New York Baseball, Dad, and Me

By Joe Rini

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When my Dad passed away this past May, among other things, I thought about the role baseball played in our relationship. His love of baseball reached back into the depths of the Depression in the 1930s when many barely had a roof over their heads and extended into the Covid-19 era when many couldn’t leave the house.

He served his country during World War II and married my Mom a few years later. Together, like so many of their generation, they worked hard and raised a Baby Boomer era family of five children amidst periods of turmoil and calm, war and peace, and prosperity and economic uncertainty in the country.

Through it all, baseball was a key feature in our relationship from the time Cleon Jones knelt down to catch the final out of the 1969 World Series to his last weekend of life when Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil argued whether each had seen a rat or a raccoon in the runway outside the Mets dugout. Yet, even as we discussed an upcoming Mets game or last night’s game, there was always the presence of the baseball of his younger days, be it the Brooklyn Dodgers, Ebbets Field, or the more locally famous, Dexter Park, which through him, became real to me.

My Father, front row, far left, and his teammates in 1941 – Photo from Rini Family Collection

I wanted to write an article called “New York Baseball, Dad, and Me” but the article kept getting bigger so I have broken up my reflections into five roughly chronological segments beginning when my Dad attended his first game at Ebbets Field to the present day.

Part I, “Frenchy, Johnny, Joe D, Josh, Leo the Lip, Fat Freddie, Van Lingle Mungo” covers his early fandom of the Brooklyn Dodgers, his amateur playing days, and the near forgotten Dexter Park, a stadium that featured barnstorming major leaguers, Negro League teams, and “The Bushwicks.”

Part II, “Glory Days of the Brooklyn Dodgers” covers the highs and lows of rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers at mid-century and their cultural significance to the people of Brooklyn but also finding New York baseball at places other than between the lines on the field.

Part III, “Meeting the Mets” describes how my Dad and I bonded over being fans of the Mets from their World Series winning season of 1969 when I was a first grader through my adulthood covering the team as a columnist.

Part IV, “Final Innings” covers my Dad’s final illness and passing with one last look back at the glory of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers.

Part V, “Present, Past, and Future” reflects on life since my Dad passed away, and how a game of catch nearly 50 years ago continues in perpetuity.

My Dad and my daughter and his granddaughter, Amy, Christmas Eve 2019 – Photo from Rini Family Collection

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

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.

Part II: Glory Days of the Brooklyn Dodgers

By Joe Rini

But Jackie Robinson arrived in 1947 and his Dodgers were perennial winners even if they didn’t beat the Yankees in the World Series until 1955 and lost a couple of heart-breaking pennants on the last day of the season in 1950 and 1951. In fact, Dad was at the season finale at Ebbets Field in 1950 when the winner of the Dodgers – Phillies game went to the World Series. I can almost feel like I’m standing up with my Dad in the stands cheering Carl Abrams as he turns for home in the ninth inning only to be thrown out at home plate, an eventual 4-1 loss in extra innings.

Perhaps it’s because Dad was in his mid-40s when I became a baseball fan as a 7-year old, I never saw him take the game too seriously where it soured his mood or cost him any sleep. To be honest, as the years went on, I think I was more upset at the Dodgers losing the World Series in seven games to the Yankees in 1952 and 1956 and I wasn’t born until the 1960s. If he didn’t root for the Yankees of that era, he admired them. He was a DiMaggio fan and steady players like Tommy Henrich and Joe Gordon who were the prototypical Yankees to him; he said the Dodgers would be doing well in a game but if you gave the Yankees a break, they would take advantage of it.

I remember him telling me the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn for Los Angeles after the 1957 season “ripped my heart out.” Although I don’t remember him ever having any particular animus for the Los Angeles Dodgers, for those four years without a New York National League team, he didn’t follow baseball much. However, when Casey Stengel’s Mets debuted in 1962 with the orange and blue colors of the departed Giants and Dodgers, he happily rooted for the Mets despite their 120 losses in season number one.

If there was a moment where I realized how special the Brooklyn Dodgers were to my Dad and his peers, it occurred about 40 years after the Dodgers left Brooklyn. He and I were visiting my grandmother in her apartment in Brooklyn early on a Summer Sunday afternoon and we were watching the Mets play the Padres. Grandma was nearly 90, her health was declining, and she may have been nodding off when she perked up at the sound of “Padres.” She asked, “Padres? Is that the pitcher?” obviously recalling Johnny Podres, the hero and Game 7 winner of the 1955 World Series. I was amazed that Grandma, who casually followed the Mets on TV would recall Johnny Podres but as she said of the Brooklyn Dodgers, “That was our team.”

