The Day My Dad Became My Hero


Before I start this, I just gotta say, my dad was not the hero type... not for me at least, not when I was young.  It pains me to say it now because I eventually came to see that he lived a life of unassuming peace and courage and devotion. 


It was just that in providing for his family as best he could, he just wasn’t around enough for me, a child, to know and appreciate all of that.  That is, until this one particular Saturday in 1954 when I was nine years old. 


But I’m getting ahead of myself.


In a typical week my dad would head off to work before we woke up, he’d work in the City all day, then rush home to grab a bite to eat before heading off to his second job, officiating sports—football in the fall, basketball all winter, baseball seemingly every day spring and summer.  He wasn’t the kind of dad who was readily accessible, especially on most weekends. 


All the other kids on our block had dads who worked a single job, who mowed the lawn and washed the car on Saturdays, and who dressed in the latest fashion on Sundays.  My dad’s favorite clothes had holes in them, and maybe some splotches of house paint.  He simply didn’t care how he looked or what he wore.  For me the burning question all through my most tender years was: Why couldn’t I have a normal dad like everybody else?


One thing Dad and I did have in common, though, was baseball.  It was his and my favorite sport.  He was a pitcher, and as soon as I could hold a catcher’s mitt I became his backstop for pre-game warmups.  We’d go out in the street, he’d step off 60 feet and then begin pitching me his good stuff, mostly curves and sliders.  I quickly learned that it’s much more fun catching a ball than chasing after it, and the better I got at it the more we both looked forward to a few minutes of pitch-and-catch before he was off to a game.


In New York City in the 1950’s, most baseball fans could choose among three hometown major league teams to be their favorite: the Dodgers ("dem Bums"), the Giants, or the Yankees (baseball’s dynasty back then).


I was born into a Yankees family.  My dad grew up in the Bronx, almost in the shadow of Yankee Stadium.  His dad, we called him "Ace", followed the team religiously.  And by religiously I mean Ace expected divine perfection from the team and would yell at the radio, and later the television, whenever a Yankee struck out or made an error.  When Dad was home in our house he'd listen to every Yankees game he could on the radio. Mel Allen’s foggy gargle and Red Barber’s honey-smooth drawl were background music in the house all summer long. 


Though Dad lived a very busy life, I remember from an early age his taking me, and later taking my younger brother and me, to a game at the Stadium at least once a year.


By the age of seven I was a loyal Yankees fan.  Dad had a subscription to the weekly Sporting News and I’d read all the pages of statistics about the team for hours on end.  When I was nine my parents gave me permission to take a trip to the Stadium alone.  Back then a parent’s only caution was, “Be home before dark.” 


This was a big deal—my first pilgrimage—and I remember the day vividly.  Dad wrote out directions for me and I studied them intently.  I rode the Long Island Railroad from the Carle Place station in to Jamaica, then caught the subway to Manhattan and transferred to the C Train up to the Stadium exit at 161st Street.  I arrived at the Stadium two hours before game time and bought a bleachers ticket for seventy five cents.


Hardly anyone was there yet. I entered through the bleachers gate and while I was deciding where I was going to sit in the stands, a kid about my age approached me and said he had a way to get up into the grandstands for free. He said I could follow him if I wanted.  He led me to a small, two foot gap in a wall; I learned later that the Yankees’ bullpen was on the other side of that wall.  The kid entered, and I did the same.


When I emerged at the other end of this secret magic passageway I was standing beneath the grandstands, where the price of seats started at $1.25.  I had just saved myself fifty cents ($4.50 in today’s dollars).  From then on whenever I went to a game alone I’d buy a bleachers ticket and then head for that opening in the wall.


Later that season, 1954, Dad took my brother and me to a Saturday afternoon game.  Whenever Dad would take us we’d always sit in the bleachers because, he claimed, that’s where all the ‘real fans’ watched the game.  He believed one way to get a good sense of the game was to get to the ballpark early to watch batting and fielding practice, so we'd try to be at the gates when they first opened.  


While a trip to the Stadium was always a big deal, and going with Dad was a rare treat, on this day I was embarrassed by the way he had dressed for the game.  He was wearing his painting khakis, a white undershirt with holes, and on his head he had a handkerchief tied at the four corners.  As things played out, my embarrassment over his appearance was only a portent of greater embarrassment to come on that day… the day that was to be the last I'd ever be embarrassed by him.


So there we were, the three of us sitting on a plank in the bleachers just after noon on this sunny Saturday in August, watching all my favorite players warming up.  Mickey Mantle, my all-time number one hero, was shagging fly balls in center field, and Whitey Ford, arguably the best pitcher in his day, was trotting along the outfield warning track with three other pitchers.


