Berger’s Burg: More than just peanuts and Cracker Jacks

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Baseball season began on April 1 and the sport is in full bloom. Kids are wearing Yankees and Mets jerseys, the American Museum of Natural History is presenting a baseball exhibit, “Baseball Is America,” through August 18, and my brain is reeling with remembrances of my early years as a baseball nut. I literally ate, breathed, and drank baseball as a boy.

It began when I was five. I idolized my brother, Larry (11 years my senior) and since he rooted for the St. Louis Cardinals, I rooted for them also. One of my greatest thrills was when Larry took me to my first baseball game on my sixth birthday, a twi-night doubleheader. The first game began at 5 p.m., followed by an 8 p.m. game at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. In the event you don’t know, there are no more twi-night doubleheaders, no more doubleheaders and no more Ebbets Field. Naturally, we saw the Cardinals play the Dodgers.

I was mesmerized during batting practice, watching all my baseball heroes. There, live before me, were my idols Stan “the Man” Musial, Enos “Country” Slaughter, Marty (Slats) Marion, and the other Cardinal players. Moments like these are few and far between in the life of a 6-year-old.

Continuing as a teenager, I attended many games with my younger brother, Milt. It was a simpler time for baseball. No player-owner hassling, no jumping from team to team, and no pay TV.

One Sunday afternoon, Milt and I attended a Cardinals-Giants game (Milt was a Giants fan) at the Polo Grounds. For those who remember the old Polo Grounds, the clubhouse was situated in dead centerfield, 505 feet away from home plate. The players of both teams changed into their uniforms there. They took long walks to and from their respective dugouts at the start and conclusion of every game.

Milt and I arrived two hours before the game and perched ourselves in bleacher seats, which were immediately adjacent to the clubhouse steps. It wasn’t long before the door opened on the Cardinals side and George “Crooked-Arm” Kurowski, the Cardinals All-Star Third Baseman, came out. He sat on a folding chair on the clubhouse porch, carrying on a conversation with someone in the clubhouse. Suddenly, Cardinals pitcher, Harry “the Cat” Brecheen, stepped out to continue the conversation. He was wearing only a tee-shirt and was bare from the waist down. Brecheen apparently was unaware that the clubhouse door led to the outside world. It was only when we asked for an autograph that he discovered where he was. He looked around, smiled with relief that only Milt and I had witnessed the event, and quickly darted back into the clubhouse. It was then that I realized that players were just as human as I was.

At the end of the game, we watched in envy as the fans sitting in the lower grandstand seats were able to get autographs. We “bleacher-seat” fans were out of reach. When we finally left the ballpark for home, we grabbed two seats in a crowded subway car. Milt poked me and said, “Look over there.” Miracle of miracles, there, sitting directly across from us, were Musial, Slaughter, and Marion. Yes, in those days ballplayers traveled by subway. Would Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter or Mike Piazza ever ride a subway? We just stared at them, too shy to ask for autographs. Gosh, to this day, I regret not leaving my seat for autographs.

Adding to my love of the game were the nicknames given to the players, in particular, those named after clothing or body parts. Do you remember: “Banana Nose” Bonura, “Lippy” Durocher, “Footsie” Blair, “Twinkletoes” Selkirk, “Bunions” Zeider, “No Neck” Williams, “Patch Eye” Gill, “Muscles” Medwick, “Toothpick” Jones, “Stubble Beard” Grimes, “Pinky” Higgins, “One-Eye” Sunkel, “Three Finger” Brown, “Pee Wee” Reese, “Buttons” Briggs, “Zip” Zabel, “Jocko” Conlan, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, “Piano Legs” Gore, “Porky” Lade, “Fat” Pat Seerey, “Chubby” Dean, “Fatty” Fothergill, “High Pockets” Kelly, “Knucks” Ramsdell, “Pants” Rowland and “Socks” Seybold? These nicknames are priceless.

But, I also felt sorry for the “sad sack” teams that stronger teams constantly battered, year after year. The punching bags of yesteryear were the Philadelphia Athletics, who moved to Kansas City and then to Oakland; the St. Louis Browns, who moved to Baltimore; and the Washington Senators (first in war, first in peace, but last in the American League), who moved to Minnesota. A new Senator team was eventually resurrected in 196l, but they also moved, to become the Texas Rangers.

I finally dragged Gloria to the American Museum of Natural History to see its “Baseball As America,” presentation, the first major exhibit to examine the relationship between baseball and American culture. Organized by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and culled from its unparalleled collections, this unprecedented exhibit marks the first time that these Hall of Fame treasures left their legendary home in Cooperstown, New York.

Among the approximately 500 objects in the display are the “Doubleday Ball” from baseball’s mythic “first” game; record-breaking bats used by Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, tracing the evolution of the technology of hitting; a Brooklyn Dodgers jersey worn by Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier and inspired the nation; and FDR’s “Green Light” letter calling for the continuation of professional baseball as a way to heighten morale during World War II. But most thrilling was Stan Musial’s bat, and pieces from Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds. This rekindled a few of my baseball memories.

The Museum’s cafeteria also joined in the salute to baseball by serving “Hot Dogs As America.” They offered N.Y. Deli and Street Vendor Dogs, Milwaukee Brats, Texas Corn Dogs, Fenway (Boston) Franks, Chicago Red Hots, Dodger Dogs, Cincinnati Cheese Coneys, Rochester (minor league) White Hots, and my favorite, the museum’s “The Natural.” Mmm, good!

During my adult years, I stopped following baseball for two reasons. I lost a huge bet I had made on the Cardinals beating the Dodgers, a bet which cured my gambling tendency. The second disaster was when the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants packed up and left New York.

However, the visit to the museum stoked my passion for baseball once again. As Gerald Early once said, “Two-thousand years from now, America will mostly be remembered for three things—the constitution, jazz and baseball. So, Cardinals, please forgive me but, “Go Yankees and Mets!”

Reach columnist Alex Berger by E-mail at: or call 229-0300, ext. 140.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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