The Monk, the Mick, and Me
I was a far better student than an athlete. But actually discovering that one does not have a great deal of athletic talent is not always so easy to admit.
Having grown up in the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s New York Yankees, my love of the team caused me to equally love the sport. This was the era when the game was dominated by the likes of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Billy Martin and Whitey Ford. It was also a time when it seemed inconceivable for the team never to go all the way every season and ultimately to win the World Series.
A friend who lived up the street, Armand, shared the same enthusiasm for the both the game and the Yankees that I did. He was an overweight affable, good-natured blob known by the neighborhood kids as “Tons of Fun.”
We set up a pitcher’s mound and practiced frequently after school, giving each other mutually positive reinforcement by telling ourselves how great we both were.
What I did not realize was that Armand was fat, slow, not very athletic, that mutual ingratiation is never a substitute for actual talent, and that no matter how good you think you are, there is always someone else out there who is infinitely better.
Thus, when I eventually tried out for the Little League A-teams, I was hopelessly outclassed as a pitcher. I could not believe how hard some of the other boys could throw, had to give it up, and then rotated to second base. It a new problem arose. Since I had received no real formal baseball instruction I also failed at that position, and was told I should go down to the B teams where the disgraced second tier players did not even get uniforms; but only hats.
Life in the minor leagues was equally disappointing as I gave up 12 runs in one inning the first time I ever pitched, was again banished to second base, then yet again to right field, and only then as a bench substitute.
Being in abject fear of getting hit in the face, I was terrible at charging ground balls. I was also unable to judge fly balls because I had to wear glasses that were always bouncing on my nose, which caused distortions in the arc of the fly balls as I ran to catch them. It is difficult enough to follow something traveling through the sky in an arc as you run for it without it also zigzagging in an unfocused blur at the same time.
I lasted two seasons before I realized that I could not hit, pitch, field or catch, so with great sadness about my spastic lack of coordination, hung up my spikes for good.
My brother’s interpretation of how to stay on the A-team was quite more simplified. He maintained that as long as your father was a coach, you got to stay no matter how bad you were, or if nothing else you just sat at the end of the bench. But you still looked good because you had a uniform.
For us this would never be an issue, as our father did not even go to any of our games.
However, I still attended opening day at the A-Leagues, with its hoop-la parade always being very envious of the athletic skills exhibited by the other boys, how their parents were always so proud of them and especially how the girls seemed to gravitate to them with open armed bear hugs at the end of every game. Consigned to the sidelines, I had to be content with becoming expert on charting the scoring hieroglyphics on the inning sheets. Live balls were elusive, but the science and math of what they had already done, I could deal with.
As a young boy I was a baseball fanatic but never got to see the Yankees play at the Stadium because my father, being a New York Giants, fan took me instead to the Polo Grounds where we usually got cheap bleacher seat tickets.
All was not lost however because we always had a bird’s eye view of Willie Mays playing center field.
Except for that, trying to watch baseball action a mile away from the infield was a disappointing bore; including the fact that my own favorite team was not on the field. It was also boring for the pair of fellow bleacher rats sitting in front of us as these two Hispanic macho-men made mutual dollar bets on how long each one or the other could hold out while they tried to set the back of each others hands on fire with magnifying glasses.
My father told me stop watching them and to at look at Wille instead, but statistically speaking how much action during a game does a center fielder really get anyway? It was complete ennui except for Willie’s one-handed basket catches, which I was also told by my father not to try and emulate.
- Willie can catch those because he’s a pro. Don’t do that in Little League.
- Don’t worry dad. When all you do is sit on the bench it doesn’t count if you drop them.
This great disappointment however was allayed in a completely unanticipated and surprising way.
When Dan Topping owned the Yankees, he would sometimes bring the players out to the East End of Long Island in a gray twin-engine seaplane for a day of golf at the famous National or Shinnecock Golf Clubs. Shinnecock, being less than a mile away was within easy walking distance from our house.
The seaplane would touch down on Shinnecock Bay, and then come up the Fort Pond channel to finally sweep up onto a concrete landing ramp across the street from my father’s summer cottage. Every time it came in all the children on the street would race over to see who was getting out, then watch various celebrities being picked up to be whisked off in limousines.
One day the guests were Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford.
For me it was a dream come true to actually see my baseball heroes as close as a stones throw away and not like tiny tin soldiers. However, we were always admonished by our parents not to harass the men by maintaining a respectful distance.
- Those men are coming out here to relax. They don’t need a bunch of little boys pestering after them.
It was too bad for my financial future that I did not disobey my mother and get my baseball trading cards or a new baseball personally autographed by those three heroes. Then again it probably would have made little difference anyway, and a worse catastrophe if the cards or balls had actually been signed, because after I went to college my mother threw out the shoebox filled with a collection of 1950s and 1960s cards. I thought they would be safe if I left them hidden under my bed.