Photo of Yankee Stadium taken in the 1950s.

To set the scene, this is a composite photo of the old Yankee Stadium during pre-game warmups—bleachers on the left, Yankees bullpen in the center, grandstands on the right.  The bleachers angled down to the corner by the bullpen where the top of the fence was only about eight feet above the field. It was traditional for kids to hang out in that corner and beg for autographs from passing players. In the photo you can see the 'real fans' gathering early out in the bleachers.


A half dozen kids were at the corner of the bleachers begging for autographs.  Dad stood up and told us both not to move from our seats (which meant our butts were nailed to that bench).  He then stepped down to the corner and joined the kids.


“Ohmygod” was the first thought that struck me.  He's gonna hang out with those kids and beg for autographs.  Dressed like that?  Ohmygod!!!


Four pitchers came trotting by, including Whitey Ford.  Dad cupped his hands over his mouth and yelled, “Hey Whitey.”  Ford looked up, didn’t see anyone he knew and continued trotting with the others.


Ohmygod, my dad thinks he knows Whitey Ford.  I looked around; seemed like everyone was pointing and chuckling at Dad standing there in those ratty clothes of his, head and shoulders above all the other beggars.  Waves of embarrassment washed over me.  Was he purposely doing this to mortify me?  Had he no pride at all?  Didn’t he care what people would think of me, his son?


I thought if I leave right now I can catch the subway and be home in an hour. I could pack my things and be on the road by the time Dad made it back.  I’d never have to be embarrassed by him again, ever.


The pitchers trotted down to the right field corner, turned around and began trotting back.  When they approached the bullpen Dad shouted even louder, “Hey, WHITEY!”


Ford glanced up again distractedly, looked down, then immediately looked back up and stared at Dad—a classic double take.


“Dick?  Is that you?” 


Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod.  Whitey Ford knows my dad?  Really?  Why didn’t I know that?  How could this be? 


Ford turns toward center field and calls, “Hey Mick.  Look who’s here.”


Mickey Mantle looks, squints, and calls back to Ford, “Is that Dick?”    Ohmygod.  What?  What’s happening here?  Mickey Mantle knows my dad too?  How come I did not know this?


Ford waves Mantle over.  All the outfielders come with him.  Warmups come to a halt.  The pitchers are already gathering around Dad.  For the next ten minutes he holds court with most of the New York Yankees.  They’re intently listening to whatever it is he’s saying.  Fans start gathering around him.  The beggars have a front row seat.  I want to go down there but my brother and I were given strict orders not to move.


But I’m on my feet, yelling to all the pointers and chucklers, “Hey!  That’s my dad.  He knows all the Yankees.”  And in that moment my old man—who was actually only in his mid-thirties—he of the holey pants and ridiculous handkerchief head cover—assumed the highest place of honor in my pantheon of boyhood heroes.


And when he was done talking to those other gods, he came back up and sat with the two of us and said not a word about what just happened, not then, not during the game, not for a long, long time after. From that day on I paid a lot of attention to everything he said and everything he did. I learned that he was truly a man of profound humility, and the best mentor a kid could ever ask for.


Twenty years later my folks were living in Toronto and I was married with a family of my own in Oregon.  On a trip back to visit them, I was sitting with Dad watching a Yankees-Blue Jays game being played in the Stadium, and I brought the subject up to him.  Why had all those Yankees gathered around him that day?  What was that all about?


He said, “Well, you have to understand major league baseball has changed quite a bit over the years.  Back then the players weren’t the super heroes people make them out to be today.   For one thing, they weren’t paid all that much more than the fans in the stands.[1]   And they loved the game at every level and were genuinely interested in news about the most promising amateur and minor league players in the greater New York area.”


He said most of the Yankees that year were bachelors living on the north shore of Long Island, just a few miles from us.  After a typical day game at home, which would end by 5 PM, they’d shower and grab a bite to eat and then head out to a local ballfield just to watch the action from behind the backstop.


Dad would be umpiring behind the plate, and each half inning he’d turn around and have a chat with them.  Since he was plugged in to all the local baseball gossip—I remember when he'd come home from a game he'd be on the phone for what seemed like hours talking to coaches and fellow umpires about the latest controversies and developments—he’d share with the Yankees the hottest news about up-and-coming players or odd plays or who had suffered injuries.  This had been going on for years, and the players had come to rely on Dad as one of their most authoritative sources of juicy intelligence.[2]


So on that Saturday the Yankees had just come home from a two-week road trip and hadn’t had a chance to catch up yet.  Dad was their living, breathing Sporting News.  Considering how long the players were gathered around him, and how intently they were listening, he must have had some great stories to tell.  But then he always did.


