Monday, February 14, 2011

A Lesson In Hero Worship

A Lesson in Hero Worship.
Or, A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
© Joel Baumwoll
Here I am at the tender age of 34, Senior Vice President of J. Walter Thompson, the biggest ad agency in the world, standing in Las Vegas’ Caesar’s Palace, amidst celebrities and top executives of the liquor business at the annual trade meeting, the WSWA.  As the top account executive on a prestigious account, the W.A.Taylor division of Hiram Walker, I was making more money than my parents had ever dreamed I could, and feeling pretty cocky.
W.A. Taylor imported and distributed Courvoisier, Drambuie, Tia Maria and a host of other top shelf liqueurs.  They spent a load of money in magazine advertising and were always introducing new products that brought even more money into the agency
Standing next to me is Barbara Eden, the still sexy actress who had generated many fantasies as the T.V. genie, as in “I Dream of..”  She was there because the San Francisco sales manager decided host a celebrity Bocce tournament to introduce a new Italian liqueur called Shirada.  Eden was one of the “celebrities” meant to attract the spirits of the many distributors. 
Suddenly I hear someone calling my name “Joel”  Joel, c’mere.”  It was Frank Del’Omo, the sales manager.  I want you to meet someone.  I walk through the crowd and see that he’s standing next to a man in his late 50s who looks familiar.  I know that face, that figure.  As I get closer it hits me! It’s Joe DiMaggio.  Holy shit!  Joltin’ Joe has been hired to be a celebrity at the bocce tournament.
As I walk toward them, my mind flashes back in time, back to the Bronx in 1947.  Back to Anderson Avenue and me, a kid of seven.  I began to replay a time in my life that was deeply grooved in my memories and emotions.  It was a time of my first experience being separated from the control and authority of my parents. Once I entered P.S 73, a dour red brick building, diagonally across the street from the dour brick building where I lived, I was no longer in my parents’ charge.  I was a school kid. 
Life in the Bronx, in the early 1940s was like living in the Balkans-- ethnic and socio-economic neighborhoods as clearly defined as any Balkan territory. 
Woodycrest Avenue, above our street, belonged to the Irish Catholics, mostly blue-collar workers. Their kids went to “nun school” as we called the Sacred Blood of Jesus the Savior, a dour red brick building on the corner of Woodycrest and 168th street, surrounded by a high black iron fence with spikes running its length.   We would peer through the bars, looking into some secret world, to see the Catholic girls, wearing plaid pleated skirts and white blouses, and the boys, dressed neatly in dark pants and white shirts.
Woodycrest was lined with yeasty saloons whose open doors spewed out fumes of beer, stale cigarettes and, in summer, the sounds of Mel Allen, calling the play by play of the Yankee ball games, Russ Hodges calling the Giants or Vin Scully, announcing the Dodgers with that southern drawl.
Then there was my street, Anderson Avenue, the turf of the Jews.  Mostly lower middle-class, second-generation children of immigrants, many civil servants, and mostly fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers or New York Giants.  The kids went to P.S. 73, and later, most went to Bronx High School of Science, where every self-respecting son of Jewish parents was expected to begin their climb to medical or law school and eventually make the big bucks that could support their parents in a style to which they only dared to dream.
Every now and then we endured a pogrom, as a gang of older Irish kids came down the hill to beat up the Jewish kids because, they said, the Jews killed Christ.  My knowledge of history was too limited at age seven to refute them.  I just learned to run, or later, an older kid taught me how to kick them “in the nuts.”  A few successful such kicks made me feel empowered.  They eventually stopped their raids, and I liked to think my prowess with my right leg was the reason.
Ogden Avenue was lined with small shuls; each attended by a cadre of observant old Jews and the occasional offspring, who attended on high holy days.  These were exotic places to a seven year old, with carved wooden walls and strange chanting sounds emanating from the open doors in the warm nights.  Men could be seen walking around with small black boxes strapped to their foreheads and around their left forearms, in some mysterious ritual.
Other streets, too far to venture without chaperone, were rumored to have large populations of Germans, many of whom worked as “supers” in the buildings around us.  We had it on good information that many of these men were spies, working for the Nazis, and we did not hesitate to let them know we were on to them, though always from a safe distance. 
I don’t recall ever seeing a black person in the ten years I lived there. 
What I do recall was that we were absolutely nuts for baseball.  Playing stickball in the street was a daily calling.  Living a short walk from Yankee Stadium, and a bit longer walk to Coogan’s Bluff, we could see the Yankees and the Giants, if we were quick enough to deke the guard and sneak in.  This was easier to get away with in the late innings of a game, since the guards were tired and gave up the chase quickly.  I think I must have been twenty-five years old by the time I actually saw a game from the first inning on.
Oddly, in the shadow of the house that Ruth built, I was a fanatic Dodger fan, owing to my parents Flatbush roots.  But Ebbetts Field was too far away for us to get there on our own, so we had to be content to wait until they came to play the Giants to see them live at the Polo Grounds.
My idols were the team that has come to be known as the “boys of summer.” Hodges, Robinson, Reese, Cox, Campanella, Furillo, Snyder and Reeser, Preacher Roe, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Clem Labine and the future legend, Sandy Kofax were my stuff of dreams.  I knew their batting averages, their slumps and streaks, and mimicked their batting stances in my sleep.
Team rooting seemed to me to be a function of a family’s station in the economic ladder.  Dodger fans were workers, truck drivers, and laborers.  Giant fans were middle level executives, civil service workers.  Yankee fans were rich, white guys who lived in big apartments on the Grand Concourse, houses on Long Island.  They smoked cigars and were the bosses.
We collected autographs from the players with a passion that equaled our intensity at shooting marbles, in season.  Our technique for getting autographs was ingenious.  Before trundling down the long flights of stairs from Highbridge to Jerome Avenue to wend our way across to the stadium, we’d buy as many penny postcards as we could afford.  That usually meant eight to ten.  Pennies were hard to come by for the Bronx children of milkmen and coal delivery drivers.  Then we’d find a spot on the stairs to sit and write our names and addresses on each postcard. 
For some reason, while we did this, we would make huge pools of saliva between our legs.  I have no idea why we did this, but I have vivid memories of Friefield, Manson and me and a few others constantly spitting.  Perhaps this was our way of connecting to the ballplayers, who we saw scratching their crotches and spitting while waiting for something to happen in the field.  It was a macho thing to do.
Pocketing our cards, we’d amble across the Grand Concourse and over to one of the large open gates.  We’d pick one with one guard, and a chosen member of the team would quickly run in and up the ramp.  As the guard gave chase, the rest of us would slip in and quietly fan out, quickly finding an empty seat and scrunching down to be as invisible as possible.  After a few minutes, when the heat was off, we’d slowly work our way down to the seats closest to the field.  Often, by that time, the game was decided and there were lots of empty seats to choose from.  And the ushers didn’t want to bother chasing us for two or three innings, so we got to see the end of the game.
Now came the real event.  We’d file out with the remaining fans and walk over to the gate we knew was where the players would exit, once they had showered and dressed.

