Everybody remembers their first. Especially if you were a red blooded, apple pie eating, Yoo-hoo drinking American male growing up in the 60s.
I remember mine. I admit I was young for such an experience. I’d just turned nine and my dad was with me. After all, I needed his knowledge, expertise and experience. Also someone to drive me.
I even remember the date: May 17, 1961. We had to drive all the way from Long Island to the Bronx to see her. And she was gorgeous. Towering and radiant. She had a big clock, Longines, pinned to her front door to make sure suitors weren’t late. Looking back, maybe it was there because in only a matter of minutes she would break my heart.
After you walked in to Ruth’s house, especially on your first visit, you’d never forget the sight. She was a real Babe. It was as green as anything you’ve ever seen. Not Herman Munster green, but once you walked through the house and took a look at the back yard it was an expanse of gorgeous green that a kid born in Manhattan and raised on still rural Long Island had never seen before.
It was my very first real baseball game. Yankee Stadium in the Bronx was at its radiant best. At least I thought it was, considering I was just eleven days past my ninth birthday and really had nothing to compare.
Dad and I were baseball fans. Dad, 31 years old at the time, was able to put sports in its proper perspective while raising a family and working two jobs to pay down a $16K mortgage. On the other hand, that’s all that mattered to me. My mom told me to pay more attention to my little brothers than the Pirates’ games. Okay Mom, whatever you want. Michael was five; Kenny fifteen months and neither could hit like Clemente or pitch like Vernon Law, so they weren’t much use to me. I was a baseball kid and a Pirates fan because Dad was one.
Though I had never been to a big league stadium before, I was still intoxicated by the Pirates’ win over the Yankees the year before in the 1960 World Series. Whenever I could, I hit that same game winner in my driveway and then ran around the block the way Bill Mazeroski ran around the bases on the first ever walk-off to win a Series. Back then we had no idea it was called a ‘walk-off’. That moniker came decades later. And today, sixty-two years later, with another World Series getting underway on Friday, reminiscing about the Mazeroski heroics took me back to my first stadium experience. What a thrill. What a disappointment.
For my birthday on May 6, 1961, Dad gave me a postcard. It wasn’t any old three-cent postcard with a Liberty stamp. This one was from a Major League Baseball player. Holy Bazooka bubble gum!
Rudy Hernandez was two years Dad’s junior at George Washington High School in Upper Manhattan. To this day I’m not sure how they knew each other but they did.
Hernandez played baseball in high school and dreamt of the big leagues. Dad played stickball in the schoolyard. He had no dreams of the big leagues. All he wanted to do was impress Arlene Sachs. It worked.
The postcard he gave me was from Hernandez, a pitcher for the Washington Senators. I never heard of him; you haven’t either. The back of the card was a guy wearing a baseball uniform, which was pretty cool. It got even cooler when he wrote to his former high school pal, “Herb, look forward to helping celebrate your son’s birthday when we come to New York on May 17. I will take him to the locker room after the game.” Are you kidding me? I couldn’t stop bragging to all my flattop sporting, bolo tie wearing buddies in the fourth grade. I’d get a chance to meet Coot Veal, Chuck Cottier, Danny O’Connell and Willie Tasby! Remember them? Me neither.
So, the second best day of my life, after the Pirates beating the Yankees, was a pleasant 72 degree day according to the Google weather vault. I don’t remember driving to the Bronx, but I do remember seeing the pretty lady, in all her majesty, as we approached coming off the Major Deegan Expressway. I was so excited. I didn’t know any of the players’ names on the Washington Senators but that didn’t matter. I was headed to the locker room after the game, which I came to realize years later meant that Dad had to stay for the entire game, something he despised. He had to be the first one out of the parking lot. Years later, the apple still doesn’t fall very far from the tree. On this day at Yankee Stadium it meant we would have been one of the last to leave. Oy, the traffic.
I remember walking in and buying a scorecard from a hawker wearing a visor who sat in one of those tall program booths. We opted to forego the pencil and saved a nickel. I grabbed Dad by the arm and said, “Come on, let’s go.” I wanted to see what a real baseball field looked like. That panoramic view of green is permanently implanted.
We then looked at the Senators roster on the fifteen cent scorecard. Rudy Hernandez was #23. Except there was no #23 nor was there a Rudy Hernandez. We were standing in a portal along the third base line. I was still transfixed by the view. Dad grabbed me and started walking briskly. Hernandez was a relief pitcher, and the Senators bullpen was easily accessible down in the left field corner. It was a Wednesday afternoon with school still in session, except for me, so there were only 6,200 in a 60,000 seat ballpark. Which not only meant a foul ball for everyone, but if you were in a rush to get to the Washington bullpen and inquire about a missing person, it didn’t take long at all either.
Dad leaned over the railing and asked one of the Senators, “Where’s Rudy Hernandez?” The answer put a knife through me. “He got sent down to the minors a couple of days ago.”
Hernandez was now toiling in Indianapolis, not Yankee Stadium. The second best day of my life just became my worst.
I remember nothing after that. I was crushed. The Baseball Encyclopedia memorializes that the Yankees rallied for six runs in the final two innings, but it wasn’t enough and lost 8-7. Mickey Mantle had a hit and Roger Maris two, including a home run. Aaron Judge did not play, primarily because he was born thirty-one years later. I’m not sure how long we stayed but probably not long. Between beating traffic and trying to console an upset nine-year old, I’m guessing Dad was in a rush to get home. My life, having to face my friends, was just about over.
Before being banished to the bushes, Hernandez was a little-used pitcher with respectable stats. In 1960, at 28, he had a won-loss record of 4-1 pitching 34 innings and giving up 34 hits. In ‘61, his official rookie season, he appeared in seven games, was 0-1 with three earned runs surrendered. That’s 4-2 over two seasons and an ERA of 4.12. If he played in the bigs today he would be a $4 million a year guy. Instead, he made about four grand, give or take. Hernandez, 90 and now living in Puerto Rico, is a baseball footnote as the first Dominican Republic-born pitcher to make the major leagues, sixteen days before Juan Marichal, tabbed the Dominican Dandy. The Senators felt Hernandez was not so dandy.
About ten days after the Yankee Stadium debacle and me regaining my composure and sheepishly being able to leave my house once again, we got another postcard in the mail from Mr. Hernandez, postmarked Indy on May 26, 1961. This one said, “Herb- Sorry I wasn’t with the club in NY but baseball is a funny game. I’ll be back up there soon and I’ll sure keep my promise to your son.”
Rudy Hernandez never made it back to the big leagues. As he and I both can attest, sometimes baseball isn’t a very funny game after all.