The Kings of Queens: An Ode to Humility & Macadam Fields
This past Sunday, July 24th, in Cooperstown, NY, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum welcomed seven new members in the Class of 2022.
Peter Botte of the New York Post wrote,"Still, none of the resonating speeches given Sunday at Clark Sports Center were more heart-tugging or poignant than the tearful words spoken by the daughter of Gil Hodges, Irene. The family of the legendary first baseman of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the World Series-winning manager of the Mets in 1969 had waited more than 50 years for this day since his death at 47 in 1972."
Gil Hodges was a standout All-Star for the Dodgers in the 1940’s and 50’s. One of the “Boys of Summer,” he was a man of quiet, but strong, demeanor. Hodges once hit four home runs in one game, a baseball feat even more rare than pitching a no-hitter.
He joined the original 1962 NY Mets in their first season and hit the first home run in club history. Hodges was named Manager of the Year for leading the 1969 “Miracle Mets” to a championship, the first expansion team to win a World Series title.
(And now it begins...)
What follows is mostly true. Certainly, the important elements are accurate. Maybe, some of the names, settings and actions are not exactly as they occurred, or have been consolidated, or repainted with a fresh coat. But the core of this tale is no tale at all, for it resonates along with the almost mythic achievements of its subject. Let us begin…
It was the year 1948, in an adjacent suburb of New York City, right on the outskirts of Queens. This was before concrete and blacktop covered everything, at a time when a few potato farms still remained. Neat row houses lined the streets with pristine lamp posts lighting the way.
After World War II, amateur bar league club baseball was finding great popularity in the outer boroughs and near suburbs of NYC. Some of the players were former major leaguers themselves, but most were just blue-collar folks who had the skill to play a very high-quality brand of hard ball. Not every team had their own field, but most had a neighborhood bar within walking distance.
On one particular early evening in August, on a field long covered over and gone, the chatter of baseball players, about ten to fifteen years past their prime, could be heard and seemed to echo forever. The red-orange sun formed a silhouette of the distant skyline made up of apartment buildings, billboards and a water tower
The batter at the plate took a few practice swings. He was forty-ish with a paunch, and his scraggly uniform read “Nick’s” across the chest. The pitcher readied his windup and delivered a slow curve. Swing and a miss! “Strike Eeeeeee, yerr-OUT!” yelled the ump.
The small bleachers behind the backstop were filled with about thirty spectators. It was the last inning of the World Series to them. In the home dugout, which was only a bench behind a high mesh fence, “Nick’s” teammates stood and urged the next batter on. “C’mon Bobby babe, let ‘er rip!” “Smash this sucka, Bobeeeee!”
Arriving among the spectators were two well-dressed men. One was tall with a fedora, and the other, short and round. They stepped their way up through the seated crowd and squeezed down onto the highest row. The round man pulled out a small note pad.
The pitcher was a tall, thin, yet rugged type, with piercing blue eyes. He was Alfred Oerter, Sr., a southpaw of German-American descent, hardworking and methodical. His uniform fit better than most and read “Gilhooley’s Tap Room.” Lou, the catcher, approached him.
“Al, this guy nailed you last time,” offered Lou. “Yeah, I know,” Alfred replied. “I’ll give him one down and away. If he hits it, it might be high and deep, but the kid will catch it.” Lou objected, ”There’s only one out. The guy on second will tag up and score.”
Alfred responded, “And Persichilli’s up next. He’s better than this guy. One out and one run is better than a two-run homer.” Lou thought about it for a moment as Alfred urged him with his eyes. The catcher pounded his mitt as the ump yelled, ”C’mon, play ball.” Lou agreed, ”Yeah, yooz right.”
Lou trotted back towards home plate as Alfred pointed to the centerfielder to move back deep and slightly to his left. His uniform was a bit baggy, and the crowd realized it was that string bean-of-a-kid out there that some had seen before. He was twelve years-old, pure, untouched, with raw skills.
He acknowledged the pitcher’s signal with piercing blue eyes and a hand wave. After all, this was Alfred’s son, Al Oerter, Jr. He turned and headed to the deepest part of right centerfield.
From Al’s point of view, he could see his father wind up and throw the ball far outside. His vision was crystal clear, as he followed the movement of the pitch, while an elevated train rumbled by somewhere in the distance behind him. Alfred again wound up and released a fastball. There was a crack of the bat and the ball exploded skyward.
Al backpedaled and then turned and dashed like the wind towards the fence in right-center, a hundred feet past the right fielder. The small crowd cheered, players whooped and dust flew as the batter rounded first base.
Al approached the outfield fence, leapt, and pushed off the wooden picket to soar higher. “Thwap!” He snared the ball in his glove’s webbing, his body almost snapping in two as the fence-top caught him in the ribs. A freight train rattled by just behind the outfield wall.
The runner on second was almost to third when his “Nick’s” teammates yelled, ”He caught it! Tag up! Tag up! Tag up!” The runner slammed on his brakes hard and scrambled back to second base. He touched the bag and hauled ass towards third again.
Al stumbled forward with the ball in his glove, grimacing in pain. He touched his ribs for a second. The right fielder called for the ball. “Here ya go, here ya go!”
The second baseman positioned himself on the edge of the outfield for the cut-off, slightly towards first base. “Hit me! Hit me!” he screamed.
Alfred gestured towards the second baseman and yelled, ”Hit the cut-off man, hit the cut-off man!”
Al straightened up while running forward with the ball in his hand. He took a hop, skip and, with every ounce of sinew blasting through his right arm, whipped the ball towards the infield.
