Jackie Robinson centennial

Born January 31, 1919, he died so young – 53 – it’s hard to believe he would have been ONLY 100 today. Here is a reprise of a piece I wrote a few years ago:

My first baseball reporting assignment was Jackie Robinson’s funeral.

On October 27, 1972, a taxi dropped me off in front of the grand entrance to Riverside Church in Manhattan. It was a sunny day with a bit of a chill, World Series weather.

I waded into the crowd outside, celebrity mourners on a Friday morning in their best Sunday suits, middle-aged men looking like they were gathered for an old-timers’ banquet.

I spotted Pee Wee Reese being interviewed by Howard Cosell. Nearby, Roger Kahn was chatting with Don Newcombe.

Everyone knew Jackie had been wasting away for years, blinded and crippled by diabetes and other ailments.

But only nine days earlier, he had been in Cincinnati for the second game of the World Series between the Reds and the Oakland A’s.

Wearing a dark suit, his hair white, he had thrown out the ceremonial pitch – to Johnny Bench – from the commissioner’s box in the stands.

The Series ended, the A’s won, and two days later Robinson died of a heart attack at the age of 53.

I was a 25-year-old reporter for UPI. I’d grown up in the city, a Brooklyn fan, like my dad.

He’d taken me to games at Ebbets Field. Robinson and Reese, Campanella and Snider, Furillo and Hodges were my childhood heroes.

In the late ’60s, with the Dodgers long gone, I drifted to San Francisco in the summer after the Summer of Love, discovered passions other than sports.

But here I was in the autumn of 1972. Back with the Boys of Summer. Feeling like a kid again.

My press pass got me inside a VIP enclave, which was roped off and guarded by the NYPD. A church office had been converted into a reception room.

I wandered among the greats of the game. There’s Hank Aaron! I shouted inside my head. There’s Willie Mays! Ernie Banks! Campy in his wheelchair.

I wanted to go up to these guys and talk to them. But I really had nothing to say, nothing appropriate for this moment or any other. So I stood and gawked until it was time to file into the church.

I was working, though my duties were not defined. The main man on the story was UPI sports editor Milt Richman. I was to cover any news angles, though I was not sure what they might be.

About 3,000 people filled every pew inside the vast Gothic Revival church.

I sat next to Will Grimsley, AP’s lead sportswriter, a tall, thickset Tennessean who politely introduced himself, then sat scribbling notes on a large writing tablet. He picked up his pace when a young black preacher delivered the eulogy, his booming voice and theatrical style gripping the audience.

“In his last dash, Jackie stole home,” said Reverend Jesse Jackson, pausing, before picking up speed, as if he too was racing to the plate.

“Pain, misery and travail have lost. Jackie is saved. His enemies can leave him alone. His body will rest, but his spirit and his mind and his impact are perpetual and as affixed to human progress as are the stars in the heavens, the shine in the sun and the glow of the moon.”

It was a hard act to follow. And nobody did. As Rachel Robinson and her family filed out behind the coffin, we all stood. Grimsley stretched and looked around the cavernous church.

He tapped me on the shoulder. “See that guy over there, that’s Bill Veeck,” Grimsley said, pointing to a man in baggy chinos and a ratty gray sweatshirt, standing alone in the back, sobbing into a handkerchief.

Veeck was known as an outlaw team owner, famous for such stunts as sending a midget up to bat to draw a walk. But he had also signed the American League’s first black player, Larry Doby, and gave Satchel Page a chance to pitch in the majors.

Grimsley wandered off to talk to Veeck, while I went to find Richman.

“I want you to go to the cemetery,” the sports editor instructed. “I’ve arranged space for you in one of the cars in the funeral procession. Call me when you can with notes and quotes.”

The route to the cemetery in Brooklyn was mapped out to travel through New York’s most heavily populated, badly scarred black neighborhoods. And these were tense and violent times in a city where the loudest and most militant voices did not count Jackie Robinson among their leaders.

But, as the hearse rolled slowly through Harlem, quiet, respectful crowds lined the sidewalks. Children in school uniforms stood at attention. Women sat on stoops, heads buried in their hands. Old men leaned against lampposts and wept.

It was a similar scene in Brooklyn, in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

By the time we reached Cypress Hills Cemetery, it was near dusk. The weather had changed.