I can remember about thirty years ago watching a documentary about the Brooklyn Dodgers with him and as we watched the youthful images of Hodges, Campanella, Snider, Furillo, Erskine, Robinson, and the rest of the Boys of Summer flash across the screen, I recall his face furrowing, perhaps suppressing a tear; he never said so, but I think Hodges and Campanella were his favorite players. Thirty years later, when I was standing behind home plate at Citi Field covering the festivities honoring the team of my younger days, the 1986 Mets, I understood what my father felt as I tried (less successfully than my Dad) at choking back my emotions.

Yet, there were other baseball moments, moments not in the Baseball Encyclopedia, that also made the baseball of his younger days real to me. I can see him and his friends standing along the railing on the first base side at Ebbets Field in the late 1940s as they chat with Gil Hodges because one of his groomsmen served in the Marines with Hodges. I love the image of him chatting with Dodger Hall of Famer, Duke Snider, at of all places, Aqueduct Racetrack, in 1963 after the Mets acquired Snider when the Mets were in their infancy and Snider’s career was near its end. His high school gym teacher, Mr. Robert Berman, was a real-life Moonlight Graham, who as a 19-year old in 1918, caught the great Walter Johnson for one inning without getting an at bat. Away from the major leagues, on a visit to his cousins in Norristown, Pennsylvania in the 1940s, he saw their neighbor from down the street, a young lefthander named Tom Lasorda pitch in a game.

Dad also said you might spot some of the Dodgers frequenting a pizza parlor In East New York named “Tex’s” (if I recall the name and location correctly). He even had a friend in the old neighborhood who became a Brooklyn Dodgers groundskeeper who then followed the team to Los Angeles; this friend came from a family with so many children that the seventh born was named “Septimo” which means “seventh” in Italian. Because of that story, the “Seinfeld” episode where George wanted to name his first born “Seven” after Mickey Mantle’s uniform number didn’t seem so crazy. 

A baseball story my Grandmother loved to tell about my Dad was how my Grandfather wouldn’t let my Dad go to the park to play baseball one day until he was done working in his family’s bread bakery (my Grandfather had a personality worthy of a character in a novel but he wasn’t a baseball fan). The story had a Hollywood ending with my Dad racing to the park to join the game and then being carried back to the bakery as the game’s hero. While no Dodgers were customers of Rini’s Bakery, the Lombardi family was a customer, and their daughter Joan later married Gil Hodges.

Part III: Meeting the Mets

By Joe Rini

My father took me to my first Mets game in July 1969 when I was six-years old after I asked/pleaded/whined my way into being included with him and my older siblings when we drove to the advanced ticket window at Shea Stadium to buy tickets. As the years progressed, given my Dad’s heavy work schedule, we’d go to a game or two a year when he was on vacation. We’d get to the game early to see batting practice and he always kept score though I must admit, his method of keeping score was too complicated for me (eg. three horizontal lines for a triple?) so I learned to keep score from my boyhood friend Rocky (one of three Rocky’s on my block if you’re keeping score at home.).

It’s funny what I remember about those trips to Shea Stadium with him. I remember pointing out to Dad that there always seemed to be someone crazy behind us like the guy yelling “Chico” all game or the family behind us who seemingly spent the game feeding Luigi as in, “Hey Luigi, you want a hot dog…Hey Luigi, you want popcorn…Hey Luigi, you want a beer…” Of course, my Dad pointed out to me that the people in front of us might be saying the same thing about us!

We always remembered going to Shea Stadium and being amazed at Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson hitting home runs in batting practice from the left and right side of the plate (sadly we also saw Gibson injure himself on the mound in 1973 and he was never quite the same pitcher). Perhaps the most historic game we saw was September 1, 1975 when Tom Seaver set the record with eight consecutive 200 strikeout seasons. My Dad memorialized the record setting strikeout of Manny Sanguillen with a circled “K” on his scorecard (that scoring notation I could understand). In later years when my teen friends and I would go to games, he was good enough to drive us to the game or pick us up, to spare us the commute of multiple trains and buses.

