “Gas House Gang” St. Louis Cardinals; Gehrig was in his ninth full season with the Yanks.

All three would go on to the Hall of Fame. All three were products of the schoolyards and sandlots of New York City.

When the baseball season finally came around at Clinton, the school discontinued its sports programs. The Depression, it was reasoned, was no time for games.

My father would remain at Clinton, however. Some days he would forget his homework. Some days he would forget his civics book. He never forgot his baseball glove.

At lunchtime, he would meet his new friend, Joe Lobel, and they would toss a baseball. My father was teaching himself to pitch. Joe was his catcher.

Red was still short and skinny – he’d grow to no more than five-foot-seven – but he could throw a baseball with great velocity. And he had developed a snapping curveball.

He and Joe worked out together day after day, through the winter of 1933-34. In the spring, they played together in the school’s intramural league.

They became best friends. (Thirteen years later, Joe married Red’s kid sister, my Aunt Emma.)

On their intramural team was another southpaw, though he played mainly first base in those days.

Edmund Walter Lopatynski would change his name to Eddie Lopat and spend a dozen years in the Major Leagues, eight of them as a successful pitcher for Casey Stengel’s great Yankee teams of the late 1940s and early 1950s. He would win 21 games in 1951 and pitch in five World Series.

At family gatherings, going back as far as I can remember, my Uncle Joe would take me aside and confide: “Your dad was as good as Lopatynski and better than most of them other guys that made it.”

Red and Joe also played together on a sandlot team called the Mactes (pronounced Mack-tees). My father never knew where the name came from. He figured it was Indian.

They called their home The Valley, a dusty ballyard in the recesses of Crotona Park in the Bronx.

Their coach was a man named Pop Babbitt. He had watched the boys for several weekends and decided to take them on. He bought them uniforms and booked their games.

Pop Babbitt told the boys he was a representative of the hat-blockers union. My father later learned that kindly old Pop was a well-known racketeer.

The Mactes of the 1930s fielded a pretty good ballclub. Red was the ace pitcher, Joe the catcher, Meyer “Mike” Feig at first, David “Doodo” Rosenbaum at second, Jerry “Lover Boy” Zucker at short, Louis “Sleuch” Marino at third; an outfield of Irving “Sloppy” Levy, Harold “Bucky” Bachner and George “Flash” Sosa.

Every weekend, April through October, the Mactes and similarly organized teams travelled the parks and playgrounds of New York.

They came into neighborhoods and hustled ballgames. The players each would chip in a couple of bucks, whatever they could afford, in some cases a week’s salary, and bet on themselves.

Pop would cover bets from all comers. By game time, Pop would be holding a couple of hundred bucks, a lot of money in those days.

The action was particularly crisp at a rocky pit of a ballpark on Vyse Avenue in the Bronx. Tall apartment buildings surrounded the field.

Middle-aged men and women, mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe, sat and watched the games from rickety fire escapes. Boys in short pants pressed their faces against the chain-link fence. Girls in Sunday dresses perched on wooden benches.

A ballgame was an entertainment for the neighborhood and the neighborhood turned out.

The Mactes archrival was a team called the Beltonas, (pronounced Bell-toe-nas), another squad of Bronxites that sported the superior double-play combination in Harold Grossman at second and Milton “Mickey” Rutner at shortstop.

Grossman and Rutner also played for James Monroe High School, the Bronx alma mater of Hank Greenberg. Rutner’s exploits at Monroe earned him publicity and attracted big league scouts.

He went on to make a career of professional baseball, mainly in the minor leagues. His Major League career amounted to 12 games with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1947. His lifetime Major League batting average was .250.

I wonder if my father would have swapped his successful business career for 12 games with the A’s.

The Mactes also played against a team that wore the uniform of McElhenney’s Bar and Grill and had a star pitcher named Harry Feldman.

My father did not admire Feldman’s stuff. They had their share of duels and Red usually came out on top.

But old man McElhenney knew a guy, who knew a guy, who knew a scout for the Giants. Harry Feldman pitched for the Giants for six seasons, through the war years, appearing in 143 games.

