It’s been nearly sixty years, but I’ll never forget my ninth birthday. It fell on a pleasant, early autumn Sunday. Unlike previous years, there was no party or exuberant family celebration. In fact, my ninth birthday promised to be a rather bleak one. My father’s terminal bout with cancer had reduced him to a stick figure who spent all his time laying on the couch. His illness made a mockery out of the area of our fifth-floor Bronx apartment that we called a living room. And as I, my mother, and three sisters sliced into a hurriedly prepared birthday cake, my father’s loud gasps for each breath in the living room adjacent to the kitchen festivities was a reminder of all that was wrong with the season.
And what a season it had been! Our Belmont Avenue apartment was within walking distance of Yankee Stadium where once again the M&M boys (Mantle and Maris) had led their team to yet another pennant. Just two days after my October 1st birthday, the New York Yankees were scheduled to meet the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. The Yankees’ march towards the American League pennant included a major league record for most home runs by a ball club, but it was hard for me to follow all the excitement that had lit up the Bronx during that 1961 baseball season, a season that was coming to an official close on my ninth birthday. Mantle and Maris, Maris and Mantle—those were the buzz words that defined that summer.
After eating cake and opening a few presents, I lifted up the kitchen window and pressed my face against the rusty window grill where I scouted a peculiar sight five stories below. Strangely enough, none of the bigger kids—the guys in Junior High—were playing stickball in the street. There was always a Sunday afternoon stickball game played on the Belmont Avenue street in front of my building, yet on this beautiful Sunday afternoon, the street was deserted.
I immediately called my best friend Ralph Guerra, a recent refugee from Castro’s Cuba, and was able to corral about a half-dozen guys for a stickball game. I brought the spanking new pink Spaldeen ball that my twin sister Kathi had given me as a birthday gift while another friend, Victor Elias, brought his impressive looking stickball bat—a former mop stick that was handsomely wrapped with electrical tape at the handle to offer up a superior grip.
We grade school kids charged into the streets and quickly took up our positions. Every moment was filled with apprehension and fear—fear that the bigger, meaner kids would suddenly appear and implement their ritual threat to shove our stickball bat up where “the sun don’t shine” if we did not immediately vacate their street.
Because the ball belonged to me, I declared myself the pitcher. Stickball pitchers did not require any special skills to play that position. A strong, accurate arm was unimportant when you had to have the ball reach home plate on a bounce. The most dangerous positions were catcher and batter because they were the only players in the street whose backs were to the traffic. Their safety, indeed their very lives, was often dependent on the pitcher and infielders signaling at them to move away from fast-approaching cars, trucks and the occasional motorcycle. Sunday afternoon traffic was always light on Belmont Avenue and that was why it was such an unusual gift to have the “field” free on my birthday.
I was not a very good ballplayer. Small for my age, I loved to play but was never invited to join in with the older kids who dominated the street, unlike some of my bigger and stronger fourth-grade friends. Shut out of neighborhood games, I lacked the repetitive, competitive exposure every athlete needs in order to improve their performance and so when my turn came to hit, I struck out. On Ralphie’s first at bat he blasted a home run that flew past two sewer covers and came to a rolling stop just short of Tremont Avenue.
On my second trip to the plate, I truly became one with the powerhouse Yankees who were also playing their final regular season game just blocks away. I want to set the record straight. That day there was a third M added to those Bronx M&M Boys Of Fall that ’61 season—Maris, Mantle and Mark.
I joined the company with those two great Yankee sluggers during the second at bat of my birthday game. I don’t remember much about the pitch I hit, but I do remember that I did not get a solid whack at that bouncing Spaldeen. Fearing that I would once again strikeout, I choked up on the decorative mop stick and stuck the bat out without really swinging it—not unlike a bunting motion—to increase my chances of making contact. I was barely able to get a piece of the ball to tap the end of the stick. As the ball dribbled weakly towards the first baseman, I threw down the bat and sprinted toward the green ’56 Chevy that had been designated as first base.
And that’s when I heard it: the roar of many voices from the many heads that had popped out from the many tenement windows, showering down encouragement to me, an insecure nine-year-old hustling to leg out a lazy ground ball into a base hit. I had never performed in front of an audience before, and I’ll never forget the adrenaline rush that accompanied my race to that parked car. And as I ran, I was amazed that my feeble grounder could inspire such an outpouring of excitement and emotion. I sped down the street determined to reach base safely, all the while wondering how many of my neighbors knew that it was my birthday and if they were cheering so loudly for me so that my withering father, sprawled out on the living couch, could hear them and thus be able to share in my glory? With my outstretched hands groping for that green Chevy, I made it to first base without even the attempt of a tag being made on me. Hector, the first baseman, must have been distracted by the shouting tenement faces because he bobbled my easy grounder. I saw the ball roll to his right as I crashed triumphantly into the car.
I closed my eyes and hugged the Chevy for what must have been a few seconds—although it felt like minutes—and with a huge grin, losing myself in the praise showering down on me. I forgot all about my dying father and crying mother and disappointing birthday celebration; I was a Bronx baseball hero just like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris!
When I opened my eyes, I saw Hector, Victor, Ralphie, and the other guys jumping up and down, slapping each other on the back and screaming out, “He did it! He did it! Maris hit 61!” The joy and warmth I was feeling from my neighbors immediately vanished as I realized that their excited shouts weren’t for me but were simply a community news bulletin that Babe Ruth’s major league home run record had just been shattered 18 blocks away BY one of the M&M boys. I lowered my head. What was I thinking? Surprised and humiliated, I was grateful no one else on the block had any inkling of my foolish fantasy and the shame it brought me.
Whenever I heard the name Roger Maris mentioned in later years it usually made me anxious and I would immediately resurrect the embarrassment I felt on that Sunday, October afternoon. But as I watched Mark McGuire break Roger Maris’ home run record on Sept. 8, 1998, and saw Sammy Sosa hug him, I remembered those precious few seconds of glory thirty-seven years earlier when I became one with those M&M boys and heard those autumn cheers that made me feel proud and strong and gave me a respite from the rapidly approaching Bronx winter that would leave my heart as empty as my living couch.
Image by Scottkipp, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons