The Little League, my Father and Doing-The-Right-Thing form the crux of “The Goy Boys,” a story sketched upon the canvas of New York City’s mix of ethnic groups, their clashes and compromises, and, most importantly, their friendships formed from bumping cheek-to-jowl.
A hard copy of this father-son tale, among other entertaining stories, is available within the pages of the PATCHWORK PATH: TREASURE BOX anthology.
Irving Meltzer raised his shot glass, his voice loud enough to carry over the background murmur of the nearby crowd. “To Heaven’s first six-foot leprechaun, Franky Keenan.”
My Cousin Paul, Irv and I were clustered next to the bar at Dunne’s Pub, a half-block from Benson’s Funeral Home. The words of the toast confirmed Dad’s insistence an Irishman tiptoed around the corner in his best friend’s Jewish soul.
A smile lingered on my lips–if not in my heart, not then–at the thought of Irv’s hidden Hibernian.
Paul and I raised our pints. I stared at the amber brew, at the workingman’s champagne, through the curved glass as the rims tapped, and we gulped down a long swallow. Several in the nearby crowd, raised their glasses or bottles, as well.
“Hey, Bobby,” Irv said. Few people used the diminutive of my childhood nickname–immediate family or the closest of Dad’s buddies. “Did I ever tell you when I fell in love with Franky?”
Smoke curled from the cigar stub seemingly always jammed in the corner of his double-chinned grin; New York City’s “No Smoking” rules still lurked somewhere off in the future, some years distant.
I said, “Uh, huh, when I was a kid. Your mean the Little League, right?”
“Right and wrong.” A typical Irv reply. “You were a kid. Not just Little League, though. Remember, the awards night? You know, the Awards Night Surprise?”
“Surprise?” my cousin said. A slight grin brightened his curious expression.
Irv needed no further encouragement. “Oh, you betcha….”
As his tale unfolded, those moments with Dad reached across the decades to me.
Franky loved baseball. It was no surprise his nine-year old, father‑worshipping son loved baseball as equally. The local Little League, the only game in town, had been founded by the neighborhood’s Jewish dads. As yet, no CYO league team existed in the St. Nick’s parish. Once it was formed, the good Augustinian Fathers of St. Nick’s would be in for some interesting times.
Dad showed up at the twilight conclusion of the spring Little League tryouts in Kissena Park. He was the only father from the newly finished Pomonok Housing Project to appear. The project, constructed with World War II vets in mind, was a “living, breathing” precursor of what would later come to be called “Culture Shock.” Three-thousand or so working class families, mostly whites, but many blacks and Latinos, as well, had dropped from the clear blue sky to land by an upper middle-class neighborhood of Jewish businessmen and professionals. A shock, indeed, for residents of any ethnic persuasion in any middle-class neighborhood.
By the finish of that mid-spring baseball ritual, the coaches had plucked a bare few kids, the creamiest of the crop, from the housing project to integrate them into the existing teams. Dad arrived after the league officials had already assigned coaches to various groups of eight-to-nine year olds scattered around four baseball diamonds. The exception was my group, mostly Pomonokers, including two other kids from the neighborhood bordering the Pomonok project. They had fielded candy-hop grounders in the tryouts as if the baseballs were live hand grenades.
“Hey, buddy,” Frank called from a baseline to one of the coaches stooped over as he packed equipment into a large, canvas duffel bag. “What’s with all the kids over there, the ones with no coach?”
We, the “kids over there,” watched the nearby discussion with great interest. Imagining the eyes of my fellow rejects boring holes into the back of my crew-cut head, I slouched, hoping to shrink low enough to disappear into the grass blades.
The coach straightened, glanced at us, then at my father. “Didn’t make the cut, one of the other coaches is going to break the news–all in one bunch, better that way. No one gets singled out.”
“You got enough players over there for a team, more than enough. Why dump them? Makes no sense.”
The guy paused. stared a bit, and said, “No coach for starters, and not enough….”
“I’ll coach,” Frank interrupted.
“Uh, well–not enough equipment to go around, either. Ten teams. Equipment money’s all spent.”
Dad’s expression turned skeptical. “That’s why teams get a sponsor, some local business. Parents can chip in too, time, money, whatever.”
“Yeah well, the season starts too soon. Takes time to get uniforms, equipment. Maybe next season.”
Another coach, a much skinnier figure than in later years, approached from short-left field, his trademark cigar stump protruding from the corner of his mouth. A pompadour still graced his full head of hair. Eyeballing my father, he removed the cigar from his mouth.
“Hey, Art, need a hand?”
Frank beat Art to the punch. “Need a coach? I know the kids standing over there do. My son’s in that bunch.”
