The School That Ruth Built
Dedicated to Mark, our Dads (May They Rest in Peace) and the 1960-1964 N.Y. Yankees
ays of sunlight poured through the windows of my classroom in the public school located at the corners of West Kingsbridge Road and Heath Avenue. It was unusually warm within our cozy neighborhood at this southwest corner of the Bronx on this late April day. I looked up from my composition notebook in class 5-3, towards my teacher. I then glanced many feet above her head. The minute hand ticked slowly around the General Electric insignia of the large school clock which hung high up on the front wall of the classroom. The ticks seemed to slow down as dismissal time approached. Five minutes to three. "C'mon", I silently implored the clockwork mechanism. "Let's go...for cryin' out loud"! I looked back towards Mrs. Brennan, hoping that she would be giving the signal for the class to pack up. We would then line up at the door for departure; girls on one side, boys on the other, in size places.
No signs of movement. I peeked up again at the clock in hopes that it somehow would have picked up its momentum. No dice! The second hand was now crawling downward in slow-motion descent. By the time the pointy red tip had slogged down from the 3 and had rounded the corner of the 6 to start its gravity-defying ascent, Mrs. Brennan had looked at me. Embarrassed at her catching me peering clock-ward, I worriedly wondered how long her gaze had been locked in. She smiled warmly towards me. My apprehension was calmed. The edges of my mouth may have betrayed the beginnings of a reciprocal grin. Hopefully, my classmates didn't notice, for I couldn't openly let on that I actually liked my teacher. In the macho code of 1963, no normal eleven-year-old boy would.
"OK children, settle down, gather up your things and remember to do your homework."
Finally, mercifully, at 2:59 pm we were dismissed. One minute of bonus time. Every minute counted, for I was in more of a hurry than usual to get home. I burst through the exit door with my classmates. Torrents of children from grades 1-through-6 streamed out the exits. A virtual bottleneck of pedestrian congestion swarmed on the streets leading away from school, coming to a grinding halt at the traffic lights and expanding in width where our two crossing guards were on duty: one at Bailey Avenue and the other at Exterior Street. The lights turned green and each crossing guard took three quick strides out into the street, then waved her white gloved hand, urging us slowly forward with instructions not to run. We moved at the pace of overfed water buffalo, packed in tight to one another for protection. I yearned to begin a lion-like sprint on the outside of the herd. We moved west, taking the pedestrian overpass of the Major Deegan Expressway, then north, still tightly herded. As my feet lit upon West 225th Street, concluding the crossing guard supervised portion of our journey, I broke to the outside of the pack, first to a trot, then to an all-out sprint. What a feeling of freedom. The satisfaction of speed. Cutting quickly and smoothly, without a hint of wasted effort. No huffing or puffing. Not a step wasted. This was what is was to be eleven years old. On this beautiful Spring day, long before impending adulthood, the biggest concern in the world was to get home as early as I could. I and my friend, Mark Vosk, had a complex scheme to formulate.
I crashed through from outdoors to inside my building, still on the run, lifting off the ground, body catapulted from a jump off my right foot, shoulder first, into the heavy metal door, while depressing the handle with my thumb. The door swung violently into the lobby. I zoomed towards the elevators, past the rows of bronze mailboxes on either side. Having beaten the mob home from school, I entered the elevator car alone.
I expressed my excess energies physically in the ride up to the thirteenth floor by "wrestling" with myself. The enclosure of the elevator resembled the rope-enclosed professional ring. The hand rails on the inside were approximately waist-high, as were the ropes of a real ring. The material of the inner shell of the passenger car of the Otis elevator somehow had an elasticity, a little "give" to it. This allowed the self-hurled body to bounce off the side of the elevator, which were now bouncy ring ropes. This was accompanied by a heavy sense of vibration and an audible reverb, which added to the drama of the match. I could almost hear the introductions of the fighters, as would be broadcast on WOR, Channel 9. "And in this corner of the ring", announcer Bob Dunphy intoned, "the gentle giant weighing 714 pounds...Haystacks Calhoun. And his opponent, the young upstart from the pampas of South America, weighing 175 pounds, the nimble and swift Argentina Apollo! And refereeing this non-title bout, ex-boxing great...Two-ton Tony Gallento!" The bell at imaginary ringside sounded with five quick strikes: DING DING DING DING DING, and the fight between myself and myself, representing the two wrestlers, was on.
When the elevator reached the thirteenth floor with a rumble and a jolt, my now sweaty personage flung the door open to its widest arc before running down the long, narrow hallway toward 13B, the last apartment on the left. I raced the closing elevator door and won by tagging my apartment door before the elevator door closed shut.
"Bobby, is that you?" my mom screeched from the living room, as I unlocked the door.
