Sports Beginnings

by Bob Stonehill

          My parents, Ben and Mildred (Milly) spent most of their free time reading and listening to classical music.  My father early on admonished me in advance, "if you ever have a question about sports, ask your mother."

          So it came as a great surprise to me that on Friday nights, they would turn on the TV, acquired in late 1950, dialing up "The Fights."  Watching two boxers pummel each other into submission was out of character for my intellectual parents. It turned out that a college enrolled boxer named Chico Vejar was the object of their affection.  Not only were there a dozen fighters on the schedule each Friday night, but Chico Vejar didn't fight every week. This one college student would destroy my family’s natural antipathy to boxing, making us a family of steady viewers, if not enthusiasts. 

 

          As for sports, my introduction came in 1946 when one of so called "uncles," all of whom were actually unrelated to us, took my brother and me to Ebbets Field.  We saw the Brooklyn Dodgers play the St. Louis Cardinals. "Uncle Harry" had purchased box seats just off the field which, up to today, are the best seats I've ever had at a sporting event. 

 

          A few years later when I was 10, my older brother Lee and I were enthusiastic Brooklyn Dodger fans.  In that year of 1950, Jackie Robinson was in his 4th year with the team and was the team’s spark plug.  Race to this observer was not an obvious issue.  I never knew that Blacks were banned from baseball until the subject came up at the kitchen table.

 

          Eventually, I became an avid baseball, basketball and hockey fan, with only the sport of football eluding my gaze.  I created a scrap book of all the headlines of the day, ranging from International events to sporting statistics.  I still have the torn and disheveled pages.

 

          Our playground of choice was 46th Street where we played punchball and DOS, a form of stickball.  I never asked my brother how the name DOS came about. One day, Robert Silver, a classmate at PS 150, crossed Skillman Avenue one block into Sunnyside Gardens to throw around a football.  His stinging pass dented my chest as the ball zipped through my hands.  He would later play quarterback on both the Stuyvesant High School. and Columbia University teams.  He played at Randall Island stadium, a game I attended, to compete for the City High School championship. 

 

          My best friend Gene Turitz would pitch to me, using a sewer as home plate.  He provided me with an antique 1930's catcher’s mitt to reduce the pain of his pitches.  Gene and I joined the local Sunnyside Royals baseball team, which used an empty lot opposite the Celtic Apartments on 43rd Street, quite a distance from Sunnyside Gardens.  As the years passed, we wore uniforms and official footwear with cleats.  We traveled to a distant playing field near LaGuardia Airport, and played at the Bryant High School field on 48th Street and Broadway.  We squeezed as many could fit into our manager’s car, and the rest had to take subways, buses or family transportation.  Neither my parents nor few others attended the games. This was in the days before the culture of soccer moms had spread across America.

 

          In the last game of the season, the opposing pitcher was running through our batting order.  One last batter stood in his path to victory and I was that batter.  My father had made his way to the field to drive me home and for the first time I was about to show him my prowess.  I flailed at the pitcher's steaming fastball to end the game, the last of 27 outs.  

 

          It meant nothing to my father who watched the opposing team jump with joy.  My father was there as a disinterested chauffeur, not to root me on.  Sports was not his thing and I didn’t take it personally, but that didn’t lessen my disappointment. This was the only time my father saw me participate in sports, and I was devastated.  The headline in the long Island Star read, "Mateyka Pitches No Hitter to win the Championship.

 

          Gene went on to develop into a high school basketball and baseball player at Music & Art High School, and later at Brandeis University, while my skills would be held in check.

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 Bob's scrapbook  clipping of the eventful game dated October 14, 1954