A confession: I was shamed into becoming a baseball fan by my mother, a Holocaust survivor who came to America in 1953 and who to this day doesn’t know the difference between a home run and a strikeout.
Oh, I have no doubt I eventually would have become at least a casual fan, and I already had, at the age of nine, taken to collecting and flipping baseball cards, but it was my mother’s gentle yet pointed admonition that launched me, full speed ahead, into the world of baseball fandom.
On that fateful summer day in 1967 I was talking with a friend on the phone. He was a big baseball fan, thanks to a father who’d been taking him to Mets games from the time he was four, which happened to coincide with the Mets’ inaugural season. As for me, my interest in baseball cards was more a matter of having fun with my classmates than anything else; I paid almost no attention to scores and standings.
Earlier that day I’d overheard on the radio that the Yankees were in Chicago for an afternoon doubleheader. Now, at that point I was aware of the names of a mere handful of major league teams other than the hometown Yankees and Mets, but one of the teams whose name registered with me was the Chicago Cubs. So, knowing the Yankees were in Chicago and wanting more than anything else to impress my friend, I confidently informed him that “the Yankees are playing the Cubs today.”
My friend was silent for a moment and then responded, in a tone that conveyed a mixture of condescension and incredulity, “The Yankees can’t be playing the Cubs. The Cubs are in the National League and the Yankees are in the American League and the only times National League and American League teams play each other are in spring training games and the World Series.”
Remember, this conversation took place some three decades before the advent of regular-season interleague play. My friend continued to school me: “The Yankees are playing the Chicago White Sox, who are in the American League, just like the Yankees.”
I was embarrassed, of course, but not nearly as much as I would be when I got off the phone. My mother told me she’d picked up the phone in her bedroom to make a call when she overheard my friend scolding me for my lack of basic baseball knowledge.
“I really think you should learn more about baseball,” she said, her face full of motherly concern. “Amercan boys love baseball, and you’re an American boy.”
My mother’s attitude was certainly different from that of many of the earlier Jewish immigrants who poured into the United States at the turn of the 20th century and found themselves bewildered, if not appalled, by the attraction the game of baseball held for their sons.
“It makes sense to teach a child to play dominoes or chess,” a concerned father wrote in 1903 to the Yiddish Forward’s popular Bintel Brief advice column. “But what is the point of a crazy game like baseball…. Here in educated America adults play baseball. They run after a leather ball like children. I want my boy to grow up to be a mensch, not a wild American runner.”
* * * * *
At any rate, armed with such an unambiguous maternal injunction, I threw myself into baseball – taking out all the books on the sport I could find at the public library and buying as many baseball magazines as my allowance permitted. The more I learned, the more I needed to know.
I even sent a letter to the commissioner of baseball, General William D. Eckert, informing him of my newfound passion for the game, confiding in him that I was an Orthodox Jewish youngster whose father had no interest in the sport, and asking him whether there were any books he might recommend.
That query resulted in my receiving, about two weeks later, a sizable parcel from the offices of Major League Baseball containing a nice note from the commissioner along with several books, including that year’s Sporting News Baseball Register.
I discovered only recently that in a “Peanuts” comic strip that ran that very same year, Charlie Brown was upset that his pitching mound had been obliterated by heavy rainfall. “Why don’t you send a letter to Commissioner Eckert, and have him send you a new one?” Lucy asked Charlie.
Based on my own experience, Charlie should have taken Lucy’s advice. Eckert may not have been a particularly memorable commissioner, but his heart was in the right place. As for my own heart, it had become filled to overflowing. My love affair with baseball had begun.
* * * * *
For the first year and a half of my increasingly intense relationship with baseball, I waffled between being a Mets fan and a Yankees fan. Both teams were mediocre – the Mets weren’t quite as putrid as they’d been in their first few seasons of play but were bad just the same; the Yankees, meanwhile, were in the early years of a long slide down from greatness, a period in the team’s history that would come to be known as the Horace Clarke era, named after a player whose exceedingly modest talents were seemingly of no detriment to his longevity as the team’s starting second baseman.
Then came 1969, the year of the Miracle Mets, of Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman and Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee and Donn Clendenon and Gil Hodges, the manager who had been a New York favorite a decade and a half earlier as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ slugging first baseman; a year of breathtaking starting pitching and remarkable clutch hitting and unbelievable late-inning comebacks and 38 wins in their final 49 games and a three-game sweep of the scary Atlanta Braves for the National League pennant and a five-game dismantling of the awesome Baltimore Orioles for the championship of the world. I was hooked.
So 1969, the kind of season that comes along for a team once in a lifetime, if even that, sealed my fate as a fanatic – long form for fan, after all – of the Metropolitan Baseball Club of New York. Though I do admit to often wondering, nearly 44 years and only one other World Series championship later, about the sagacity of my choice.
* * * * *
As the son of a European-born father who, like my mother, had no knowledge of or interest in baseball, I envied my friends whose American fathers shared their sons’ passion for the game, discussed it with them at the dinner table, and every so often treated them to a Sunday afternoon at the ballpark.
