Baseball- A Family Affair: A Loving Tribute to My Late Father

By David Rubin

This past Friday marked the third anniversary of my dad's passing. My dad was the person who not only inspired my (and my brother's) love for all things sports-related, but specifically, he created a MONSTER Mets fan, having himself grown up with immigrant parents who knew nothing of sports, and therefore ensuring he'd pass down his love for baseball, football, basketball, hockey, boxing, etc., to his two sons. My dad was also a veteran of the Korean War, and a beloved and honored New York City School-Teacher for over 40 years. The following post comes from my old site, Shea Nation, circa 2006, and was a birthday tribute on the occasion of his 77th birthday, some four plus years ago, right before we found out how serious the illness that took him from us some 19 months later truly was...so please allow me to take a "break" from our usual coverage of all things Mets, both minor and major league, as I re-post the following tribute to my true hero, my dad, Al...and I dedicate this to all the father's out there, who played catch with us in the yard, helped us break in our mitts with oil and rubber bands, taught us to slide and took us to our first baseball games...and to the many mothers' who did likewise.

Editor's Note: To those who have already read my book review of Jane Leavy's excellent Mickey Mantle bio, "The Last Boy," I apologize in advance if you've heard part of this story already.

This article is a departure from our regular coverage of our beloved Mets- it is a tribute to my father, Al, who is about to celebrate his 77th birthday, and to all of those father's who encouraged our love for the game of baseball, like Jonathan's, and yours, I'd bet, and to the knowledge that heroes are sometimes simply the person who loves us enough to share that which they love- in this case, the game of baseball.

There is a famous song, "my heroes have always been cowboys"...well, mine have always been baseball players, besides my dad, of course, and sometimes meeting ones' hero isn't as great as the idea of meeting that hero...and sometimes, the person you are meeting isn't the person you thought you'd be meeting, as someone else's hero might end up becoming your own, as the following stories will point out...

During the time of my father's childhood, the youngest son of immigrants who found heaven in Brooklyn, New York, there was no television to turn on, and poverty was everywhere- my dad's fortune to be born the same year as the "great depression". Baseball was a game that every boy longed to play, because you merely needed a ball and a bat, and the rest was up to the imagination! Radios were still a luxury, but you could hear the sounds of games from such magical places as Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field, and then the next day, if you were a Giants fan, you'd become Mel Ott batting against your friend, the Yankee fan, pretending to be Waite Hoyt, or some other Yankees' pitcher...while your buddy, the Dodgers fan, was the last to be chosen. Stick-ball ruled supreme, and man-hole covers became home plate all throughout the city. Baseball was everywhere, the great equalizer, the sport that brought you together to root for your commonly loved team, regardless where your ancestors came from. Your favorite player was on your mind more then any other person could hope to be, and you lived to be like him, taking that swing that would win the ballgame in the bottom of the ninth, or throwing one right by the other teams' cleanup hitter to strike out the side to win the game! Radio left tons to the imagination, and without such current luxuries as ESPN & the internet, it was up to the listener to see Dimaggio or Cochrane or Greenberg at the plate in the stadium of their minds. Heroes were wart-free, as the reporters who covered their exploits left out those that happened outside of the lines, counting many of those same players as drinking buddies on the long train-rides between cities. Kids need simply copy a swing or a motion, with parents not worrying about them copying steroid use or poor attitudes. I was born to someone who grew up during such a time, and was fortunate that my father regaled me with tales of his childhood at an early age, most of which, I might add, had some attachment to a sporting event or athlete of one sort or another. Although my dad wasn't ever keen about getting autographs (remember, this is the person who shook Babe Ruth's hand and DIDN'T ask for an autograph- he was only 5 or 6, but man, my brother NEVER would have had to take out a student loan!), he encouraged us to do so, and I always loved the thrill of waiting for that signature, whether it was Skip Lockwood's (as I coaxed him to hand his baby back to his wife & sign for me- sorry, Skip) or Mickey Mantle's. This is the story of getting the Mick's autograph; it is also the story of how I got Willie Mays' autograph; it's the story of how sometimes, meeting one's heroes is not all it's cracked up to be, and sometimes it's even more; but mostly, it is the story of a love affair between a father and his two sons, and the sharing of the game we love so much, baseball!