As they would come out the door, we’d scurry over to each and hand them a postcard.  Mostly, I knew the Yankee players.  “Tommy, Tommy, here’s a card” I would shout to the hulking Henrich, my favorite first baseman, after Gil Hodges.  He’d reach out and slide it in his pocket, to sign it later and drop in the mail.
The visiting team players were anonymous to me and I rarely wasted postcards on them.  Once though, I got a postcard back with the signature of Luke Appling, a star player on the White Sox.  Gene Hermanski sent me a photocard with his name and the greeting, “Best wishes,, Gene Hermanski.”  He was an unheralded left fielder for the Dodgers in the early 1940s, but he became a minor hero of mine.
                                        Gene Hermanski    
We’d hand out all out cards, and then, try to get other players to sign scraps of paper, discarded programs or old newspapers.  Then we’d go home and wait anxiously for the mail delivery in two or three days to bring us a harvest of autographs.  I still have the signatures of Phil Rizutto, Gil Hodges, Dizzie Dean, Tommy Henrich, Yogi Berra, Eddie Lopat, Whitey (Ed) Ford, Mel Allen, Allie Reynolds, and weirdly, George M. Weiss, who was the owner of the Yankees in 1948               
There was, of course one Yankee whose autograph we sought above all others:  that’s right, Joe DiMaggio.  Number 5 was tops on every kid’s list, and could be traded for an entire team of autographs if one was so inclined.  DiMaggio was always the last one out of the gate.  By a long shot.  A determined gaggle of kids would hang around until he made his appearance, always surrounded by a phalanx of protectors.  We’d shout his name and try to thrust a postcard in his hand.  He’d never take one.  Quickly he’d move to the open door of a waiting car, slide in and drive off.  Once in a while, a kid would manage to sail a card in the door before it closed, only to see it sail out the window as the car drove off.
DiMaggio was my great white whale.  Like Ahab, I stalked him for season after season, unsuccessfully, until in 1950, my parents decided to quit the Bronx for the leafy quiet of Montclair, New Jersey.  I was devastated.
Imagine a kid of ten, who lived and died for baseball, who could tell you the averages and standings of his team on any given day, who lived between the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium moving to a state that did not even have a major league baseball team.
It was like moving to the moon.  I never saw another Yankee game until I was a married man.  And I never did get DiMaggio’s autograph.
So here I am, hot shot account man in Las Vegas, walking slowly toward the man himself.  Del’Omo turns to him and says, “Joe, I want you to meet Joel Baumwoll.  He’s the guy who runs our account at the ad agency.”  DiMaggio turns toward me and I reach out my hand to shake his.  He tentatively puts his hand out and I say, “Joe, this is a pleasure.  We’re so glad you could come.”
And then I hear myself saying, “Can I ask you something?”  DiMaggio pulls his hand back, sensing something.  I continue “I always wanted to ask you, how come you never would sign our postcards when I was a little kid in the Bronx?”
Joltin’ Joe’s face goes blank and he turns on his heel and quickly walks away. 
Del’Omo, who had not been paying much attention after he introduced me, looks around at the fast disappearing figure and says, “Jesus, what did you say to him?”
“I just told him how much he meant to me when I was a kid,” I answered.


  1. Wonderful story and glad to read that Joltin' Joe got tagged for his imperial behavior! Your stories are great!

  2. This is a fascinating story of how it was then. I was born in 47 and this tale completes me.