I know my father would have gambled his future against a chance to pitch six seasons in the Polo Grounds. That’s what he was hoping for when he went to a tryout in 1941.

                                    ***

My father was born a Yankee fan. In his father’s house there was no choice. A stubborn and opinionated man, my grandfather would not condone the least act of rebellion.

A printer by trade, he survived the Depression without major discomfort. He fancied himself rather prosperous, taking the wheel of his sleek 1929 Chevrolet on weekends, cruising to ballparks to watch his son Red play.

Between games of a Sunday doubleheader, he’d take the family to the Hunts Point Dairy Restaurant on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx. After lunch he’d return Red to the ballpark for the second game.

My dad remembered when his father was young and vigorous. I remember my grandfather only as an invalid.

In 1941, my grandfather was injured in a subway crash and taken to a hospital where he was told he had cancer.

He left the hospital, abandoned his business and went home to die.

He took to his bed and stayed there for 27 years, smoking cigars and following the Yanks on radio and TV, until he died in 1968 at the age of 76.

My dad did rebel in 1939, becoming a Dodger fan. He liked the style of the team’s new player-manager, Leo Durocher, the same “Leo the Lip” who’d played shortstop for the Yankee teams of my father’s childhood.

The Dodgers were a scrappy bunch with colorful names – Goody Rosen, Cookie Lavagetto, a pitcher with an alien moniker, Van Lingle Mungo.

My grandfather, of course, mocked the Dodgers, Dem Bums.

In 1951, my father and I watched the deciding playoff game between the Dodgers and Giants, on the television in my grandfather’s apartment on Featherbed Lane in the Bronx.

When Bobby Thomson hit the home run to beat the Dodgers, my father’s face turned ashen. My grandfather laughed. “Don’t matter, the Yanks would beat either one of them.”

He was right, of course – the Yanks won the World Series over the Giants in six games. But that was the time I too became a Dodger fan.

My dad tried to stick with the Dodgers after they abandoned Brooklyn for Los Angeles. But, over the years, the players changed and the distance remained the same. He gravitated to the Mets. I became a Red Sox fan.

                                           ***

My father’s crack at the big leagues came in 1941. He was 22 and had played seven seasons for the Mactes.

He had graduated from Clinton and worked at various meaningless jobs. One was making milkshakes in a storefront stand on 34th Street in Manhattan, where he earned $8 a week and the owner taught him to cheat the customers by pretending to add ice cream – “just rap the side of the container with the empty scoop.”

He had developed an ulcer when he was 17 and it hemorrhaged two years later. It would leave him unfit for the army when the United States went to war, after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

That summer of ’41, Pop Babbitt called my father aside during a game in Crotona Park. It was a muggy city day and the crowd was sparse, a few kids sitting on the boulders that guarded The Valley.

“You’re never going to be noticed playing ball here,” Pop told my father. The old racketeer handed Red a clipping from the Daily News, announcing a mass tryout at the Polo Grounds.

“Why don’t you go down, Red,” Pop said. Red took the clipping, stuffed it in his pocket, and trotted to the pitcher’s mound.

When the day of the tryout came, he went to the Polo Grounds, joining hundreds of young men in mix-and-match uniforms and well-worn cleats, all hoping they’d somehow stand out.

Red was ushered into a group that surrounded Sam “Sambo” Leslie, a first baseman with John McGraw’s Giants and still a member of the organization.

Sambo, a Mississippian with the abhorrent nickname, passed around his big first-sacker’s mitt, letting the bush leaguers try on a big league glove. It would be the high point of the day for Red.

He thanked Sambo, found someone to throw with and went off on the sidelines to warm his arm.

Soon, the young men were arbitrarily divided into groups of 10 or 15 and assembled at the right field foul pole. Each group was directed to dash to the left field pole. When they arrived, most – Red included – were told go home.

“They never even saw me pitch,” he’d tell me, more than 40 years later. “I was fast, I felt sharp, and they never even saw me pitch.”

***

In 1951, my family moved from the Bronx to Bayside, Queens, to a new complex of two-storey apartments called Clearview Gardens.

The young families that settled in Clearview were refugees from the Bronx and Brooklyn, young breadwinners climbing the ladder in the post-war boom.