Art protested, “I already told him, it’s too late this season, maybe….”
Irv asked Dad, “Ever coach before?”
“A kid’s league we organized when I was in the service, nothing too formal.”
Irv said, “Service, huh? What branch?”
“Marines during the war. Marine Air Reserve now, out at Floyd Bennett Field.”
Irv extended his hand. “Irving Meltzer. A Jarhead, huh?”
A jarheead, I wondered. What’s a jarhead?
“Semper Fi.” Dad grinned, shook his hand. “Frank Keenan.”
“Navy, myself. A chief, PTO,” Irv replied.
His reply seemed strange; he didn’t look like an American Indian.
“Gunny. TBF squadron,” Dad said. “We always appreciated the Squid taxi service. All the comforts of home.”
Former Chief Irving Meltzer nodded and smiled, saying, “We can always use another coach,” before planting the cigar back in his mouth.
He dug-up equipment from somewhere, battle scarred and teetering on the edge of retirement–a little from this team, some from the other. The gear, rejects like us, required just as much TLC and polishing. The uniforms arrived halfway through the season, compliments of Swain’s Radiator Service and Swain himself, another future buddy of Dad’s.
Frank went to work creating a TEAM, all caps; three practices a week, not just the one league scheduled practice on a reserved Kissena Park baseball diamond. Each additional practice required us to scour for an unused field, not always possible. Some days, we practiced grounders and pitching on a long strip of open grass.
No assistant coaches stepped forward; Dad organized the players strongest in one skill, taught them how to instruct and drill others. Each player had a strength. Each player had a shot at DI, Drill Instructor, which kept the domineering to a minimum–except initially against Ira Rosenstein. It did not discourage him from attending every practice, though.
Dad encouraged me to run interference for Ira against the taunts of a few less patient teammates. His perseverance paid off, and my task eased as his skills improved, step-by-determined-step. My father nicknamed Ira “Chesty” after Chesty Puller, a Marine Medal of Honor winner who never gave up. Ira’s reward? He played at least one inning every game, with a time at bat, much to the chagrin of a few teammates.
We practiced our hearts out, played with Dad’s same “gung-ho” spirit. By the last scheduled game, “The Bunch,” a.k.a., the “Goy Boys” as Irv later admitted the other coaches labeled us, were tied for first place.
Frank expected a playoff game. The coaches decided otherwise, miffed at the upstarts from Pomonok. They declared the season “already too long,” and outvoted Irv and Dad. They assigned “The Bunch” to the oblivion of second place.
The hallowed auditorium of PS 201 held the awards night. Teams clustered together, away from the many parents sitting off to the sides. Every kid wore his team’s cap. Ours were Royal Blue, our official name the “Royals,” of course. We preferred the “Bunch,” or simply, the team.
“Hey,” I said to Ira, slumped in the seat next to me. “Maybe they’ll give us gold medals, too, you know, ’cause tied. You know, two piles of gold medals and a bronze, right?”
“Oh, sure–you’re funny, you know that?” Ira said, his expression dubious. “Your dad really didn’t tell you nothin’? Really? He’s a coach. Nothin’ at all?”
“Nope.” I noticed movement on the stage, and nudged him. “Hey look. Look, they’re startin’.”
The background hum of voices lessened. Young bodies straightened and peered over seat backs like a community of prairie dogs popping out of their burrows, all the brims of their baseball caps turned toward the coach gripping the silver talk of a floor stand microphone. Behind him, two foldout tables, end-to-end, supported a dozen or so cardboard boxes; a “Kissena Little League” banner draped across the front of the tables.
The speakers blasted, “Ladies and gentlemen….” The squeal of feedback drove the eight and nine-year olds into peals of laughter and hoots. One of the coaches disappeared stage-left, and reappeared with a thumbs up.
“Sorry about that. Ladies and gentlemen, coaches and players, parents and all our terrific supporters and sponsors who attended tonight’s awards. Welcome to the Kissena Little League Awards Night.”
I tuned out, troubled that Dad was nowhere on the stage. The coaches sat in a semi-circle of folding chairs behind the tables. The head of the Little League droned-on awhile, thanking this person, thanking another person and still another. The twitching of the younger audience members, the commotion of their higher pitched voices increased with each of the speaker’s passing words.
At the rear of the auditorium, a metallic clatter announced one of the auditorium entrance doors had opened. I turned to see Dad with Mr. Rosenstein, each carried a large cardboard box. I nudged Ira. The men walked past us, down the aisle and up the steps at stage-right to plop their burdens onto the floor at one end of a table. Dad joined the coaches. Ira’s father returned to sit in the audience; he winked at us when he passed.
