When I was a kid, though there was professional football and basketball and hockey, our world revolved around baseball. Baseball took us from February, when the "Grapefruit League" started, through December when the major awards, the MVP and the Cy Young were announced.
We wondered, primarily, how the Yankees would do. The Yankees who had almost always won, but who were now older and as rickety as Mickey Mantle's knees. Almost every year "The New York Times" would herald the arrival of the next great Yankee. After all, DiMaggio had followed Ruth and Mantle had followed DiMaggio, so it was only natural to expect someone to, in turn, follow Mantle.
There was Ross Moschito and Roger Repoz, who had torn the cover off the ball in the minors. There was Roy White who was small but speedy. Then there was Bobby Murcer, an Oklahoma boy like Mantle himself, who played shortstop like Mantle had and was coming up as Mantle was in the long, slow inevitability of hanging up his spikes.
Even though baseball was still regarded as "the summer game," we played year round. There was barely an exposed brick wall in town that didn't have a portrait-oriented rectangle painted on it, a stickball strike zone. In those days, the mid 60s, most stores still closed on Sundays and that when kids from all over would take over the A&P parking lot and play until dark.
My brother, the oldest of the lot would announce the games as he pitched. To his ears his did a dead on "Red" Barber imitation, and would recount every pitch, every hit, with a slight Southern lilt, using liberally, the "ol' redhead's" stock phrases.
"It's a beautiful day at the big ball park. Mantle gets ahold of one, it's way back, way back, that's going, going, gone!"
There's nothing in the world that feels quite so gratifying as hitting one over Brewer's hardware store with your mother's old broom stick, the ball sailing into oblivion, necessitating a good ten minute break as we searched for it amongst the unraked leaves or the untrimmed hydrangea.
When we got older and we could swat the ball too far for comfort, we would deaden it a bit by shrouding it with electrical tape or by puncturing it so it wouldn't fly as true.
We never had any money in those days before you left the house with "mug money." We'd head out the the parking lot on our bikes and play until someone had to go home or until dark. If we wanted something to eat or drink, we would scrounge some deposit bottles until we got 20-cent's worth or a quarter's.
At Benny's, a luncheonette just up the road, you could get a Coke for 25-cents or a Cherry Coke for a nickel more. When we had the money we'd get a hotdog, fries and a Coke. That was a whole dollar. A millionaire's extravagance.
Benny's made the best hotdog I've ever had. It was even better than the ones at the ballpark. They would slice the dog in half lengthwise and grill it then serve it to you on a lightly buttered toasted roll. It was dog perfection.
There was also a Carvel soft ice cream place nearby where you could get a single cone for 17-cents or a "Brown Betty," the same cone dipped in chocolate sauce for 25-cents.
Besides deposit bottles, the other things we would collect were the bottle caps from the milk bottles the milk man delivered two or three days a week. Dellwood, the local dairy was a sponsor of the Yankees and inside each bottle cap they put a paper insert colored orange. I think if you collected 350 of those inserts you could get a free bleacher seat to Yankee Stadium. My brother and I collected them for two years and never got close to that number.
On the way back from Cape Cod last weekend, we drove past all these old haunts, on the Major Deegan, the New England Thruway and the Bruckner. Where there used to be open lots there are now big box stores or condominium townhouses. There's even a Trump tower now in New Rochelle that's 40-stories high.
If you had given us a chance, we could have swatted one over that building easy.