Tim Byrdak is slated to miss six weeks because of knee surgery. While we wish him well, what’s six weeks when compared to 72 years? And what’s torn meniscus cartilage next to a wet schmaltz sandwich?
A wet schmaltz sandwich isn’t yet another injury for which Mets doctors have no known cure. Rather, it was a symptom of why Cousin Milton went on baseball’s inactive list in 1940 and came off it only last week.
Cousin Milton isn’t my cousin, but my friend Jeff’s. Jeff planned a March trip to visit family in Florida, which made for a convenient excuse to take in a Mets-Marlins game at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter (or it might have been the other way around). Cousin Milton joined Jeff, his son, Dylan, and his dad, Murray, at the ballpark, which wouldn’t be terribly noteworthy except it was Milton’s first live, professional action in 72 years.
That’s even longer than it’s taking David Wright to resume baseball activities.
Why the gap? As Milton explained to Jeff, he was a lad in Brooklyn before the war when he got his first chance to attend Ebbets Field. It was, he recalled, the Dodgers and…well, he had to think about it. Maybe it was “a team that isn’t playing anymore; maybe the Pittsburgh Pirates” (Dear Pirates: your profile could use raising). The important thing was there was a ballpark; and there was Milton and his cousin Murray; and there were the schmaltz sandwiches they brought from home; and, most vividly, there was a revelation once the kid got to his seat:
“He said that he never saw grass that green.”
You hear that a lot from adults remembering their first baseball experience, but in this case it’s no default cliché. “You have to remember,” Milton reminded his relatives in 2012, “there was no TV.” To know a lawn grew in Brooklyn, you had to see it for yourself.
Alas, Milton saw the grass, but he didn’t see a game. He saw rain. Great for the grass. Not so great for baseball. “The sandwiches were ruined,” Jeff relays from Milton, leaving one to contemplate how a sandwich featuring rendered chicken fat wasn’t already a precarious proposition. On top of that, Milton caught a cold “and his mother yelled at him for going.”
And he never went again, until last week.
A few things to consider, beyond how someone left the schmaltz out in the rain:
1) Seven decades and change later, much has come, much has gone, but baseball remains. If ever you require additional evidence to back up the “one constant” speech from Field Of Dreams, I’m sure the trustee won’t mind if you call Cousin Milton to the stand.
2) Though Milton caught hell as well as that cold and maybe let baseball slip away from his daily concerns, when the family got together for dinner after the game in Jupiter, he could still rattle off every National League lineup of the era from when he was a boy and he really cared about such things. Says Jeff, “My father never heard him talk about baseball before.” (The one constant through all the years, Ray…the one constant through all the years.)
3) While nobody would dispute Milton’s characterization of the verdant Ebbets outfield, what he might have witnessed before the weather got the best of him, Murray and their lunch can’t help but be a little hazy 72 years after the fact. Milton said the game was rained out in the second inning and Paul Waner, the Pittsburgh Hall of Famer who allegedly received his “Big Poison” nickname from the Brooklyn fans (so as to distinguish him from his brother, Lloyd, the little person — or “poison” in Flatbushspeak), homered. Except when you comb the Sporting News and New York Times archives, you learn it rained through batting practice and fielding drills on Thursday afternoon, May 23, 1940 — the date of the only Pittsburgh at Brooklyn rainout of that season — and the Bucs and Bums never actually got started. Depending on how wet our guys allowed themselves and their sandwiches to get, they might have seen a pretty good show anyway. According to the Times, Pee Wee Reese (then a rookie), Cookie Lavagetto (later a Met coach under Casey Stengel) and Vito Tamulis (a lefty pitcher) took the field after the game was called and had coach Charlie Dressen “slash” grounders at them “while a handful of incorrigible fans who were still in the stands applauded vigorously”. Maybe Milton and Murray were part of that crowd. Maybe that’s how you catch a cold.
4) Oh, Milton’s mom…how could you snuff the candle on your boy’s baseball fandom so early in life? Because he got sick? He got well again. The Dodgers would only be in Brooklyn another seventeen years. What a shame Milton never got another look at that green grass. What a shame he wasn’t of a baseball mind to have his passion reignited when the Mets came along five years after the Dodgers vamoosed. At least that’s the view of someone whose first game at Shea Stadium was missed because he had a cold. If I’d caught it there instead of a few days earlier in September 1972, perhaps my mother would have attempted to have brought the hammer down my budding baseball affections when I was just a lad. It wouldn’t have worked (we had TV by then) but it could have gotten ugly. On the other hand, what would have been just another Spring Training game last week wouldn’t have become a connection to all that once was good, and all that could be again.
5) If you eat schmaltz sandwiches when you’re a kid (except for the ones that are soaked through), there’s apparently a decent chance you’ll live into your eighties. Who knew?