Book excerpt: From “Going 15 Rounds With Jerry Izenberg: A Collection of Interviews With The Legendary Columnist”
Chapter 4: Unforgettable Baseball Memories
By Ed Odeven
While the New York Yankees were collecting World Series titles year after year, Jerry Izenberg was developing a lifelong passion for baseball following his beloved Newark Bears in his New Jersey hometown in the 1930s.
Decades later, Izenberg vividly recalls the sights and sounds and personalities that made the Newark Bears an institution and a great International League team in that era.
Owned by the New York Yankees, the Bears featured a number of players who became stars for the Yankees. They played their home games at Ruppert Stadium, named for Yankees owner Colonel Jacob “Jake” Ruppert, a beer mogul, who also owned the Newark farm club.
“When you would hear the Bears, growing up there, on the radio station … (they had) an announce named Earl Harper,” Izenberg recalled decades later. “And a guy hit a home run, and he (Harper) would throw a box of Wheaties (cereal) down the street behind home plate for the guy. It was a community. It’s wholly different than it is now. It was a great community. It was a community thing where if you hit a home run at the right time … you got a free hat from Adam’s Hats. They had a booster club that met on Wednesdays, but I was too young to go to any of that…”
Looking back at the Great Depression-era baseball in Newark, Izenberg talks of the days when the ushers didn’t follow a by-the-book set of rules.
“It was an unwritten rule. If you were a kid, you got to sneak into the ballpark without paying somehow,” he explained. “If you stayed in the bleachers, they left you alone, unless it was a big weekend game or a big night game. But if you got into the grandstand, they’d kick you out of the park.
“So I get into the grandstand one day, I think I was 8 or 9 years old, and there was a pitcher walking down toward the bullpen,” he went on, “and I’m asking him for an autograph, I’m leaning over the side. And I probably had three of them already, but I’m asking for another one.
“And when you are 9 years old, or 10, to you they’re ballplayers, they’re not people; they’re not people who didn’t get laid last night, or (have) stomach distress, or whose kid is sick. That’s what happens with human beings…
“So I was a snide kid. I had found a scorecard on the ground and he picked it up and threw it in the air and kept walking.”
Izenberg would never forget it.
“Well, I was devastated,” Izenberg, the longtime columnist says now. “I mean, if this had been the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Jersey City Giants, I could understand but this is bigger — one of my guys. And I’m fighting back tears and a woman comes and takes me by the arm and says, ‘Come with me.’
“And I figure, ‘Oh, god, she works for the ballclub, and I’m going to get kicked out.’
“And she walks me down the third-base line, which was where the Bears dugout was, and there’s a group of women sitting and she says, ‘Sit with these women. I’ll be right back.’
“And so I’m sitting there and I don’t know what the hell’s happening, and she walks down the steps and leans into the Bears dugout. She comes back with the baseball. And she’s got it in her hand and she puts it in my hand. And she says, ‘This is an autographed baseball with every member of the team on it.’
“And I looked at her like she came from outer space.”
Then the woman proceeded to ask Izenberg a question: “Have you ever heard of (George) Stirnweiss?”
“Oh yeah, I come to watch him all the time.”
“Well, I’m Mrs. George Stirnweiss.”
From 1943-50, Stirnweiss, a second baseman nicknamed “Snuffy,” played for the New York Yankees. He was an American League batting champion (1945, batting .309), which was lowest recorded top average in either the AL or NL since Elmer Flick of the Cleveland Naps (now called the Indians) led the Junior Circuit with a .308 average in 1905.
But back to their time in Newark and despite their age difference, Izenberg, not yet a teenager, and the ballplayer’s wife became friends.
“I was just enthralled. I’d see her in the ballpark and I’d wave, and she’d wave back,” Izenberg revealed.
He found a loyal supporter in her, too.
Or as Izenberg put it: “She’d tell the ladies (via an introduction), ‘This is Jerry, and he’s a friend of mine.
So if he has any trouble with the ushers, you bring him over and let him sit with you.’ So it was a good summer.”
Fast forward to Sept. 16, 1958, when there was a train disaster in New Jersey that killed a reported 48 passengers, including Stirnweiss, who was en route to New York for work.
“So I wrote a column about it and about her,” he said.
“About two weeks later, I got this neatly typed envelope. I opened it up … and I cannot read one word, and there’s a little typed note that says, ‘I am Mrs. Stirnweiss’s nurse, but she wanted to write this herself. If you can’t understand this, she’s really saying that she’ll never forget you.
“That’s a wonderful postscript but it’s not the end of the story.”
What happened next?
“Years later,” he went on, “when I was writing this autobiography (“Through My Eyes: A Sports Writer’s 58-Year Journey,” published in 2009), I had some confusion about where she was from, or whether she was from Newark or whatever, and I knew that her husband had coached football at Red Bank Catholic High School at one time.
“I called down there and they had no records of anything, but the guy said, ‘We know who he is and his daughter tended bar down here. So I called the bar and the guy said, ‘She doesn’t work here anymore, but she comes in a lot on weekends. I’ll tell her you’re looking for her,’ because he knew who I was because of The Ledger.
“So about a week later the phone rings and it’s a woman on the phone and she says, ‘Is this Jerry Izenberg?’
And what was her response? “At last we meet. The little boy with the baseball. My mother told me that story a thousand times.”
Without hesitation, Izenberg admits his childhood revolved around baseball — and understandably so.
“My father (Harry) had been a professional baseball player,” he points out. “Long before I was born. If you put that together, you can understand baseball was my love for years and years and years. Not so much anymore, but then it was.
