Friday, November 15, 2013

My brother swallowed a jawbreaker and other baseball stories

My brother, Mike, was born in the spring of 1958, about twenty months after I entered this world. And while I was never a bully to him, there were times that I could have been kinder. From the earliest days of my memory, we did everything together. One of my earliest play memories was playing football with him in our front yard. To his misfortune, I tackled him beyond the grass and onto the driveway. When I got off of him, he turned around and two of his front teeth were missing. Things like that always seemed to happen to him.

Apparently, one time my dad was walking Mike in a baby carriage and somehow spilled him. Mike dented his head from that episode.

We were playmates and that lasted all through our childhood. Even when other friends were introduced, he and I were together. My older sister and I were planned children, or so we were told. My brother was sort of an oops and surprised the heck out of my parents. They were so stunned that they never gave him a middle name.

A little knowledge like that is never a good thing for children. We never let him forget his mistake status. If he ever complained that he did not have a middle name, we would point out that he was a mistake and lucky he had any names at all. We would tell him to point to his head and say his initials. He would diligently repeat back, "MT." He never understood until years later why we were laughing so hard.

But being the youngest did have some advantages. For example, I knew from an early age that I was not allowed to hit him. Thus, when we had arguments, which were frequent, he could get in a few shots at me and I was not allowed to retaliate. The only thing I could do was wrestle him to the ground and sit on him, which I would do until my long-suffering sister would hear his shouts and come in to rescue him.

My poor sister could not win for losing. My mom was a full-blooded Sicilian-Italian. And in that culture, the male offspring were young gods and female children were slaves. Well, it wasn't that bad, but it was close. She was older than me by four years and spent most of her childhood looking after Mike and me. 

And our little spats drove her crazy. She would come running in and Mike would be crying under my butt and she would slug me hard until I got off of him. That would make me cry and I would bellow that Mike started it. When she asked him, he would always agree. She couldn't win.

One time, I got my sister so mad that she chased me all over the house trying to get a hold of me to throttle me. She couldn't quite get to me and she chased me out the front door. I ran into the garage and the door inside was always unlocked. But this one time, it was not. I was trapped. So I burst out crying. She asked me if I was crying because I felt bad about what I did or because I was scared. I cried out, "Because I'm scared!" She started crying too. She couldn't win.

Anyway, Mike and I, despite our arguments, were playmates. We always seemed to like the same things and I feel badly for the children of today. We spent our entire young lives inventing our own entertainment. If the weather was not raining, we were outside doing something. If it was raining, we made up games or played inside. I can never remember being bored. Ever.

As soon as we could wear baseball gloves, Mike and I would play ball in the backyard. If we weren't doing that, we built our own Matchbox car cities in the clay on the side of the house. We made garages and houses and roads and everything for our cars. New Jersey clay is great stuff. Not only did it pack real good, but we found out early that if you threw a dried clump of it and it hit the ground, it made this poof like thing that looked just like a bomb hit. That was perfect for playing with our army men. 

Naturally, I reached the age of organized ball first. My mom smartly avoided Little League. In our town, you had to try out and it was a status thing. I was "husky" before the sixth grade and the Police Athletic Leagues, or PAL, let everyone play no matter the ability level. That was more my speed. 

With my husky stature, I caught or played first base. I remember being fairly good at either and I hit well in those early days. I remember the kids being waved back when I got up. I liked that.

Mike became the team mascot. He was always there at the practices and I cannot ever remember a game that he was not in the dugout. I guess we called him the batboy, but he did not do very much when it came to chasing bats around. 

One time, we were in the middle of a game and my brother was sucking on a jawbreaker. If you do not know what those are or were, they were about the size of a pinball and the only way to eat it was to put the entire thing in your mouth so you looked like a chipmunk. I think a sadist must have invented them.

