The other day I got my hands on a copy of It Happens Every Spring, a 1949 film starring Ray Milland, and, with all due respect to Field of Dreams and Bad News Bears, is the best baseball movie of all time – especially for a bunch of kids from Bayside in the early 50s. Talk about providing stuff that dreams are made of . . . think about this story line: A college professor is working on an experiment when a baseball crashes through a window smashing all his test tubes. The resultant mishmash of fluid somehow causes the baseball to be repelled by wood, you know, the stuff baseball bats are made of? Suddenly he realizes the possibilities of such a phenomenon and takes a leave of absence to go to pitch in the big leagues.
Wow! Think about how that can spur the imagination of a group of 10-year-olds! Well, that summer my teammate friends and I from Sacred Heart School were the best customers of the Bayside Theater on Bell Boulevard where we watched the screen almost every day while fantasizing about striking out Yankee players such as Joe DiMaggio, Hank Bauer and Yogi Berra, the arch rivals of our beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. When not staring at the movie screen we would be at the baseball field in Crocheron Park choosing sides in our traditional way – you remember -- the two team captains, usually, for us, anyway,Tony Matich and Tom McCarthy, would both get a grip on the bottom of a baseball bat. Each would alternately move their hand up the bat gripping it as they went until they reached the nub on the end of the bat. The last guy to get the best grip on the nub would have to hold it out away from his body at arm’s length, swing it around his body three times, then the other captain would get three kicks to try and knock the bat out of the grip. If he succeeded, he got the first pick. If the captain holding the bat held on he got first pick. The first selected team would get first choice of the team name for the day, which was usually our beloved Bayside Dodgers. Second choice? The Bayside Giants. The Yankees were never a favorite, and, of course, the St. Louis Browns was a definite no-no.
Yes, watching that movie again brought back some wonderful memories of growing up in Bayside, playing sandlot ball, and dreaming of major league stardom. But most of all, it stirred up memories of my “teammates,” my fellow students at Sacred Heart, all great baseball players and, in my opinion, future Hall-of-Famers. Guys like the aforementioned Tony Matich and Tom McCarthy, plus the long-ball-hitting Pete Lupario; brilliant infielders Ed McCabe and John Clark; the twins Bernie and Mike Neil, Mike Ciavarella, Roger Schehr, Mike Giacento, Mike Cushing and the great outfielder Frank Hudock. While I’ve lost touch with many of my former teammates of those endless baseball summers of the early 1950s, when we played our favorite game from the moment we were able to escape after breakfast until it was too dark to see the baseball coming directly at us, I sincerely hope they’ve made the “major leagues,” if not in baseball then in whatever field they had chosen in life.
As for yours truly, I had somewhat of an anti-climatic ending to my baseball career. In the spring of 1954, when I was 13 and a month away from graduating Sacred Heart, I tried out for the Babe Ruth League. On that special day, at the main baseball diamond in Crocheron Park, they had a guest pitcher, a young rookie of the Brooklyn Dodgers named Glenn Mickens (pictured here). On the third pitch, I blasted one over the treetops in left center field. Mickens looked dumbfounded. He walked in from the mound and said: “You like ‘em fast and high, don’t you? That would have been a home run in Ebbets Field.” (By the way, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn happened to be the smallest baseball stadium in the country). Anyway, my elation didn’t last long. Mickens went back to the mound and threw me nothing but curve balls and I never touched another pitch. In fact, Mickens and I had similar careers – he lasted only that one season in the majors (obviously, if I could hit a homer off him, can you imagine what Willie Mays could do?) and I “retired” from baseball that same year, after graduating from Sacred Heart in the class of 1954. I may have had a decent bat, mainly because of my six-foot-plus size, but I couldn’t judge a fly ball, experiencing several close calls when the ball landed on my head instead of in my glove. And my throwing arm was no Carl Furillo – not even an Andy Pafko.
Oh well . . . if I only had some of that wood-repelling formula, things might have been different!