In 1978, my dad decided to take my brother and I to a baseball card convention at Hofstra University in Uniondale, Long Island. My brother was 10 and I was 14, and we were very excited to go. We were all huge baseball fans (and still are), and there was going to be a special guest signing autographs, one Mickey Mantle! Although my dad has always hated the Yankees, he did meet Babe Ruth when he was a youngster (although the Babe was a coach with the Braves at the time), and that meant a lot to him; therefore, if there was ever a chance for his baseball-crazy sons to meet a legend of the game, he would take try his best to arrange something for us. My dad, at the time, was a 6th grade teacher in Belle Harbor, Queens, and one of his car-pool buddies was the school librarian, Addy Hochberger. Addy was always nice to me, and I spent a lot of time in her library whenever I visited my dad's school. On one visit, when I was about 8 or so, I noticed that the library was having a book sale, as they often did, and there were 3 paperback books that were NOT part of the sale - "The Quality of Courage" by Mickey Mantle, "The Baseball Life of Mickey Mantle" and "The Baseball Life of Willie Mays." All three had been read often, chiefly by me, and Mrs. Hochberger decided she would put all 3 on sale just for me! I happily gave her 30 cents from my savings (10 cents per book) and went on to read and re-read each book at least 20 times in the next few months. Like everything else in ones' childhood, things like books and toys have a limited shelf-life, and within a year or so, I put the books onto my bookshelf, to be forgotten about for many years...actually, for about 6 years, or until my dad told me that Mantle was going to be the main guest at the card show.

I dug through my bookshelf (not a small task, as by this time I had been reading on a college level for about 3 years already and my shelves were jammed with everything from Hemingway to Marvel Comics), determined to find those Mantle books. "The Quality of Courage" was in bad shape, as the cover was held on by a thread. "The Baseball Life of Mickey Mantle" had fared better, as the cover had already been taped on and overall was in pretty good shape. I always took good care of my books, but my baseball books were like trophies in a case, which is probably why I still have most of them some 35+ years later.

Armed with the best ammo I could find, I prepared to meet the idol of millions, and in particular, my cousin Joe. A small aside - my cousin Joseph was like an older brother to me, growing up, and we did a lot of things together, from watching the original Star Trek every Friday night on our color tv (he didn't have one yet) to attending railroad "fan trips" at least once a month. I worshiped Joe like any "little brother" would, but there was one thing we just could not agree on - baseball teams! Yes, sadly, he was raised a Yankee fan, even though he was born and bred in Brooklyn, and even though my dad, the HUGE Giants fan and his favorite uncle, became a Mets fan! We decided early on, through unspoken agreement, to each let the other root for their favorite team without ribbing, and he even took me to a few Mets games including one in which I watched Tug McGraw, in the storybook season of 1973, kick a Spalding (nee Spal-deen) rubber ball up to the bleachers all the way from field level!!! In return, I attended the last official game at Yankee Stadium before the renovations that would leave them a tenant in our beloved Shea Stadium! I even kept the 45 RPM Record that they gave out that day (--->) for almost 20 years, until it got thrown out by accident- and yes, I even listened to the great Mel Allen narrating some of the greatest Yankees' moments of the half century that the record covered, and I could almost understand why Joe was a Yankees' fan - ALMOST!

Anyway, I got into the car with my dad and brother, and the excitement I felt at going to my first baseball card show was overwhelming. I had been to many comic book shows over the years, and my dad, being the great sport that he was (and is), even tried to take me to the famous Star Trek convention in NY that the Fire Marshall had to close down because there were way too many people there then the facility could hold - I can still remember the sight of my dad barreling through people to protect his little boy from the onrushing of the huge crowd of Trekkie's who would have run over me like roadkill for a chance to meet one of the actors from the legendary show! (I was never quite as big a fan after that convention, sorry Joseph).

Hofstra was about 40 minutes from our house, and on the way to the show, my dad gave us a rundown of the careers of everyone that was going to be attending the show as designated "signers". He couldn't believe that we would have to pay $3 each to get a Mantle autograph, but would gladly pay for us so that we would have the chance to meet, in his words, the SECOND greatest centerfielder in NY history- behind, of course, Willie Mays. Little did we know at the time that this would be the first time ever that a player would receive (what was then) big bucks to sign autographs for fans, as Mantle received some $2000 for signing that day. (See- my dad exposed us to the best history lessons of the day!)