"Yeah, mom," I yelled back to her from the kitchen, where I poured milk and grabbed a Ring Ding. And like the blond-haired kid on the swing who sang in the commercial: "Ring Ding, Ring Ding wish I had ANOTHER Ring Ding," I, too, wished I could have another. And there was another one left, but if I'd eaten that one also, my mom would have "moi-der-ized" me, as Moe of the Three Stooges would have declared. Between bites and gulps, I informed my mom, "I'm going to do my homework after I have a snack, then I'm going up to Vosk's house."
Mark Vosk had become my best friend since he and his family moved into the Projects when he was eight and I was seven. His family had come from the Hunt's Point section of the borough along Fox Street and Southern Bpulevard. Moving into the Marble Hill Projects was a step up. In the projects, our biggest worry was to not be caught by the Housing Authority Police for playing ball in a "No Ball Playing Allowed" zone. We did commit this infraction on a daily basis and were almost never caught. In the mathematically infinitesimal chance we were apprehended for committing such a crime against humanity, we would be issued a five dollar fine, which was to be added to the month's rent our parents would have to pay. Not that it wasn't a big deal, and cause for suspension of weekly allowances for months, but in the section of The Bronx where Mark had moved from, the biggest worry for a kid there was to not be caught up in gang violence and hanged from a lamppost.
With some Ring Ding chocolate coating still on my front teeth, I began
my relatively easy grammar homework assignment, composed of
instructions such as:
"Dominique-inique, inque, son alais tu samp-lem-moh, routeer provay-chan-ton..."
I then shouted in the direction of my mom, who was busy in another room cleaning up my little sister's mess, "OK, mom, I'm goin' up to Mark's". My mom approached from the hall which led to my parents' bedroom on the left, the children's bedroom straight ahead, and the one bathroom, off to the right.
Mom: "What are you going to do up at Vosk's house?"
Me: "Fool around with his tape recorder". Mark had convinced his dad to get him one, after my dad showed him how to record on our Wollensak reel-to-reel portable model.
The answer I had given to my mom was a small fib, as we were not intent on recording the latest songs off the radio, but to devise a foolproof plan to skip school and go to a Yankee game. Mark had concocted this kernel of a scheme yesterday, when we were bemoaning our fate as students, cramped up in a classroom for six hours a day.
Twenty-four hours ago, Mark and I had beaten back two stoop-ball challengers from Playground #2 on our home field. Afterwards, we leaned back on a bench in Playground # 1 (our playground) and pictured ourselves sitting in the cool of the Stadium's reserve seats, gazing out to the beautifully sun-drenched field, with its emerald grass and perfectly smoothed dirt in the infield and on the outfield warning track.
Mark: "There's got to be a better way for us to learn about the world than to be in school every day."
Me: "Yeah...like at a Yankee game."
Mark got quiet. The wheels began to turn. "I'm getting an idea," he said. "Come on up to my house tomorrow after school. We'll figure out a way to get out of the classroom and into the Stadium for a day, at least!" As I departed the elevator on our way upstairs, I heard him mumble to himself, "We'll have to write a letter..."
Having had my snack, and done my homework, I was ready to apply my brainpower to work together with Mark to cement a plan. I darted up the staircase from the thirteenth to the fourteenth floor. I tapped our secret knock on the metal door of apartment 14K (da-da-ta-da-daxi...da, da,corresponding to "Shave and a haircut...two bits"). It was immediately answered as Mark swung the door open. He appeared relaxed in white T- shirt, school pants and black shoes; only half his school clothes having been shed. Soon after greeting me with his ever present smile, I detected that underneath the apparent calm, there was concern. After all, how could we manage it? To get out of school and go to a Yankee game? Could we compose a letter to get us invited to Yankee Stadium as guests of the mighty Yankees? Even if we could, then how would we attempt to convince our parents that this would be a special enough event which could justify missing school? In Jewish culture, even in families where acculturation was already complete over the course of two generations, the fact remained that education was stressed above all else. How could we portray a day at the Greatest Cathedral in the World, the House that Ruth Built, being worth more than another day at P.S. 122?
Mark led the way into his room, the one he shared with his younger brother, Ricky.
Me: So, how do we go about writing this letter to get the Yankees' brass to invite us to the Stadium?
Mark: Well, we want to say that we're diehard fans, and want to use our love and knowledge of the game for some school purpose.
Me: Like sports reporters need to know how to write, spell, and have a good vocabulary?
Me: We should include other areas of school subjects, too.
Mark: Hmm, right.
Me: What else do the Yankees have to do to schedule games, sell tickets, yearbooks, programs and refreshments at the Stadium?
