Any day now the Washington Post will be exposing my baseball addiction. Therefore I come clean now in advance.
Maybe I got in with a wrong crowd in yeshiva elementary school and yeshiva high school, but I became an avid sports fan as early back as I can remember. I recall something of the 1961 baseball season, with numbers like “51” and “53” and “61” flashing on the TV screen each time Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris homered as they feverishly pursued Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in the era before steroids. We all were rooting for The Mick, and poor Roger Maris never had a chance to emerge from that race a winner. If he won, it would mean that he had supplanted Babe Ruth and had beaten Mantle head-on. Thus, he could not win, and perhaps the media’s incessant defamation of this good man really was my first life encounter with jaundiced news coverage and how it manipulates people’s attitudes. Maris was modest, humble, decent, unpresupposing. He did not prance around the field, brag, show off. He was shy, quiet. So the reporters presented him negatively, juxtaposing this interloper against the Mickey Mantle we all loved (and still do), and we all bought into the mass psychology. In the end, Maris hit his record-breaking 61st home run on the last day of that glorious season, and even the Baseball Commissioner ruined it for him a bit by saying they would put an asterisk near the number “61” because The Rog had achieved his record after 162 games, while The Babe had hit 60 in a season of only 154 games. We later would learn that Mantle, who critically missed several games down the season’s home stretch, had gotten ill and had followed the advice of Yankees’ legendary baseball announcer, Mel Allen, to see a certain doctor. The doctor messed up Mantle pretty badly, causing him to miss even more games, and The Mick ended his illness-abridged season with 54 homers. In time the Yankees fired Mel Allen, golden voice and all.
I was hooked on baseball from then on. I think maybe I barely remember Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run against Ralph Terry the year before but am not sure whether it is false memory from seeing it replayed so often. By contrast, I definitely remember Willie McCovey’s final out of the 1962 World Series — a hot liner right at Yankees’ second baseman Bobby Richardson, also off Ralph Terry. I know I saw that one because, by then, at age 8 or so, I was keeping score of the games, batter by batter, with my own home-made scorecards.
Baseball was taught to me by my grandfather, Zeyde. He had come here from Russia with my grandmother from the Galicia region, then associated with Poland. Zeyde and Bubbe, my grandma, learned to speak perfect English, albeit a bit accented. They were blessed to live in an America that had no bleeding-heart liberals offering them bilingual education. (None of this: “Thank you for calling. Please listen carefully because our menu recently has changed. For Yiddish, please press 2. For Hebrew please press 3. For Polish please press 4. For Russian please press 5. For Italian please press 6. For German please press 7. For English, please move to North Dakota.”) It was a glorious time when America basically told immigrants to rely on their sponsoring relatives or to drop dead. Given that choice, and lacking the unlimited wealth and boundless opportunities available to a Marilyn Monroe, an Anthony Bourdain, they all seem to have chosen to live instead. So, with no bilingual opportunity, they had to learn English. Without food stamps and a plethora of government handouts — uh, “entitlements” — they had to figure out how to stay alive on their own. They asked family for help, and they got help from family, from the community. But not from the government. To make ends meet, they did the most menial jobs, but they earned their keep without taxing others. Zeyde worked arduous hours hand-sewing doll shoes. Bubbe seems to have purchased farm eggs that she then stored in her small apartment, often leaving the dwelling smelling like… eggs. She then sold them on the street. Meanwhile, my paternal grandfather seems to have started off with a pushcart. In time, he was sewing men’s vests until three-piece suits went out of style. And then he sold flowers.
For Zeyde, my maternal grandfather, baseball was the great entry into America. Once the rules were mastered, it was just a matter of rooting for the hometown Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, with exciting pennant chases pursuing the cross-town New York Giants, and then dreaming against all hope that this would be the year that Dem Bums would beat the Satanic New York Yankees in the World Series. Other American cities seemed but scenery, if at all, just to fill out the season schedule. In the end, the Damn Yankees always won the World Series, except for the year of Johnny Padres and 1955. By the next year, the Yanks’ Don Larsen was striking out the Dodgers’ Dale Mitchell to complete the only perfect game in World Series history, and Zeyde was back to repeating the first English meme anyone learned to recite in Brooklyn after arriving at Ellis Island: “Wait Till Next Year.”
So I grew up with baseball. The Dodgers abandoned Zeyde in 1958 when they charged West to Los Angeles for better weather, a better stadium, and hopes to corral great new untapped money. Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers executive who masterminded the move, was hated in Zeyde’s home forever. He could not quite equate O’Malley with Chmielnicki because, unlike Cossack pogromists, the Dodgers continued to have Sandy Koufax on their roster and also a Jewish catcher named Norm Sherry. They even had Sherry’s brother, Larry, as reliever. Three Jews on the same team at the same time. So, like the mantra that Jewish Democrat liberals use to defend Keith Ellison and Al Sharpton today, maybe Walter O’Malley was “only a little bit anti-Semitic.” Like the unmarried lady down the block in those days who was “only a little bit pregnant.”
I still have warm memories of Zeyde schlepping me to the Polo Grounds in Manhattan when a new National League team arose in 1962 New York to replace the Dodgers and someday perhaps to challenge the Yankees. They were the hapless Mets, destined to lose more games in their maiden season than any other team in baseball history before or since. But bad as they were, you still could sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” You still could get two games for the price of one on Sundays, and that was what Zeyde could afford. In between games of the double-header, he would step towards the back of the bleachers, against a rear wall, and he would “daven Mincha” (pray the afternoon religious service, because Orthodox Jews pray three times daily — at morning, in the afternoon, and at night). And then he would join me for the nightcap. His prayers never really helped the Mets, but he was really not praying for them — they were beyond the power of prayer. Why, in 1962, it probably was more worthwhile for him to focus his prayers on Israel someday returning to reunite the city of Jerusalem and on America someday thereafter moving its embassy there. Indeed, Jerusalem was reunited in June 1967, two full years before the Miracle Mets would win their first World Series behind Tom Terrific, and forty more years before an American president finally would honor the promise to move the embassy to Jerusalem. By then, the Mets would be back to playing this year’s worst baseball in the majors.
