My mother was a bookkeeper for a non-profit community center in the Bronx, but despite our proximity to Yankee Stadium, she was a true-blue Brooklyn Dodgers fan.
“It’s because of Jack Robinson,” she would say, refusing to call him “Jackie” because “he’s not a little boy.”
My father’s heart condition made him a housebound invalid. He spent his limited pain-free time reading any book that had anything whatsoever to do with physics. He hated all sports, particularly baseball.
“Think about it,” he’d say. “If a baseball is round and a bat is round, then there’s only one possible point of contact between the two. So baseball is theoretically improbable and therefore totally ridiculous.”
Still, in January 1952, he saw in the papers that a winter baseball academy was in the offering, in which a group of major leaguers would be conducting weekly clinics for preteens at an armory in Manhattan. Boys Clubs, YMCAs, and community houses throughout the city could each designate one needy youngster to participate. Because of my mother’s job, I got a spot.
Once a week after school, I’d take the subway down to a Midtown armory to be tutored in the fundamentals of the game by a faculty of Yankee heroes that included Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Eddie Lopat, and Gil McDougald (who had recently been named the American League’s Rookie of the Year). Also on hand were Gene Hermanski, a long-time Dodger who had been traded to the Cubs; Ralph Branca, bravely making a semi-public appearance only months after delivering the Shot Heard ‘Round the World to Bobby Thomson; and Brooklyn-born Sid Gordon, who was currently under contract with the Boston Braves.
There were about fifty students, but only two dozen of us regularly attended when the winter weather was fierce. Using a softish rubber ball that had raised seams and was the same size as a regulation baseball, we learned how to play every position except catcher. The two-hour sessions usually ended with a baseball game that lasted as long as it took for every student to play the field and get an at-bat.
One afternoon, as we were filing out of the armory, some of the big leaguers chose to run wind-sprints in preparation for the opening of spring training.
Phil Rizzuto had another idea.
“Let’s play some basketball,” he suggested. “Look. There’s a portable basket over there in the corner. Why don’t we wheel it out and get a game up?”
After much debate, the Scooter could only convince Yogi and McDougald to join in. Scouting the last lingering students for a fourth player, I was chosen only because I was the tallest of my peers. (I was well on my way to my current 6’9”.)
I had not yet discovered the joys of “real” basketball. The only hoops in the neighborhood of my home on Fulton Avenue were situated in the schoolyard of Junior High School 44, a long and dangerous trek through the wilds of Crotona Park. When we weren’t playing stickball, four-box baseball, punchball, or off-the-stoop, we street urchins employed a rubber Spaldeen and used the lowest rung of a fire escape as a horizontal goal.
So, paired with McDougald, I basically shuffled around and about, and in a panic, quickly returned any passes that he threw my way. At 6’1”, the Yankees’ prized rookie was five inches taller than Berra and seven inches taller than Rizzuto. Since Yogi was even more passive than me, and we ostensibly guarded each other, the game boiled down to a one-on-one affair between Gil and Phil.
Rizzuto played with incredible intensity, driving and hustling like a pauper with his lunch money at stake, and rebounding like the ball was dinner.
Unfortunately for Phil, Yogi had trouble hanging on to the ball. Passes bounced off his fingers, and one even hit him square in the chest. When Berra flubbed still another pass at a critical point in the game, the combative Rizzuto became irate.
“Yogi!” he shouted. “Here’s a basketball, see? It’s about twenty times the size of a baseball. So why can’t you catch it? After all, you’re a catcher, right?”
“I’ll tell you why.” Yogi faced the Scooter calmly.
“Because the damn thing’s much too big. And besides, how the hell can I catch anything without a mitt?”
Rizzuto threw his hands up and the game was over, but not my memory of it.
I like to think that they recognized their tall teammate-for-a-day as I waited outside the gates of the Stadium when the season started, but tall as I was, there were a lot of kids calling out for autographs. We’d even tried to hand out self-addressed postcards to players, hoping we’d get a signed one back in the mail.
But I knew it’d be a great spring day for baseball, and that I had once played a winter basketball pick-up game with McDougald, the Scooter, and Yogi.