- Hey, Mom. Where is my baseball card collection?
- I cleaned up your bedroom and threw out that shoebox. It looked to me like a pile of cruddy cardboard junk.
- Right then. Mickey, Whitey, Yogi and Willie were consigned to the same fate as Clarabelle’s little loaf of Wonder white bread?
- What in the world are you talking about?
Much later in life I came to appreciate that throwing out a man’s sentimentally cherished “good stuff” is a phenomenon endemic to the female gender. It is an innately bad trait that can be ascribed not only to mothers, but also to wives.
- Hey honey. Where’s my favorite Yankee’s World Series t-shirt from 1978?
- In the Goodwill bin. It had a hole in the armpit. Yellow sweat stains in the armpits too. Yuck.
Another promising baseball adventure turned up when the family owning the summer cottage next door said they were personal friends with Bob Sheppard, the long enduring Yankee Stadium PA announcer, who had been invited to spend a weekend.
My excitement about this visit ended as another great disappointment when the man turned out to be an aloof arrogant snob, leaving me with the feeling that he thought of most children as being nothing more than intolerable annoying nuisances.
He was condescending, extremely full of himself and would not even give me an autograph, because he said he was “on vacation.” Having lost all respect for him, I harbored my own personal contrary opinion, when for the next few decades I would subsequently hear his name touted, lauded or praised on television broadcasts by the booth announcers.
Despite the numerous accolades, I told people that when I had met him as a child he was just an egotistical dick-head.
Much later in life, when I discovered that my father had a friend, “Monk” De Palo, who owned a bar in White Plains, appropriately known as De Palo’s Dugout, I then had the pleasure of at least a few vicarious baseball thrills.
Monk was about six feet tall, stocky; broad shouldered and sported one of those all too lengthy iron grip handshakes that could break your knuckles if you didn’t pull your hand out fast enough. He also spoke in gruff, gravel baritone intonations that highlighted his street talk jargon.
I have no clue where his nickname originated, because there was nothing at all religious about the man’s aura, or persona, or what he actually did for a living.
Even my father did not know the derivation of the name. He was plain, simply and always: The Monk.
When he was standing in front of someone wanting to make a point in a conversation, Monk had the peculiar habit of jabbing the person in the chest with his index finger as he prattled on. The jabs usually hit the same spot between the left second or third ribs, were somewhat painful, and always produced the desired effect of keeping one’s attention; if not to what he was saying then certainly always to force one to continuously back away while still having to face him.
A conversation with Monk could start in the kitchen only to end up on the porch on the far side of the house because of the constantly halting but necessary bruise saving retreat.
Monk would frequently entertain the Yankee players in his establishment, ergo the derivation of its name, and would sometimes even carouse with them when they went on their drinking sprees.
He loved to tell the story of going over to the bars in Northern New Jersey one night with Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra and Billy Martin, then staying out with them to four a.m. on a marathon drinking bender.
The Yankees had a one o’clock afternoon home game the next day after this foray and Monk had meandered his way into the Yankee locker room just before game time. He found Mickey mantle hunched over on the bench in front of his locker with his head in his hands trying to shake off the ravages of the colossal hangover he had procured the night before in the drinking orgy.
The Monk said to him:
- So Mickey. How do you expect to play today? You can’t even stand up.
The Mick replied:
- I don’t know Monk. But I have to play. I can’t let the fans or the team down. But I’m too wasted to be able to run the bases, so I guess I’ll just have to go out there and hit homers.
- Yeah right. You can’t walk and you can’t even see straight.
The Monk walked away incredulously shaking his head, wondering how Mantle had even been able to show up, much less even play. He then went out to see the game, and proceeded to watch his friend go three for three.
Three hits. All of them home runs.
Another story that Monk liked to tell, occurred at a time that the Yankees became interested in foreign players and wanted to bring some Japanese ballplayers over to give them a look and a tryout. They asked Monk if he could put some of them up in his house, to which he readily agreed, but the head count was too high. Monk then called Billy Martin and asked him if he could house a couple of the players.
- O.K. Monk, but if I take them in, don’t expect to see them at tryouts tomorrow.
When the Monk asked why, Billy told him:
- Those are the bastards who started World War Two. They bombed Pearl Harbor, they killed our boys, and now you tell me they want to play baseball. Baseball is an American game, it’s a game only for Americans and it’s only a game for Americans to play. Yeah. I’ll put ‘em up in my bedrooms, but they won’t be coming down to breakfast, because while they’re asleep I’m going to stand in the door with a flame thrower and roast the little creeps just like they were in a foxhole.
