Two For The Price of Free
Who’s better Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, or Duke Snider was the heated debate of my youth. We didn’t care who put the first man in space, or that the Russians were sailing to Cuba bringng nuclear gifts, or even who was winning the arms race, unless you were talking pitching staff. Myself and Russell Biggica were Yankee fans, Chet, Jimmy, and Richard Alterie were Brooklyn Dodger fans, and my cousin Butch the lone New York Giant supporter. Even when the Dodgers and the Giants moved to the west coast the arguments didn’t weaken.
There was one thing we all could agree on, even my cousin Butch, the ardent Giant fan, and us Yankee lovers, that Sandy Koufax was the greatest pitcher alive. Sure, the Giants had sure fire Hall of Famer, with his Rockette leg kick, Juan Marichal, but even his fans couldn’t dispute the God in Sandy Koufax. We Yankees had one of the winningest pitchers ever, shrewder than even the devil, the chairman of the board, Whitey Ford, but he was plastic compared to solid gold Koufax.
When the Mets moved into Queens to fill the vacuum left by the AWOL national leagues clubs they became a hot ticket in town. The day the schedule came out, Chet (somehow Chet was short for John, I could never determine why) and I would check the schedule to see when the Dodgers came to Shea Stadium and then look for the greatest of all baseball experiences… the twi-night double header. We’d send in our money orders for the best box seats available, three dollar and fifty cents a piece.
Back then, during the summer, breakfast was definitely the most important meal of the day, because it would probably be the only one you’d eat until your mom’s voice found your ears, usually around sunset. For some reason, which physics has yet to explain, parents voices seem to carry further around dinner time, and grow progressively stronger the darker it gets. Parents didn’t need to worry about their child being kidnapped, or molested, the worst thing they feared (at least to us) was eating dinner too late so its digestion interrupted “their (own)” sleep. So at the age of ten, Chet was 9, our folks would let us get on the bus and take two subways to Shea Stadium for night games. They knew we were careful and probably talked to much baseball for even a kidnapper to handle.
When we had our life-altering baseball iphany, it was totally by accident. Me and Chet arrived at the game early, which isn’t the wisest thing to do when you’ve had a tough week financially; serveral Wiffle balls were lost in the pine tree in front of my cousin Butch’s house. We were flat broke; Wiffle balls were expensive— thirty-nine cents, an odd number, but Chet and I found a way to divide that cost equally. We’d each chip in twenty cents and then with the extra penny bought a piece of bubble gum, tearing it in half, thus splitting our investment equally. Congress should only be that smart.
Going into the stadium and seeing the field for the first time was like finding yourself in the middle of a Van Gogh painting (although, if baseball had been invented back then and was played in Holland, he didn’t seem the kind of guy who’d go to a game, even if he had free tickets and was promised a bobble head of his missing ear).
Chet and I found our box easily since we knew the exact row and section we were sitting in by memorizing the entire stadium seating chart. They were great seats and it was a perfect night, the temperature was T-shirt friendly and there was no wind or threat of rain, but what made this night incredibly special was that the Dodger’s were pitching Koufax and Drysdale. For me life didn’t get any better than that, except if they pitched for the Yankees. Oh, there was one problem, we were both starving and didn’t have much dough to spend on mal-nutrition like hotdogs, peanuts, and ice cream. We decided if we ate something right before the first game started and could hold off eating again until the middle of the second game—we could survive. So Chet and I left our amazing seats and walked towards the concession stand. The only problem was that everyone else must have had the same thought. We circled the stadium looking for a place where getting a hotdog wouldn’t take as much time as it would to eat thirty of them; that’s when we passed a line of people which lead to a ticket office window. At first, we thought they were buying tickets for future games, but their impatient look and jittery body language was telling us something different, so we asked. And that’s when we struck gold! It was the exchange ticket office where people could give back their tickets and buy more expensive seats for the difference in price. Our stomachs’ growling must have been a primitive way of communicating to us that a big time buisness deal was at hand, one that could support its appetite.
These people, who probably had money enough in their pockets to buy a box of Wiffle’s balls, desperately wanted better seats and we could sell our super great, amazing, field level box seats for their full value and also get their tickets. Being kids, with two whole games, we could sneak around and sit almost anywhere we wanted. And with that money we could eat several servings of the junk food king—extra long hot dogs with onions!. Yes, we stadium-seating prodigy’s had discovered how to get into games for free! Not just one game—but two!