They gave their wives mink stoles and themselves new cars with automatic transmissions. They gave their sons new bats and balls and gloves, and safe places to play.

Our ballpark was a vacant lot behind the apartments. We played hardball until we broke Mrs. Kiff’s kitchen window too many times. Then we switched to stickball.

Every spring, we sawed off old broomsticks and spent our allowances on a fresh supply of pink rubber balls, Spaldeens.

Our field was laid out with the foul lines stretching to the fence of a children’s playground in left and to the end of Mrs. Zimmer’s kitchen window in right.

A ball hit off the apartment-house wall was a ground-rule double. Onto the roof was a triple, over it a home run.

We played stickball from the first warm day of spring until the first freezing day of winter, then switched to football, snow or shine.

A basketball hoop erected by our dads in a parking lot accommodated a third sport. A spotlight allowed night games.

There were also more organized sports, provided by Tony DePhillips, a part-time bullpen catcher for the Yankees who owned a sporting goods store in Bayside and ran the DAC. (DePhillips Athletic Club), our Little League.

***

My father left the Mactes and stopped playing baseball when he was 23, when he met my mother. (He said the timing was coincidental).

That year, 1942, he’d taken a job as an usher in a movie theatre, the Loews Fairmont in the Bronx, and couldn’t make the Mactes weekend games anyway.

The disappointment of the tryout at the Polo Grounds also dragged him down. But the lustre of those years never left my Uncle Joe, who never stopped telling tales of Red on the mound.

“Your dad was sneaky fast – ya know what I mean? – and he had a hook that was no nickel curve,” Joe told me in the early 1960s, when we were weekly golf partners – our families lived in neighboring towns on Long Island.

“There was this one game, in Crotona Park it was, and Red was as sharp as a tack. He was strikin’ ’em out like gang busters – I think he got ten of ‘em – and we only played seven innings in them days. I just sat back there and it was like playin’ catch – wherever I put the mitt, he hit it.”

We were sitting outside the clubhouse at Bethpage, waiting for our tee time. The sun was rising. I looked down the first fairway of the Black Course, sparkling with dew.

“That day he coulda beat the Yanks – and he was just a kid,” Uncle Joe said with a sigh. “Your dad woulda made it to the big league if anybody’d ever seen him.”

When my Uncle Joe died, my dad lost more than his brother-in-law and boyhood chum. He lost his catcher and biggest fan.

                                           ***

I began playing organized baseball the summer of 1954, when I was eight years old. The DAC league played its games at Sylvania Field, on the grounds of the Sylvania Electric Company plant in Bayside.

Our team, the Amana Freezers, was managed by my dad. He drilled us in fundamentals. Batters were pressed to make contact, to punch hits, not swing wildly from the heels.

“Get that bat off your shoulder,” was a recurring shout from my dad on the sidelines, generally followed by “a walk’s as good as a hit,” a cliché he truly believed.

He made us take one strike to test the opposing pitcher’s control. He encouraged us to bunt for hits and sacrifice when a sacrifice was called for: usually with a runner on first and none out, always with runners on first and second and none out. He loved the squeeze play.

Infielders were expected to get in front of the ball: “Take it off your chest, knock it down, then throw ’em out.”

Outfielders were taught to turn their backs on the ball, never backpedal. He showed us how to use our gloves to shield the sun. No one – not even a first baseman – was allowed to catch with one hand.

The catcher was expected to stay on his toes, the better to throw his body in front of errant pitches.

On me, the pitcher, the manager was roughest. Not mean. Not unreasonable. Simply most demanding.

He allowed me to throw a fastball and a changeup, pitches that were, in my case, generally indistinguishable. He did not allow me to throw a curve.

“You’re too young,” he’d say “you’ll hurt your arm.” He demanded control. “Throw strikes, throw strikes” would echo in my head through the years.

When I walked a batter, I could hear him sigh. The same when I struck out swinging at a bad pitch.

He wanted us to be a scrappy, hustling bunch. We won games on bunts that turned into four-base errors. We won games drawing walks with the bases loaded. We won games scooting home on passed balls and wild pitches.

He taught us the proper way to slide and we boasted the dirtiest uniforms in the league.

