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January 31, 2015 / 11 Shevat, 5775
 
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Victor Zalta’s Unforgettable Encounter

Victor Zalta poses with Hank Greenberg in 1946 in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Victor Zalta poses with Hank Greenberg in 1946 in St. Petersburg, Florida.

It won’t be long before the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues are in full swing.

The 15 big league teams that train in Arizona make up the Cactus League while the 15 in Florida comprise the Grapefruit League.

If you’re visiting spring training sites, Arizona has two advantages – fewer games are rained out and the facilities are much closer to each other than is the case in Florida.

The closest Florida spring training site to my winter dugout in West Palm Beach’s Century Village is in Jupiter, about 12 miles north. There’s a game scheduled every day as the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals both call Roger Dean Stadium home. It’s the only ballpark in Florida shared by two big league teams.

Roger Dean Stadium is the busiest ballpark in professional baseball. Four minor league teams share the facility. The Marlins’ and Cardinals’ rookie-level clubs of the Gulf Coast League and their Class A affiliates of the Florida State League play there. The stadium also hosts college ball and an Independent League club.

I hope to see several exhibition games and some early regular-season games in Miami before heading north to Pennsylvania where I’ll be among the roster of speakers at a hotel in Lancaster for Pesach.

Those of us who’ve had the good fortune of taking in a spring training game or even a free workout practice – they typically wrap up in the early afternoon, giving one the opportunity to get up close with players, coaches and managers – have special memories.

I’ll bet that eighty-two-year-old Victor Zalta of Brooklyn has us all beat when it comes to spring training memories, particularly one from 1946, when he was a teenager.

Victor’s father had a retail store St. Petersburg. It was difficult for an Orthodox family; there was no Orthodox minyan in town. They looked forward to spending some of the yom tovim in Brooklyn. Victor also looked forward to spring training in St. Pete.

The St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Yankees trained in St. Petersburg at the time. The Cardinals had the nicer Al Lang Field on the waterfront while the Yankees were stationed at the shabbier Miller Huggins Field a few miles away.

Practice sessions before the exhibition season started were great opportunities for youngsters seeking an autograph or any kind of interaction with players.

“They didn’t have security then,” Victor recalls. “I could sneak right into the dugout and go right up to a player, which I did many times.”

Victor remembers the Cardinals’ Stan Musial as one of the really good guys. “He was a beautiful man,” he says.

“Joe DiMaggio, on the other hand, was mean to me. He called me a ‘punk.’ He told me never to bother him, not even to go near him.”

The one player Victor wanted to talk to and possibly even pose for a photograph with was Hank Greenberg. When the Tigers came to St. Pete to play the Yankees, Victor caught up to the Detroit slugger after the game. But Greenberg kept walking, saying he had to catch the team bus.

“Please, please,” pleaded Victor.

Greenberg just quickened his pace, at which point Victor blurted out, “But…I’m Jewish, too, like you.”

Greenberg stopped and, recalls Victor, “grinned from ear to ear.” The team bus waited while the greatest Jewish baseball hero of all time posed for a picture with his young fan.

Sixty-eight years later the memory is still fresh, even if the picture is a little faded.

About the Author: The author of 10 books, Irwin Cohen headed a national baseball publication for five years and interviewed the legendary Hank Greenberg. He went on to work for a major league team and became the first Orthodox Jew to earn a World Series ring. He can be reached in his Detroit area dugout at irdav@sbcglobal.net.


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