Mark: Hmm... we need to understand marketing, sales, and what a traveling secretary does...maybe the procedure for hiring people to sell hot dogs, soda, ice cream, and beer...
Me: Then there's radio and television advertising.
Mark: Yes, business and broadcasting... OK, I think we're on to something here.
Me: Let's send the letter to the Yankees announcers.
Mark: Which one?
Me: Well, Red Barber sounds like the most stern one. He may spend a lot of time lecturing us.
Me: Phil Rizzuto and Gerry Coleman sound like they're real nice. And not too long ago, they used to play for the Yankees.
Mark: Right. I got it!! Let's send the letter to all of them. This way, no one gets insulted and we'll increase our odds of at least one being interested.
Me: Great idea! How do you say "Dear Mr." to more than one Mr. in a letter? I think I heard there's a way to do that.
Mark: I think we learned that in school. Let me look in the dictionary to see if there's anything in there about it.
And so, we began.
We chose a date which we felt could maximize our chances for the invitation: Wednesday, May 15th, 1963. Though we were young, we knew the most elementary rules of capitalism, and were particularly aware of the Yankee upper management's penchant for not giving too much away for free. A mid-week day game following a night game is pretty much a recipe for fairly low attendance, with a lot of remaining seats available to be donated to a worthy cause; in other words, us, to be written off as a loss.
Our reasoning did not fail. Less than two weeks later, Mark received the letter of invitation from Bob Fishel, public relations director of the New York Yankees. We jumped around the room in delight at the sight of the two beautifully embossed Yankees tickets. Now for the even harder part of our plan: convincing the parents.
Surprisingly, the pitch to our parents, which came the following Friday night in early May, went more easily than we expected. In front of their neighbors, seated on the benches in front of our building, the adults watched our performance in amusement. Using an outline we came up with for our letter, we made a rather convincing argument of learning about the ins and outs of the commerce related to baseball. Our dads were real proud, right off the bat; perhaps living vicariously through their son's schemes of freedom from a day of school at the ball park. The moms were a bit more skeptical, but they too were won over when we discussed volunteering to write a summary of our experiences, a sort of "book report" of our adventures that day to be presented to our classes, should the teachers so desire. Our dads were insistent on just one thing. "Now just make sure you boys are polite to everyone, but remember," Mark's dad, Lenny, bellowed out in his gruff voice, "if anyone asks your opinion about anything, don't be shy, just answer any questions truthfully. Head on! You two are nobody's fools!" "Right", my dad echoed; "just be yourselves and don't be afraid to speak up."
THE CLASSROOM ON 161st STREET
The big day arrived. We got to the ballpark about three hours before game time, just in case we needed to take any special instruction from our hosts. The regular ticket sale gates weren't open yet and neither were the regular public entrances. We entered along the third base/left field side of the stadium through the press box, where we showed our tickets along with the letter from Mr. Fishel. We went to our seats located in the mezzanine deck, right along the railing in Section 8, between third base and home plate. What beautiful seats! We each handed the usher a quarter after he cleaned off our seats with his special fuzz covered mitt which looked as if it was molded to his hand. He then smiled and said he would let the Yankees know we were here.
We were soon taken by Mr. Fishel up to the broadcast booth, where we were introduced to Messrs. Barber, Rizzuto, and Coleman. What a thrill. Jerry Coleman was a war hero as well as a solid player. Red Barber was the consummate professional, a southerner who came to champion Jackie Robinson when announcing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Phil (Scooter) Rizzuto was an absolutely loveable guy. Some believed he should be in the Hall of Fame for his excellent playing career. In any event, he was in everyone's hall of fame of great human beings. The great Joe DiMaggio had commented on their separate careers this way: "People used to love to watch me play baseball. Scooter, they just loved."
We were then told to wait at our seats and given vouchers to be redeemed at the refreshment stands for food and drink. We were deliriously happy. This must be what it is like in Heaven. The minutes, then hours, passed quickly as we ate, watched batting and fielding practice, and gave some thought to the enviable position we were in compared to the suckers who were in still school. A half-hour before game time we were informed that we were to be led into the TV booth where Red Barber would be broadcasting at the start of the game.
Me: This is the greatest thing that ever happened in my life so far.
Mark: Me, too. No doubt about it.
The time flew by. Before we knew it, we were in the broadcast booth, where Red Barber began calling the game.
A HECTORING INTERVIEW
Red: Hello, everybody, this is the 'Ol Redhead, Red Barber, broadcasting this game to you live today from the most beautiful and spacious ballpark in the World- Yankee Stadium, in The Bronx. The weather is a perfect 72 degrees out on the field this fine Spring day, though it's quite a bit cooler up here underneath the cavernous stands. We're broadcasting to you courtesy of WPIX, channel 11 TV and by the generosity of our sponsors, Ballentine Beer, Sinclair Motor Oil, and Camel cigarettes. Well, up in the booth today to share their thoughts with us in the first inning of game number 28 of this still young 1963 season are a couple of upstanding, fine young Yankee fans. Fellas, why don't you introduce yourselves and tell us how old you are?