Dark clouds moved in as the pallbearers, Jackie’s former teammates – Reese, Newcombe, Jim Gilliam and Ralph Branca – Doby and Bill Russell, carried the casket to the gravesite.

I stood beside a tree, apart from the scene, added some notes to the ones I’d written during the drive, found a payphone near the cemetery gate and called Richman before catching a ride back to Manhattan.

A longer version of this story appears in my book, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

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The Post-Plague Diet

On New Year’s Day, at around 4 a.m., I was bushwhacked by an illness that bore an intriguing similarity to one that knocked me on my ass and changed my life about four years earlier.

I considered this latest excruciating episode might be a vengeful god punishing me for spending a portion of Christmas Day provoking my granddaughters to command their new Google Thought Servant to make progressively more disgusting fart noises. 

But my ruminations also took a page from my personal silver-linings playbook – and a passage in my book on the aftermath of the last bout of plague, in late November 2014:

I was sick in bed for about a week. Not sure what was wrong. Linda checked my symptoms on the internet. I either had an intestinal flu, kidney failure, or cholera. Didn’t go to a doctor. Didn’t get a diagnosis.  

When I came out of it, I felt okay. That evening, as was my habit, I poured a glass of red wine. Tasted awful. That was it. Not a drop since.

So, after my fifth consecutive sober New Year’s Eve, I took to bed, crashed into that familiar state of misery, and periodically contemplated the possibility I would ultimately discover an upside at the apex of the abyss. In one more – or less – semi-coherent moment, I was convinced I would find the taste of cigarettes as repellent as alcohol.

Other nocturnal visions included a full head of hair, a flat stomach and the sex drive of a Tijuana teenager.

My recovery, however, was not seamless. On the third day, cocky enough to venture a drive to the store – for cigarettes – and a full dinner of Linda’s spicy meatballs and spaghetti, I received another 4 a.m. attack of wretchedness.

I will not detail the symptoms, but this time they included one more that the internet suggested might be attributed to the venomous sting of the blue-ringed octopus.

Still anticipating another post-affliction surprise – and there was one – I wondered whether it would be payback for all the times I raised a glass of Pellegrino and toasted the wisdom of the great Dean Martin:

I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.

Would I snap out this this malaise with a shot of Dewar’s? Pick up where I left off after decades of dedicated drinking?

A week after New Year’s I was back on my feet, though a bit wobbly. Besides the short-term loan of a plate of meatballs and spaghetti, my sickbed sustenance had consisted of iced tea, the aforementioned Pellegrino – both with lemon – toast, scrambled eggs, and Lipton chicken noodle soup, .

I have always been a red meat and potatoes guy. But the New Year’s Eve rack of lamb with rosti had become a recurring nightmare. As had the spicy meatballs. And, as far as I was concerned, garlic, oregano and onions were now banned substances.

“Would you make me some boiled chicken?” I asked Linda the first night I could face a full dinner.

“Boiled chicken?” she replied with a disapproving look, as if I’d asked for blue-ringed octopus a la mode.

“Yeah, you know, like Woody Allen ate when he was sick in Annie Hall– just plain chicken.”

“How about if I steam a chicken breast?”

“Sure,” I said, still cashing pathetic-patient chips. “But no spices – nothing.”

I baked a small potato and sliced a cucumber, slathered it in Hidden Valley Ranch dressing – the original. 

It was all edible, if not enjoyable.

Since then, none of my dinners has featured red meat. All have included salads with Hidden Valley Ranch dressing.

White. Bland. Born in the heart of Reagan country.

I grew up on pastrami, veal parmesan and grilled steaks. In adulthood, added Mexican, Szechuan and other spicy favorites. Always drenched eggs with the hottest salsa I could find in Canada.

“Is it real hot, or Canadian hot?” I’d sneer at restaurant servers.

Has that guy gone the way of the Dewar’s-drinking dodo? Would my greatest eating adventures now be boiled-chicken tacos topped with ranch dressing?

So many questions. So little of appeal in the fridge and the pantry.

In the meantime, I’ve diagnosed my illness as Quadrennial Early Winter Plague (QEWP), a name I’ve registered with the North American Society of Geriatric Neologists.

The Expat Files: My Life in Journalismis available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.