I spent quite a few summer afternoons and evenings at a baseball field on the corner of 59th Street and York Avenue, under the bridge. At this time in the mid-seventies, the “baseball field” was actually a tennis court in the winter time which was converted into a ball park in the spring and summer. The field itself was horrible, it was this reddish/brown clay and bad hops were common place. I once saw a kid playing third base about to field a ball when at the last moment the ball took a nasty hop and hit him in the face breaking his glasses. Fortunately he had plastic lenses and no serious injury was done to his eyes. The lighting was also horrible as it was difficult to pick up the ball as it was being pitched in the night time. However my memories of 59th Street (that’s what we called it) are still all pretty positive. I was far from the best player on my team, as a matter of fact if where were 12 guys on my team I would have probably been ranked 13th. One year I didn’t get a single hit, my batting average was .000. I made Bob Uecker and Charlie Brown look like All-Stars.
However I still went down there when I was supposed to, played my position and gave it my best shot. In 1975, my first year on the OLGC Angels I was sitting on the bench just waiting my turn to bat when a player on my team fouled off a ball, which caught me right above the left eye. I wasn’t paying attention to the batter and having a conversation with one of my teammates. I saw stars, my heart raced, I started screaming that I couldn’t see and that I was blind. I was scared shitless! Fortunately one of my teammates’ dads, Big Ray Zimmerman got me in a cab and took me to the emergency room at Lenox Hill Hospital. It’s funny that 40 years later I still remember the conversation. Ray said that he would take me to New York Hospital since it was closer. I told him that if we didn’t go to Lenox Hill Hospital my mother would kill him. He promptly told the cab driver Lenox Hill Hospital and make it quick.
After being examined, re-examined, examined even more and having lights shone in both my eyes, I was sent home. I was also given something to calm me down as well as an ice pack for my eye. Fortunately there was no damage to the eye itself as the stitching of the ball caught me on the eyebrow. I had not eaten anything since about noon and it was now close to 8 pm. When I got home my mother gasped at the grotesqueness that was her son’s face. When I went into the bathroom to look in the mirror my reaction was one of disgust. I looked terrible, I had not eaten anything in hours and I did the only thing I could do. I threw up into the sink. Looking back, I can say this was not one of my better days. Plus I never even got the chance to bat, as my accident happened in the first inning.
I missed practice that week as the swelling around my eye went down little by little. I definitely had the strangest black eye in history. Usually the blackness is under the eye. I had that, in addition to my eye lid being a mix of purple and yellow. I was not a pretty sight. I don’t think I played the following week, and needless to say I was a little gun shy after getting hit.
The following year I was on the OLGC Green Machine in the Babe Ruth League. This was the season of my stellar .000 average I either walked or struck out almost every time I went to bat. However I think my on-base percentage was about .500. One night my mom came down to watch me play. It was bad enough that I sucked at this game of baseball, now I had to have my mom witness it firsthand. I struck out in my first at bat. Then a funny thing happened in my second plate appearance. I drilled a pitch the opposite way. I swear this ball had double written all over it. What happened? The first baseman reaches out and makes one of those happy birthday catches and I am 0-for-2.
Later that year in the summer league, a coach from one of the other teams, Big Pete, calls time out while I am at bat. He calls me over and tells me, “I have been watching you a long time and I have noticed that you always step back when the ball is being pitched.” Being the good kid that I was and showing the respect that I was taught I didn’t have the heart or the balls to tell him, “Yeah well if you got hit in the eye with a batted hard ball you’d be a little gun shy and take a step back too.” He then told me to step into the pitch as I am swinging and just see what happens. With that little piece of advice in my pocket. I went to work. That night I hit two balls out of the park (both foul, but still…) and I also hit the bridge for the first time in my life (which counted as a no pitch but it was still a nice feeling that I got the ball up that high).
One of my best friends growing up was Paul Atkinson and he was an all-star down at 59th Street. This kid, who was at the time skinny as a string bean could hit pitch, run throw and pretty much walk on water when he was at 59th Street. And walking on water was sometimes a necessity on that field after a rainstorm. Paul and I have known each other since we first moved into the projects in 1965. That is a fifty year friendship. Usually when Paul would pitch he would often get the better of me. I admit it he intimidated me. But there is always that one out of ten times that a bad hitter will have a little luck against a good pitcher.
Paul, who threw right handed, just stared to play with curveball. So there I am batting against him and the first pitch is coming right towards me so I get out of the way. At the last minute it breaks in over the plate, strike one. Second pitch same result, ball coming at me, I back up, ball breaks, strike two. The old saying goes, fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, fool me a third time, I’m gonna kill you (I made that last part up). I call time out step out of the box and think to myself. He’s not crazy enough to throw a third curve is he? Baseball is a guessing game and batters are guessing all the time. My guess was that he would throw another curve so I would stand there and take it. If it doesn’t break and hits me I get to first base. If I wait on it and time it just right maybe I can hit it. Paul sets himself and lets the ball go, it’s coming at me I wait and wait and wait and finally swing — BOOM! I got it and sent a rope into left field for a base hit. This was much better and a lot less painful than getting hit by the pitch. While I was standing on first Paul just glared at me from the mound, sort of saying you weren’t supposed to do that.
As we walked home that night I told him, that he had got to learn how to mix up your pitches. “If you would have thrown me a fastball on the second pitch you would have had me totally off balance,” I said. “Then you could have set me up with the curve or a change of pace.”
For a while our coach at OLGC, Dennis Moulton, would have an Old Timers game at 59th Street, usually the last Saturday in July. This went on for a few years in the mid to late 80’s. Then as time marched on and players started getting married and moving away from the city, these games became extinct.
I met a lot of good guys and good ballplayers down at 59th Street, so I was sad to learn that baseball is no longer played there and that it is now tennis courts year round. Another part of my childhood is gone.