I grew up in Rahway, New Jersey. Life in my hometown was about as average as you could find in 1962. Rahway basically reflected the national average for race, religion, income and ethnicity for a community in small town America. It was a working-class city. Mothers were homemakers and fathers usually worked in one of the local factories. No group dominated and all groups were accepted, or at least tolerated. This American melting pot was reflected by my neighborhood and even more so by the young fellows who I called my friends.
Billy lived next-door. He was the easily best athlete in the group. This meant that whenever we played sports, he had first dibs on calling which player he would pretend to be. Anytime we played baseball, he had a permanent claim on being Mickey Mantle.
Fitzy lived across the street. He was in and out of our activities because he had juvenile diabetes. Sometimes he would be right in the thick of things playing tag or hide-and-go-seek. Then there would be times when we might not see him around for days.
Hank and his brother Jimmy lived down the street. Hank was the cool guy of the group. While our transistor radios were playing the latest hits from Ricky Nelson or Pat Boone, his somehow always seemed to be playing Elvis. Hank carried a comb in his back pocket and rumor has it that he even talked to girls.
Jimmy was the opposite of his brother. He was a couple years older but had been deemed not cool enough to hang with the older boys. I heard one of those boys say that Jimmy was” A little light in the loafers’, but that wasn’t true. I knew for a fact that he wore sneakers just like all of us, Keds to be exact.
Joey lived around the corner. His family was some variety of Spanish, but nobody knew what or cared to ask. His name was really Jose, but we called him Joey. He spoke with an accent that made him a little hard to understand, but we got the job done.
David lived next to Joey. He didn’t go to St. Mary’s School like the rest of us. His family was Jewish, so he went to public school. We loved to go over to his house because his mother always gave us cookies. Even at ten years old, we had our priorities straight.
It wasn’t like we all had a dedication to peace and brotherhood. It’s just that these things didn’t matter much to us. However, there was one subject that would drive a spike through this fraternity and solidarity. There was one thing so disjunctive that it became impossible to accept, the one thing that fragmented our group, the one thing of which these guys could not abide. This subject was baseball. They were all Yankees fans. I was a Mets fan. I was the outsider, ostracized from the community, cut off from the herd, left to fend for myself. Eventually it became tolerated, particularly any time another person was needed to play a board game, but it became the subject of which we would not speak.
Baseball was an important part of our young lives, but anytime I would bring up the Mets, it was met with the rousing chorus of “The Mets Stink.” The previous year, the baseball world had been captivated by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and their chase for Babe Ruth’s single season home run record of 60 with Maris breaking it at 61 and Mantle finishing with 54. I wanted to have the same kind of competition this year, only now including the Mets’ Frank Thomas. This was met with the usual reply of “The Mets Stink” from my boys. For the record, in 1962, Mantle would hit 31 home runs, Maris had 33, and Thomas had 34. But, any mention of stats would begin and end with Mets’ loses. The Yankees were great and in the World Series again. The Mets, not so much.
One hot summer day, we had all assembled at Billy’s back yard for one of our marathon games of Monopoly. His family had a picnic table which we would drag into the shade and within proximity of their garden hose for the occasional blasts of warm, rubber flavored water. His mother came out of the house and said, “Billy, you need a haircut. You guys can tag along if you want, but it’s got to be today. Nanny is coming for a visit tomorrow and I don’t want her to see you looking like a ragamuffin.”
This was great news. It meant a trip to Angie’s Barber Shop. Everybody from the neighborhood went to Angie’s. My friends didn’t want to talk about the Mets, and I was tired of hearing about the Yankees latest accomplishment, but everyone talked sports at Angie’s and there’d always be someone who wanted to discuss the Mets. The barber shop was always crowded. It wasn’t until many years later that I heard a rumor Angie had been running a bookie establishment out of his back room. My friends decided to stay behind and finish their game. Hank owned both Boardwalk and Park Place and had visions of victory dancing in his head. I, however, decided to go for a ride. It was going to be Mets talk time. Billy, his mom, and I piled into the family Chevrolet Corvair and we were off.
Billy’s mom dropped us off at the barber shop and headed for downtown for some pre-Nanny’s visit shopping. Our instructions were to wait at Angie’s until she returned. “No problem,” I thought to myself. “That just means more time to talk about the Mets.”
As we walked into the shop, Angie said, “Hey, Billy Boy. Have a seat. I’ll be done in a few minutes.” He added ‘Boy’ to every kid’s name. “Tommy Boy, what’re you doing here? You and your father were here last week. Have you been putting ‘super-hair-grow’ on your scalp again?”
