A bookish boy returns home

Yes, I was a bookish boy. And I was a baseball boy, first baseman and outfield in the Park Hill Little League. That’s why, when I was 9 years old and discovered the majestic old main branch of the Yonkers, N.Y., Public Library, at the corner of North Broadway and Nepperhan, I naturally gravitated to shelves where I was soon afflicted with my first reading addiction: a series of old, 1950s-vintage sports biographies of New York City baseball stars for the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants.

The Dodgers and Giants were long-gone to the West Coast, but these books had stayed behind. I read biographies of famous Yankees like Yogi and Whitey, as well as Monte Irvin, Carl Furillo, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider (I still remember that he owned an AVOCADO FARM in California), Whitey Lockman…the list goes on, and I’m sure it still brings a twinge to the heavy hearts of jilted fans of the “Jints” and “Dem Bums” of those exotic mythical lands called Coogan’s Bluff and Flatbush.

I devoured each and every one of several dozen sports biographies. Then I moved on the books about the history of Yonkers, which fascinated me then and still does now, with its Dutch origins and its hardscrabble industrial past, with its waves of immigrants and its majestic setting on the Hudson River, my City of Seven Hills, with its glories and its tragedies, where my ancestors are buried, my City of Gracious Living.

And then I discovered the library’s fiction section — thousands of novels! — and my whole world changed.

Last week I had the pleasure and honor of giving a reading at the main branch of the Yonkers Public Library, offering excerpts from my novella “Rip,” signing copies, answering questions about my writing, and meeting some very nice people.

It’s not the library I grew up with, a majestic granite structure, built with Carnegie money, which was torn down for a highway expansion. The new main branch is a shiny new four- or- five-story state-of-the-art facility, complete with huge windows offering stunning views of the Hudson River and its Palisades.

But my visit still conjured memories of dark winter afternoons when I’d leave the library with an armload of books, heading home for supper, walking a few blocks up Nepperhan past the Polish Community Center to Elm Street, then trudging four blocks up steep Nodine Hill, the city water tower looming at the crest of the steep incline, passing grocery stores and dry cleaners and pizza places and the hardware store and the bread bakery, until my books and I reached Oliver Avenue and home.

I made that walk and carried books away from that old library so many times that I really can remember every step along the way — but not once, I’m certain, did it ever occur to me that I might write books, that people in my hometown might want to hear me read from my books, ask me about how I wrote them, ask me to sign copies…I never imagined that someday one of my books would reside on a shelf at the Yonkers Public Library…Maybe even now there’s someone walking home with an armful of books on a dark winter afternoon, and maybe one of those books is mine.


Pride of the Yankees

My father was the son of Italian immigrants who moved to the Bronx and then to Yonkers, where my father was born. These circumstances made it inevitable that my father’s baseball hero would be the great Joe DiMaggio, center fielder for the New York Yankees. I inherited this allegiance through a combination of genetics and socialization. DiMaggio retired and was replaced by the great Mickey Mantle. I have very vague memories of Mantle in his prime and mostly remember the prematurely aging and nearly crippled slugger toward the end of his career, which coincided with the beginning of an era in which the once invincible Yankees collapsed — to put it as politely as possible, they sucked, really sucked, when I was in my late preteens and early teens and used to journey from Yonkers to the Bronx to sit in the upper deck of the Stadium and cheer on an awful team that featured the likes of Horace Clarke and Mike Kekich and Rich McKinney and….

But then the team began to show signs of rebirth thanks to the classy and talented sinkerballing pitcher Mel Stottlemyre, and the quietly effective left-fielder Roy White, the flamboyant reliever Sparky Lyle, the tough and feisty catcher Thurman Munson…and the heir apparent in center field, the “next Mickey Mantle”

Bobby Murcer
Bobby Murcer

who was Oklahoma-born and bred just like the Mick — Bobby Murcer, my favorite Yankee from that era, who died July 12 from a malignant brain tumor. Murcer, 62 when he died Saturday, was among the best ballplayers of his era –a Gold Glove winner and a five-time All Star. He went on to a stellar career as one of the best TV announcers the Yanks ever had.

When I was about 12 my father took me to a preseason open house at the Stadium — I got Bobby Murcer’s autograph on a poster, and I still have that autograph. Funny thing, though: I have absolutely no memory of actually meeting Murcer, although I’m sure I must have, however briefly.

What I do remember is Murcer’s dignity and Hollywood-like heroics in the game the Yankees played after the funeral of his best friend Munson, killed in a plane crash in 1979. And I was actually sitting in the upper deck for a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians in which Murcer hit four consecutive home runs over the course of the two games — and, as I recall, nearly hit a fifth-straight homer, sending the Cleveland Indians’ outfielder back to the wall of the short porch in right.

The night before Bobby Murcer died, I went to a minor-league baseball game, which might start some people spewing some of that feel-good Americana pseudo-poetic nonsense spread by the likes of Bart Giamatti and in movies like “Field of Dreams” and “The Natural”and the PBS TV series by Ken Burns…the notion that baseball is a comforting game because the goal of the game is to make it home safely. Well, OK, it’s harmless, but that pop psychology interpretation of baseball is not the baseball I know.

Nevertheless…I do hope and pray that the Yankee hero of my childhood, a good ballplayer and a good man named Bobby Murcer, is now safe at home.