THE YEAR I PLAYED FOR THE NEW YORK YANKEES
Inside the Tortured Mind of a 10-Year-Old Boy
I wish I could feel it again.
I so wish I could feel it again – even for a few seconds.
I want it to come back. I want to be 10 years old again, feeling the pure delicious joy that I felt when I heard Mel Allen say, “HERE’S THE PITCH AND IT’S A POP-UP. RIZZUTO GOES BACK, BACK AND HE’S GOT IT. THE YANKEES WIN THE WORLD SERIES!”
Bad marks at school ... Miss O’Conner screaming at me in front of the whole class, saying that I was a dope who couldn’t add or spell ...
Nameless fears ...
Worrying about whatever I overheard my parents worrying about ...
It all disappeared in the glow of a Yankees victory.
I didn’t know then that one can never feel that kind of joy again. It’s reserved for a 10-year-old kid whose every thought was about playing for the Yankees.
It goes away before you know it and one day the hormones show up and, yes, for the rest of your life you want your favorite team to do well, but it just isn’t the same. Not the same, and it will never again be the same.
When I was 10 years old the devil could have owned my soul just by saying, “And in return for an eternity in hell I will make you a Yankee ballplayer for one just minute.”
“DEAL,” I would say.
Forget that I was a terrible athlete. Forget the terror of trying to catch a Spaldeen and feeling it bounce off my fingers.
Forget that my hands were made of concrete, and the balls bounced off them like they hit a trampoline.
Forget that I was a terrible athlete in the Graveshead section of Brooklyn – a neighborhood of great athletes.
Forget the feeling of shame when the two best players on my street would line up and pick two teams and in the end I would hear the thoughtless, “I took Jerry last time ... OK, forget it. Jerry, you play right field.”
Right field. The Siberia of the Brooklyn sandlots.
You went out to right field and you and your teammates prayed that no one would hit you the ball.
That was all OK because at night, lying in bed, I was playing for the Yankees.
Every night there was a conversation in my head with Phil Rizzuto. “Nice play, kid,” Rizzuto would say. “Hey Yogi, did you see that catch?”
Yogi would say, “Kid, you saved the game when you landed in the stands. Hope you didn’t hurt yourself, but you took a home run away from them. Best catch I’ve ever seen.”
I never made an out. I got a hit every time I came up to the plate. I hit a lot of game-winning home runs.
And three Italians – Rizzuto, Berra and DiMaggio – were my close friends.
They were with me when I fell asleep.
Then one day, only a few years later, Rizzuto, Berra and DiMaggio were replaced in my bed and in my imaginary dreams by a girl named Carol Sarlano, who sat next to me in the seventh grade and was just starting to fill out a training bra.
Cut to 20 years later. I was writing advertising at Ted Bates Advertising.
One of my clients was Ozone hair spray.
Since there were few grooming products for men in those days, I decided I would try to get men to use their wives’ Ozone hair spray.
If I could get that to happen it would increase the usage of Ozone and, as it turned out a few years later, it would start a trend of hair sprays for men.
So I needed three rough, tough men for three television commercials.
I selected three Yankees: Yogi Berra, Joe Pepitone and Hank Bauer, a tough ex-Marine.
The only copy was the voice-over line as Yogi was spraying his hair with Ozone:
“YOGI BERRA IS ONE OF THOSE SISSIES WHO USES HIS WIFE’S HAIR SPRAY.”
Sissies. I flinch at the word today, but before women’s groups and gay groups come and try to burn a cross on my front lawn, this was 1965. This was the way people talked. This was part of the language. No one objected to the word “sissies.” It ran on every network without a single consumer protest.
When the time came to shoot the commercial, I was a bundle of nerves.
I was going to meet Yogi Berra – my hero.
He came in and was soft-spoken, shy and as sweet and nice as I always knew he would be.
My childhood friend Phil Pepe, who was writing about sports for the New York Daily News, introduced us.
“Yogi, this is Jerry.”
“Jerry, meet Yogi.”
Then Phil said, “Yogi, Jerry and I grew up together.”
Yogi gave me a shy smile and said, “That’s OK. Everybody has to grow up with somebody.”
That was it. My very own Yogi quote. A Yogism just for me.
“Everybody has to grow up with somebody.”
There will never be another Yogi.
But over the years, millions of 10-year-old kids went to bed and dreamed they were Mickey Mantle or Thurman Munson or Reggie Jackson.
And if you have a 10-year-old son or grandson you can bet that tonight, when he goes to bed, he’s going to dream he’s playing ball alongside Aaron Judge, Brett Gardner, Gary Sanchez.
And you can bet in his dreams his hit will be the hit that wins the Yankees the World Series.
Baseball never changes. Nor do the dreams of 10-year-old kids.
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