Early Days…Frenchy, Johnny, Joe D, Josh, Leo the Lip, Fat Freddie, Van Lingle Mungo

Part I: New York Baseball, Dad, and Me

By Joe Rini

While covering the New York Mets as a columnist, I’ve been privileged to talk baseball on the field, in the clubhouse, and in the pressroom with players ranging from the unsung to Hall of Famers; yet the most meaningful conversations I had about baseball were with my Dad across the kitchen table in Brooklyn.

My recently departed father was a baseball fan for a long time. Let’s put it this way, when he attended his first game at Ebbets Field on a summer’s day in Brooklyn with his cousin Ned and enjoyed hot dogs and a cold beverage as an 8-year old, President Herbert Hoover was sweating in Washington D.C.’s heat plotting to keep Franklin Roosevelt from taking his job. Hoover’s presidency soon ended while Dad’s love of baseball was just beginning.

My Dad passed away in May and passed along his love of baseball to me. We not only shared the ups and downs of the New York Mets, but I loved hearing him talk about the New York baseball of his younger days. Because of him things like Ebbets Field, barnstormers, Dexter Park, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and The Bushwicks are real to me even though they were gone before I was born.

The Dodgers of Brooklyn were beloved by my Dad. I remember him telling me of Frenchy Bordagaray, a light hitting infielder in the 1930’s who was more renown for sporting a pencil thin mustache or his being at Ebbets Field the day Johnny Cooney, a former pitcher turned outfielder, smacked a a few extra base hits even though he only had two career home runs. Van Lingle Mungo was an ace pitcher before he was a song lyric; Durocher was “Leo the Lip,” Freddie Fitzsimmons of the 1941 NL pennant winners was “Fat Freddie” and I loved hearing how my Dad took “the long way” back from Brooklyn to Camp Campbell in Kentucky while on furlough in World War II because he stopped along the way to follow the Dodgers from Philadelphia to Cincinnati on a road trip. Service men had free entry into the ballparks, a night at the YMCA cost only a few bucks, so the trip was well worth digging the six by six trench for a match when he returned a few days late.

But he followed the other New York teams as well. He and his buddies took the train to “the Yankee Stadium” when Italian pride took them to the Bronx to see new Italian hero Joe DiMaggio as well as other sons of Italy, Frank Crosetti and Tony Lazzeri. Interestingly, borough pride overcame ethnic pride, and he remained a Dodgers fan and put us on course to ultimately root for the Mets.

Even more recently, he told me of a neighborhood kid they called “Cliff” because his ears stuck out like Cliff Melton, a New York Giants starting pitcher in the 1930s and when I googled Melton, sure enough, his ears took up quite a bit of his portrait photo.

My Dad was a very good neighborhood ballplayer. I recall a scrapbook with local newspaper articles and box scores with multi-hit games next to his name in the lineup. I recall neighbors like his friend Louie (you know, Louie…he was “Joe the Painter’s” brother) telling me at the corner candy store as we waited for the New York Daily News to be delivered one night in the 1970s how good a player Dad was. I remember his boyhood friend and former groomsman “Googie” stopping by to see my Dad when he was in the old neighborhood and saying to me, “You should be half the ballplayer your father was!” Dad tried out for the Dodgers and received a callback and if not for World War II, he might’ve been good enough to play minor league baseball. 

However, what is most real about my Dad’s playing ability occurred after he retired about thirty or so years ago. He and I would go to Forest Park in Woodhaven, Queens after dinner; I’d jog and Dad would walk the track. We’d “have a catch” after I finished jogging and it still amazes me how Dad, in his 60’s and somewhat above his “playing weight,” still had the smoothness of his baseball playing youth as he caught the ball and swiftly transferred the ball to his throwing hand and tossed it back as though a day and not 40 years had passed since his competitive baseball days.

However, besides the three New York MLB teams, Dad recalled going to Dexter Park just over the Brooklyn border in Woodhaven, Queens. Where a Key Food supermarket and houses now stand, there used to be a 5,000 seat ballpark that was not only home to the former semi-pro team “The Bushwicks,” but it also hosted night games a decade before the major leagues and where Dad was able to see major leaguers from the world famous Babe Ruth to local hero turned Yankee star Phil Rizzuto barnstorm after the season ended. You could even see the “House of Davids,” a nationally known semi-pro team of long-bearded players.

Before the days of high baseball salaries and televised games, The Bushwicks were a team that featured high quality players who continued their baseball careers a few days a week while holding “day jobs.” The Bushwicks’ home field, Dexter Park, was a stadium where Dad was also able to see Josh Gibson and other Negro League stars perform, albeit, on a smaller stage than they deserved. I once asked my Dad as he watched the Negro League teams play if he thought they were as good as major leaguers and he said “absolutely.” When I then asked if he ever wondered how good the lowly Dodgers of the 1930s would have been if they signed players like Josh Gibson, he shook his head and said he didn’t. Sadly, he said, it was just the way things were.

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