My brother had this big old thing in his mouth in the middle of a game and in the heat of some action, he sucked in and the entire thing went down his throat. We all stopped in the dugout because these strange noises were coming from my brother. It was sort of this gurgling, "Ah Ah Ah," kind of thing. Some of us laughed and some of us looked nervous.

Suddenly, he burped and the jawbreaker shot out of his mouth and crashed in pieces against the other dugout wall. We all laughed uproariously, totally unaware that he could have died choking on that thing. Later, either that season or the next one, he was sucking on a large ice cube and the entire thing repeated itself, including the conclusion. Mike was a good mascot. SMH.

My coach, Tom, was terrific with us kids. He was a handsome young Italian guy and we looked up to him. One season, he took us to Yankee Stadium (that would have been Yankee Stadium I) for a game and treated us all. I asked if I could take Mike and he said yes, as long as I kept track of him and he didn't get lost.

Sure enough, the game gets over and we are all getting on the bus and Mike is nowhere to be found. An aggravated Tom had to take me back inside the Stadium and we eventually found him nonchalantly talking to some guy about the game. Tom wasn't pleased with me and I was none too pleased with Mike.

Mike was a better natural athlete than me. He had a much stronger arm and looked smoother and better doing things than me. For example, bowling became a big part of our lives and we joined this Saturday morning bowling league. I remember the head of it being one Mrs Finn. She was a mighty fine looking woman with her miniskirts and perfect hair. We loved to bowl, but she was a big reason for us showing up every week. Her son, M.G. Finn bowled on our team. He was a nice kid. I wonder what ever happened to him.

I had to work hard at bowling and learn how to use the arrows on the lane to set up my shot. Nothing came naturally to me. But my brother always had this smooth delivery with this beautiful and natural curve to his shot. I usually beat him because he might have been a natural, but I was more thoughtful about it.

The same thing with baseball. Once he started playing organized ball, he became a shortstop and was always very good and he hit really well. Once pitchers learned to throw curves, I was toast. Once I lost my baby fat and got my legs under me, I could fly and was the fastest kid on the field. I became the center fielder in the older leagues and I was terrific. But I could not hit because of that curve. One consistent memory was striking out and the third base coach bellowing, "What are you looking at me for?"

I think one year, I had three hits all year in the Pony League and they were all bunts. The only time I remember all year actually hitting the ball with a swing, it went foul. But when I got those three hits on bunts, or when I walked, I was on second because there wasn't a catcher who could throw me out.

It was my brother who was a star in Pony League and he made All Star teams.

There are distinct things I remember. We played just about every kind of ball game we could think of. There was stoop ball in which a rubber ball was thrown against the steps by the player on offense and the other would try to field the rebound. A ground ball past the defender was a single, a fly ball over his head was a double.

There was, of course, Whiffleball, of which we became masters. There was a game my brother and I invented called, "Ground ball to short," which I described in a recent post. And of course, there were the neighborhood stickball games. All you needed were a glove, a Spalding Red Rubber Ball and a broom stick. Two manhole covers were a home run. Those games were epic.

When the weather wasn't good, we made up our own dice baseball game. I remember a seven was a strikeout and a two or a twelve were homers. We would play entire seasons and have statistics and everything. And then we discovered Strat-O-matic Baseball and played entire seasons of that over and over.

We also loved playing Frisbee. I was more accurate. My brother was more fancy. It was so funny how we loved the same things. We lived and died by the Yankees and the Knicks. We kept score on both whenever we watched on television. We liked the same television programs: Star Trek, I Dream of Jeannie, Beverly Hillbillies, Mannix. We liked the same sweet treats.

My brother and I had our spats and I certainly played the older brother role ruthlessly at times, but my entire childhood was spent with him just about every hour of every day we weren't in school. He was my constant day in and day out until I went off to college and he found a new group of friends.

We drifted apart after that and he lived a thousand miles away from my grown up life. But I would not trade my childhood with him for anything. He was the best childhood playmate anyone could have ever asked for. Unlike my brother, my son has a middle name. It is his uncle's.

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