I gawked at Ira. “You said your father wasn’t coming.”
He shrugged. “Hey, I don’t know–that’s what he told me. What do I know?”
I tuned back into the announcement, “…from the first place team in the Minor Division for eight-to-nine year olds, would Art Taback, their coach, please step the mike”
Taback held the mike, gazed upon the squirming Little Leaguers, and wisely proceeded ASAP to the business of distributing the medals. The Navy capped players stampeded from their seats on his call to mass at stage-right. The steps filtered them into a single line; they filed by their coach to receive a medal and a handshake. Goal accomplished, they crossed to the stage-left steps and returned to their seats. Several players wiggled their flat, six-by-four inch boxes with gold medal at The Bunch. Despite my best effort to look nonchalant, my jaw line tensed.
Dad’s turn at the microphone arrived; he waited in silence for a semblance of calm. The sight of his lone figure, the missing amplified voice caught the crowd’s attention, quieted them.
“And now the awards for…,” he paused, a long one, “the second place team. Will The Bunch please come up to the stage?” He lifted the boxes from the floor, placed them onto the tabletop.
Their curiosity aroused, the folks in the auditorium stirred. The Bunch hardly noticed in our excitement to get onto the stage. The official silver medals paled in comparison to the trophy Dad handed us. The Royal Blue T-shirts with “The Bunch” emblazoned across the front was a nice touch.
Dad stopped the line at Ira’s turn, and leaned toward the mike. “Ladies and gentleman, I would like to award the Lewis ‘Chesty’ Puller trophy for the player on our team who has shown the most perseverance, heart and improvement, Ira ‘Chesty’ Rosenstein.”
Forget about walking, we floated, trophies in hand, back to our seats, the flat containers with their measly, silver medals stuffed in our back pockets. Ira drifted one rung higher, on Cloud-10. He joined his father, both of them all smiles.
Dunne’s Pub re-emerged. The murmurs of conversations, the raucous cheers at the baseball broadcast from the overhead TVs, hundreds of reality’s intrusions brushed aside the vale of images Irv resurrected with his Award’s Night Surprise.
“He was a hell of a guy, Franky, your father,” Irv said. “A hell of….” Dad’s best friend turned from us and leaned against the bar to tap the embers of his cigar into an ashtray. “Damn, smoke.”
The T-shirt is long ago gone, but Dad’s gift occupies a place of honor on the shelf in the office/library of my home, a spot next to the collected poems of W. B. Yeats, his favorite Irish poet. Fifty-plus-years have taken a toll on the six-inch figurine of the trophy. Some “gold” plating has flaked off here and there from the batter, ever ready for the next pitch. The metal plaque on the plastic base has tarnished, but the engraved inscription is still legible:
“The Other First Place Team”
Semper Fi, Dad.
The Goy Boys
Available in the anthology: Patchwork Path: Treasure Box
I like your comments.
You have such a gift for painting a scene with words and bringing your characters to life. They jump off the page and make you love them. I’m glad you had such a wonderful dad. Sounds like Irv is/was pretty wonderful too. Doralynn
Yep, two strong men, intelligent, committed to their families, loyal to their friends. Working class guys who battled through the Great Depression, the thick of it in WWII, men with a real sense of community who worked hard to do the right thing for their families, God and country (I know, how cliched, but cliches are real.) Uncomplicated men, no drama, no sense of entitlement nor elitist arrogance (right or left wing), what you saw is what you got. The Greatest Generation, indeed. We really are in desperate need of such men today.
Thanks for leaving a comment for the Goy Boys, most potential readers seldom find me or post comments, for that matter. Please share how you stumbled across my short stories!
I hope all is well with you. Do you still reside in NYC, the former Covid-19 hotspot? I hope you & your loved ones pass through it all unscathed.
Your connection timing was fortuitous, I am finally retiring from the NJ CBVI and within two weeks will be winding my merry way to the Land of Flowers, Jacksonville to be more exact. Should be interesting, as Claudia my wife will remain behind for another year before she achieves the USPS retirement benefit level she wants. At 73, I decided not to delay any longer. My two sistets and several cousins in the area have been encouraging me for some time to “come on down, y’all!”
Yeesh, former Brooklyners with sort of southern accents.
FYI – My email is Bobkee@optinline.net. Please enjoy the rest of my stories. Betwixt is my favorite, inspired by Charlotte Zolotow, who did not quite know how I had conjured up the tale nor did I. My daughter did though; she immediately understood it was a metaphor for the breakup with her mother from my first marriage over thirty-four years ago. Indeed, fiction writing is an outlet for the subconscious!
All the best,