I read of the passing last weekend of one of the good guys of baseball, Jerry Coleman. Coleman was a longtime announcer and onetime manager of the San Diego Padres. His passing brought me back to my first baseball game as a ten year old boy in 1969. Back then, Coleman was an announcer for the Yankee games on WPIX, along with Phil Rizzuto and Frank Messer. He had played second base for the Yankees in the glory days of Ford and Mantle. He moved to the booth to document my early days of baseball fandom, heartbreakingly referred to as "the Horace Clarke Era" of Yankee baseball.
I spent long, hot Saturday afternoons watching the Yanks with my father and brother on a black and white Zenith console in Scranton, Pennsylvania. One day, they announced that tickets were on sale for Bat Day on June 15th. My father was into his third or fourth Stegmaier beer when this came over, and asked if my brother and I would like to go to the game. This sounded like a fantasy to me. We'd never been anywhere outside of Scranton, apart from a few road trips to see my Aunt Dorothy in Orange, NJ. Our incredulous "Really?" was met with an exaggeration that told me for sure this would never happen. My father said that sure, we could go. He'd just write to his friend Jerry Coleman to get some special box seats for the game. I cannot go back to that moment in time, but I am sure my heart sagged as it registered the empty promise that I had just heard, and dismissed the idea out of hand.
I remained in disbelief when the letter arrived weeks later. It was written in longhand, ripped from a yellow legal pad, and folded inside were three tickets to Bat Day 1969 on June 15th. The letter started, "Hey Mac, Good to hear from you..." And so, my first ever baseball game would be the Seattle Pilots at Yankee Stadium on Bat Day of 1969. The only thing I knew about Seattle was that it had "the bluest skies you've ever seen" according to the lead in song to "Here Come the Brides". Living in Seattle under far more gray skies was not on my radar then.
It was Bobby Murcer's first full season after returning from two years in the service. Joe Pepitone was at first base with the Scooter offering on each broadcast to trim his hair with a lawn mower. Stan Bahnsen was on the mound in a rotation headed by Mel Stottlemyre. Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich played their first year together. Gene Michael was pulling off the hidden ball trick at shortstop. It was Thurman Munson's rookie year. On game day, we ate cold, stale sandwiches at an Automat in the Bronx. I was fussy, and my father growled that it was one of the best restaurants in New York.
When we got to the park, my father made his way to the media entrance. He told the guard at the door that he was a friend of Jerry Coleman's. "Everyone in New York is a friend of Jerry Coleman's, pal," is what I remember him saying. But then my father pulled the letter from his pocket and shoved it toward the guard. I remember my father saying something about the letter saying that if we got there early to show the letter and stop by the press box. The guard nodded as he read, and then stepped aside as he opened the door for us to enter. As we moved through the corridors, even at ten, I knew this was a backstage tour most do not get. My first heads up was walking by a club room door, as Mike Burke, the face of the Yankees CBS ownership stepped out. I knew he was a big shot, but I was really impressed that he was with some actor guy from one of my mom's soaps.
My father had signed up to be a Navy pilot the day after Pearl Harbor. He was living with his two sisters and one nephew in Staten Island at the time. I think that he met Jerry Coleman in flight training. I don't know how well Jerry Coleman knew my father, but I do know that he was an elegant friend, and a prince on the day that he welcomed him and his eight and ten year old sons into the Press Box at Yankee Stadium.
Somewhere in my brother's third floor study is buried a black and white of my brother and I taken on my father's Polaroid that day. We are standing on the desk where Rizzuto, Messer, Coleman, and so many before and after them leaned elbows, as they swapped stories, and ran through play by play in the Cathedral of twentieth century baseball. My father took the picture of his two boys standing on the desk alongside Jerry Coleman in his snappy WPIX blazer with the crowd filling in the stands in the background.
We must have been wide eyed at the time. Jerry Coleman treated my dad like his old best friend. I must have stammered something along the lines of, "You mean you really know Jerry Coleman, Dad?" I distinctly remember him saying, "Didn't your dad tell you? We won the war together!" He was a gracious man, and he lifted my father that day, when he lifted my brother and I onto that desk.
I don't recall much baseball that day. It was Bat Day. I got a 32" Mickey Mantle, and my brother got a 28" Jake Gibbs. It rained and there was a riot on the field. Two thousand people ran onto the field waving their bats, while mounted police tried to contain the crowd. The game was finally called in the sixth with the Yankees up 4-0. Despite the complete game recorded, we got a rain check to come back for another game later in the season. There had actually been three rain delays, but the bigger trouble had been the rowdy crowd taking the field, using the infield tarp for a 1969 era slip and slide. The Pilots appealed the decision to call the game, but lost.
I don't really think I knew how cool that day was until I took my own son for his first game at Safeco. We rode the light rail from Rainier Beach. I am a teacher in Seattle now, and I am lucky to spend a lot more time with my own son each summer than I had with my father. As we made our way for the game day sales window, a man approached me, asking if I needed tickets. I thought he was a scalper, and explained that I had no cash. He told me that I had misunderstood, he had too many tickets, and he didn't want them to go to waste. They were good tickets, he assured me. I shrugged and thanked him, apologizing because I really did not have any cash. I didn't know the stadium then, but just followed the numbers. We made our way to two seats in about row 20 above the visitor dugout. I told my son Liam, "Don't get used to it. We'll never be able to afford seats like this again." I saw our benefactor. He had his son's team from Ferndale,and a few players couldn't come that day. I thanked him again, and told him that he had done a good deed that would not be forgotten. It was my son's first baseball game.