Needless to say, the Oriental players had to put up with cramped quarters, but remained alive and well by staying with The Monk or anyone else other than Mr. Martin.
It’s just a good thing for Billy that he didn’t live long enough to see not only multi-million dollar contracts for Japanese players, but also the Red Sox playing opening day in 2008 in Tokyo. I wonder what he would have had to say about that.
Athletic talent is an elusive, largely innate trait much of which is based on eye-hand coordination and facile muscle memory.
Some individuals are born with these certain exceptional genetic gifts that others simply do not have or can never even cultivate. On the flip side, who knows how many more unidentified people live and die without ever having the chance to be “discovered”, although they too might possess this special gift?
Some fortunate athletes do not have to work at all, or certainly not very much, on their natural talents. The great American golf professional of the early 1900s, John Travis, first took up the sport at age thirty-five winning his first tournament only seven months later. By age thirty-eight he had won the U.S. Amateur Championship.
John McEnroe Senior was a club tennis player when he took is eight-year-old son there to see if he might enjoy playing. The first time John Junior picked up a racket he was able to contact the ball with ease, and within a few years the young lefty had beaten all the teenage players in the organization.
Other athletes such as the golfer Nick Faldo have to constantly work at developing or maintaining their mechanical skills, but nevertheless still have to graft all of that onto an innately gifted predisposition.
Some athletes like Tiger Woods do not know anything other than what they have always done. Tiger started playing golf when he was barely able to stand up. But he also had “the gift.”
The golfer, Bruce Leitzke, rarely practiced, played only half the PGA tour events, yet maintained a ranking as a top ten golfer. He stated in interviews that it was more important for him to spend time with his family than to trudge around on the Tour week after week. He also said that he hated to practice. Ergo, he did not.
Then there are the unfortunate individuals with great innate talent like John Daly, who seem to have little appreciation for their gift and waste it in the clutches of personal demons, addictions or proclivities, almost before they even make a great enduring name for themselves.
For the most part, the rest of us ordinary folk will never develop any talent no matter how hard we work at it, how much time we put into it, how many lessons we take, or how much money we dole out trying and buying the new equipment we believe will automatically make us great. Most hack amateurs and club players of any sport fall into this zone, as did my little league-pitching career.
The general public has a great affinity and admiration for that fractional percentage of individuals who can repeatedly do the marvelous things that the rest of can only dream about.
Subsequently, we pay out enormous amounts of cash for the privilege of actually seeing it so that we can participate at our own vicarious levels.
We make sports heroes into golden idols and then establish love-hate relationships with them.
This outlay of public cash, which has made professional sports a multi-billion-dollar machine as well as the corporate advertising that follows, then recycles this money as it both panders to and then subliminally redirects its consumer’s tastes. Recycling the cash has also made sports into a multi-billion-dollar perverted monster.
I am consistently amused by the “wanna-be” sports fan: The obese armchair couch-potato athlete who in becoming the know-it all critic, takes great delight in constantly castigating or second-guessing his heroes, eating and talking at the same time while beer and hot dog mustard dribbles down his chin.
This is the great irony of the less than capable price gouged ticket holder telling the overpaid ultra capable sports professional how to better perform his job.
- Look at that play. He stinks. Even I could do better than that.
Fat chance. Literally, because this is the same corpulent guy who can’t even make it up two flights of stairs without requiring oxygen supplements.
Mickey Mantle was a natural born baseball player who although being plagued by the knee injuries that limited his speed and caused him considerable pain, was still able to overcome this obstacle to become one of the greatest who ever played the game.
Team mates like Billy Martin would say that Mantle was also the most powerful hitter to have ever played leaving many people to this day wondering what he could have accomplished if his knees had been healthy.
Today’s power hitters do it with steroids or testosterone supplements while Mantle did it with bad knees and hangovers
He was also the first professional baseball player to make an annual salary of $100,000, which in itself was an enormous milestone at the time, so much so that it made headlines in The New York Daily News.
Unlike today’s players, he was paid for past performance and not given a seven figure prospective contract that paid him simply for showing up at work.
At the same time, he was also one of the greatest examples of a high profile God gifted talent who simultaneously played the game of self-destructive behavior to perfection by batting 1.000 when it came to personally inflicted abuse.
He was able to maintain his performance levels over a long period of time, without having to work very hard at it, being able to quit at the top before the demons, the professional parasites, or the wanna-bes, that always seem to lurk at the fringes of professional sports were able to bring him down and to drag him away across the River Styx.
On May 13, 1955, Mickey Mantle hit three home runs in a single game.
On the night of May 12, 1955 he was out hitting the bars.
If I knew I was going to live this long, I probably would have taken better care of myself.
(Mickey Mantle: While waiting for a liver transplant donor)