Monday, March 27, 2017

A cold day in Spring.

We're about a week from the start of baseball season--when an old man's fancy turns to thoughts of sunshine and bleachers and a glass of beer and a frank or two, and the rattle of the subway on the way to the game, and the wonder in the eyes of children, and young fathers teaching their kids the vagaries of the ancient sport. 

We're about a week away from all that, yet still the weather in New York is more November than April. Fog and a cold mist shroud the city this morning and at times it seems that every street has construction going on, and every yellow cab--there are still a few thousand left despite the Uberization of the industry--is riding his horn.

One day many years ago, taking a cab home, I had the great good fortune of having a talkative driver who was of that vanishing Olde New York variety.

First he quizzed me, quizzed me about the fading flora and fauna of our fair city. Did I know about the big Howard Johnson's across from Bloomingdale's, or Chock Full o' Nuts, or Schrafft's, or Orange Julius, or Nedick's.

Then we hit the low 60s on First Avenue.

"This is where I grew up," he said to me. "This was when it was an Irish and Italian and old German neighborhood. Before the stewardesses and the singles moved in. Before the Upper East Side was the Upper East Side."

"There are vestiges," I said, more like an archeologist than a passenger.

"When I was a kid, we played ball right here in da street." He pointed up East 61st Street, a tired byway where old tenements are slowly giving way to antiseptic high-rises.

"We were playing ball with a 25-cent Spaldeen. Yunnerstan' Spaldeen?"

I nodded. A Spaldeen was the ubiquitous pink rubber ball of choice in New York. You could pick one up on the counter of countless candy stores and drug stores.

"We were playing and Phil Linz walked by with Joe Pepitone. Linz took the bat and ast if he could play."

Linz was a light hitting shortstop at the tail end of the Yankee's glory days. Here's the Wikipedia report that sums up Linz.

"On the team bus, after a Yankee loss to the Chicago White Sox, Linz was in the back playing a plaintive version of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on his harmonica. Yankee manager Yogi Berra thought the sad cowboy style mixed with a children's nursery rhyme was mocking the team. He told Linz to pipe down. Linz didn't hear and kept playing. Berra became infuriated and called back from the front of the bus, "If you don't knock that off, I'm going to come back there and kick your ass."

"Linz couldn't hear the words over the music, so he asked Mickey Mantle, "What he say?" Mantle responded, "He said to play it louder." This led the famous confrontation when Berra stormed to the back of the bus, slapped the harmonica out of Linz' hands, and the instrument hit Joe Pepitone's knee.

"This altercation convinced the Yankees' front office that Berra had lost control of the team and could not command respect from his players. As a result, the decision was made to fire Berra at the end of the season. And even though the Yankees eventually won the pennant, Berra was fired.

"Linz is probably remembered more for this comical confrontation than for anything he accomplished on the field."

The cabbie continued as we streamed with the lights up First Avenue, making each one. 

"I was pitching and Linz hit one sky high and a mile away. It lann-ed on the roof of a building alldaway downda block.

"I said to Linz, 'street rules sez yagottagetit.'

"Linz laughed and handed me a buck."

"Getcha own ball kid," and he and Pepi went on their way. 

"We lucked out 'cause we ran and got the Spaldeen and had a dollar for candy or whatever."

"So Linz wasn't a bum?" I asked as he pulled in front of my white brick.

"Naw, he wuzza bum, ok, but he wuz awright."

I gave him a big tip--enough for 20 Spaldeens, and went home to dream of soft summer breezes and baseball once again.

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