It occurred to me only afterward that my boyhood interest in sports was something special. Many of my classmates knew as much about the spectator sports as I did, but their interest was pure and spontaneous, having been kindled by faces on chewing-gum cards or a few dimly remembered words once spoken by an elder. Mine was inherited, a bread-and-butter passion, you might say.
As the son of a sportswriter, I was somewhat grudgingly accorded the status of an oracle, and my word was readily accepted by at least one of the parties in any dispute. Like a clergyman's child, I was thought to have a direct link with an empyrean world. This distinction forced me to follow my subject more closely than even my bloodlines demanded and led to a certain amount of hero worship.
I did not accept my heritage at once. Silting beside my father in the press box at Ebbets Field, I felt myself a prisoner, knowing that there were llamas and monkeys to be seen in the zoo at nearby Prospect Park. Talk about a person I understood to be named Bay Bruth held no interest for me. But a trip to the Yankees' spring training camp in St. Petersburg when I was 7 set me straight. Dixie Walker, then a Yankee rookie, played with me on the beach, and Coach Arthur Fletcher gave me a ball. I became a baseball fan.
At the time Babe Ruth was the most famous Yankee, but with a child's unpredictability I settled on Lou Gehrig as my hero. More fortunate than the average small boy who had a hero, I badgered my father to get me an autographed picture of Gehrig, and it hung over my bed for years. Later I had a picture taken with Gehrig, and that, too, went up on the wall. But most important of all was an old glove that Lou once gave my father to take home to me. Word of my prize spread through the neighborhood, and presently I was invited to join a celebrated local team, composed of other 12-year-olds, called the Wykagyl Wackers.
My glove and I were assigned to first base. Under the delusion that the glove, like Zeus's shield, imparted certain powers to its bearer, the manager went so far as to write my name into the cleanup slot in his batting order. One game served to relieve him of that delusion, and I was demoted to a slot more in keeping with my earnest poke-hitting. But I did cling to my job at first base until the Wykagyl Wackers outgrew their uniforms and the team was disbanded.
Meanwhile, there were thrills for me that were beyond the reach of my teammates. A trip to Yankee Stadium meant more than a ball game; it was also a chance to sit unobtrusively on the bench beside one of my idols.
There was always a stop in the manager's office for a chat with Joe McCarthy. Capless, seldom smiling unless he was recalling an incident that had taken place in the minor leagues years before, McCarthy leaned back in his chair and talked. One day Oscar Vitt, who managed the Yankees' farm team in Newark, joined the group in McCarthy's office.
"How's this kid Joe Gordon?" McCarthy asked him
"Wait till you get a look at him, Joe," Vitt said. "He's going to be the greatest second baseman you ever saw."
Treasuring this inside information, I could hardly wait for Gordon's arrival at the Stadium. When he broke into the Yankees' lineup the next year he immediately became, for me, the greatest second baseman who ever lived.
It is not to my credit that I was relieved to see an old favorite, Tony Lazzeri, depart to make room for Gordon. Tony, you see, made me uneasy. It dated from an afternoon when I was sitting on the Yankees' bench as batting practice got underway.
Suddenly Lazzeri stopped and blocked my view of the field. "How'd you like to suit up and shag some flies out there?" he was asking me.
I was too stunned to answer. Tony stood there looking down at me, his great broad face something like the faces you see on the posters that bob up and down in those newsreel shots of Chinese Communist rallies; but it was sadder. "I'll get a bat boy's uniform for you," he said.
"No," I said, shaking my head stubbornly. I had a frightening vision: being hit on the head by a fly ball and carried off the field. Dreams of glory are seldom spun by a pessimist
"Whatsa matter?" Tony persisted. "Don't you like baseball?"
"I like baseball," I assured him.
"Then why don't you wanta get out there and shag a few?"
I certainly was not going to tell him. I simply shook my head, and that was that. After a few moments Lazzeri, looking sadder than ever, gave up and went away. But once in a while he would see me at the Stadium and he would ask me, teasing, if I would like "to shag a few." That was why his departure from the Yankees did not leave me wholly desolate.
It was about this time that I began to be excited by football. Sometimes on Saturday my family packed a picnic lunch and drove up to New Haven to watch Yale play in the Bowl. Larry Kelley was at Yale then, and so was Clint Frank. Frank became my football hero. I had read a story about him in a Sunday newspaper supplement, and he seemed to be a player I could identify with: quiet, an earnest student and afflicted with weak eyes, so that he had to wear glasses off the field. I hadn't started wearing glasses then, but I suspected that before long somebody would notice my squint and I would be fitted for ignominy.
Soon Frank's picture, autographed to me, went up on my wall beside Gehrig's. It was one of those traditional photographs that they take of Yale captains—Frank backed against a fence in front of a painted background with a football tucked under his arm. It was even bigger than my sister's autographed picture of Nelson Eddy.
Gehrig and Frank were my earliest heroes but, though I could claim with some degree of truth to be their "friend," our relationships remained in the standard pattern of small boy to his hero. It was when I was 16 that I achieved the supreme thrill of joining an athlete's entourage. The athlete was Billy Soose, the middleweight champion of the world.
Soose had been brought east by Paul Moss, a friend of my father. Soose quickly rose to the top of the middleweight division, beating both Ken Overlin, who was recognized as world champion in New York State, and Tony Zale, the NBA champion, in nontitle bouts. In April 1941 Soose beat Overlin in Madison Square Garden for his share of the championship. At the celebration afterward Moss asked me if I would like to spend the summer helping to convert a Pennsylvania farm into a training camp.
Yes, I said, I would like to. One day in June I drove up there with Moss and two boys about my own age, Soose's brother and Moss's nephew. It was an exhilarating summer. In the mornings we did roadwork with Billy (shadowboxing and snorting down the dirt road in the wake of our elders), and later we helped to build a training ring there. In the evenings the three of us piled into the back of Soose's long green convertible and rode through the nearby towns, sharing in the stir that the champion caused wherever he showed his face. It is pleasant to remember that Soose displayed no trace of the cockiness or excessive pride that puffed up his juvenile staff.
We kids later became a more active part of the drama. When the ring was completed, Soose and his sparring partners worked out there every day, and the public was admitted for a small charge. It was our job to carry down the punching bags, take up the tarpaulin from the ring, tighten the ropes and generally get things into shape before the fighters appeared. Then Moss had an idea. Why not have the boys entertain the early crowd with boxing exhibitions of their own? Reluctantly, we climbed into the ring, but before long we were slugging each other with a good deal more spirit than effectiveness.
I began to look forward to those exhibition bouts, not only because I hoped to make an impression on the crowd, but also because I thought that after enough of them I would develop a dented nose of my own. I looked on a battered nose as a badge of honor and coveted one as ardently as a Heidelberg student might hope for a dueling scar. (Fritzie Zivic's nose, for instance, was a classic, a fantastically twisted peanut bracketed to his face. It was a model to shoot for.) For a while I adopted an aggressive chin-out style in the ring. Then I began to have headaches, and I'd wake up at night and think, "Suppose I got punchy or something," and I quickly returned to the jab-and-run tactics for which I was temperamentally suited.
That fall I returned to school with added luster. I was a friend of the champ's and apparently an expert to be reckoned with, whether in discussion or otherwise. But before the year was out Soose gave up his title and entered the Navy as a lieutenant. I followed him into the Navy soon afterward (as an apprentice seaman), and then I was in college and Heroes and Hero Worship was only the name of a book on the library shelf.
Around the house today I sometimes come across a picture or an old first baseman's mitt, and I remember things that gladdened my boyhood. But my nose remains as straight as if sporting blood had never coursed through my veins.