Normally that would be enough to consider it an amazing night, but things only got better, much, much better. As the innings passed we’d kept finding empty seats, moving closer, and closer to the ball field. Before the second game ended we were sitting behind home plate close enough to think Don Drysdale, who had a reputation as a headhunter, was throwing at us.
The Dodgers of course won both games. Koufax was Koufax, which meant that the Mets looked like they were trying to stop a Soviet missile with the blade of a weeping willow tree. Koufax and Drysdale threw complete games, which doesn’t usually happen nowadays to two pitchers on the same team during the same season, before and after Tommy John surgeries.
We let the stands empty as we soaked in every baseball molecule. After the game, since the Dodgers didn’t come to Shea very often, we’d wait outside to see the players walk past hoping they’d wave. That night we lingered longer than usual, relishing in the glory of our genius.
By the time we arrived at the subway platform it was empty. When we turned our attention away from debating on how long it would take to cook a hotdog on the third rail, to our astonishment, stopping just a few feet from us, and waiting for the subway were three Dodgers, not big stars like Koufax and Drysdale, or even Tommy Davis—still they were major leaguers! Ron Farley, Wes Parker, and Lou Johnson were not only going to ride on the same train as us, but stepped into the very same car!
What a night, two free games, all the food we could keep down, and now three Dodgers were sitting across from us. We smiled at them and said hello, and they smiled back at us asking us if we enjoyed the game. Of course we said, “Yes” immediately, but we didn’t tell them that because of their presence this was turning out to be the single greatest night in our lives! Even better than the Christmas when my cousin Butch and I got Mattel’s Fighter Jets, which made you feel like you were actually in the cockpit! I didn’t find out until years later they were stolen by my ex mobster grandfather who had enough Christmans spirit to steal two of them.
Chet, being a true Dodger fan, was carrying a yearbook. We wanted autographs to prove to our friends that this actually happened. We eventually dug up enough courage to ask if they would sign their names under their pictures in the year book, which actually seemed to please them. First Ron Farley signed, and there was his signature right under his picture! Then Wes Parker signed, and there too was his signature right under his picture! And finally Lou Johnson and there too was… was… the signature, not of Lou Johnson, but it was signed Nate Oliver! In another time and place this could have been taken as a racial slur, since Nate Oliver and both Lou Johnson were black and we had made an awful “they all look alike” mistake. We turned away embarrassed, but then we heard three very loud good-natured laughs and looked back. Nate Oliver, who had the biggest smile, said, “Don’t worry guys, he’s a pretty good hitter, although he’s not Tommy Davis, and my picture’s not in the book anyway.” Then we all started to laugh. His baseball pals slapped him on the back and then came over to us and slapped us five! Real live baseball players slapping us five like they did to their teammates! I knew now that, at the very least, there was a baseball God! Yes, we were truly blessed—even more than we were able to appreciate at the time.
What a night! What a great great night! Years later I became friends with Yankee catcher, Rich Cerrone who would take me and Billy Crystal to hang out with several Yankees—including world series hero, Bucky Dent. Larry David, Robert Wuhl and I spent an inning of a playoff game in the announcer’s booth with Bob Costas, Joe Morgan, and Bob Ueker. I wrote jokes for players at a roasts where I met Tommy Lasorda, spent time with Kurt Gibson and was in the presences of Billy Martin, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays and Stan The Man Musual. I even got Cy Young Award Winnner, Oral Herschieser and, World Series MVP, Kurt Gibson to autograph a ball for Chet’s older brother, Richard Alterie, but none of those experiences were greater than that night. Not just because we were young and it was new and all so exciting, or that we were able to see two games for fee and eat untill our bellies didn’t explode. That was all wonderful, but the greatest thing about that night was that two white kids made a mistake, innocently asking, Nate Oliver, a black ball player to sign his name under his picture, which was really a picture of Lou Johnson. And he did it gladly. His vibrant smile and his deep laughter afterwards, enjoying the innocense of two young fans, obliterated racial barriers, and he had said without saying it, that we’re all alike and the color of a man’s skin should not be used to separate, if anything it should be used to bring us together. That night it became imbedded in me, that we are all on the same team—brothers in our nature, brothers in our spirit, brothers in our laughter, brothers even in our love for baseball, despite who we root for—although to this day, I dream of what might have been if Sandy Koufax was a Yankee.