- All right, this is it, the whole season coming down to just one ball game. And every mistake will be magnified. And every great play will be magnified. And it’s a tough night for the players, I’ll tell ya. I know last night, being in the same situation many times with the great Yankee teams of the past, you stay awake. And you dream. And you think of what might be, if you are the Hero, or the Goat.
– Phil Rizzuto, Oct. 14, 1976
“Ya-in-love-with-anyone?” my old radio pal Strunk asks, playing catch-up.
“Nah,” I say. “I’m played out. Set in my ways. Happy with my pet cat. Solitudinously content, like the Greek philosophers. Love is too much trouble.”
Freud always harped on Love and Work — having both, you would be a complete person. For me, love was how I got through work — at least, the boredom of my first girlhood job at a supermarket. There I was, 16 and “In Love” — after renouncing Fess Parker, Guy Madison, Captain Video — “In Love” with Tony Kubek, New York Yankees shortstop.
Here it is, another World Series again, Yankees vs. the Braves, and to this day, I can still recite some of Tony Kubek’s statistics; they must be engraved in my brain: 6’3″, 191 pounds, birthday Oct. 12, wore the No. 10 jersey, American League rookie of the year, two-time all-star. Hit two home runs in a World Series game. Topps baseball card No. 505. Batted L, threw R, like I did.
Sure, we didn’t know each other. He was from Milwaukee; I was from New Jersey. He had a sister named Christine, I had a brother named Martin. He had a crew-cut and blue eyes, he was Polish Catholic and in his 20s. I was a chubby Jewish brunette with a “boyish bob.” No one had ever asked me out.
That was no obstacle to Love. Like any teenager, I had my Crush Epistemology, my Swoon Rules:
Not knowing each other didn’t matter.
The further away, the better.
The more unattainable, the better.
The more famous, the better.
The cuter, the better.
“Love” was like a giant drive-in movie screen, to project images of incredibly handsome strangers whom I would make up fantasies about at night before I fell asleep.
Fantasy met reality, sort of, when I read in our paper, the “Long Branch Daily Record,” that Tony Kubek had enlisted in the Army Signal Corps and would be stationed nearby, at Fort Monmouth, the military base where coincidentally, my father worked as an electronics engineer. This had to be definite proof that God existed — only God would have delivered Tony Kubek into the vicinity of my arms.
What would I do? Invite him to dinner? My father could drive him back to our house. Certainly my mother and all the other folks on Fulton Ave. would be surprised, but after all, she was the one who had introduced me to baseball, which she watched in the living room while she ironed our clothes. I don’t know what she liked best about baseball, maybe Casey Stengel’s scrambled neo-Joycean monologues to reporters or Yogi Berra’s simian squint. The part I liked best was when the players came up to home plate and adjusted their crotches right there on national television. Mother never knew I was bound to the wholesome sport of baseball by the base emotion lust.
But, for me, baseball was more than a sport. Even before movies like “Field of Dreams,” and “Bull Durham,” baseball was a bona-fide existential conundrum — chronicled by Mel Allen’s velvety drawl. His voice initiated me to the same mysteries that would fascinate Saul Bellow in “The Natural” and Robert Coover in “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.,” and W. P. Kinsella in “Shoeless Joe.”
So I send a letter to Tony Kubek in the Army. I figure he is the level of Star whom the Post Office will track down anyplace in the world, like “Santa Claus c/o North Pole.” Well, I was right. Three weeks later, I get a reply. My offhanded little invitation — “If you’re in the neighborhood, drop by for supper. We’d be thrilled to have you” — worked. …
Barely. I got a picture postcard of Tony Kubek in uniform. No military snazz, but baggy pinstripes. It was autographed, too — a machine-stamped signature on a mass-produced photo. No handwritten list of his favorite movies, his chief dislikes, his possible allergies. My initial elation (Gosh, a postcard from Tony!) at his response was shattered. He hadn’t even mentioned dinner — he just didn’t seem to want to come, ride from my father or no.
Tony’s tour of duty was an unremarkable six months, and soon he was back with Moose, Bobby, Billy, Mickey, Jerry, and the rest of his team . Yeah, I still loved him, maybe even more than ever. You don’t stay a virgin all through college, er, a “technical” virgin, until you’re the age of 22 and two months — unless you work extra hard at accumulating a fabulous string of unrequited romances. Love for me would mean forever hoarding magic imaginary memories of dashing but distant men. And I have never quite gotten over the notion that love was something you HAD, not something you DID.
Very soon after college, I met and married a guy whose career high point back then, before toiling in an axe-handle factory, was a tryout with a bona-fide major-league baseball club, and soon I forgot all about Tony. I forgot all about Tony until years later when I was an experience-hardened veteran of divorce, dating, regret, and many auditions for that elusive Holy Grail of adulthood, True Love.
Listen: the same night my old friend asks me who I’m in love with and I tell him nobody, I dream of Tony Kubek! In my dream, Tony Kubek and I meet at a party. We are grownups. First, he is charmed when I confess he was my teenage heartthrob. Here I am, in my dream, finally talking to Tony Kubek!! And it is wonderful! He has a job! A car! A suit! And all his hair! In my dream, I hand Tony Kubek my business card. I suggest just maybe someday I write a story on him. He seems receptive. We chat some more. I turn my head; he is gone. That’s a man for you.
That would be the end of the story, except for this brief coda. A while back, after I wrote a little piece about this dream that appeared in a magazine I used to work for, somehow, I get … an actual letter from Tony Kubek, in response. That’s right, THE ONE!! Addressed to me!! Twenty years after my first letter to him!! By that time, he was doing TV play-by-play, like Rizzuto and Red Barber and Mel Allen before him. And that time, he answered all my previous questions I had wanted to know when I was 16. He was what my mom would call a classy guy with character, unlike some of my other choices. We even liked the same movies. Maybe sometime, he wrote, we’d have lunch, “wife permitting.”
Though Tony Kubek wasn’t one of the 30 players just voted onto baseball’s All-Century Team, he’s still first Yankee in my heart, a true hero in pinstripes. Honey, if I play my cards right, if I milk this for all it is worth, I have the makings here of a real life-long obsession — and isn’t that the safest sex of all?