And just like that, another Opening Day has arrived.
I know New Year’s Day is supposed to be the start of a new year, but to me, that day is baseball’s Opening Day. With the 2019 season about to dawn, I got to thinking about my Pop, and how we formed a friendship around the game of baseball, and how important that relationship was to me. This year’s World Series will mark 10 years since he’s gone, and in honor of the old man, I wanted to post a story I wrote many years ago, shortly after he passed. Don’t worry – this won’t be some sob story about death and loss – no, this story is more a celebration of life, an appreciation of fond memories that will never dim, and of course, baseball!
Happy Opening Day to everyone, and just know that I have some really good stories and illustrations coming up, including a coulda been tale of a guy you really would have wanted to play for the ’27 Yanks, the first African-American to play pro ball in Japan, and a guy who didn’t let a broken neck stop him from reaching the majors…
WHEN I WAS A KID, I was a Mets fan. I suppose I still am. It was predestined that I wind up that way.
See, my Father’s Father was a die-hard Brooklyn fan, and having a Cieradkowski being a fan of the Yankees was just not going to happen. So all I had was the Mets. This was the 1970’s- Not the giddy, pennant winning Mets of the early 1970’s, but the lousy, bottom-of-the-barrel Metropolitans of the late 1970’s. Because the Mets stunk so bad, talking about them just wound up turning into angry complaining sessions. So, out of a lack of quality Mets topics to discuss, baseball talks with my Dad often turned into question and answer sessions with me asking The Old Man about baseball when he was my age.
Thus began my interest in baseball history.
The best baseball talk I remember having with my Pop was the first one. It happened one muggy Saturday afternoon, probably the summer of ’81 or ’82. The two of us had just got home after working a half-day in the factory. My Dad was a garment cutter, and on Saturdays I went in with him and swept floors, tied and loaded the cut garments and did other menial and filthy things to keep me outta trouble and teach me the meaning of a buck. Plus, I was convinced Pop lived to bust my balls, and what better way to do that than make your kid work in a sweat shop. Anyway, I was about 12, and we were sitting in the kitchen; The Old Man was working on his first beer of the afternoon. Growing up in Passaic, New Jersey and being the son of the biggest Brooklyn fan in the Tri-State area, I always figured he would have been a Dodger fan, but I was wrong. Turns out, my Pop was a Braves fan!
“How the hell did that happen?” I asked incredulously. Ignoring the swear word (a luxury he allowed me when Mom wasn’t around) he uttered the inviting words: “1957. Grab me another beer.”
I was intrigued. I never met anyone who liked a team other than the Mets or Yankees, or if they were older, maybe the Giants or Dodgers. But the Braves?
As he emptied the fresh can of beer into his heavy glass mug, my Pop told me that back in 1957, everyone knew the Dodgers were skipping town. He was 8 that summer and began fishing around for a favorite team. Remember, the Yanks didn’t factor into this choice and the Mets were just a nightmare in Casey Stengel’s dreams at this time. So the World Series rolls around, and in ‘57 it was a fairly tight race. Both Brooklyn and St. Louis made a good run for the pennant but it was Milwaukee, behind the pitching of Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette, who carried the Braves across the finish line. They’d been pretty competitive in the prior years with guys like Adcock, Aaron and Mathews, but Brooklyn and New York always seemed to have the edge over them.
Waiting to take them on in the Series were the New York Yankees. They had already won the World Series five times that decade, and with Mickey, Yogi and Whitey, they were heavily favored to win it again. But it wasn’t meant to be. Lew Burdette beat the Yanks 3 times and Warren Spahn won another to give them the Series win, and a young Polish kid in Passaic, N.J. had a new favorite team.
Yeah, I know it might seem strange that a boy would choose his favorite ball club based on the fact they defeated another team. But hell, this was the Cieradkowski’s and we just didn’t do things the right way. See, my family’s hatred of the Yankees was an art form all its own. It was a seething, horrible hate that was carefully passed down from generation to generation, the seed of which festered and grew in each of us as we aged, manifesting itself in different and terrible ways. I’ll pass on telling about how I deal with my distaste for the other New York team, but I’ll tell you this about my Pop: he would watch every Yankee game, year after year, just on the off-chance they would lose.
