Vintage American League Ballparks
My maternal grandfather bought me a
Yankee hat when I was about 3. He was a Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, dyed-in-the-pinstripe- wool, Yankee fan. That was the beginning of my baseball education and the start of a life-long love affair with the sport. I don’t exactly remember what happened immediately after the “hat incident” but it couldn’t have been pretty. My dad and his side of the family were diehard Red Sox fans. The lived and died (mostly died at that point in time) for the Boston team, Ted Williams in particular. My father, born in 1929, had come of age rooting for the Boston teams of the 40’s and 50’s. Johnny Pesky, Joe Cronin, Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Mel Parnell – those were some of the icons of his sporting past.
Growing up in western Connecticut, the easiest place to visit for a game was Yankee Stadium, Boston and Fenway being too long a trek in the early 60’s. I went to my initial game at the age of 7 or 8, seeing Yogi Berra hit 2 home runs during a Sunday doubleheader. My 1st sight of the field, coming up through the darkness of the ramps at old Yankee Stadium, to the main level, is something that is still very vivid in my mind 48 years later. The bright green grass, the rich brown dirt, the majestic sight of the monuments in center field. We’d eventually make the pilgrimage to Fenway, sitting in the left field rooftop box, which was equally impressive but my most memorable times in my formative years were spent going to games in the Bronx cathedral with my father, the Cub Scouts and my friends.
I have a lifelong friend, Claude, who’s dad would bring us to the Stadium some days when he was going to visit the ponies at Yonkers Raceway. He’d drop us off early on a Saturday morning, we’d get in the Stadium for batting practice (gates would open at 10 am back then for 1 pm Saturday matinees) and Mr Wallace would pick us up later, after the ponies ran and the ballgame was finished. Claude and I, with other friends, would go to many games over the years, ticking off the teams and players we’d see, trying to see all of the stars of the day. Watching batting practice was a treat. I’d always have my Willie Mays style glove with me, hoping to catch a foul ball. (Never did.) We’d get to see all the other teams stars and watch them as they prepared to play that day’s game. Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Rocky Colavito and the Detroit Tigers. Luis Aparacio, Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles. Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Conigliaro and Jim Lonborg with the Red Sox. Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva and Camilo Pascual with the Minnesota Twins, just after they moved from Washington DC. The White Sox with ageless Hoyt Wilhelm, Tommy John and Nellie Fox. The Kansas City A’s, formerly the Philadelphia Athletics, with their roster of former and future Yankees. The new Washington Senators with crazy Jimmie Piersall and Minnie Minoso (once asked who was the greatest player in the game, he pointed to himself and said “me know so”). The Indians with Jim “Mudcat” Grant, “Sudden” Sam McDowell and Tito Francona. And the expansion Los Angeles Angels with Dean Chance, Bo Belinsky and “little” Albie Pearson. The New York Yankees, at the beginning of the 60’s, were an all star team – Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, Yogi, the list goes on and on. At the end of the decade, they were a bottom of the standings team, featuring players like Jerry Kenney and Roger Repoz and the unforgettable Horace Clarke.
I did make 1 trip to New York with my dad to see the National League play. We went to see the New York Mets play the Los Angeles Dodgers at the Polo Grounds, 2 years before Shea Stadium opened. The Casey Stengel led Mets were the doormat of the NL back them, trying to thrive with former all stars such as Gil Hodges , who’d been a star with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Richie Ashburn, a Whiz Kid from Philadelphia and big Frank Thomas. The LA Dodgers, who’d become the World Champions the next year, were led by Sandy Koufax, Johnny Podres, Don Drysdale, stolen base champ Maury Wills and Duke Snider.
Baseball was a sport back then, something that these talented players did for 6 months each year before returning to their off season jobs and lives. We actually met many of these visiting players during batting practice, they’d come over to the stands and sign autographs or just talk to the kids that were there early. They didn’t “big-time” you, they actually took the time to speak to you, kid with you and make you happy that you played the same game that they excelled at.
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