It was back in the early 1960s, and I really wasn't that much of a kid anymore, but I still carried an autograph book in my hip pocket wherever I went. Ever since running into Rocky Marciano in the monkey house of Manhattan's Central Park Zoo I had made it a policy to be prepared, and it had paid off. Those jelly-smudged pages carried such giltedged names as Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Gene Woodling and Gus Triandos. I got them by hanging around wherever players were likely to be found.
This chase for names once took me all the way to Bear Mountain. Each August the Yankees journeyed 40 miles up the Hudson to lend glamour to a game between sportswriters and broadcasters. No admission was charged. Who would pay to watch a bunch of mostly fat, mostly old men drop pop-ups, fall down and twist their ankles, forget to touch bases and bat out of turn? It was just a fun thing for the participants and for the 10,000 or so camp followers who came up from the Bronx.
But the Yankees were there. Though they didn't take part in the game they were, after all, the Yankees, the top-of-the-world Yankees—of Howard, Berra, Ford, Maris, Mantle and Skowron—breezing their way to their umpteenth pennant in the last umpteen years. No matter where they went kids stuck to them like barnacles. As for me, like most disillusioned Giant fans I had been drowning my sorrows in the Yankees since 1958, though they weren't my sort of team. They were too polished, too professional, too sure of themselves, but, what the heck, I finally decided, we were all each other had left. And on this occasion, at close range, hatless and in pullovers, they looked like the winners they were. Which is more than I could say for the writers and broadcasters.
I was standing behind first base, maybe 10 yards behind it, when the writers took the field. "That's my hubby," said a bulgy woman, as an even bulgier man waddled to third base. He wore green shorts, a crapshooter's visor and a pained expression. "He's with the Journal-American" she announced proudly. The rest of the team was no bargain, either. Still, when the ball—a big, chunky softball—was being whipped around the infield, it suddenly became evident that, while no Bob Fellers were out there, somebody could get a few teeth knocked out at close range. I realized, as did the spectators near me, that we were in a bad spot. One slip by the writers' first baseman, not apt to be a Vic Power with the glove, and the ball would connect with somebody's skull.
The first baseman was Dick Young of the Daily News: steel-gray hair, Zeke Bonura nose and, unlike most sportswriters, swarthy skin into which a good tan had been burnt. Young seemed to be enjoying himself, putting zip on the ball as he threw it, and he could pick up grounders. We in the line of fire waxed confident that our lives would be spared. Our trust was misplaced.
The broadcasters' first batter grounded out, the throw thudding safely into Young's floppy mitt, but with the second batter it happened. A rifle-arm sling from third glanced off Young's glove and headed straight for us. The ball hit a woman's wickerwork handbag and caromed into a tender part of my anatomy.
"Lordy," I thought, "I've been ruptured by Dick Young."
I soon realized the injury was not so horrible as it seemed, as the deflection had taken a lot of steam out of the throw. I also realized that everybody was looking in my direction—there at my feet was the ball, without which the game could not continue. I picked it up and lobbed it back to Young, who had walked over to the crowd to see if anyone had been killed. It was a triumphal moment. I felt like Tiny Tim doing the two-step down Piccadilly on Christmas morning. Not only had personal tragedy been narrowly averted, I had come into close proximity with one of my boyhood idols.
Nothing much was doing in the outfield, since nobody had the strength to hit a fly ball, so I went there to get a few names (that's what we called autographs) from the lordly Yankees who were watching the game from that vantage, and settled on Ralph Houk—a young Ralph Houk who had not yet tasted defeat, and the way he looked that day, with the sun beaming off his head, his foot-long cigar smoldering, is the way I'll always think of him.
Would he sign my book? I pulled it from my pocket and thrust it at him, along with a Scripto pencil.
"Sure, after the game," he said. At that moment I learned a lot about Houk. Anyone who can take that kind of game seriously has to be made of different stuff than the rest of us.
Not everyone was playing it that straight, and I got Ralph Terry, Duke Maas and Johnny Blanchard on the spot.
I worked my way out to right field. There stood the awesome figure of Mel Allen, without his wig. He was twice my height, three times my weight and I was scared of him. Scared not so much because he was big but because he was the personification of a legend. It was as if I had met the Green Hornet in the flesh. But my autograph book was filled! I handed him a crumpled envelope, not wanting to blow this chance.
"I'm sorry," I said. "It's all I've got."
"That's O.K., son," he replied, and signed his name with a flourish.
"Hey," a kid yelled out, "Wally Moses is in the men's room!" The pack of us sped there to corner the Yankees' batting coach. As we neared the men's room an old man passed by, wearing checkered shorts.
"That's him," somebody shouted. "That's Wally Moses. I recognize him from the yearbook."
By the time we got back outside, the game was reaching its climax. The score was tied 5-5 in the bottom of the sixth—and last—inning. The broadcasters had two on, with Mel Allen at bat. He took a pitch, fouled one off, stepped out, squeezed the bat, stepped back in and blasted a long drive up the alley in right center. Both runners scored, and the game was over. Mel circled the bases and trotted off with a Ruthian grin as the ball rolled north toward Albany with three fat copy editors in pursuit.