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Russell Frank: Memories of Mickey and Reggie and Mom and Meryl

by on October 28, 2011 6:01 AM

Two old Yankees sluggers have been in the baseball news of late: Mickey Mantle, who would have reached a milestone birthday last week, and Reggie Jackson, whose heroics in the 1977 World Series were just matched by Albert Pujols in the 2011 World Series. Both names evoke powerful memories.

People always ask me how I can root for the evil Yankees. The simple answer: During the first 10 years of my life, the Yankees played in the World Series eight times. I grew up in New York. How could I not become a Yankees fan? And how could Mickey Mantle, the heart and soul of those teams, not become my favorite Yankee?

The comedian Robert Klein once described himself as one of Mickey's kids – little dudes from in and around New York who grew up worshiping Mickey Mantle. That was me also.

I think I began paying attention to baseball in 1961, the year Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris took aim at Babe Ruth's single-season home run record. But if I had to pinpoint a moment when my attention blossomed into worship, I'd pick Aug. 4, 1963.

My dad (who grew up close enough to Yankee Stadium to have seen Babe Ruth play but never did because he was never a fan and even the price of a 50-cent seat in the bleachers was too steep for his struggling family) took me to a game between the Yankees and the Orioles that day. I can picture myself trying to juggle a scorecard, pencil, hotdog, soda and glove. If my sister Meryl was with us she would have been tanning, holding one of those cardboard reflectors under her chin, eyes closed, oblivious to the game.

The Orioles take a 10-9 lead into the bottom of the seventh. Yankees manager Ralph Houk decides to pinch-hit for the pitcher. Out of the dugout pops the Mick, making his first appearance since breaking a bone in his foot two months ago!

Strike. Swing. Bam! Tie score! And a 9-year-old kid with a scorecard and a glove is in love.

Nowadays, if you love a player, you might be able to get your parents to buy you an exact replica of your hero's jersey. Back then, you applied a Magic Marker to a Fruit of the Loom T-shirt.

Imagine me tackling this job at age 9. It's possible I used a ruler to make the Yankee pinstripes equidistant and straight, but I doubt I had the patience. More likely I meticulously freehanded at first, then started rushing as my hand got tired and my eagerness to suit up intensified.

Picture the marker catching on the fabric and causing a zig here or a zag there.

Picture the last few lines diverging and converging and wiggling like the centerline on a highway on a really hot day.

But picture, finally, the magic. However crudely executed, a blue-striped white shirt with an interlocking N-Y on the left breast and a "7" on the back could not be anything other than a Mickey Mantle jersey, even when worn with blue dungarees and white Keds.

***

It is Oct. 18, 1977, my parents' 36th anniversary. I'm a year out of college, working my first fulltime, permanent job at a printing shop in Santa Clara, Calif. I had offered to take my parents out to dinner, a first, but now I'm torn: It's the sixth and possibly deciding game of the World Series. The Yankees are playing the Dodgers, leading three games to two. I have to watch. My parents, bless their hearts, watch with me.

Reggie Jackson comes up in the fourth. First-pitch home run.

He comes up in the fifth. First-pitch home run.

He comes up in the eighth. First-pitch home run.

The Yankees win the game and the series and since we're on the West Coast, it's early enough for me to keep my promise to take my parents out for dinner. A perfect evening.

I thought of that night last week, on what would have been my parents' 70th anniversary. (My mom, I'm convinced, tried as hard as she could to make it. She fell three months short. My dad still says "we" and "our" when he means "I" and "my.")

And I thought of that night again a few days later, when Albert Pujols matched Reggie with three World Series homers of his own.

Mickey Mantle never did that. All he did was hit a total of 18 home runs in the World Series – the record.

Mantle, who died in 1995, would have turned 80 last week. Meryl, my sun-worshiping sister, turned 65 – same age as Reggie Jackson.

And the leaves fall from the trees and another baseball season is in the books.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for StateCollege.com won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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