I slipped into a rear-window seat of the bus, glad to get away from the penetrating winds of early March. The terminal was slightly hazy with gas fumes, the cement floor patched with areas of frozen snow that had drifted in. I put my luggage on the overhead rack. An elderly lady sat down beside me.
Slightly more than an hour ago, with my parents' and brothers' goodbys still in my ears, I had boarded the subway out of Flatbush. Destination: Orlando, Fla. The Dodgers under Casey Stengel were to begin spring training in two days, and with the confidence of youth I was on my way.
The year was 1934, the height of the Depression. My father was one of the lucky ones still at work, though suffering from an as yet undiagnosed ailment. The past summer I had been the bespectacled shortstop on a semi-pro team, batting and fielding well, with a strong and accurate arm. After watching me play, a scout from the Bay Parkways of Brooklyn, a better semi-pro club, invited me to work out with his team, and for several weeks I participated in batting and fielding practice. I even got into two games. Then one Sunday, the Dodgers invited me to come to their Orlando camp the following spring. It was my first time away from my family. Although my cockiness and assurance drained away as the bus pulled out of the terminal, my doubts had faded by the time the 28-hour trip ended at Orlando.
A 10-minute stroll from my hotel and I was in the Dodger clubhouse. Dan Comerford, with many years of service, the elder statesman of the organization, checked his list of rookies and handed me a uniform. It was slightly roomy, but I can still feel the pride that swept over me as I put on the shirt and looked down at the letters: DODGERS.
March 19, 1979
Pepper and calisthenics were the first day's activities. The regulars were very pleasant to me. Joe Stripp, Lonny Frey, Al Lopez and Johnny Fredrick joined me in a game of pepper. The second day, more of the same. On the third day the veterans took light batting and fielding practice.
The fourth day did it. Casey Stengel, who hadn't looked my way once, was hitting grounders to his regular infielders while keeping up a running commentary on the action. Loneliness and a sense of abandonment engulfed me. I wasn't getting a chance. Inexperienced in the ways of pro ball. I didn't realize that patience was part of the game and that eventually my opportunity would come. I blurted out. "I can run faster than any of the guys out there!"
Casey stopped in the process of slamming a grounder, turned to me and said softly. "Son, let's see how fast you can run out of the ball park."
The next day the incident was a small item in a New York paper. When I returned to the park, Casey was again hitting grounders. Shortly, he turned his head slightly and said, "You with the windows. Get out there, wherever you belong."
Galvanized, I ran out to shortstop. Frey politely backed up a few feet, and Casey went to work. Hitting the top part of the ball, he sent a grounder at me with a wicked hop. I stayed with it and tossed it to first. He hit under the ball, and it hugged the ground. Tough, but I fielded it cleanly. For 10 minutes Casey didn't let up. I came up with everything, but not a word from Casey.
Batting practice. When my turn came, I groped among the bats. All were too heavy. I had always used a Babe Ruth model—thin handle, thick top. I looked pleadingly at some of the regulars. No results. They kept their bats separate from the odd ones that lay on the ground near the backstop.
"Grab some wood and get goin'!" Casey's voice was filled with impatience. I wound up with a telegraph pole, but by choking up three inches I felt I could still take a good cut. I dug in at the plate, and the pitcher poured a fast ball past me, then another, and another. I succeeded in fouling only one pitch.
As we changed to street clothes a little later, Comerford approached, handed me an unsealed envelope, slapped my shoulder in a friendly manner and wordlessly went about the clubhouse handing envelopes to several other youngsters.
In my hotel room I opened the envelope. It came as no great shock to me, after my batting fiasco, to read an introductory letter to Bill McCorry, manager of the Albany International League team. I was to report to Hawkins Stadium for a trial. A ray of hope.
The stadium was on the outskirts of town. The Albany team consisted of ball players just passing through. There was Del Bissonette, who had starred with the Dodgers; Jake Powell, later with the Yanks; Fred Sington, the All-America football star; Hal Finney, Bill Brubaker, Gus Dugas. After playing in two exhibition games for Albany, I thought I was doing pretty well, but early in June my baseball career came to an abrupt halt. A telegram from home. My father was seriously ill.
I walked into the house the next day and found the entire family—my parents and three brothers—occupying one room that reeked of smoke. Two days earlier the apartment had caught fire. There were no injuries, but everything was ruined. Forget baseball. A job was paramount now, and jobs were hard to find, but my brother Sid and I managed to keep the family going.
Then in September, the hopes that had been dormant since June were awakened by a column that appeared in the morning papers. The Dodgers were to hold a tryout session at Ebbets Field at 9 a.m. that Saturday. So there I was on the infield of Ebbets Field, picking up grounders and tossing to first. I recognized many of the boys working out because I'd played against them. The fielders who showed the most were singled out for a turn at bat. I was among them. And here came Casey Stengel, striding out to the back of the batting cage. As each batter took his swings, Casey encouraged him with, "Take a good one." "Don't bite at the bad ones." "Look 'em over."
Finally, my turn came.
"Make 'em good," Casey chanted.
The first pitch—chin high. I let it go. The second—outside by a foot. The third—ankle high. I looked sideways at Casey. Several more pitches were high.
"Let's see you swing at a ball." said Casey.
I never learn. "You're telling me to take the good ones," I said, "and I haven't seen any."
"Next!" The Dodger manager's thumb was pointing me in the direction of the clubhouse. So ended my second encounter with the mighty Casey.
Casey and me never made three.