I grew up and went to school in the '50s and '60s near Yankee Stadium. Until I was fourteen I could hear the crowds roar each spring and fall from my classroom at the north end of Joyce Kilmer Park. Before becoming the U.S. Congressman representing that district my father worked as counsel to the Borough President of the Bronx in the Bronx County Courthouse, the tall building that loomed behind center field until the new stadium was built. After my mother died I would sometimes go with him to a coffee shop cattycorner from the courthouse, a place with a soda fountain, tables and booths, a brown ceiling of stamped tin and a wooden phone booth in the back. He met old friends and political cronies there and Yankee ballplayers would breakfast there too before day-games that were the norm back then. The coffee shop was a place almost exclusively frequented by men; politicians, cops, detectives, lawyers, reporters and athletes. I remember thick white plates of eggs with hash browns and bacon, mugs of coffee with spoons sticking out of them, guys with skinny ties and portly men behind the counter in long aprons. It was a place of Irish-American masculinity, of revolvers and handcuffs in scuffed leather holsters, initialed briefcases, thick-soled cordovan shoes, Catholic university rings, of men thickly built but light on their feet.
When he couldn't find a baby sitter he'd often drag me to Toots Shor's in Manhattan at night where more than once I fell asleep on a leather banquette between Floyd Patterson and Mickey Mantle. At the Grand Concourse Hotel each year there was a Yankee dinner he took me to as well. All of the Yankees sat at a long table up on the ballroom stage and in 1963 I got them to sign a baseball now long gone. Berra, Ford, Mantle & Maris, Elston Howard, Clete Boyer, Tony Kubek, Bobby Richardson. When we went to games we sat in Toot's box just off third base and if Toots was there a great deal of scabrous and witty commentary would occur yelled out to the players in the man's deep honking basso voce.
Hanging in my closet in our apartment on Undercliff Avenue, unclaimed and unexplained, was a heavy black wool morning coat with velvet lapels that belonged to Joe DiMaggio. In the summer during some of those years dad would fly out to our house in Southampton hitching a ride on a gull-hulled seaplane owned by New York Yankees President, Dan Topping. The Topping house was across the lane from ours and his fashionable wife would drive me to a rickety dock on Shinnecock Bay to meet them. The plane landed with an impressive whoosh upon the water with the ocean just on the other side of the dunes and then it would taxi up close to us before cutting its engines. It was painted a dark military green and had the Yankee insignia on the door.
But my best memories from that period, so involved with baseball, was watching the games at home in my father's bedroom, propped on pillows in the afternoon, glued to a black & white TV with a rabbit ears antenna positioned atop a corner bureau. It was a sanctuary both in time and place. The tragedy of my mother's death was behind us, the assassination of the president he so loved and his own crippling illness was still hidden in a perilously close but unknown future. During those afternoons, safe and comfortable and with a particular kind of clean light coming through the windows that is hardly seen in New York anymore, it felt like nothing could change.
All of the people I mention here are long dead and buried. All that was vibrant and caring and amusing about them, all that was sexy or compelling or even nasty is gone forever. Through chance and circumstance I ended up living what might be called a Bohemian existence in Spain for almost thirty years afterwards. Now I am back and living in New England and after giving it very little thought for the longest time, I have suddenly rediscovered baseball. Out of deference to the past I am still a Yankee fan. But I don't know all of the players' names. I don't pay much attention to statistics. I'm not one of those. Last week, as the first cold of autumn blew droves of parched leaves off the trees outside hidden in the night, I sat in my living room and watched the World Series. Sitting there on the couch in the dark watching plays, listening to the lingo and the fans' enthusiasm, calmed my heart. It put an arm around me, gently, irrationally, evoking that sense of sanctuary I'd all but forgotten.