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The Glider, Ed Charles

The first thing you remember about Ed Charles [1] if you’re a Mets fan is how he rushed the pitcher’s mound [2] at Shea Stadium, October 16, 1969. If those New York Mets had an In Action card, that picture would be its front side. Jerry Grote was hoisting Jerry Koosman, catcher and pitcher, ebullient in World Series victory. These two who were officially championship company were about to be a crowd of three, as the third baseman couldn’t resist a mound visit. Mr. Charles certainly wouldn’t be the last to frolic on the Shea dirt and grass that Thursday afternoon alongside the Jerrys, but he was the first. It’s an unforgettable image. Not that you’d ever want to forget it.

The second thing you remember about Ed Charles is up to you. Me, as I ponder the passing of the beloved poet laureate of the most beloved baseball team a city ever embraced [3]…I remember a movie. Not the movie you’d suspect if you saw 42, the well-meaning 2013 biopic in which the uninitiated learn that, oh by the way, young Ed Charles, a future big leaguer from Daytona Beach, Fla., crossed Spring Training paths with trailblazing Jackie Robinson. The trail, incidentally, would require more blazing than one man could possibly provide, and Mr. Charles wound among those who’d follow Mr. Robinson in making a sport and a country that much better by their determined presence in it. We know it wasn’t easy for the man we revere for wearing 42 in Flatbush. It wasn’t much easier for the fellow who eventually graced No. 5 in Flushing. Ed Charles signed to play professional baseball in 1952. He was promoted to the major leagues in 1962. Let’s just say it wasn’t his talent that kept him in the minors for ten long years.

Yet the movie I’m thinking of is not 42, but The Blues Brothers, the rollicking 1980 music-heavy comedy that has nothing explicit to do with Ed Charles. Except for the gag in which Elwood Blues’s driver’s license lists 1060 West Addison — Wrigley Field — as his home address and thus crosses up the cops who are foiled in tracking him and his sibling down, it has nothing to do with baseball. Yet there’s one scene that sticks out for me where Mr. Charles is concerned.

The scene features Curtis and the band stalling for time at the Palace Hotel Ballroom. The band is dressed in civvies, while Curtis is wearing the same dark shades, suit and hat favored by Jake and Elwood, which adds up, given that Curtis is the father figure who raised them. At this moment in the film, the title characters — portrayed by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd — are trying desperately to avoid their burgeoning army of enemies and make their way to the sold-out gig they arranged to save their childhood orphanage. As the crowd demands a show, Curtis has a brainstorm.

CURTIS: Do you guys know “Minnie the Moocher”?
MURPHY DUNNE: I knew a hooker once named Minnie Mazola.
CURTIS: No, the song “Minnie the Moocher”.
STEVE CROPPER: Yeah. So what?
CURTIS: Hit it!

And with that command, the ragtag musicians are transformed into a tuxedo-clad troupe from decades gone by, led by Curtis at center stage, resplendent in white tails. In all but name, the character reveals himself unmistakably — as if there was any mistaking him to begin with — as the immortal Cab Calloway. With the Blues Brothers band backing him up, Curtis/Cab indeed belts out “Minnie the Moocher” in all its glory [4], distracting the onscreen audience and treating moviegoers to a performance for the ages (before we get back to the car chases and such).

The image of the one and only Cab Calloway suddenly and magically decked out in the most classic of threads flashed through my mind three winters ago when walking through the door of McFadden’s at Citi Field, site of the second annual Queens Baseball Convention, came none other than the Glider, Ed Charles. I don’t know how Ed Charles usually dressed, but at our instant of contact, he was the epitome of dressed to the nines. Mr. Charles raised QBC’s style quotient exponentially all by himself. It wasn’t CGI and it wasn’t exactly a plot twist. We who had constructed the program for that year’s QBC had promised Ed Charles would show up to receive an award. Except it was getting late, I hadn’t heard from Mr. Charles and I wasn’t exactly sure if we would be seeing him, never mind seeing him look so sharp.

It was something like waiting for the Blues Brothers to appear, I suppose, except no representatives of Illinois’s law enforcement community had chosen to join us. Also, in this case, Mr. Charles was the star attraction as well as living legend. The rest of us were Mets fans dressed like Mets fans. Ed Charles, upon his entrance, was Cab Calloway at the Palace Hotel. He radiated class. The topcoat. The suit. The cane (a bit of an impediment to the Glider actually gliding, but I’d swear that was his gait). And, of course, the World Series ring.

I don’t know how many dozens of us were left on the premises late that Saturday afternoon in January 2015 to greet him. More than enough for a quorum, but not nearly as many as had been around at the height of the event [5]. There should have been as many as had greeted him and his teammates on Lower Broadway forty-six Octobers prior. We should have showered him in ticker tape. QBC saved the award, the one we named after Gil Hodges, for the final presentation. It was both a high point to go out on and a bit of a shame, because by the sixth hour of a fun-filled day, some had already departed, having had their fill of fun.

Their loss. Ed Charles brought the curtain and the house down. Sparked by his electricity, McFadden’s morphed into one of the big rooms. The Cotton Club. The Savoy. Shea Stadium. In the best sense of the phrase, he was a sight to see.

And he was someone even better to listen to. On the phone, when I’d been explaining what QBC was and why we would be honored to have him there, his frailty was palpable. I’d already heard he wasn’t doing well, and our conversation confirmed for me that asking him to come to our DIY fanfest was asking a lot. He lived in East Elmhurst, only about forty blocks from McFadden’s, but still, at this stage of his life, in his condition, I could envision his good intentions in accepting our invitation going by the wayside.

I envisioned incorrectly. Ed Charles showed up, took the stage and took over [6]. He could have worn anything he liked, but he was receiving an award, and he meant to receive it seriously, thus the GQ ensemble. But clothes, no matter how fine, are just clothes. Ed Charles struck the figure he did because of what else he brought to bear: humility; gratitude; dignity; and the implied authority of history he personified. He talked with us about Gil Hodges. He talked with us about 1969. He talked with us about Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige. He answered every fan’s question. He read his poetry. He gave out autographs. He asked for nothing. Despite how far along he was in years and how difficult it had to be, he stood the entire time. We had a seat for him. He didn’t bother with it.

I was in awe of him that afternoon. I was in shock a few days later when he called me at home to ask if I could send him a copy of my introductory remarks (he liked the stat I included about all the homers he hit off future Hall of Fame pitchers). I was overwhelmed every time I thought of Mr. Charles on that frigid Saturday warming the spirits and souls of strangers. Then again, for the Glider, a stranger was just a Mets fan he hadn’t yet met. He didn’t know from me or QBC or McFadden’s, but he surely knew from Mets fans. I’ve thought of the entire scene often, the way he emerged from the equivalent of a sickbed, the way he swept into the room and the way he stayed in the room until all who wished to be touched by him knew they’d been touched. The privilege of presenting an award to Ed Charles and then standing off to the side and experiencing him accepting it is a prize I will always cherish.

The championship he helped present me when I was six years old was pretty special, too.

Before 2015 was out, Ed Charles was back at Citi Field. He and Ron Swoboda strolled to the mound to deliver first pitches during the National League Division Series. The Glider still needed the cane to get around. He had a full house applauding him that night.

We applaud him still, in tribute to a singular life that brought millions together in joy. We miss him now that he is gone, having passed Thursday at his East Elmhurst home at the age of 84, but we are grateful for his coming to us when he did. On the field. Off the field. In our memories. In our hearts.