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Coming of Age in Yankee Stadium: One Girl's Story
By Phyllis B. Grodsky
In 1950, as I was approaching adolescence, the world as I knew it was crumbling: In one fell swoop, my large, extended family packed up and left the South Bronx. Instead of greeting cousins on my way to school, there were new boys on the stoop who hissed: "Tss..Tss ... Mira! ... Mira!" whenever I passed by.
My father, mother, younger brother, and I lived in a small, cluttered space, yet my father insisted our apartment was a palace. I couldn't understand which palace was located in a neighborhood that was turning into mean streets.
To shut out my confusion, I devoured articles about the Yankees in the New York Daily News -- a paper my father brought home every night -- and then calculated the percentage of games the Yanks won for the season. I felt there was so much you could discover once you knew long division.
The Yankees, nicknamed the Bronx Bombers because they were so hard-hitting, were world champs. Sometimes I wondered how I could root for them when I felt left behind, not at all like a winner. Weren't the Brooklyn Dodgers, who sports writers saw as "scrappy" and "colorful," a better fit? My doubts were short-lived. I saw the Yanks as fun-loving underdogs. Weren't Yogi Berra's quotes (e.g. "It ain't over till it's over.") quotable? Why didn't sports writers see what I saw?
I thought I was only destined to read about the team in the newspaper, or hear Mel Allen's gravely voice broadcasting the action on the radio. Attending a game seemed out of the question -- a ticket was far too costly. But one day, I could hardly believe what I heard: Mel Allen announced "Ladies' Day" at Yankee Stadium. That day a quarter would buy any woman -- or girl -- entrance to the ballpark.
Although they had no interest in baseball, I convinced two friends to join me. Then, I rolled up my long hair and pushed it under an old New York Yankee baseball cap my father got as a tip -- an accessory that wasn't fashionable at the time, especially for a girl.
On the big day we took the cross-town bus and soon entered new, open, territory -- the West Bronx -- where the Grand Concourse was the Champs Elysee, and Yankee Stadium was the real palace.
I squirmed nervously and held my breath as we stood on line waiting for the ticket booth to open. In my mind's eye, I saw the burly guard at the gate looking down his nose at us, saying that it was all a hoax, there was no "Ladies' Day," and we'd better beat-it. But no, we paid our quarters and breezed through the gate.
The aroma of traif, non-kosher, hot-dogs followed me down the aisle as I raced to find our seats. I knew that smell from carts on the street, and often wondered how the frank might taste. But whenever I was tempted to try, it was as if an unseen hand held me back.
Before the game started, I prepared my scorecard so I could enter each play, and calculate new statistics, later on at home. Sometimes my father noticed what I was doing, and said that I was college material. Of course I was college material, was there any doubt? But just to make sure there was no mistake -- either on my father's part, or with the scorecard -- I recorded everything with extra care.
During the seventh inning stretch, the aroma of steaming traif hot-dogs beckoned like a siren's call. Perhaps being in Yankee Stadium made me feel as if I had crossed an invisible boundary, and age-old prohibitions could be set aside. When the vendor came bounding down the aisle, I got a frank and took a bite before I could have second thoughts. Unfamiliar juices rushed into my mouth, but instead of savoring the moment, I was taken aback; the hot-dog's peppery spices felt too sharp, and the whole thing dissolved into a mush before I could even begin to chew. I wondered: Since I hadn't enjoyed the forbidden meat, had I really sinned? I wasn't sure.
I taped large, glossy pictures of my favorite players on the walls of my room: Whitey Ford, with his sweet smile, Johnny Mize, the brave guardian of first base, and all the other unsung heroes.
With my baseball cap never far from sight, I lived for "Ladies' Day." The world outside the ballpark was cast in unrelenting tones of gray: Heavy metal padlocks hung from doors of shops that used to be kosher butchers; the synagogue, which once buzzed with men deep in prayer, grew still, as more Jews left the neighborhood. But on "Ladies' Day" the sun was shining, and anything was possible.
I took it for granted that the Yankees would win the pennant, and they did. The Bronx Bombers played the Philadelphia Phillies; a young team nicknamed the "whiz kids," in the World Series. The Yanks beat the so-called "whiz kids" in only four games, and won their second championship in a row.
The '51 season was Joe DiMaggio's last year, and Mickey Mantles' rookie year. Mantle arrived with much publicity in his wake. I felt he got a lot of hoopla before he actually earned it. After all, didn't he strike out so often that Yankees' manager, Casey Stengel, sent him back to the minors for part of the season?
The Yankees won the pennant once more in '51. Bobby Thompson's home run for the New York Giants, the "Shot Heard Round the World," propelled them into the World Series. Despite the Giants momentum, the Yanks won the "subway series," and remained world champions.
I was really, really, looking forward to the '52 season. But when it started, things felt different.
As a player, Joe DiMaggio wasn't one of my favorites. It was impossible to cast him as an underdog. But once DiMaggio was gone, I realized that it was seeing Joe D. -- the Yankee Clipper -- take long, easy strides toward center field, which made me believe the Yankees would always be champions. DiMaggio was steady and dependable, while Mantle was brash and erratic. I felt there was a hole in the field Mantle didn't fill.
The Yankees secured the pennant in '52, and played their nemesis, the Brooklyn Dodgers, in the World Series. Although the Yanks won another "subway series" in a down-to-the-wire seven games, my interest in their victory didn't last. Something else was bothering me.
The Yankees didn't have any black players. Jackie Robinson crossed the color line when he joined the Dodgers in '47, and the Giants signed Willie Mays in '51. Many articles in the paper said there were great athletes in the Negro League just waiting for a chance in the majors, yet Yankee management claimed none were good enough for the team. It wasn't right. It wasn't fair.
That winter I took off my Yankees' baseball cap and cut my hair. I didn't wonder who might be traded, or how the players would look at spring training. The magic was gone.
Although the glossy pictures of the team stayed on my wall until the tape dried and they fell to the floor, I never went back to Yankee Stadium. Nor did I ever again venture into the peppery world of traif hot-dogs. My fascination with things numeric took a different route, one that went beyond baseball statistics: A few years later, I went to the City College of New York and graduated with a degree in mathematics.
Phyllis B. Grodsky, Ph.D. is a retired social psychologist who has previously published in the Jewish Magazine (see for example, "My Father's Quest.")
from the March 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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