For 16½ major and minor league seasons, Ed Charles made his living at third base. Today, 19 years after he helped the New York Mets win the World Series, he still guards a hot corner. This one is at the intersection of Beach and Watson Avenues in the Bronx, where a group home houses alleged juvenile delinquents. Since February 1987, Charles has been putting in five 12-hour shifts a week as a houseparent at Beach House, which is run by the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice. As Charles says, "It's a whole new ball game."
Indeed it is. After retiring from baseball following the euphoria of the Mets' 1969 season, Charles, then 36, worked for Buddah Records and even had a hand in promoting a gold record, O-o-h Child by the Five Stairsteps, in 1970. A year later he and a partner opened a furniture business in Brooklyn, but it dissolved when the partnership soured in 1973. Charles then returned to baseball; he scouted the Midwest for the Mets and then, from 1983 to '85, coached their rookie-league team in Kingsport, Tenn.
That's where he discovered that young people today are having more difficulties than in simply hitting a curve. "The rookies were generally 17 or 18," Charles says. "So you might be teaching them baseball, but you were also a father figure. You had to help them deal with their problems and protect them from the pitfalls, like drinking and drugs."
The work with the rookies, says Charles, "really got next to me." He also remembered a watershed moment in his own youth—seeing Jackie Robinson for the first time. "I was growing up in Daytona Beach, Florida, when Jackie came to spring training with the Montreal Royals in 1946," says Charles. "I had spent my life in a sheltered ghetto in the South. Here all of a sudden is this black man interacting with these whites. Just seeing him made an impact on me.
"Later I became aware of him, not just as a baseball player but as a man. I became aware of his contributions to the community and the civil rights struggle. He was a role model, not just for my baseball career but for my life."
Like Robinson, Charles used his athletic ability to break out of his sheltered existence. After attending Gibbs High in St. Petersburg, Fla., Charles signed with the Boston Braves organization in 1952. He broke into the majors with Kansas City in 1962 and was traded to the Mets in 1967, where he finished his career as one of the steadier performers in New York's long and ignominious line of third basemen. He had a career batting average of .263 and hit 86 home runs.
Charles is grateful for the opportunities others have given him, and now he is trying to do the same for New York City youngsters. Beach House is an "intake" facility, in which each resident's needs and problems are assessed during a three-to five-day stay. Charles often must report to a judge on the progress of a youngster in the home. His opinion weighs heavily in the decision on whether to transfer a kid to a long-term group home, a foster home or to release him.
Trying to bridge the generation gap with kids who were born after he earned his Series ring can be a challenge. "All the drugs and sexual behavior and the 'do your own thing' stuff in the '60s and '70s have left our society and our kids confused," says Charles. "I've had to avoid viewing these kids and their new values as abnormal and try to understand the kids for what they are and work from there."
Playing, or just talking, baseball has been one way to connect with them. "Some of the kids really get into it," he says. "It's great watching them respond. You think, maybe the connection to the game will motivate them to do something with their lives, as it did with mine."
Charles knows that reaching them all is out of the question. "All we can hope for is that some turn out to be good kids," he says. "We try to give the kids some structure, a set of rules to follow. I'm just getting satisfaction out of trying to do something for someone. That's the life I want to live."
John Beilenson, who has worked for youth-service organizations, is a diehard Mets fan.