What he and the Yankees were sharing that day was their love and enthusiasm for the game. That just never fades.


One of my great disappointments is that it wasn't until late in my life that I came to accept Dad's wisdom about the sport.  He had taken up umpiring before he quit playing and he once advised me when I was in my twenties to consider doing the same.  He said it would be a way I could stay in the game long after I had to hang up my spikes.


I still wince at the stupidity of my reply: “The only people on the face of the earth I hate worse than pitchers are umpires,” I said. “Why would I ever want to be one?”  Ouch.


Almost twenty years after Dad’s passing I took up umpiring in my late sixties, mostly just to see if I could do it.  I had no idea how much I would come to love it.  It connects me with Dad in a way I never experienced when he was alive.  Life is so strange that way.  And here’s a quirk: Dad had to give up umpiring in his 67th year when his legs and back failed him. I was in my 67th year when I took up umpiring.  It’s as if he had passed me the baton.


I’ve come to understand that umpiring baseball is a game within the game, one that’s impossible to "win". That makes it a continually fascinating challenge for anyone who wants to stay mentally sharp.  As American League umpire Nestor Chylak once said, "They expect an umpire to be perfect on Opening Day and to improve as the season goes on." 


Dad was right about the physical longevity of umpiring, but he never talked about the mental acuity demanded by the game.  Now I know why it fascinated him for so many decades of his life—it kept him young and engaged.  Every game is a moment-by-moment test of focus and detachment and knowledge, and every game is unique.


I have a t-shirt from the Cape Cod Baseball League that reads, “It’s OK if you think baseball is boring. (It’s kind of a smart person’s sport.)” 


What it doesn’t say, but what is just as true, is baseball is also a funny person’s sport.  People in the stands can’t hear, but on the field there’s often considerable joking going on, especially between the two people on the field wearing masks.  Some of Dad’s funniest stories involved conversations he had with catchers.[3]


I fantasize about how much fun it would be if Dad and I could be back together again, if only for a few hours. 


The stories we could tell each other.  And the laughs we would share!




[1]   Mantle, the hottest star in baseball in 1954, was paid an annual salary of $21,000 that year, which would be about $190,000 in today’s dollars.  That’s less than half the minimum starting salary of the least talented major league player today.



[2]   Dad did possess encyclopedic knowledge of the rule book and all its oddities.  In the 1980s, when my folks were living outside of Toronto in the Eastern Time Zone, he was the final arbiter of the rules of amateur baseball for all of Canada.  On a Saturday once when I was visiting, I sat with him as the phone rang from 10 AM, when early games had just finished in the Maritime Provinces, until well into the night as games in British Columbia were ending.  The phone calls were usually from umpires wanting clarification of rule conflicts that caused a game to be protested.  A Solomonic decision was needed.  While on the phone Dad would sit back with his eyes closed and recite the rules verbatim, and then explain the history of each rule and the intent behind it.  Then he would make a judgment about the protest at hand and that would be it.  Case closed.  No one ever questioned the probity of his interpretations.

 

 

[3]   One time I was working the plate in a high school game.  It's baseball tradition that the plate umpire and catcher introduce themselves before the game as a courtesy since they'll be working closely together.  On this occasion I extended my hand and I said, "Hi, I'm Dick."  The catcher shook my hand and replied with a smile, "Hi, I'm Aiden."

 

Then he got down in his crouch and began taking warm-up pitches.  It was my custom to crouch behind the catcher during warm-ups to get a feel for the pitcher's motion and speed, and I'd usually start a conversation with the catcher.  This time I said, "Aiden. You know that's a great Irish name.  I have a great grandson named Aiden."

 

Silence.  The catcher said nothing in reply.  And in fact he said nothing that entire half inning no matter what I said to him.

 

After the third out he went into his dugout and about ten seconds later his coach busts out laughing.  The coach then came out to coach third base, and as he passed me he said, "What did you say to my catcher?"

 

Puzzled, I hesitated trying to recall, and then I said, "He and I exchanged names and a handshake.  You saw that.  All I said was he has a great Irish name.  Oh, and I told him I have a great grandson named Aiden."

 

And at that the coach busts out laughing.

 

"OK," I said, "what's the joke?"

 

He said, "My 16-year-old catcher comes into the dugout and says to me, 'Coach, that umpire is REALLY old.'  Probably thought he'd have to perform CPR on you."


Next inning, as Aiden came to the catcher's box, I extended my hand with a grin and assured him I wasn't going to croke, but if I did I wouldn't require him to do anything. We both laughed and had a great rest of the game.