My Poppa, and Why Baseball Never Ends

Yankee Stadium train tracks
You and your grandfather Benjamin walk side by side as the No. 4 IRT line rattles thunderously overhead. The afternoon sunlight shafts through the railway tracks onto 161st Street in a flickering crosshatch of shadows.

Vendors line the street, a midway carnival selling baseball paraphernalia – programs and pennants and photos, caps and toys and balloons. The doors to all the bars are open, the aroma of beer and peanuts wafting onto the sidewalks.

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 to make sure you’re alongside him, there to have the time of your life.

We reach 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. You’ve come to Yankee Stadium on Sunday, October 11, 1964, to see the New York Yankees play the St. Louis Cardinals in the fourth game of the 1964 World Series.

You sit as far away from home plate as humanly possible without actually leaving the premises. Nosebleed city. The players look so small. All sounds from the field – the crack of the bat, a ball smacking into a mitt – are delayed a fraction of a second.
The game starts, and you’re feeling so giddy that you turn to your Poppa. “I wish this would never end,” you say. And for a moment you expect him to tell you it never will. Instead, he looks at you with a smile that also manages to be serious.
“Everything comes to an end,” he says.

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

Your own father has long since lost interest in baseball, too busy with work to pay attention to a sport that his son now ranks in importance alongside breathing and eating. In any given October, your father has no clue which teams are competing in the World Series.

He once takes you to a game at Yankee Stadium, your father does, a doubleheader against the Minnesota Twins, and there proves once and for all his utter indifference to baseball. Somewhere around the fourth inning, with cracked peanut shells littered in his lap and some 50,000 vocal fans all around, he actually dozes off. Even with Harmon Killebrew warming up in the on-deck circle, your father is snoring away.

All the more reason for you to adore your Poppa. You can always count on his attention, never need to court his affection. He always seems glad to see you, asks after you, worries about you, dotes on you.

Above all, your grandfather fills in for your father, his son-in-law, on the baseball front. In the very best of scenarios, a 12-year-old boy who loves baseball gets to share his love with someone older. You get someone who will tell you about seeing Babe Ruth swat home runs and Joe DiMaggio roam the outfield. In this sense, he turns out to be the father you needed your father to be.

“Everything comes to an end,” your Poppa told you 48 years ago. And for a long time afterwards, you refused to believe him with all the brute will of an innocent who knows no better.

But after your Poppa dies – in 1981, at age 70, of cancer – you finally believe him. The World Series game you saw with him came to an end. The Yankee streak of World Series appearances came to an end that year, leading to a drought until 1976, by far the longest in team history. The Yankees fired manager Yogi Berra and announcer Mel Allen.

The original Yankee Stadium came to an end, too, the hallowed cathedral 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. So did your boyhood.

Then again, maybe your wish – that the game would never end, that everything will last forever – has some truth to it, too. Nothing you love ever truly has to come to an end. The Yankees are still the Yankees. Baseball is still baseball. And your Poppa will always be your Poppa.

After all, he loved you enough to take you to see baseball games when baseball meant the world to you. You still wear his Swiss watch and, come winter, his plaid woolen overcoat. You think of him often, all the more so every time the start of baseball season rolls around. Nothing you love ever really dies unless you let it.

My Father’s Train Ride Into History

Dad photo
The five-year-old boy who is to become my father in 20 years stands on a platform in Newark Penn Station with his mother and father waiting for the train that will soon take him away from all he has ever known and loved. It’s September, 1931.

He hands the conductor his ticket and steps onto the train under the care of a porter assigned to him. His parents wave goodbye to him and he waves back. He is all by himself now, headed to a destination 868 miles away.

Nobody else on the train knows his name or where he’s going or, for that matter, his most defining physical characteristic – that he’s severely hard of hearing, all but deaf. Because his mother gave birth to him while she had German measles, he was born able to discern only about 10% of all sounds. He has difficulty making himself understood when he speaks, and an equally hard time understanding anyone who talks to him.

The train rattles across America, through Pennsylvania and Ohio, on into Indiana and Illinois. The boy understands only that he is going away, but has no idea for how long. Finally, he arrives in St. Louis, Missouri, at his new home away from home, the Central Institute for The Deaf.

There he will stay for the next 10 years, rarely visiting home during holidays. There, in the face of a society that regards the deaf largely as dumb – several doctors originally diagnosed him as retarded – he is to study hard. He is to learn how to speak without relying on sign language, how to listen and how to read, how to function the same as a hearing person – learn, in effect, how to hear.

For years I condemned his parents for the decision to ship him off. First, the kid loses his hearing, then his family and home, too. The decision addressed one disability but created a second one.

Because his parents dispatched him, he never learned how to be a member of a family, neither as a son nor as a brother, husband nor father. How could he? And so I held a grudge against my grandparents, a chip on my shoulder that grew bigger every year.

As it happened, the boy who became my father went on to become among the first students with hearing loss ever accepted at Washington University, and graduated from Rutgers University. In 1969 he founded a non-profit organization to establish a network that, for the first time, would enable the deaf to communicate with one another and everyone else by phone.

Toward that end, my father bought, stored, adapted, promoted and distributed teletypewriters, or TTYs. The devices materialized in homes, schools, hospitals, libraries and local police, fire and emergency call departments, first in New York and New Jersey, then nationwide. He also invented the world’s first Braille TTY for deaf-blind people.

For all his public service the deaf community honored him with awards. Bell Telephone accepted him to the Telephone Pioneers of America, only the 29th member since Alexander Graham Bell in 1911. He once received a letter on White House stationary, congratulations on his accomplishments from President Ronald Reagan.

Ultimately, then, my father learned to make do with his hearing loss. He never told me what those years away from his parents and two sisters felt like. He left me to imagine how lonely he must have felt, how homesick and abandoned, almost orphaned.

Indeed, he never spoke a word against his parents about having been a five-year-old boy sent 800 miles away for 10 years. He felt nothing but gratitude for getting the opportunity to better himself.

Only after my father died, in 1997, did I confront the underlying facts. His father had come to the United States from Austria at the age of 12, alone, with no money and barely any education, unable to speak English. He had spent seven days a week running a tavern in Newark and saved almost every penny he earned – enough, eventually, to finance an expensive special education for his son in the depths of the Great Depression. Year after year, his wife wore the same dress, unable to afford a new one.

Tuition plus room and board for one child for those ten years cost him more than later putting all three of his children through college.

My grandparents made a decision – to put education first and family second. Surely that decision came hard. Surely they felt as heartbroken as he.

My father later made a decision, too. He put work first and family second, even after his grandchildren arrived. He kept his distance from me and my mother and my sister and my own son and daughter. Maybe all he ever really grasped about family was the idea of distance. Maybe, in a sense, he never really got off that train.

Even so, it’s easy to pass judgment out of ignorance. Every difficult decision about children brings tradeoffs. The decision his parents made, with heroic self-sacrifice, spelled his salvation in a society which otherwise might have had no place for him. In the end, my grudge wound up buried alongside my father, where it belonged.