(Side note:Of course, I always believed that the rookie card to the left belonged to Jerry Koosman, while my dad insisted it was Nolan Ryan's rookie card. When I told him year's later how much it was worth (at the time, somewhere around $500), he chided me for not having traded for more of them, like he had once recommended! See- he WAS ahead of his time! And yes, I DID purchase another one at that show, bringing my then WHOPPING total to two of these now-treasured cards!)

By the time we got to Hofstra, and paid for our autographs, the lines for the Mick's autograph was huge. My dad, not the most patient man in most ways, continued to regale us with stories about baseball, particularly about his reaction to perhaps the greatest moment in New York baseball history, the "shot heard 'round the world!" My dad was 5'8", build like a lineman, strong like an ox and played roving center (the precursor to middle linebacker) in high school. He is not someone with whom you would associate cartwheels with. And yet, here he was, in the middle of Brooklyn, a sole Giants fan watching the game on a television not his own in a local bar, and the joy of Bobby Thompson's shot caused my dad to change course and, sure enough, he engaged in his first, and last cartwheel! Of course, this was much to the chagrin of all of the Dodgers' fans around him, and he had to run for his life, a story which he later told to ESPN when they filmed a 50-year tribute to that famous game (and yes, my dad made it onto the show for all of posterity!) I remembered this story years later, as throughout the mid to late 70's, Yankee fans came out of the woodwork to root for their once-again, successful team, while we labored with some of the worst teams money couldn't buy! In 1986, I was in college at Stonybrook University, and I had a chance to ram it down the throats of a ton of Yankee fans when we beat Boston- they had nowhere to turn, as however the series finished, either their hated division rivals would win, or their hated cross-town rivals would win! I didn't do a cartwheel, but I did throw a tennis ball further and harder then I had ever thrown a ball, before or since- a tennis ball, by the way, that said "I hate the Yankees" on it...

This is part 2 of the original post...

Mickey Mantle didn't look like a superstar- he looked just like any other dad on my block, except he was a bit bigger, and a bit more grizzled-looking, but he was still handsome, and had an air of dignity around him, perhaps part swagger and part reaction to the idol worship he had been subjected to for so many years. The long lines seemed to make him weary- perhaps it was the heat of the gymnasium, or perhaps it was having to hear the same platitudes over and over again. Either way, "The Mick" had a long day of idol worship ahead of him, and as we made our way closer, my dad said something along the lines of not wanting to trade places with Mickey for all of the "tea in China." Again, I was a fan of Mickey, but I only had the chance to see him on TV a few times in 1968 and 1969, when I was 4 and 5, so his career was really something more legend to me then the tangibility of my heroes, Willie Mays and Tom Seaver, both of whom I had the opportunity to see live many times, especially Seaver. Mantle's exploits were given to me verbally, by cousin Joe and my dad, and via the previously-mentioned books, "The Quality of Courage" and "The Baseball Life of Mickey Mantle." That's probably why I read both books so much- if I read them enough times, maybe I'd get to see Mantle play in his prime, in my imagination! (2 quick and important plugs- I recently had the fortune to read another amazing biography, this time of Mickey, himself, by Tony Castro, entitled "Mickey Mantle: America's Prodigal Son." Ms. Hochberger, the librarian from Part One, has long passed, so I had to pay full retail for this one (LOL) - and it was worth EVERY PENNY! Additionally, for Father's Day last year, my wife and kids bought me the DVD box set of Ken Burn's amazing series, "Baseball", which I whole-heartedly recommend to each and every baseball fan who owns a DVD player. This set is worth not only the price of the box, which is about $150+, but also the price of the DVD player, the television- you get the point! Buy them both- you won't be sorry! And, even watching old film, you can still see just how amazing Mickey truly was!)