Mark: My name is Mark Vosk and I'm twelve years old.
Me: I'm Bobby Moslow, eleven years old.
Red: OK, young men, and where are you from?
Mark: Well, Mr. Barber, we both live in the Marble Hill Projects, in the Bronx.
Me: Right. I live on the thirteenth floor, and Mark here lives on the fourteenth.
Red: Now, let me ask you young fellas something. Do you two play much ball yourselves?
Mark: We both play choose-up all the time in the neighborhood and on our Hebrew School Team. I'm going to try out for the junior high school team next season as a pitcher.
Me: I would love to play third base, but as I just barely made the YIK team, and they're going to stick me at second base.
Red: Wait now, hold the phone there, youngster! I have two questions for you based on that last statement. What do you mean by "stuck at second?" and what does "Yech" mean?
Me: Mr. Barber, YIK, that is, the initials Y, I, and K stand for Young Israel of Kingsbridge, our Hebrew School. There's a tradition at YIK that the youngest or smallest guy on the team goes to second base; a sort of on-the-job training. But you're also right in saying YECH, because that does usually describe our quality of play. YECH, as in awful or disgusting. HA HA HA!
Red: Very amusing. You fellas must have had more losses than you can shake a stick at. Now tell us, before we let you go to get some Borden's Brown Cow Dairy Ice Milk, courtesy of the New York Yankees, who are some of your favorite players and are there any players you may not enjoy watching as much? Why don't we start with the oldest first. Mark?
Mark: Plenty of Yankees that I like come to mind, but my absolute favorite is number 7, Mickey Mantle. The Mick! Best switch-hitter in baseball. And how much greater would he be if he only had two good knees?
Me: Bobby Richardson is my favorite. The little guy who gets it done, day in, day out. Well respected on and off the field!
Red: Nice selections by you two. You both seem knowledgeable about the players. Now, any player you hold in somewhat less esteem?
Mark: Well, we don't want to say anything less than complimentary because we respect all the players.
Me: Right. Our big guy friend, Steve Polikoff, who plays for the LIU baseball team, says that any major leaguer is at least one-thousand times better than the average guy who thinks he can play.
Red: True. So true!
[Silence, then, remembering what our dads told us about speaking up.]
Me: But since you did ask, I'd have to say that there's a certain Yankee that when he's out in the field, I do get pretty nervous when a ball is hit his way.
Mark: [instantly knowing to whom I was referring] Yeah. We first pray that the ball not be hit to him. If it is, then we pray that he can somehow corral it.
Red: Who are you boys talking about?
[After looking at each other for a moment, we decide to take the plunge.]
Mark and I at the same time: Hector Lopez.
Red: Well, Mr. Lopez has had some challenges down at third base.
Me: And in the outfield!
Mark: It says in the Yankees Yearbook that Hector said he had read how hard it was to play left field at Yankee Stadium, and this affected his mind and made him an even worse fielder than he is.*
Me: [shaking head in disbelief while wincing] Which is a bit tough to figure out. But the Yanks have some fantastic fielders like Richardson, Kubek, Tom Tresh, Maris, and Mantle in the outfield and the great Clete Boyer down at third base. We're real grateful for that.
Mark: Fielding is real important to us, but I don't want to criticize anyone.
Me: Me neither, but ol' number 11 down there, when trying to catch a grounder to third, he looks like a crazed farmer trying to kill a snake with a rake.** He can cover only a half-step to his left or right. As for arm accuracy, he couldn't throw the ball into the ocean if he was standing more than 30 feet from the shore.
Red: [Clearly wanting to cut any further criticism of any Yankee players short] OK, gentlemen, it was a real experience talking with you both, and I hope that you'll both come back to the ball park real soon.
Mr. Barber quickly cut off his microphone and said to Bob Fishel off- air, "Bob, get these two kids out of here!"
As Mr. Fishel and two security guards escorted us out of the broadcasting booth, I called back to Red, "Sorry I got so worked up, Mr. Barber."
Mark then quickly added, " Thanks for having us."
We were directed back to our seats with a firm warning not to make any more trouble or we'd be thrown out of the Stadium for good.
I turned to Mark and said, "Well, he asked us, didn't he?"
Mark replied, with a big grin on his face, evoking the spirit of Oliver Hardy to my Stan Laurel, "He most certainly did!"
* New York Yankees Yearbook, 1962, 3rd Edition.