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A new baseball season at an old ballpark: Recalling vivid memories of my Poppa and me

Benjamin Sheft in the 1930s. (Brody Family)
Benjamin Sheft in the 1930s. (Brody Family)
Author

You climb out of the black and walk side by side through the parking lot and under the elevated train tracks, your grandfather and you. The rattles thunderously overhead. The afternoon sunlight shafts through the railway slats onto the street in a flickering crosshatch of shadows.

Vendors line E. 161st St., setting up shop in front of the bars, bowling alleys and souvenir shops, a midway carnival selling all kinds of baseball paraphernalia — programs and pennants and photos, caps and toys and balloons. Scalpers cry out to scare up a sale. “Right behind the home team dugout,” one promises. The doors and windows of the bars are open, the smell of beer and peanuts wafting onto the sidewalks.

The fans throng through the logjam, many of the men in jackets and ties and hats. The historic building looms over us. You reach Gate 2 and pass through the turnstile and take a winding ramp upwards. Your Poppa keeps his hand on the cusp of your shoulder, then at the small of your back, maintaining contact to make sure you’re alongside him, his 12-year-old grandson there to have the time of his life.

Higher and higher we go, the ground floor receding below us. We reach the top level, the upper deck in left-field, and step out into the stands. You scan the panorama before you, and there it all is — , with its trademark frieze overhead rimming the Bronx sky and the ads for Ballantine.

An usher directs us down the steep, narrow aisles. As we arrive at our row, he flips down our wooden seats with a creak and swipes both clean with a cloth. Your Poppa tips him a quarter and gets back a big smile and a “thank you” and we take our seats.

You’ve come to Yankee Stadium on Sunday, Oct. 11, 1964, about an hour before the 1 p.m. gametime. You’re there to see the Yankees play the St. Louis Cardinals in the .

Poppa Sheft with his grandson Bob Brody, age 3, in 1955(Brody family)
Poppa Sheft with his grandson Bob Brody, age 3, in 1955(Brody family)

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You sit about as far away from home plate as humanly possible. Nosebleed city. You have to be at least 500 feet away, the equivalent of a tape-measure home run. The players look so small. You feel as if you’re suspended over the field in a hot air balloon.

All sounds from the field are delayed a fraction of a second. You see a player swing a bat and hit the ball, and shortly afterwards the sound waves travel far enough to meet your ears, enabling you to hear the crack of bat on ball.

And so, the tangy aroma of hot dogs hovering in the air, the game starts. Leadoff hitter Phil Linz doubles. Bobby Richardson doubles, driving in Linz. Roger Maris singles, sending Richardson to third. Mickey Mantle singles, scoring Richardson. Elston Howard singles, bringing Maris home. Already, in the first inning, the Yankees lead 3-0.

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10/10/1964-New York, NY: Yankee Jim Bouton delivers the opening pitch of the World Series’ third game to Curt Flood of the Cardinals. The catcher is Elston Howard and the umpire is Ken Burkhardt. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

All feels right with the world. The Yankee dynasty will yet again dominate baseball. Here, in the mother of all stadia, the Yanks will roll to World Series championship number 21.

But in the sixth inning, the Cardinals load the bases, and up to the plate comes third baseman Ken Boyer. Yankee pitcher Al Downing throws a high changeup. Boyer belts a shot that sails out toward left field, heading straight for you personally.

You hold up the glove you brought to the game to catch it. Except now the ball dips and lands in the first deck below us. A grand slam home run. Yankee Stadium goes as quiet as you’ll ever hear it with 66,312 ticketholders in the stands. St. Louis takes the lead, 4-3.

 

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You’re having such a good time, even with the Yankees now losing, that you turn to your Poppa and say, “I wish this would never end.”

Poppa looks at you with a smile that also manages to seem serious. “Everything comes to an end,” he says softly.

You have no idea what he means. Certainly you doubt it to be true. Everything will last forever. Of this you’re quite confident. You will stay young and the Yankees will always be the Yankees and nobody you love will ever die.

But then, in 1981, your Poppa dies.

Your grandfather, once seemingly so all-powerful — he of the gruff voice and the barrel chest and the broad shoulders, he who could balance the books as a CPA with balletic finesse and whack a golf ball 200 yards with absolute brutality, he whose father was an peasant from a village in Russia who never learned to read English, but who himself sent his son to Yale Law School and bought his daughter a $21,000 house in 1954 with a cash down payment — dies from cancer.

“Everything comes to an end,” he told you in the upper left-field deck at Yankee Stadium. And for years, you refuse to believe it. You refuse with all the brute will of an innocent who knows no better.

But now you tend to believe him after all. You have no choice, finally, but to take him at his word. Back then, in 1964, he served notice, issuing a warning bigger than any warning you would ever hear again.

Everything comes to an end.

How true those words turned out to be, haunting you. The game you saw with Poppa on that October afternoon in the Bronx came to an end. The Yankee streak of appearances in the World Series came to an end that year, too. The Cardinals won in seven games, the last hurrah for the legendary Yankee lineup assembled in the 1950s, leading to a drought until 1976, by far the longest ever in team history.

The original Yankee Stadium came to an end, too, the hallowed landmark demolished before your eyes. The Bronx as we knew it — the Bronx where you were born and lived your first 28 months — came to an end by the mid-1960s.

Your boyhood also came to an end.

 

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Every day that he lived, Poppa seemed glad to see you. You could always count on his attention — depend on him to look you in the eye and lend you an ear — and never needed to court his affections.

One day, in one of his usual Friday visits to your home, Poppa brings you a surprise, an encyclopedia of baseball. The heavyweight volume is crammed with every statistic imaginable, and then some, season and lifetime records for every player who ever played the game. You devour every page, memorizing the top 10 all-time home run list.

He also gets you a subscription to the Daily News. Every day you await its thumping delivery to your front door. You scour its vaunted sports coverage, particularly Dick Young’s columns and Bill Gallo’s cartoons, so you can learn all about how the Yankees are doing.

He loved you enough to take you to Yankee Stadium when you were just a kid and baseball meant the world to you. He took you because even though he had so much else on his mind, baseball meant the world to him, too.

Every time you watched the Yankees together with him, everything else that plagued you — your shortness and scrawniness, your lack of athletic excellence, your lousy grades in school, your problems with your parents — evaporated.

Nothing you love truly ever has to come to an end. Your Poppa is proof. To this day, you wear his plaid woolen winter overcoat coat that you inherited.

You also keep a photo of him propped on a bureau in your living room. He’s still in his 20s, just before the Great Depression. He looks self-assured, his hair and mustache black and brilliantined, everything still ahead of him, his marriage, his children and his grandchildren, not to mention his pre-dinner scotch on the rocks.

You wrote a poem addressed to him, called “A Letter To Poppa,” the only letter you ever wrote to anyone gone, a letter that imagines a conversation with him. It’s all about how he was an accountant and, fittingly, accounted for all of us.

Nothing you love ever really dies unless you let it. As long as you’re here, your Poppa is still here, too. You think of him every time you think of the Yankees, especially when April rolls around and the air turns warm and ambitions for yet another World Series championship again come alive.

Brody, a former New Yorker living in Italy, has written for the Daily News since 1979. He is a consultant, an essayist and the author of the memoir “.”

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