Because even the great Joe DiMaggio couldn’t make Dad a Yankees fan, World Series championships by our teams – the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Mets –  were few but memorable. As a first grader, my sister and I arrived home from school in time to watch the Mets win the 1969 World Series with Mom, Dad, and my siblings from our parlor TV (in our house, it was a “parlor” not a living room). I’m sure I would’ve always become a baseball fan, but watching your team win the World Series, seeing the ensuing ticker-tape parade plus the team’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show singing “You Gotta Have Heart” turbo-charged my baseball fandom and by next spring, Mom and Dad bought me my first baseball glove and Dad demonstrated a pitcher’s motion for me.

A decade and a half later, my mother, father, two sisters and I were home seemingly about to watch the Mets lose Game 6 and the 1986 World Series to the Red Sox. I was in despair as the bottom of the tenth inning approached. My Dad and the rest of my family watched from the same parlor (remember, a parlor, not a living room) while I anxiously walked within ear and eyeshot of the kitchen, parlor, and bedroom TVs. I’ll never forget when Mookie Wilson came to bat with the tying run on third base, my Dad called out to me, “Hey Joe, maybe the pitcher will throw a wild pitch,” to which I responded, “Yeah, but knowing Mookie, he’ll swing at it.” Well, you know what happened, the pitcher threw a wild pitch in the miraculous “Game 6” and the Mets won the World Series two nights later. Thirty three years later in 2019, I had the pleasure of telling Mookie Wilson that story in the Mets dugout before a game and we had a good laugh about it.

Dad wasn’t able to see too many of my games while I played CYO baseball but when he was able to attend, it meant a lot to me, whether it was the game I doubled twice or the game where my glove oddly repulsed the baseball away from me every time it approached my glove in leftfield (I’m not making excuses but the webbing on that old glove was shot). He never pressured me to play and while he never said it to me, I think he was happy I played the game he loved. Looking back, I wished I’d tried out for baseball in high school but I ran track instead, a sport where I didn’t need to reach first base to run.

The years went by and life happened. My father was able to quit one of his two jobs in the mid-1970s after my brothers married (he joked that a 40 hour work week was like semi-retirement to him) and eventually he retired as he and my Mom became wonderful Grandparents while for me grammar school became high school then college then a career, my own apartment, marriage to my wife, Carolyn, and our two daughters, Alison and Amy. 

However, baseball was a constant connection for us. Whether we discussed last night’s Mets game, or the upcoming season, our connection through baseball flowed like Tom Seaver to Dwight Gooden to Jacob deGrom being ace pitchers for the Mets. He enjoyed hearing about my experiences covering the Mets for the Rockland County Times in the last decade, especially my encounters with beloved former Mets like Ron Swoboda, Rusty Staub, and Jerry Koosman. Yet in the background, there were always the memories of the long gone Brooklyn Dodgers, Ebbets Field, Dexter Park, and The Bushwicks which lived on in him.

Funny, even in the thirty years or so after we no longer lived under the same roof, I loved calling him up to talk baseball especially after a particularly dramatic win or devastating loss. It was especially after a bad loss when I’d call late at night and he’d pick up the phone and knowing it would be me, he’d automatically answer, “Hello Joe” and I would respond in some variation of “What the heck was that manager thinking of leaving that pitcher in the game?” My father handled those losses better than I did but looking back I laugh at those exchanges between us.

Part IV: Final Innings

By Joe Rini

Early this May, the Mets had a long slog of a Sunday night game against the Phillies where closer Edwin Diaz gave up an apparent game-tying ninth inning home run that became a double after replay review allowing the Mets to escape with a win. I wanted to call my Dad during replay review to vent about the game but I didn’t; old age was catching up to my Dad and I figured he’d be resting since it was late, about 11:00 pm. I’d talk to him during the week.

My wife Carolyn, daughters Alison and Amy, and I celebrate Dad’s 95th birthday in 2019 – Photo from Rini Family Collection

I called my family on Monday night to say hello but Dad didn’t come to the phone; my sister and Mom told me my father wasn’t feeling well. A few hours later, my sister called to say he was in the hospital. Two days earlier, he and I had laughed that he was sharp enough to pick the longshot winner in the Kentucky Derby while I wasn’t sharp enough to place the bet and now he was in intensive care facing surgery in a matter of hours. 

Surgery was performed and while the doctor was hopeful initially about my father’s prognosis, it became apparent in the following days that my father was dying.

When I saw him in the hospital, he couldn’t speak and wasn’t very responsive, except for one eye that opened a slit at times. I was there with my sister and brother and later my wife. What do you say in such a situation? I said things that were mundane and profound; I laughingly said things and choked up saying other things; I reminisced about things we had talked about for years and said other things you’d only say the last time you were seeing someone. While he wasn’t so responsive, I’d like to believe he heard everything I said.