I won the league batting title with an average over .400. More than half my hits were bunts. My father was proud.

My pal Barry Ginsberg, my catcher, called me a “sissy bunter” and tried to swipe my trophy.

                                           ***

On a warm October afternoon in 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers won their first World Series. The final innings of the game were broadcast over the public address system in my school, P.S. 184, into my fourth-grade classroom.

After school, I ran to Oggie’s Delicatessen, where I had arranged to meet Barry, win or lose. Barry was from Brooklyn and as dedicated a Dodger fan as I was.

He was already there and we shouted and jumped up and down. He had seen the last inning of the game on TV and told me how Podres had jumped into Campanella’s arms. We imitated the embrace.

We bought two knishes, smothered with mustard, two huge dill pickles and a giant bag of Wise potato chips. We walked along Utopia Parkway, across the bridge over the Cross Island Parkway, and camped on a hill overlooking Little Bay. We sat there until dark, talked about the Dodgers and laughed at their victims, the Yankees.

When I got home, the celebration started all over again, this time with my dad.

Barry and I maintained our friendship for several years, though I’d stopped playing DAC ball and spent my summers as a counselor at a camp in the Catskills, where I discovered smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and the pleasures of going into the bushes after dark with Jeannie Railser.

In 1960, my family moved to Plainview, Long Island, where I finished my baseball career.

My sophomore year at Plainview High I played third base respectably and had an average year with the bat. I was on the junior varsity and figured I’d move up to the varsity my junior year.

It didn’t happen. I was the last player cut at spring tryouts and bounced back to the JV. After three games, I quit and joined the golf team.

My dad was disappointed, yet he seemed to know my interest in baseball had waned, that I’d peaked too soon – sometime between the ages of eight and ten.

                                           ***

My dad played softball well into his fifties. I first saw him play shortstop left-handed in a league in Queens.

In the early 1960s, when I was home from college, we went out on the front lawn of the house in Plainview to have a catch.

“You think you can still pitch?” he teased.

He crouched down, gave a target, and I tried to muster a hard fastball. It smacked his glove and broke his thumb. It never healed properly.

                                           ***

I met Eddie Lopat at Fenway Park in Boston in 1978, when he was scouting for the Montreal Expos and I was covering baseball for a Toronto newspaper.

I didn’t tell him how I’d snubbed him as a small child, how I cried for Joe DiMaggio at Yankee Stadium.

“You know my father,” I told Lopat, “you played together at Clinton – Hy Becker.”

“Never heard of him,” Lopat said. I found the remark hurtful and didn’t say another word to him.

When I told my dad, he said, “No one ever heard of Hy Becker. You should have said Red Becker.”

He never understood why I gave up the baseball beat after only one season.

***

In 1982, I played one game at first base for my newspaper’s softball team. I got two hits, a double and a homer.

A hard throw from the shortstop broke my thumb. It never healed properly.

***

I last saw my father in his casket. I tucked a baseball beside his left hand and closed the lid.

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3 thoughts on “Red and Me: A baseball memoir

  1. I really enjoyed reading this story, Ken. I could just hear your dad’s voice as I remembered it while taking it all in. An amazing story I never knew about…what a guy he was, but I always knew that! And Ken….you are quite amazing to be able to tell it, including all the details that make this story so interesting to read. Like father, like son! Happy Father’s Day!

    Like

  2. What a wonderful story – and a wonderful gift to your father!
    So many great lines and insightful observations, and all those fabulous nicknames!
    It’s a shame Red never had a real tryout.
    I now know a little bit more of why you love baseball so.

    Like

  3. Really enjoyed this piece, Ken. Baseball has always been part of our family. Stretching back to my Japanese-Canadian grandfather and Uncles who played in B.C. before the second world war. They also encouraged small ball (bunting, stealing, smart baserunning, punching base hits) to beat the bigger, more powerful caucasian teams. Even now, my 95-year-old Uncle laments the Jays’ “lack of fundamentals and inability to bunt and move runners.” And now my young son can’t get enough of the game. He never comes home with a clean uniform. Can’t believe Red didn’t get a chance to pitch!

    Like

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