What I DID see that day, at least at first, was someone who had been an idol of millions, for a few decades, up close and personal, and, unlike so many of these stories that end badly, this one was quite the opposite. When our turn to get autographs came, I held out my ticket stub, as did my brother, and Mickey signed both of them with a smile. Both my brother and I became shy in the shadow of a legend, and said nothing, happy to watch Mickey sign and then walk away. To my surprise, Mickey noticed the books I had forgotten, under my arm, and asked me if he could see them. I gave them to him, and he smiled the smile of legend, and, to use the cliche (because to me, that day, it was the truth), I could see clouds part and angels hum, as a bright light seemed to shine down on Mickey as he said to me "Son, these books have seen some better days. Have you read them?" I told him that I had, many times, to which my dad smiled and my brother came out from behind me. "Son, let me shake your hand," he said, and I looked to my dad for approval. He nodded, and the Mick's hand enveloped mine, and our faces were inches apart. He put his arm around my small shoulders, and told me to "keep reading, keep studying, and get some better-written books!" He laughed, I laughed, my dad laughed, and in that moment, I got it! I saw the charisma first hand of someone who had spent the past nearly 30 years under a spotlight- but this charisma didn't come from fielding questions about his knee or his personal life- it came from his heart, which, we would later find out, was truly that of a champion! Mickey took the book and signed the inside cover, "To David, Best Wishes Mickey Mantle", in spite of the fact that I had already received his autograph on the event ticket, and in spite of the fact that he wasn't personalizing anything that day, and in spite of the fact that the show rep started getting angry that Mickey was holding up the line. Mickey didn't care- he was reaching out to a kid, and in doing so, he created a magical memory that would last a lifetime.

I thanked Mickey, and he thanked me for being a fan, which I always remembered, and in light of louts like Barry Bonds, can you imagine a player today, this side of David Wright, actually thanking a fan for their support?! And this, my friend, was Mickey-freakin'-Mantle!!! On that day, AFTER his playing days were long over, The Mick created a fan for life, and that book remains as one of my prized possessions. Not because of any value that an ebay-seller might put on it; it has, and will always have amazing value because it is now representative of the moment in time that I came face-to-face with one of the game's all-time legends, and I got to share that moment with my dad, my real hero, and my baby brother, who himself just created another (handsome) Mets fan! One day, when I sit down with my grandchildren in the not too distant future (and that is NOT a hint to either of my daughters), I can give them this book, show them footage of Mantle via Burn's great tribute, and pass along my love of the game to them, a love passed to me by my dad, something which they will, I hope, pass on to their kids.

I was just one of millions of fans that Mickey touched, in some way, so when I speak about my dislike for someone like Barry Bonds, it's not because of the whole steroids issue, it's about the fact that, because of attitudes of players that emulate him, the game is not as popular as it could be. Yes, it competes with the internet, video games, DVD's, etc, but if stars were more accessible, perhaps kids would get over paying $3 for a pack of baseball cards that I once paid 8 cents for, and would actually care about Barry Bonds, the man, and not Barry Bonds, the guy whose rookie card is worth $500!

I don't want to oversimplify things, nor do I want to blame Bonds for more then he should truly shoulder; however, if there aren't moments like the one which I had with Mantle, or with Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman at Lum's Chinese Restaurant in Flushing, then perhaps my love for the game might have diminished over the years rather then growing in legend, the way it should. Without a dad like I had, perhaps I wouldn't see things from the prospective that I do, but it's clear to me that if players like Bonds were more accessible to their fans, perhaps the next wave of fans would be as committed and fanatic as the generation that I grew up in was and is. But I digress, as Jonathan and I will put together an article about the strengths and weaknesses of this game we love when the season is over.

Ironically, growing up, my favorite players were Tom Seaver and one Willie Mays. Ironic, because Mays' became Bonds' godfather, and I grew to understand that Mays was surly like his godson, much to my chagrin. My dad had served in Korea, at the same time that Mays did, and he had followed Mays' closely since the first day he put on a Giants uniform. He had been witness to Mays rookie season, and longed for the day that both he and Mays were done in Korea and back home again, worrying about simpler things, like how Mays could outrun a Vic Wertz-hit baseball, rather then wondering if the plane you heard was going to prove to be friend or foe.

