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.
So enjoyed your blog!! I could feel your disappointment as a little boy but also the excitement of spending time with your dad.
Your play on words captures my attention
What recall! Life’s lessons through baseball. That explains a lot. Take care.
Nice memories. Hernandez I do not remember and I really don’t remember much about my first day at “the big ball park”….except the stadium was massive to an 8 year old.
I loved the Mick. Everything, even today, has 7 emblazoned on it. Mazarowski?…as President Biden would say…come on man.
Another piece that brings back memories of the “original” Yankee Stadium! On fond memory Ihave of Yankee Stadium is being able to go onto the field after the game, just walking on the grass, looking around, was totally awesome for a 10 year old. We lived in NJ, and either took the train or bus, then Subway. Wonderful memories, great family time and great baseball time.
Roy, I can say I saw 2 Senators’ games in Washington as a kid. We were visiting my USAF uncle and he was stationed there. Also, I remember my first game at Shea. My dad made me leave in the 7th inning so we could pick up my sister from ballet practice. Ugh!
Great story Roy, you’ve a remarkable memory,
Being a suburban Washingtonian at the time of your experience, I do remember a few of the player’s names that you mention. For most of those struggling years, the motto was “Washington Senators, First in War, First in Peace, and last in the American League”. Being the hard core Baseball fan that I am, I continued to root for them. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when the Nationals won the World Series in 2019, plus my beloved Dodgers winning the World Series in 2020.
Thanks, Roy…always enjoy Sunday Morning Coffee…
Another RB classic. Obviously you’re a hoarder (how else do you explain all these old cards, notes, programs, etc. you keep coming up with. That must have been the selling point of your new house when you left ‘Bama; “this house comes with an extra room just for all your husband’s collections.”
Oh, and by the way, I don’t remember in any of Dr. Mustard’s biology classes at The U anything about leaving events early as being an inheritable trait. Hang on while I google that….
Talking about first major league baseball games, I saw my first on August 2, 1943, at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. I was exactly five years and one month old. My Aunt Alverta and her boy friend took me to the game between the Pirates and the Boston Braves. I had become familiar with the game by watching the older kids play stick ball on the street outside our apartment building on the north side of the Steel City. My first impression once inside the ball park was the green grass in the outfield. I had never seen so much grass in one spot that was so brilliantly green. I lived in the city where grass was spotted here and there in little yard patches. I though baseball games were actually played on cement like the street in front of our residence. The Pirates won the game with a two run rally in the bottom of the ninth. Frankie Gustine delivered the game winning hit. I really had no idea what was going on because I was still not aware of innings and bottom of the ninth rallies. I remember being disappointed that Pittsburgh won because I was cheering for Boston. I admired their bright red caps. To me, that is what really mattered. We sat on the third base side of the ball park in the bottom level of the three tiered stadium. I learned years later how the Pirates won when I became an active member of SABR and became familiar with Retro-Sheet which performs a terrific job of documenting major league baseball games play-by-play.
Rudy had a bar in San Juan—as I recall, it was in the Condado section. I was living in the DR at the time, and a few of us would go over to San Juan if there was an important sports event. Reception was not good to nonexistent in Santo Domingo at that time — early 70s. I went into Rudy’s 10th Inning Bar several times, and it was a friendly and welcoming place to watch a game — mainly football or baseball. It was one of the first pure sports bars I think I ever went into. I knew all about Rudy Hernandez because I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, right across the river from DC, and saw a lot of Nats games (Baseball Special to Griffith stadium, round-trip for $1). I had no idea that he had lived as long as he did until I read it here.