I knew this was his attempt at humor. “No sir, Mr. Angie, I just came along for the ride.” I was trying not to blow my cover. Officially, I was only here with my friend, and maybe to talk baseball with the guys, and maybe the subject of the Mets will come up.
“Hey, Tommy Boy,” a man named Vinnie called from one of the chairs, “You’re a Mets fan, right?” He didn’t wait for an answer. He knew who I was. “I was watching the Mets game last night. They’ve got this guy on the team named Marvelous Marv, don’t they?”
I knew he was talking about our first baseman Marvelous Marv Throneberry. He was one of my favorite players. What Marvelous Marv lacked in talent he attempted to make up with charisma. Sporting a big smile, I hung on Vinnie’s every Mets word.
“So, this Marv guy hits a triple,” Vinnie continued. “While he’s standing on third, the other team puts on an appeal play and the umpire calls Marv out for not touching second base. The Mets’ manager Casey Stengel comes running out onto the field to argue the call. The first base umpire stopped him in his tracks and said something to him. Casey turned and walked back to the dugout. Apparently, the umpire told him that before you go getting yourself thrown out of the game, know this: your boy Marvelous Marv missed first base, too.”
“Frank Thomas hit a three-run homer in that game,” I said, attempting to stick to the positive facts and trying to ignore the comedy of the situation.
“Hey, Tommy Boy, you’re a Frank Thomas fan, right?” a man named Lou said. He knew that Frank Thomas was my guy and he also didn’t wait for an answer. This was my introduction to rhetorical questions. “Have I got a story for you,” he continued.
“Richie Ashburn was playing center field for the Mets and Elio Chacon was the shortstop,” Lou said. “Every time a batter would pop up to short center field, Ashburn would run in for the ball shouting, “I Got It! I Got It!” indicating that would catch the ball. Inevitably, Ashburn would be crashed into by shortstop Chacon, who was running for the ball himself. The ball would ultimately land untouched in the grass, and the batter would usually end up on second base. Ashburn was beside himself.
What the heck was wrong with Chacon?
Well, Chacon was from Venezuela and he didn’t speak any English. Ashburn sought the help of a bilingual teammate. After talking it over with Chacon, the teammate told Ashburn that the Spanish phrase for ‘I got it’ was ‘Yo La Tengo!’ If he shouted that, Chacon would give way. It was only a few days later that another ball was popped up to short center field. Ashburn trotted in for the ball and yelled out. “Yo La Tengo!” Chacon, who had been headed for the ball, pulled up to let Ashburn make the catch. Ashburn relaxed and settled under the ball, only to be crashed into by Mets left fielder Frank Thomas who didn’t speak a word of Spanish. The ball landed for a double.”
I’d heard this story many times before but that didn’t matter. It was a story about the Mets, my Mets, and as they say, any news is good news.
“You’ve got to love that old Casey Stengel,” said Vinnie. “He won all those World Series with the Yankees only to be let go in 1960. He claimed he was fired for turning seventy and that he’d never make that mistake again! He’s such a character.”
“Carl Willey pitched his fourth shutout of the season the other night,” I said, trying to get the Mets conversation back on the positive side. “We won that game 4-0.”
I was tempted to answer “Oh yeah? Well, Whitey Ford has cooties!” but I chose to quietly stand my ground. For the record, Ford would’ve won that competition 24 to 22.
My, how time flies when you’re having fun. I hadn’t realized that Billy’s haircut was finished, and he was sitting next to me with his hair now appropriately Nanny ready.
“Hey, Tommy Boy,” Angie said. “Did you here that the Mets traded for a player named Harry Chiti? They got him for that infamous player to be named later. Knowing the Mets luck, the player to be named later will probably end up being Harry Chiti, too!” Little did we know that Angie must have had a crystal ball because that is exactly what would happen. The papers sarcastically said that the Mets got the short end of the deal.
Suddenly, Billy’s mom was out in front of the barber shop, her Corvair’s horn honking like the sound of the ‘Beep, Beep’ from the Roadrunner cartoons. We were quickly ushered into the back seat of the car. “You stick by your Mets, Tommy Boy,’ Angie said as we ran outside. “Someday they’ll be a good team and you can come back here and laugh at all of these guys. Thanks for coming, boys. See you next time.”
I felt satisfied, having experienced talking about the Mets. Even if the Mets news wasn’t always good, I was still happy to have had the chance to talk about my team, and with such a learned group of sports fans.
Although I may have missed out on the world’s championship game of Monopoly, it was OK. I had to answer to a higher calling.
Board games would have to wait until tomorrow.