I remember it as if it was yesterday. April 24, 1973. I’m 13 years old, and I’m spending the day in the Bronx – at Yankee Stadium.
I know. I should be spending the day in school. P.S. 91 in Glendale, Queens is where my mother thinks I’m in class. However, since I had my New York City Transit student bus and subway pass, I could travel anywhere within the system.
It’s spring, baseball season is fresh, and one of the few times in my career as a student, I’m skipping school for the day.
From my home train station of Halsey Street in Queens, I’ll be making a transfer at Union Square Station in Manhattan. My next subway ride should take only 20 minutes. Then, I arrived at 161st Street and River Avenue – Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees are playing their 15th game of the young MLB season. For today’s scheduled game, it’s the Chicago White Sox visiting the big ball yard in the Bronx. Bucky Dent, Dick Allen, and a pitching staff that includes Rich Gossage, Wilbur Wood, and Jim Kaat are the top weapons for Chicago.
I always liked getting to the ballpark early; like hours early, to get players’ autographs. So, I make my way to the entrance that the Yankees use, as they cross a street that has a fenced-in lot where they park. Back in the day, fans weren’t kept at a distance to be up close with their favorite players. Not at all. No security of any kind.
Since I made a snap decision to not go to school and spend a day of baseball bliss, I’m not well prepared to collect autographs. I have a blue ballpoint pen, and a Spalding Hi-Bounce Ball (on the streets, when playing stickball, we call this ball a Pensie Pinki) in my coat pocket.
As I’m positioning myself near the gate leading to the players’ lot, I’m thinking about what’s coming in late September. After the Sept. 30 game at the Stadium with the Detroit Tigers, the Yankees are scheduled to move over to Queens for the next two seasons at Shea Stadium, while their ballpark gets an overhaul.
As I bounce my Pensie Pinki enthusiastically, standing among a dozen or so others hoping to snag a few autographs, it’s show time. Cars start filling up the lot. I make my way into the lot. One by one my ball starts filling up – Doc Medich, Bernie Allen, and Hal Lanier oblige my requests to sign.
Two more players, Johnny Callison and Ron Swoboda, while arriving are mobbed by the gang of kids shoving pens, yearbooks, and trading cards as high as their little arms can reach. When both outfielders make their way through the parking lot gate, as they cross the street that thankfully has no traffic coming or going, they have a break from their well-wishers. Then, well, I have them to my own. Both men keep walking briskly to their haven, the door leading to the Yankees’ clubhouse.
Swoboda and Callison have it in them to scribble their names one last time, for me, this kid playing hooky. As they disappear into the open door, I’m satisfied. Maybe I have room for one more autograph. Maybe.
I started thinking it may be time to purchase my $1.50 bleacher seat. The mid-week game shouldn’t be a large draw. My plan, once inside the Stadium, is to make my way down the box seats area near the Yankees’ dugout and see the game up close. Back then, you could do this.
Now, when going for a final autograph request for the day, what an experience waited for me when Yankees coach Elston Howard appeared.
Howard is a Yankees legend. Aside from being the first African American to play for the “Bronx Bombers” (Elston joined the Yankees at the start of the 1955 season, eight years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947), as Yankee, Howard was a 12-time all-star, played on six World Series championships, won two Rawlings Gold Gloves, and was the 1963 American League MVP.
Howard was exceptional as a player. His uniform no.32 is retired by the Yankees, and he has a plaque in Monument Park.
After retiring as a player following the 1968 season, Howard kept the Yankees uniform on for a decade, serving as the team’s first base coach. To say Howard was respected doesn’t fully address his contributions to the game. When he spoke, those around him stopped and took notice.
Aside from his being a Yankee, back in the early '70s when most players and coaches didn’t earn a lucrative earning and needed employment in the off-season, I have warm memories of waking up on Saturday mornings and turning on WPIX – Channel 11.
The High School Football Game of the Week aired, with Marty Glickman calling the play-by-play, and Elston Howard handling the color commentary. Although Howard knew his balls and strikes, football wasn’t foreign to him. Coming out of high school, Howard turned down football scholarship offers from Michigan and Michigan State, and instead signed to play pro baseball with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League.
As Howard approaches the players’ entrance door, I’m on my own. No other autograph seekers. Dressed in an unbuttoned trench coat, white shirt and tie, the Yankees legend accepts my Pensie Pinki from my small hand. I then gave him my blue pen. For sure, this will be my most valuable autograph collected today, and one that I will remember for the rest of my life.
Howard, 6-foot-2, held my offerings, and paused. Looking down at me, with a stern look on his face, one that my mother shot at me more than once when misbehaving, he asked me if I should be at school today. Oh my gosh. Elston Gene Howard, one of the most decorated New York Yankees of all time is asking me why I’m not in school.
Back in the day, there were truant officers employed by the school district. To me, truant officers were like school police. They investigated truancy. If you didn’t go to class, and you had attendance issues, they were there to ensure students attended school regularly.
For sure, the look on Howard’s face convinced me that somehow, he knew where I attended school, and he was going to call the truant officer and my mother. Back in 1973, the world was a whole lot different. As a new teenager, I believed that I was in deep trouble. All I wanted to do was hang out at the Yankees-White Sox game. Just me. With a signed Pensie Pinki to bring home as a reminder of the cool day I planned.
Now, I’m on Howard’s not-so-nice list. After asking if I should be in school (I should have said I was on a field trip with my class at the Yankees game), Howard, who passed in 1980, while still clutching my ball and pen, all the while with one eyebrow up as years later The Rock – Dwayne Johnson would gain fame doing, hadn’t completed his ‘interrogating” me.
First, Howard asked where I went to school. He followed up with whether I liked going to class, what was my favorite subject, and if I played Little League baseball. The two or three minutes, uninterrupted, that I shared with Howard that sunny, spring day in the Bronx remains priceless to me.
As it turned out, I remember telling him I played in the Ridgewood (Queens) YMCA Little League and was my team’s catcher. After signing my ball, and reaching down to put them in my hand, still with that stern look aimed at me, Howard offered one last piece of advice.
“Keep up your grades, and don’t be cutting classes anymore.”
With that, just before disappearing into the Stadium, Howard reached out to shake my hand.
Making my way into the stadium, I felt I had a new, very cool, friend. Elston Howard knows me, I thought.
As the Star-Spangled Banner played, and already standing in front of my seat about one dozen rows from the Yankee dugout as planned, no kid (or adult) on that day in the Stadium smiled wider and longer than me. The connection I made with Elston Howard remains a lifetime happy memory that I have reached back to on more than one occasion when times have dictated a need to feel good.
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