As I grew into my teens, my friends got me addicted to the Knicks (basketball), the Giants and Jets (football), and the Rangers (ice hockey). I became the consummate fan — a noun that truly originates as an abbreviation for fanatic. I went to Madison Square Garden to watch Willis Reed and Walt Frazier, to watch Jean Ratelle and Eddie Giacomin, even to watch Bruno Sammartino lose his belt to Ivan Koloff. Never got to go to football games, but always watched the road games on television and remained glued to WNEW on my transistor radio as Marty Glickman called the Giants’ football games. (And what a voice he had! I was startled in later years to learn that he himself had been an American Olympic track star in the 1930s who had been barred by Avery Brundage, the anti-Semitic head of the American Olympic Committee, from competing in the 1936 Berlin games because a Jew’s participation would anger Hitler even more than the Nazis would mind Jesse Owens dominating the games.)
For the past forty years I have wasted far too many hours, too many days, weeks, months, and years following professional sports. But it often kept me out of trouble, and I still could find time to graduate rabbinical seminary, law school, and to build the professional résumé that has kept me gainfully employed these past four decades as a rabbi, law professor, attorney, and writer.
In many ways, my renaissance owes much to one over-tattooed public nuisance: Colin Kaepernick. When that social derelict started kneeling before football games during the playing of the national anthem, I became furious. In time, with the refuse sinking to the bottom — the corollary of cream rising to the top — more NFL players starting kneeling. I made a decision a year ago that, if the league did not rapidly stop that practice, I would be done with NFL football. They did not, and I was. For the first time perhaps in forty years I went last season without watching football games. (Okay, there was one exception. A dear friend of mine visited from out of state, and he pleaded with me to see that Sunday’s game. He is one of my best friends, and we have never allowed our contrary politics and theologies to interfere with that. So I agreed, as a compromise, to go with him to a sports bar — just no NFL in my home. As a rabbi, I culturally never otherwise would go to a bar. That’s right: the joke is fake news.) But that was it. I did not even watch the Super Bowl. I guess I will find out who won when the winning team visits the President at the White House.… Instead, with apologies to Ogden Nash, I composed a poem:
Zeyde hated Tsars, and Zeyde hated Stalin.
I don’t like bars, and I can’t stand Colin.
I can’t stand their showing off,
So them I’m blowing off.
The NFL’s no more fun, and I am so done.
And — oh, yeah — to Hell with Roger Goodell.
I won’t watch football. If those overpaid behemoths now want to cower in their locker rooms when the national anthem is played, they won’t find me waiting for them when they come out from hiding. I am done with football, and I am done with basketball. Too many lunkheads being paid too many millions for a few years of athletic prowess, while abusing their brief moments of fame to attack my President and the values I hold dear. If they cannot accept Laura Ingraham’s simple advice — Shut Up and Sing / Shut Up and Play — let someone else generate their millions.
But they have not yet gotten their claws onto baseball. It still stands as “America’s Game,” our national pastime. And there may be no more patriotic team than my New York Yankees.
The Yankees are a throwback to an earlier age. They still wear their same pinstripe uniforms. They are the team that will not sew players’ surnames onto the backs of their jerseys. If the players cannot remember their names, why should we? And what true baseball fan cannot identify a player by the uniform number alone? (A boon in today’s dumbed-down educational era when reading scores are lower than ever, and softened because the players’ numbers never exceed two digits.) The Yankees uniquely do not let their players grow beards or pony tails or man buns. And every game at Yankee Stadium pauses after the visitors’ half of the seventh inning for all to focus towards home plate where the Yanks honor another American armed forces veteran and family — at every single home game — followed by the playing of Kate Smith’s rendition of “G-d Bless America.”
I live in Orange Couty, California — the heart of the Counter-Resistance against the Sanctuary State. With my subscription to MLB.com, the Yankee games that start at 7:00 p.m. in The Bronx, air locally three hours earlier at 4:00 p.m. PDT. By 6:30 p.m. or so, I take a few minutes’ break, check in on the game, and often find that they are about to play “G-d Bless America.” So I pause a moment and stand at attention in front of my TV. I thank G-d that this country took my grandparents in at Ellis Island. I thank G-d that they had the wisdom to get out of Russia and Galicia when they did. I thank G-d that they entered legally. I thank G-d that America did not help them with bilingual education, food stamps, or welfare, but instead expected them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. I thank G-d that, because of just the right amount of “Gentleman’s Agreement” anti-Semitism that permeated America during the first half of the 20th century, neither they nor their children nor I and my generational peers had a smooth road, but instead we all had to work just a little bit harder than everyone else, study harder, perform better on exams — just to get a fighting chance to enter a great college during the era when all the Ivy League colleges had admissions quotas limiting Jews’ admissions then, just as those bigoted liberal schools now discriminate against hard-working, excellent-performing Asian Americans. I thank G-d for Colin Kaepernick’s tattooed derriere and for Roger Goodell freeing up so many hours of my life that previously stood to waste from November to February. And I just thank G-d that I am blessed to know freedom as an American. So G-d bless your favorite city and your favorite teams (even the Bosox).
So yes, Washington Post, I buy tickets to baseball games and even lay out advance cash for my friends to sit with me in a group. They reimburse me. I then repay my credit card in full. But I won’t even buy a souvenir from the NFL — not even a $4 Redskins fidget spinner.
And G-d bless the USA.