Since the Mantle autograph show at Hofstra, I longed to get my dad an autograph of Willie Mays. I pulled a Mays card from a pack for the first time in 1971, and I made my dad carry it around in his wallet for years and years. In the late 80's, I had the chance to meet Willie at the first, huge National Convention, and gladly paid something like $50 for the opportunity to have Willie sign a photo for my dad. In fact, I paid for 2 autographs- since Willie wasn't personalizing that day, I had a plan- I'd tell Willie about my dad being in Korea with him, rooting for the Giants while living in Brooklyn, and perhaps, if he saw that in exchange for the 2 autograph tickets, all I wanted was for him to sign it "To Al", he'd gladly do so! Unlike the amazing experience I had with Mantle, the one with Mays' was far less so. As I started to tell Mays the story, and ask for my request, his associate yelled at me for holding up the line and for asking Willie to personalize something. Willie didn't want to hear a thing I said, and was a real grouch to me. I didn't get my money back for the additional autograph; I didn't get to have Willie personalize the autograph to my dad; and I didn't like the fact that the love my dad gave to Mays all of those years was, sadly, unrequited. I did get the autograph, and fashioned it into a plaque with Mays' Hall of Fame postcard and that old 1971 card, and this was my dad's entree' into the world of memorabilia collecting (a photo of a small part of his collection can be found below). I didn't tell my dad about Mays' attitude until years later, and it was a sad day for both of us, finding out that sometimes, our heroes are less then heroic.

An amazing thing, however, happened in our lives- my father had given me a love for baseball, and now I had inspired my dad to begin collecting memorabilia, not for the money but to be surrounded by mementos of players and games that he loved so he could relive them over and over again (not quite a fair trade, but I brought him some amazing pieces over the years in reverence of what we shared). It did become a bit overwhelming for my mom, as our den, my old bedroom and my brother's old bedroom were filled to over-flowing with everything from baseballs and bobble-heads to stadium seats and tons of signed photos, plaques, balls, bats, footballs, basketballs, pucks, boxing gloves, etc. Recently, my folks moved from the big house I grew up in to a condo, and, sadly, the bulk of this memorabilia went with the move. However, some key items remain, as it would be impossible for my dad to no longer be surrounded by at least a handful (okay, a number of hands-full) of sports mementos.

As my dad's collection grew, and my brother and I took great pleasure in acquiring more treasures for dad, I began to think about the differences I had experienced in my meetings with Mantle and Mays. If Mays had treated me like Mantle had, perhaps I would have a different viewpoint about the game, and might have fallen into the camp of "apologists" who make excuses for players like Bonds. Conversely, if Mantle had been rude to me that day, or hadn't by some fluke seen those books, perhaps my love for the game wouldn't have remained as great after following up what might have been less then a memorable experience with the Mays mishap. What these two meetings did, taken in sum, was show me the real hero of this story- my dad!

My dad was the person who explained the game to me, played catch with me, managed my first little league team, snuck me money for cards, took me to games and most importantly, shared himself and his life experiences with me, not just of the game but of everything in life that he had experienced. It was the baseball things that we are speaking of today, because those are certainly the most fun things. So here's to the late Mickey Mantle, the great centerfielder for the Yankees' and the only Yankee I will openly and proudly wear a jersey of; here's to Willie Mays, who, in spite of his surliness, gave my dad and I, as well as countless others, so much joy ON the diamond, if not off; and here's to my dad, who gave his love of the game (and sports) to me, and to your dad, who hopefully passed down his love of the game to you! THAT is what will keep our game great- share it with your kids, and teach them to share it with theirs!

This is for you dad,
With Love,

PS- At Cooperstown in 2004, my dad FINALLY got to pose with The Babe for a photo- here it is! And this is the man who not only met the Babe, but also saw Jim Bunning throw a perfect game against us on Father's Day AND who was in attendance last Thursday in Brooklyn for the Cyclones 26-inning game (but, thankfully, my dad left after the seventh inning!)


Gerri D said...

David, I am not a fan of baseball, but I am a Yankee fan. Your dedication to your Dad, who I was privileged to know, for a very short time, is simply beautiful. Fortunately I am alone at home so no one see or hear me sob.
Thank for letting me share this dedication to your sweet Dad.

Love, Gerri.

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