When the Buffalo Bisons, a Triple A baseball team, asked Governor Mario Cuomo to throw out the first pitch of the 1988 season, they didn't have to give him any pointers. In the summer of 1952, Cuomo played centerfield for the Class D Brunswick (Ga.) Pirates, Pittsburgh's farm team in the now-defunct Georgia-Florida League. On the Bisons' Opening Day, Cuomo threw the ball in the manner of a politician rather than a former minor leaguer. But during warm-ups he displayed the fine arm that had earned him a spot in professional ball.
According to those who knew him in his minor league days, Cuomo was a talented and aggressive ballplayer. "If he had stayed with the game, he might have been as successful on the diamond as he is in Albany," says former Brunswick teammate Fred Green, who later pitched five seasons in the majors for Pittsburgh and the Washington Senators. "Mario had potential."
Ed McCarrick, a Pittsburgh scout, was also high on Cuomo. In a 1952 report to Branch Rickey Jr., who was vice-president in charge of the Pirates' farm system at the time, McCarrick wrote of Cuomo: "[He is] potentially the best prospect on the [Brunswick) club, in my opinion, and could go all the way if he improves his hitting to the point of a respectable average."
Despite the encouraging words, Cuomo never imagined that his skills would take him to the majors. "I had much too sharp a sense of reality for that," he says.
Cuomo learned to play baseball on the sandlots of South Jamaica, Queens, the lower-middle-class, polyglot neighborhood where he grew up. In high school, Cuomo distinguished himself both academically and athletically. "Mario was one of the great, great athletes of St. John's Prep," says Bill Esposito, who played a few years ahead of Cuomo at St. John's University.
Cuomo enrolled at the university in 1949 and became the starting centerfielder on the freshman team. Cuomo, who batted fifth and hit .286 that season, "held the bat low and went for the long ball," says Esposito. The freshman coach was Lou Carnesecca, who is now the coach of the Redmen's varsity basketball team. "Mario had a fine arm as well as a good eye for the ball," says Carnesecca.
The St. John's freshman team competed in what might be dubbed the Subway League. Few of its rivals—Ford-ham, New York University, City College and Manhattan College—were farther than a nickel ride away. Playing close to home, however, was of little advantage: The Redmen won two games. lost three and had two called on account of darkness.
Nevertheless, Cuomo stood out among his teammates as an aggressive, smooth-fielding centerfielder. When McCarrick scouted him, he was sufficiently impressed to recommend that the Pirates offer him a contract. They did. His salary would be $160 a month, and he got a $2,000 signing bonus, no small sum for a college freshman in 1950. No longer eligible for collegiate competition after having signed the professional contract, Cuomo played baseball in the Queens Alliance League and in local CYO leagues before heading to Georgia after his junior year at St. John's.
Cuomo was assigned to the Brunswick Pirates, who opened the 1952 season on April 23 with a game against the Waycross (Ga.) Bears. At the time, he was immersed in his English and philosophy studies, so he joined the team at the beginning of June, after completing the semester. That summer in Brunswick, a seaside resort town of 30,000 people, 80 miles south of Savannah, was the only time Cuomo has lived more than 150 miles from Queens.
On June 7 the Brunswick News reported that Cuomo "seems to be rounding out in a pretty good fashion. He covers the middle section of the garden unusually well, and he proved on a couple of occasions last night that he has a mighty good throwing arm." His batting was less impressive. In 81 games he hit .244 with 10 doubles, 2 triples and 1 home run. Cuomo still laments his inability to hit the curveball.
His greatest asset was a toughness he had developed on the streets of Queens. McCarrick wrote in his '52 report that Cuomo "plays hard...and will run over you if you get in his way." He was fast, as well. He stole seven bases that summer, and in a game against the Thomasville (Ga.) Tomcats on July 15, he hit a triple and then stole home.
Cuomo's hard-nosed style of play was especially useful for Brunswick. In a 1986 interview with The New York Times, he recalled, "Hollywood was the Pittsburgh Pirates' farm team in the Pacific Coast League at the time, and they wore shorts, which filtered down to Brunswick. These were notable mainly because of the fights started when the guys in the other dugout whistled at us."
A fighting spirit was no defense, though, against the errant pitch that halted Cuomo's nascent baseball career—and, he says jokingly, started his political one. On August 29 a pitched ball hit him in the head, and he developed a blood clot on the brain. He was in the hospital for about a week. Cuomo played a few more games for Brunswick, but after suffering dizzy spells he returned to Queens in mid-September to begin his senior year at St. John's. He would never play baseball again. "The residual effects of that hematoma drove me into politics," says Cuomo.
He went on to graduate summa cum laude from St. John's and finished tied for first in his graduating class at the university's law school. Twenty-two years later he was elected lieutenant governor of New York and then, in 1982, governor.
After he delivered an eloquent keynote address at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco, Cuomo became the focus of national attention, and many political observers speculated that he would run for president this year. In recent months, however, Cuomo has repeatedly insisted that he will not enter the race. When a reporter asked him if he might accept a draft, Cuomo replied, "I will take a draft to the Yankees or to the Mets. A draft for President is not conceivable."