The right fielder watched the ball soar high over his head.
The second baseman shielded his eyes from the glare of the low-hanging sun. “Can’t see it! Can’t see it!”
The baserunner stomped on third and scampered for home.
Alfred, Sr. continued to shout, ”Hit the cut-off! Hit the cut-off!”
The ball whizzed in over the infield as the watchful runner slowed between third and home. Incredulous, he stumbled and fell. The spectator in the fedora stood in amazement.
Alfred howled, ”I said hit the cut-off!”
The rawhide smashed high onto the backstop and caromed back towards the pitcher. A loud, “WHOA,” echoed from the crowd. The runner scrambled to his feet and dashed for home. Alfred bare-handed the high, bouncing ball and winged it to the catcher.
A collision ensued; a dust cloud; tangled bodies.
“YerrrrrOUTTTT!,” the umpire determined.
Half the crowd cheered wildly while the other half shook their heads in bewilderment, pointing to the centerfielder. The round fellow leaned towards the fedora-gentleman and said, “I did check it out…he’s only twelve, I’m tellin’ ya!”
The “Gilhooley” players headed in to their dugout as the crowd’s buzzing continued. Oerter, the father, waited for his son by the first base line and grabbed him lightly by the shirt when he was close enough, stopping him in his tracks. On the outside, they were very much alike.
“What was that?” his father asked, disapprovingly. Al put his head down, unable to confront the interrogation. Alfred continued, ”I asked you a question.” The father put his arm on his son’s shoulder and the two walked towards the dugout.
“You know, you’re supposed to hit the cut-off man on that play,” Alfred instructed. Without looking up, Al mumbled, ”I wanted to see how far I could throw it.” His father was taken aback. “What? A man in scoring position, and you want to see how far you could …”
They stopped in front of the makeshift dugout, as all eyes were on Father and Son. Alfred motioned with a nod towards the round man and the tall one with the fedora. Al raised his eyes and glanced at the two men in the stands.
“Yeah?” Al wondered. “They’re scouts,” Alfred responded. “What’s a scout?” Al asked. Alfred answered, “They’re probably from the Yankees, that’s all. Just here to check everyone out.”
Al paused and said,”Uh-huh, but you told me some of these guys had already played in the major leagues..for the Giants..for the Red Sox…but now they’re too old.”
“So, who do you think they’re checking out?” Alfred questioned. “There’s only one guy on this field who’s young enough and may have a shot at the majors someday.”
Al stared at his father with his mouth opened while lightly caressing his ribs. He looked to the fedora and back to his father, revealing with his eyes a bit of comprehension. Alfred tugged down on his son’s cap brim and covered the boy’s eyes. “That’s why you have to hit the cut-off man.”
Alfred Oerter, Sr. grew up in Queens playing serious baseball with a number of contemporaries who went on to major league careers. One of those, Tony Cuccinello, was an All-Star and played from 1930 to 1945 for the Reds, Dodgers, NY Giants and others. So, there was strong baseball DNA swirling around the Oerter family.
Al was born and raised through age seven under the elevated train on Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria. He played a lot of stickball and other sports on fields of macadam, while dodging steel stanchions and speeding cars.
After his family’s move east to “the country” in New Hyde Park, Al and his friends, who were city transplants, found grass fields all around, but opted to stick with the street surfaces they were accustomed to. As they got older, sandlots became the fields of choice.
Alfred stayed connected to the Queens bar-league scene for a long time. He always invited his son to be a part of those teams and young Al was never intimidated by playing with older folks. Because of the experienced players around him, Al developed his considerable talents at an age earlier than most.
Al Oerter never considered playing major league baseball as one of his goals. Without the slightest bit of arrogance, he thought playing at the highest level was something he would do well at. He demonstrated precise eye-hand coordination, had tremendous speed and fielding ability, could throw anything a country mile and was able to hit a baseball with the best of them.
Yet, in a 1994 interview in Outside Magazine, he said, “Baseball? Geez, I love baseball. Probably my only minor regret in life is that I didn’t give pro baseball a try.” After winning his third consecutive Olympic Gold Medal, the New York Mets invited Al to a tryout at Shea Stadium in the mid-1960’s.
In October, 1999, in a “USOC-online” interview, Al was asked to name his heroes. He only mentioned one: “The person I admired most was a baseball player named Gil Hodges. He was quiet, strong and capable. He had his head in every game. I liked that.”
“My dad was a very humble man, but he would be so proud to be here with the best of the best in baseball,” Irene Hodges stated in a speech at the HOF induction ceremony. “Fifty years ago not only did the Mets and the Dodgers lose one of their heroes, we lost a husband and a father."
Gil Hodges collapsed and died from a heart attack at the young age of 47, right before the start of the 1972 season.
“Our greatest gift, although my father’s life was cut so short, was his influence on those around him," Irene Hodges said.
In early March of 2009, the City of New York opened the Al Oerter Recreation Center in Flushing, Queens. The $50 million state-of-the-art facility was dedicated posthumously to the four-time gold medal winner in the discus, who Mayor Michael Bloomberg called, “One of Queen’s own.” Two weeks later, less than a mile away, the New York Mets played their first game in the new “Citi Field,” the ballpark built to replace Shea Stadium, the original home of Gil Hodges and the Metropolitans.
Civil War hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain once wrote,"In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And generations that know us not, and that we know not of, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap around them, and the power of the vision pass into their souls."
Good night, you Kings of Queens.
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