“That sort of was my boyhood, centered around the Bears and my father one day said to me — (and) he never had any money; during the Depression he worked seven days a week in a dye house — ‘What are you doing Saturday?’
“I might have been 11 or 12. I said, ‘Playing ball.’
“He said, ‘No you’re not.’
“I said, ‘I didn’t do anything.’
“He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re going with me. I’ve got tickets somewheres.’
“So we get on the bus and we go to New York, and we get off the bus and we get on the subway. Now I had never been on a subway — and that’s exciting for a kid, you know?
“And then we’re underground, we come out and we started walking up the steps, and there it is in front of me, the Polo Grounds. There should have been organ music or something. I was going to the cathedral of Notre Dame, and it’s all sold out.
“So my father says, ‘Are you selling standing-room (only tickets) still?’ And the guy says, ‘Yeah, we’re selling some standing room.’
“Well, I want two tickets,” Izenberg remembered his father saying.
“And we went and we walked up the ramps that lead to the upper decks, and we stood on the ramp and all I could see was the pitcher’s mound, and my father said, ‘Don’t worry, that’s all you need to see.’ ”
Longtime Giants star Carl “Meal Ticket” Hubbell started the game for the Giants –“My father called him the greatest left-hander that ever was. That’s his opinion, but I think it was pretty close to it.” — in a contest against the Brooklyn Dodgers, “who had the most loyal following of any baseball team in America.”
The Dodgers were the stronger team in those days, noted Izenberg. And even in the crosstown clashes, when the games were held in Upper Manhattan, crowds of 50,000-plus packed the Polo Grounds to watch the Dodgers and Giants, but “it was predominantly Brooklyn (supporters).”
In Izenberg’s recollection, Hubbell tossed six innings that day, “six magnificent shutout innings, with my father saying, ‘Watch this, look at that,’ and then the Dodgers just kicked the crap out of ’em.”
“He was at the end of his career and he pitched with his head,” said Izenberg.
“So Mel Ott, who was the manager, comes out to get him and my father says, ‘You should cheer because this might be the last time anyone sees him pitch,’ and as he’s leaving the field, the whole stadium, which was predominantly Dodgers, stands up and cheers for him, and it said a lot about the way baseball was followed and played in those days.”
In summary, Izenberg described it all this way: “That was my baseball boyhood. I was not a very good player. I played second base because that’s what my father played.”
When it came to covering baseball, Izenberg said “he had the greatest rapport” with Roger Maris of the New York Yankees, the left-handed slugger who surpassed Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in 1927 with his remarkable 61 in 1961.
Through his work covering the Yankees, Izenberg would see Maris on a regular basis.
It involved an honest give-and-take. Or as Izenberg put it: “I’d come over and he’d say, ‘I just don’t feel like talking today,’ and I’d say, ‘Well, that’s OK.’ ”
Maris was bombarded with questions like “Why didn’t you hit a home run today?” Izenberg recalled.
“And then all these people (are ordered) to get the women’s angle, get this, get that. People who don’t know a baseball from an egg are asking these idiotic questions … and the thing of it was Maris was very forthcoming with me, and I knew the Maris that other people didn’t know.”
“People wanted to talk about how rotten he was,” Izenberg said.
The columnist offered a much different point of view.
“(In 1985), Maris is dying of cancer in (Houston) in the hospital, and really dying — he’s dead about 15 days later. … And he’s in tremendous pain, but he really is getting a rapport with his doctors,” Izenberg said.
One of the doctors informed the ailing Maris about “a new experimental drug that they’d like permission to try it on you,” Izenberg said.
Maris asked for details.
One of the doctors then said, according to Izenberg, “Roger, I’ve got to be honest with you. I don’t know what it’s going to do. But we’ve got to find out because it may be of importance to us, and it’s not going to cure you but it might help somebody else down the line.”
And how did the former baseball slugger react to the doctor’s comments?
Maris said, “Go ahead. I’ll take the drug.”
Years later, Izenberg sees how some viewpoints are difficult to alter.
“He got a bum rap,” Izenberg said, “that he was a lazy outfielder.”
Izenberg illustrated his point with a tale from the 1962 World Series — Game 7, Giants vs. Yankees at Candlestick Park. The Yankees won the game, 1-0, to claim their 20th world title. In that deciding game, in the ninth inning, Willie Mays slugged a two-out double to the right-field corner, and Maris fielded the ball.
The veteran scribe picks up the account here: “Roger Maris threw a ball from the outfield that kept (Matty Alou) on third base (and prevented him from tying the game). If he doesn’t make that throw, they could’ve lost the game.
“Then everyone forgets during the summer after his home run (record) … that there’d be an announcement in the press box: The medical staff says about Roger’s wrist it’s a day-to-day proposition. They’d keep saying that.
“Well, it wasn’t a fuckin’ day-to-day proposition at all; it was never going to be the way it was. And, in fact, he played in the World Series and hit a home run and swung with one hand, one arm if you want to put it that way, because the wrist was so bad.
“But how did he break that wrist? And everyone in the press box would smirk when the PR guy said the day-to-day proposition.
“Well, shit, they were giving the impression that Roger was goofing off.
“How did Roger get that wrist (injury)?” he repeated. “Sliding home and an umpire stepped on it on a close play at the plate … and they (the press) never bothered to explain that…”
What stands out about Izenberg’s relationship with Maris?
“He was an interview that I was pleased that I could do what I needed to do,” he revealed. “I didn’t impose on him, but he didn’t impose on me.”
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