I mentioned Ebbets Field to him and said maybe we’d get to go to a game at a stadium that had been torn down for sixty years. Before seeing him at the hospital, I thought of those Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s and I leaned towards my father in his hospital bed and said: 

“Welcome to Ebbets Field…at first base, number 14, Gil Hodges…at second base, Jim Gilliam…at third base, number 42, Jackie Robinson…at shortstop, number 1, the Captain, Pee Wee Reese…in left field, from Cuba, Sandy Amoros…in center field, number 4, the Duke of Fallbrook, Duke Snider…in left field, the Reading Rifle, Carl Furillo…behind the plate, number 39, Roy Campanella…and on the mound, the pitcher, left hander Johnny Podres…and here’s the pitch…it’s a ground ball to shortstop, Reese fires it to Hodges and the Dodgers win the 1955 World Series!”

My father died on a Monday, the Monday after I called to say hello.

I discovered that it’s easier to be mentally prepared versus emotionally prepared for the death of an aged parent. Intellectually, I could see his physical health had been failing in recent years and knew this day was inevitable; unfortunately, I didn’t appreciate it was also imminent, perhaps because he was still sharp mentally. I was blessed to have him in my life for so long. When you’re the youngest of five siblings born in your parents’ fifteenth year of marriage and then you have both parents in your life until you’re in your late 50’s, then you’re a lucky guy. I’m not only lucky; I’m blessed.

Due to circumstances, it was a small wake and funeral. I must admit, as sad as I was to say good-bye to my father, I was happy to see my four siblings, my nieces and nephews, cousins and friends I hadn’t seen since before the Covid-19 pandemic. My father loved family gatherings and this farewell was appropriately, a family gathering.

The night before the funeral, it occurred to me because my Dad was such a baseball fan, perhaps I’d have everyone at the final viewing sign a baseball to my Dad that I’d leave in the casket with him. My siblings went along with the idea and everyone signed this baseball. My sister-in-law joked to me about what my father would’ve said and I could picture him joking, “Sure, give me the ball. I have a game today.”

As a World War II veteran who served in Europe, my father was buried with military honors, and when the color guard soldier presented the flag to my family and said “On behalf of the President of the United States, the US Army, and a grateful nation…” I really felt their gratitude for his service.

Part V: Present, Past, and Future

By Joe Rini

It’s now July and my father’s been gone for two months. His birthday passed and Father’s Day has passed since he passed away in May. He was a young baseball fan when the first All-Star game was played in 1933 and the first All-Star game since his passing  was played this week. My Mom, his wife of 72 years, survives him and she still watches the Mets on TV every night with my sister. Sometimes when my Dad would watch the Yankee games, she’d joke to me, “I think your father’s becoming a Yankee fan,” but if the Mets aren’t on TV, she’ll watch some of the Yankee games, too.

My father was blessed with a long life and he was a blessing to the lives he touched. He was grateful for whatever good fortune came his way, whether it was something big like his longevity and family or something small like a really good dish of linguini.

When I think of something that symbolizes the connection baseball had between my father and me, I think of a baseball; not the autographed baseball in his casket but a baseball I haven’t seen in nearly a half century and probably wouldn’t recognize if it was on this desk with the laptop I am typing on.

It’s a baseball that’s barely a speck in a photo in the Rini Family Archives (aka, the closet downstairs with the photo albums). It’s a photo that was taken on the shores of Lake Ontario when my parents took my sister and me to see Niagara Falls in the early 1970s (to quote my Dad, “When Niagara falls, it falls!”) My Dad and my sister swam and played in Lake Ontario while Mom and I stayed on the shore; I wasn’t much of a beach lover as a kid and much to the chagrin of my beach-loving wife, I’m still not.

But after my sister and Dad came out of the water, my father and I “had a catch” on the shores of Lake Ontario. In a photo snapped by my Mom on a 110 Instamatic camera, the photo captures my father, Joe Rini, in his tan bathing suit completing his follow through in the foreground while 90 feet or so away his youngest son’s knees are bent slightly as I track the speck of a baseball in flight between us.

I like thinking of that speck of a baseball, forever in flight between us, as symbolizing the connection between us, linking us forever, in this world and the next, regardless of mortality. I’d also like to think that someday, perhaps in some heavenly realm, my Dad and I will finally get to see a game at Ebbets Field together, and maybe bump into one of the Dodgers as we share a pizza at Tex’s. 

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