Yeah, that’s right. Instead of having a beer and watching a team and players he liked, The Old Man would sit and simmer in front the TV, watching the Yankees play their sterile, winning games, all the while listening to whatever annoying announcer they had at the time blather on about Yankee Glory.
That was my Pop. Hell, ask him who his favorite football team was and he’d say the Philadelphia Eagles. I don’t think he ever even stepped foot in Philly his whole life, but he loved those Eagles. Why? Well, in 1960 the Eagles defeated the dreaded New York Football Giants for the championship. Yeah, in my family the Football Giants warranted the same level of hate as the Yankees. (My Grandfather’s favorite team was the old Cleveland Browns. Why? He saw them defeat the Giants some time long ago and he never forgot that).
So anyway, back to the Milwaukee Braves and Warren Spahn.
As the humid afternoon wore on and The Old Man worked through a double sixer of cheap beer, the baseball stories poured forth. Up to that point, my father and I were never particularly close. I was a loner then and, like him, not very talkative. But that humid afternoon we found a connection for the first time. He told me about how he and his cousin Glen would write to all the Major League teams asking for free stuff, and how Milwaukee sent them the biggest package with all kinds of stickers and pennants. Told me about how all he wanted for his birthday one year was a baseball mitt and when he opened his present that year, there was a mitt, but it was a second hand split finger model, not the modern pocket ones everybody else in the neighborhood had.
But mostly my Pop talked about Warren Spahn. He effortlessly reeled off numbers that seem astronomical to a Mets fan like myself. 21 wins and 11 losses in 1957. 22-11 in ’58. 21-15 in ’59. The stats went on. I got dizzy; I was lucky if one of my guys on the Mets could put up a winning record let alone win 20 or more games 13 times in a career.
The Old Man told me how “Spahnnie” was a bona-fide war hero, earning a battlefield commission and Silver Star during the Battle of the Bulge. Pop talked about listening to Spahn pitch on the radio and then finally seeing him pitch against the Mets in ’62 and ’63 at the old Polo Grounds. How he threw a no-hitter against the Phillies at age 39 and then another one against the Giants at 40. He told me how Spahn wore number 21, and that it became his number whenever the need for one arose. Told me about the stately Indian brave’s head that the team wore on their sleeves and how they changed it later to an even cooler screaming mohawked model. He went on about how stunning the dark blue and bright red uniforms looked on television and in real life when you watched them from the bleachers in the Polo Grounds – that how, as an artist, I of all people could appreciate that. How the tomahawk was such a kick-ass logo when he was kid, and how he’d try to draw it over and over again, never really getting it right. He told me how Spahn would throw his arms back behind him and swing them forward to begin his delivery, like some graceful machine, and how he would kick his leg high into the air, higher than anyone could think was possible.
“Spahn finished all his games, too” my Pop said, and a quick check with the record book shows this to be true – he led the National League in complete games 9 times in his career – almost a decade of starting and finishing the most games in the league.
And as the last can of cold beer was emptied into his heavy glass mug, he told me how he watched firsthand as his hero Warren Spahn finished up his career playing for the ’65 Mets, going 4-12, only the second time in 21 years that he recorded more losses than wins in a season.
So, as the sun set on that humid day in New Jersey, I had found a common ground with my Dad that lasted the rest of his life, growing more and more as we both aged. Through each season, every time we talked or got together in person, there was always baseball. And through it all, I secretly adapted Warren Spahn as my good luck charm. Whenever I played ball, I wore the cherished number 21 on my back (and I even gave my semi-annual baseball history journal that title as well). A colored pencil drawing I did in high school of Warren Spahn going through his wind up won a major award, was featured in a calendar, and started me on my way to a career in art. Years later, when my Pop and I teamed up to play roulette in Atlantic City or Vegas, ol’ 21 red became the lucky bet for us. And in 1998, when I got to meet Spahn over a few drinks in a hotel bar, I couldn’t wait to tell my Pop about it—how his old idol was really a pretty damn good guy in person. I could hear the relief in his voice all the way on my end of the country.
So anyway, this week is Opening Day.
Somewhere, sometime this summer, there will be another young kid out there who will discover that through baseball they will always be able to bridge the generation gap with their own Pop, just as I did some 37 years ago.
Happy Opening Day everyone!
I dedicate this entry to my Father, Gary Joseph Cieradkowski and his boyhood hero, Warren Edward Spahn.