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Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016

Broadway Joe and Beechmont Chuck

Sunday, February 4, 2007

As a 12-year-old kid, I thought I'd turned out to be a pretty good softball/baseball player. True, I'd recently had my two front teeth snapped off while wrestling with Jimmy Egan, the older son of one of my father's lawyer-friends (and, incidentally, a Yankee fan), and the dentist who'd fitted me with porcelain caps had warned me seriously against playing any sport that would jeopardize them.

But who was he kidding? I was a 12-year-old boy in a postwar age when every married couple had oodles of kids, some of them male, and there were heroes on the base paths of all three of New York's stadiums. It was, finally, an age of innocence before fans could be shocked by the players going on strike for higher wages. Baseball strike? We kids thought Mickey Mantle, Willie Mayes, Yogi Berra, Jackie Robinson, and their teammates, played ball for the fellowship and sheer love of the game.

Gosh! Doc Hogan's dire caveat did nothing but make me nervous and somewhat guilty, when I played first base or stood at the plate, waiting to be struck in my costly, glittering two front teeth by some teenage pitcher's wild delivery. It never occurred to me, as a near-acquaintance of Brooklyn Dodger manager, and my mother's college roommate's uncle, Branch Rickey, to just say no. I might as well, I figured, be dead! Besides, I didn't want to seem like a "wimp" (the word hadn't even been invented yet), when we chose teams, and I had to say, "I'm sorry, but my parents have invested a lot of loot on my two front teeth, and I don't want to have to walk home sweaty and dirty and have to admit to them that I'd busted them off again!" So I opted for a Pepsodent smile and endless hours of witlessly bouncing a soft, pink rubber ball against the stucco wall of our house and catching it in my well-oiled and supple Wilson outfielder's mitt. I was, as a thrower, something of a spastic, anyway. Once, and only once, for example, when my father, at my urging, agreed to indulge in the iconic American weekend summer ritual of playing catch with his son in the backyard, I so often threw the softball outside of his range that he suspected I was doing it on purpose. Suddenly, he threw his own mitt down, stomped up the steps to the kitchen, and let the screen door slam behind him. "Come on, Dad!" I cried plaintively from the middle of our vast back yard, "I can't help it if it goes wild!"

Even with my fake front teeth, which were just waiting for the slightest jolt to fall embarrassingly out of my mouth, I didn't have the weight to go out for football. I was a scrawny 6-foot kid, uncoordinated, to boot, but, thanks to my parents, I was beginning to watch a lot of football. There was, for instance, the "classic pigskin rivalry," as the newscasters put it, between Michigan (where my father had gone for his law degree) and Ohio State (in Columbus, where the dominant branch of my mother's family had lived since Civil War times). My father and I were glued to the little black-and-white TV weekend afternoons. I began to wonder if I could play, without the threat, of course, of breaking my two front teeth. Heaven forbid!

One afternoon that summer, my cabin-mates at Camp Dudley, in the Adirondack mountains, challenged the kids in another cabin to a game of touch football. Each cabin held 12 kids, and when sides were chosen, I found myself an ungainly and unwitting member of the "Trojans." Now, I knew many college football teams were named the Trojans, but I didn't know when this name was chosen by or for a Dudley extra-curricular football team. Had I missed something? Yes, I knew that Trojans were the brand name of an elastic contraceptive. And I was mighty embarrassed to be stuck with such a name, even among friends. Even if I knew that, at 129 pounds, I had no future in professional football, where Howard Cosell, just to be mean, might sneeringly announce to the eagerly waiting world that Chuck Nash, who might now be the classiest speedster on the New York Giants, had been, in his formative years, a trustworthy Trojan!

This is my only personal memory of being in a football game. Sometime near the half, our quarterback had received the snap, stepped back, and looked around.him for a likely receiver. Well, way out there's DeLisser, our best receiver. But Dick's circled by a gaggle of violently arm-waving tadpoles. No use throwing it into that mob! But, wait! Who's that skinny little guy out there, all by himself? Why, it's Chuck Nash, just looking around, as if he's waiting for a bus.

The ball landed neatly in my waiting arms with a solid and comforting thump. I didn't wait to gloat at my teammates, however, but began scampering toward the far-off goal-posts like the hero of an old F. Scott Fitzgerald story from the Roaring Twenties. What a glorious feeling! Not only that I'd caught the ball, but that I hadn't tripped over a tree root or my own shoe laces in the process! That feeling of teenage triumph lasted me the rest of the summer!

Yes, F. Scott was right. The feeling of being a celebrity in football beat all other feelings, except, perhaps, the feeling of pride from seeing your novel, short story, play, or recipe published.

I looked at the TV screen last night, and notice, with amazement, that today's Super Bowl is 41 years old. How can that be? It was just yesterday when I was stretched out on our couch in Saint Paul; Minn., watching Joe Namath, of the New York Jets, confront Johnny Unitas of the Indianapolis Colts (was that the name of the opposing team?) It was a fast-paced, exciting game, and I soon found myself falling under the spell of the young man who would soon be known as Broadway Joe. (Hey, I thought to myself, why couldn't I, who lived near Beechmont Lake, in Larchmont, N. Y., be called "Beechmont Chuck"?) After about 10 minutes, I pride myself in having sensed an historic moment in American sports was in the making.

Ginny was making something in the kitchen. 'Honey!' I shouted, 'better come see this! It's a moment that's going to go down in history! Like Lindberg landing in Le Bourget! Really!"

And so it was. Even if I, equipped with two glittering front teeth and a few extra pounds, never again caught or threw a baseball or a football. Ah, how sweet the memories of that time so long ago!