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Sunday, April 24, 2011

1938: Joe is eleven and going to the ball game alone


My brother took me everywhere in my pre-teen years. He brought me to see the Bronx Zoo; the Aquarium at Battery Park; the Planetarium at Central Park; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when it premiered at Radio City Music Hall. He took me to Madison Square Garden to see the one-and-only Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, starring Clyde Beatty, the fearless lion tamer, and bought me a toy whip should I want to follow that career path. On another occasion, he took me there to see a Wild West Rodeo. He decked me out in a cowboy hat, holster and cap gun. To increase my cultural knowledge, he brought me to a number of New York City art museums. He taught me how to swim and dive at the Palisades Amusement Park, and how to ride a bike.


It should come as no surprise that he took me to see my first major league baseball game shortly after my seventh birthday. We saw the New York Giants play the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds, located in the Bronx, just one subway stop away from Yankee Stadium. In addition, while it may seem difficult to believe, he managed to take me to Ebbets Field in 1935 to see Babe Ruth, then in his final year as an active player, a member of the Boston Braves. Yes, I saw the Bambino!

My big brother took me to see a number of Giants games over the next several years. They became my favorite team and Mel Ott my favorite player, whose batting style I tried to emulate. He would shift his weight back on his left leg, raise up his right leg, knee toward his tummy, then stride toward the pitcher when swinging at the ball. He seemed to be able to hold his balance on one leg forever, waiting for the ball to reach the plate. Mel was a great home-run hitter, though slight of stature, and forever my idol.

After turning eleven, a day came when my brother could not take me to see a Giants game that beckoned me. He entrusted me to go see the game by myself and funded the trip with two one-dollar bills and some loose change, a large sum in those days. I put the money and written travel instructions in my pants watch pocket. Having those instructions comforted me, although I knew which trains to take from previous trips.
About noon, brimming with confidence, my trek began by hopping aboard a jitney bus for the ride to the subway station at the foot of Hoboken (five cents and ten minutes). The Hudson Tubes subway carried me under the river to Manhattan (ten cents and fifteen minutes). Here, hunger forced me to stop and enjoy a Nedick’s hot dog and a glass of orange juice (twenty cents) before ambling down the steps to board the Eighth Avenue Express (a dime). The subway train howled while hurtling non-stop from 42nd Street to 125th Street. My journey ended a few stops later, at 155th Street, where every sign read Polo Grounds. The trip had been a breeze and it would be a simple matter for me to return home in the same manner.

The crowd of fans seemed to carry me up the stairs from the subway to the stadium. It was exciting to think that the game would soon begin and there was still plenty of money to treat myself to another hot dog and an orange drink on the way home because a grandstand ticket cost only fifty-five cents, a program a mere dime.

I walked up to the ticket window, stuck my index finger into my watch pocket to pull out my money, and made a startling discovery. The pocket was empty. Even my subway instruction sheet was gone. Frantically searching through all my pockets, finding nothing, my heart sank. Reality hit me between the eyes. Forget the game. How in the world would I manage to get home?

Hordes of police officers stood guard around the stadium and the subway, but it did not occur to me to ask one to bail me out. They frightened me. Instead, I decided to try to get home without asking for anyone’s help.

Returning to the subway entrance, while eyeing the ‘men in blue,’ I summoned my courage, ducked under the turnstile and ran for the incoming train as fast as possible. Moment later, the doors of the Manhattan-bound express closed behind me and it took off, headed to the Hudson Tubes at 33rd Street. My mood was ebullient. I had eluded the subway turnstile attendant and the ‘coppers.’

My joy was short lived. At the entrance to the Hudson Tube station, an imposing change booth employee eyed me suspiciously, sensing it was not my intent to pay for my next ride on their system. He granted my impassioned plea for a free ride. The sight of a crying boy must have softened his heart. My sob story had worked. While racing down the stairs headed for the subway ride back to Hoboken, my heart pounded with joy. I’m comin' home, Ma!

Fortunately, my family treated me sympathetically upon my return. They were happy to have me back, scared and broken hearted. The lesson learned that day remains with me to this day. Never stop to buy a hot dog until AFTER you have reached your destination.

This experience did not dampen my enthusiasm for baseball. Mel Ott remained my favorite player, and the Giants my favorite team, even though my allegiance had cost me two bucks.

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