My dad, Hy Becker, would have been 99 years old today. I don’t know how he would have felt about my portrayal of him in my memoir, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism. But I know he was pleased with a long story I wrote about him a long time ago, as I recall in this excerpt from my book:
One night, in the bathtub, I was reading Russell Baker’s memoir of his childhood, Growing Up. It was sweet and funny and evocative of his formative years in Virginia during the Depression.
In the steamy bathroom, soaking in the tub, I had an inspiration. I would call my dad and interview him about growing up in New York in the 1920s and ’30s, before I came along. I didn’t know much. I wanted to know more.
My dad and I did not always get along. When he managed our little league baseball team, he was hardest on his son. Through my teenage years, he became more and more competitive, asserting his status as the alpha male in the house.
My parents were very different people. My mother read books and was a devotee of the Broadway musical theater. Her son would be weaned on show tunes. My first of many Broadway shows was Bells Are Ringing, with Judy Holliday. For my twelfth birthday, my parents gave me tickets – to take my sister – to see West Side Storyat the Winter Garden Theatre.
Dad was a working stiff who liked to play softball during the summer months and poker with his cronies year-round.
After I left home, I tried to improve our relationship. I invited him to Montreal, when I was working there, for a father and son weekend. Took him to an Expos game. Took him out to dinner at a Spanish restaurant down the street from my apartment, where I was a regular and got the VIP treatment. Took him to the press club in the Mount Royal and introduced him to my colleagues. He didn’t drink much. Jews aren’t boozers. But he seemed to accept his son as the exception.
He seemed especially proud of me when I was on the baseball beat. It would have been his dream job – other than pitching in the majors – when he was a young man. I got him tickets to Yankee games when I was in New York covering the Blue Jays.
Baseball was the strongest bond between us. That’s where I took the story after I interviewed him on the phone a couple of times in early 1983.
The piece ran about five-thousand words. I called it Red and Me since I flashed back and forth between his baseball career and our baseball relationship. I particularly loved his tales of playing ball in the sandlots of the Bronx, the pictures painted of the borough of my birth in the years before the war.
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.
During our interviews, dad was Red again. He may have been in his sixties, yet he was back in the spotlight, on the pitcher’s mound. He seemed happy. Then, never one to hide his emotions, sad when he told me about the day his dream died during a mass tryout for the Giants at the Polo Grounds in the summer of ’41.
The young men were arbitrarily divided into groups of ten or fifteen and assembled at the right field foul pole. Each group was directed to dash to the left field foul pole. When they arrived, most – Red included – were told to go home. “They never even saw me pitch,” he’d tell me, more than forty years later. “I was fast, I felt sharp, and they never even saw me pitch.”
I would give the story to my dad for his birthday later that year.
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That was 35 years ago today. Hy Becker died twelve years later, on March 15, 1995, at the age of 75. I read an excerpt of Red and Me at his funeral in Florida.