So imagine my surprise and wonderment when my father told me one early summer day in 1970 that he wanted to take me to Shea Stadium for a Mets game. It was implicitly understood – no words were needed – that my father did not wish to become a baseball fan; that this would be an opportunity for some father-son bonding like the trip we’d taken to the beaches and amusement parks of the Jersey Shore a couple of years before.
We purchased a pair of tickets to a Sunday game with the old Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals) and when the big day came we set out well fortified with a large shopping bag of tuna sandwiches, potato chips and cans of soda (in those days of blessed innocence, nobody cared what fans brought with them into ballparks).
Looking back from my vantage point as an adult and a father, I can understand just what that poor man put himself through for the sake of spending a few hours with his son: a tedious commute, via bus and subway, from Newark, New Jersey to Flushing, New York; an afternoon sitting under a broiling sun watching something completely foreign to him while trying his hardest not to look like he’d rather be almost anywhere else; and then the long slog back to Newark from Flushing.
Having no interest in the proceedings on the field, my father kept himself occupied by people-watching – providing a running commentary on the prodigious quantities of beer being quaffed by the fans in neighboring seats, the sheer number of tattoos festooning the arms and legs of many of our fellow spectators, and the surprising (to him) presence of so many women at the game.
At one point my father gestured to a man with a crew cut and bulging biceps in the row directly in front of us who kept throwing back beer after beer and shouting four-letter words at various Expos. “You think,” my father asked me, a wry grin on his lips, “he can maybe tell us where to find a minyan [Jewish prayer service] after the game?”
Somehow we made it through eight and two-thirds innings with our sanity relatively intact. In the bottom of the ninth, the Mets, trailing by a run, got a two-out hit from Cleon Jones. The crowd began the customary “Let’s Go Mets” chant, which, I had earlier explained to my father, is something fans do at Mets games whenever the Mets have runners on base, particularly if the visiting team is ahead.
Alas, the next hitter grounded out to second base, ending the game. The crowd fell silent. And it was at that precise moment that my father, completely unaware that the game had just ended with a Mets loss, stood up and bellowed, “Let’s Go Mets!”
The people around us, most of whom were already on their feet preparing to leave, turned to stare at my father. “The game is over,” I whispered to him, all the while desperately wishing I could find a place to hide.
My father apologized for embarrassing me, and the incident was over almost as quickly as it began, but to a 12-year-old yeshiva boy wanting more than anything else to fit in with the largely blue-collar beer-guzzling crowd, it felt like an eternity.
* * * * *
The next step in my evolution as a baseball fan occurred the following year, when I was allowed to attend a game with several friends. No parental or adult supervision, just a group of thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys tasting a little independence for the first time in their lives. It was a night game, which only added to the thrill.
Shea Stadium was just seven years old and the orange and blue tiles that at the time covered the ballpark’s exterior gleamed in the spring twilight. Before the game our little group of yarmulke-wearing teens clamored for autographs while several Mets were playing catch, jogging in the outfield, or shooting the breeze among themselves by the dugout.
Tom Seaver, already a pitching legend in the making at age 26, walked by and smirked. Duffy Dyer, a light-hitting backup catcher, ignored our pleas. Pitcher Ray Sadecki made a sour face. Second-baseman Ken Boswell trotted in from the outfield and gave us a rather haughty once-over. Also coming in from the outfield, Bob Aspromonte, one in a long line of forgettable Mets third-basemen, winked at the group but disappeared into the dugout without signing a single autograph.
And then, just as we were about to dejectedly make our way up to the cheap seats, a stubble-jawed player who’d been watching us from the edge of the infield walked over and said, “Hey, wait a sec, guys.”
And so it was that Daniel Vincent Frisella, a spot starter and reliever who, though having a fine season, would never quite fulfill his potential, spent the next ten minutes signing every yearbook, scorecard and baseball thrust in his face, chatting away as if he were an old friend of ours.
The Mets would trade Frisella, along with pitcher Gary Gentry, in November 1972 to the Atlanta Braves for second-baseman Felix Millan and pitcher George Stone. Even we yeshiva boys who had been treated so magnificently by Frisella and were dismayed to see him go would soon come to see the trade as one of the best the Mets ever made, as the team won the 1973 National League pennant with both Millan and Stone playing key roles.
On January 1, 1977, Frisella, by then a member of the Milwaukee Brewers, was killed in a dune buggy accident. Outside of Frisella’s immediate family and closest friends, no one took the shocking and untimely loss harder than several nineteen- and twenty-year-old Orthodox Jews from New Jersey whom Frisella had briefly befriended six years before on a steamy New York night at a Shea Stadium that still seemed so fresh and new.
* * * * *
Why have American Jews always been drawn to baseball – arguably more than to any other sport? Perhaps it is because of baseball’s rich and unsurpassed lore and history, or perhaps simply because it is a less brutishly physical game than, say, football or hockey.
It is also a uniquely fair and democratic game, a point eloquently made by the late Earl Weaver, manager of the great Baltimore Orioles teams of the late 1960s and ‘70s, when asked to explain the difference between baseball and other sports.
“You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock,” said Weaver. “You’ve got to throw the ball over the…plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”
This essay is an expanded version of Mr. Maoz’s foreword to Jewish Press baseball columnist Irwin Cohen’s new book, “Jewish History in the Time of Baseball’s Jews.”