My family at a Detroit Tigers game
As far back as I can remember, I have loved baseball, especially the Detroit Tigers. It was my Grandpa Izzy, who introduced me to baseball and taught me to love it.
Growing up, I lived with my parents and grandparents. I still remember Grandpa Izzy listening to every inning of every Tigers game. At first, it was on the tabletop radio, which he had brought home from the pawnshop where he worked. He’d sit at our Formica-topped kitchen table, drinking coffee leftover from the morning brew in a tin percolator. Always a multitasker, while listening, he would smoke his unfiltered Pall Malls, all the while playing solitaire.
Grandpa Izzy and Pall Mall cigarettes
Besides the unsavory aroma of boiled coffee and stubbed-out cigarettes, I was often jolted awake by my grandfather’s disgust when the Tigers made an error that led to another loss. “Those shtunks!” he’d scream. “These bums are nothing compared to Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg”, who were members of the World Series-winning Tigers in the 30s. I think his life with baseball started with his idolization of Hank Greenberg, who was a dominant Jewish athletic hero.
When transistor radios came on the scene, my grandfather bought one. However, since he forgot to buy the earplug for it, he’d walk around with the transistor radio glued to his ear. He was such a big fan that when my cousin got married during a pennant race, my grandfather had the radio in his ear during the wedding ceremony. When the Tigers left the bases loaded in the eighth inning during a pennant race, he shouted, “Shtunks!” in the middle of the ceremony. Many of the attendees who did not know Izzy thought he was commenting on the couple who were getting married.
Indeed, it was Grandpa Izzy who first introduced me to baseball. First, I was annoyed because we only had one small television, and when the Tigers were on, I could not watch my favorite programs like Howdy Doody. It must’ve been 1954, when I was about seven, that I first became intrigued by baseball. My grandfather and I were watching a World Series game when Willie Mays made an unbelievable over-the-shoulder catch. That play is now considered the greatest catch of all time. It is now known as “The Catch”. Ask any baseball fan, and they can describe “The Catch“.
That play in that exciting World Series sold me on baseball. Ever since it has been my favorite sport. Next season, in the summer of 1955, Granpa Izzy and my father brought me to my first baseball game against the New York Yankees. The game brought together two of the all-time stars of baseball. In 1955, Al Kaline, a rookie, won the American League batting title. His archrival, Mickey Mantle, won the Home Run championship that same year. Years later, in 2014, I met my idol, Al Kaline. It was still a thrill.
Al Kaline and I
Entering old Briggs Stadium for the first time is etched in my memory. Outside the stadium, we bought peanuts from a vendor who sang a sweet tune, “Get your red hot peanuts here, a dollar cheaper than in the stadium.”
As we first entered the stadium, my grandpa bought a program for five cents. When he told me this was to keep score, I had no idea what he meant. He gave me a stubby pencil to help him write on the scorecard.
When we got inside, the playing field gleamed green. The lawn was mowed better than any house in my neighborhood. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There, running in the outfield, was Al Kaline. Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra stood in the Yankee dugout, watching the Tigers warm up. Men in striped uniforms were coming up and down the aisles, shouting out their offerings: peanuts, cracker jacks, ice-cold Coke, cotton candy, and best of all, red hots smeared in mustard. When I proceeded to dump a big clump of mustard on my khakis, no one seemed to be upset.
When the announcers listed the names of the players, first came the Yankees. Everyone booed, especially for Mickey Mantle. But when the Tigers came out, there were nothing but cheers, especially for Al Kaline. Then, with 50,000 other people, we all sang the national anthem. The game featured one spectacular play after another. First, Mickey Mantle hit a long home run that almost went out of the park. Then Kaline, playing right field, threw all the way to third base to nab Yogi Berra.
My dad and grandpa tried to explain the game to me, but I was too excited by the guys coming down the isles. I talked my dad into buying me a tiger pennant. I ate so much that I actually started feeling a little sick in my stomach. It got dark late in the game, so they turned on the lights, which was another magical moment. In the middle of the seventh inning, everyone stood up and sang Take Me Out to The Ball Game. After the game, we waited for the players to drive out. Most of them drove Cadillacs.
Almost 70 years later, I still get excited when the Tigers win, but equally, I am excited when the Yankees lose.
To this day, I remain a Tigers fan. Now, just like Grandpa Izzy, I listen to the game on the radio every chance I get. In the early days, I would fall asleep to the melodious southern accent of Ernie Harwell. I was fortunate to get to know Ernie personally; he was gracious enough to write promotional blurbs for two of my books. Today I listen when I’m doing the dishes, sitting on the porch, or even dozing off for a nap. Occasionally, while I’ll watch a game on TV, for me, baseball is a radio game.
Every March, I celebrate the end of winter by waiting for the first Tigers exhibition game from Lakeland, Florida. For many years, the moment was celebrated by Ernie Harwell, who recited the Bible passage. Here are the words:
“For, lo, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come; and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”
Here is a recording of Ernie’s recitation.
In the past few years, I have had the pleasure of passing on Grandpa Izzy’s and my dad’s love of baseball to my sons and to my granddaughters, Sammy and Ada. I’m looking forward to taking Bodie and his baby sister, who will be born in August, to their first Tigers game in a few years.
Me, Ada, and Sammy at Tigers game
In celebration of my love of baseball and in remembrance of my grandfather, I am working on a children’s book about Izzy and the famous zany Tiger pitcher, Mark Fydrich. His nickname was The Bird because he walked and looked like a Bird. He even appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the Muppet character, Big Bird.
June 6, 1977 cover of Sports Illustrated