“This bat,” he said, holding it aloft like it was the staff of Moses, “is worth a fortune.”
“Lookit this,” Lenny said, handing me the bat.
“So?” I said, unimpressed. It was a little heavier than most bats, and its color was a darker blonde than most.
“So?” he said incredulously, snatching the bat out of my hands as if I were unworthy.
“It’s a bat. We going to Verdugo?”
I suddenly did not want to go to the park if it was baseball he had in mind. Usually we played basketball and in the fall we would play tackle football in our jeans and sweatshirts. The football games were interminable marathons and when we were at the point of utter and complete exhaustion, Lenny would declare halftime and I don’t know why the rest us didn’t just quit on him but instead we would go to the drinking fountain, then return to battle for a few more hours until the score of the game became incalculable or forgotten, and Lenny—we ended up dubbing him The Commissioner—would announce that next touchdown would win. I much preferred football or basketball to baseball; I was no good at baseball and my ineptitude drove Lenny crazy.
“No way. We’re not playing baseball at Verdugo. Not until you learn how to swing a bat. You swing like you’re…”
“Chopping wood. ‘Sokay with me, I hate baseball. Let’s play some basketball. At least I know give and go.”
“We got some other business today.”
“This bat,” he said, holding it aloft like it was the staff of Moses, “is worth a fortune.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“This is a real old bat. Real old.”
“Look at it, Jack. It’s in clean shape. It’s a pro bat. A collector’s item.”
“Where’d you find it?”
“A tenant left it when he moved out.”
“Aren’t you gonna send it to him or something?”
“No. Are you kidding? Finders keepers.”
“If it’s so valuable why’d he forget it?”
“Cause he probably didn’t know it was valuable. Probably got it in a junk store from somebody else that didn’t know.”
“How you gonna prove it’s an old bat?”
“Look at the writing right there. What do you see?”
“Looks like scribbles.”
“Hold it this way. Looks like Phil Rizzuto.”
“He played for the Yankees.”
“I can’t tell. Looks like a P but it might a A.”
“No, Jack. Look, that says Phil right there. And that right there, that’s the R for Rizzuto.”
“How you gonna prove it?”
“That’s what we’re doing today. You got a bike?”
“You don’t have a bike?” He started laughing.
“I had a bike. It was purple. A Huffy.”
“A Huffy?” he said, laughing louder.
“I got it for Christmas when I was like 10.”
“They didn’t get you a Schwinn?”
“No. Mom bought it used from Morey across the street. It was purple and gigantic.”
“Pitiful. What happened to it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s in the garage. I’m not riding it though, even if it is.”
“I got a bike you can use.”
“Where are we going?”
“We’re gonna take the bat to a baseball expert.”
“Yeah, right. I said an expert. The guy who used to be the manager for the Yankees, not some loser high school coach.”
“Oh you mean Yogi Bear?”
“Yeah we’re gonna go steal picnic baskets.”
“Ok, very funny. I meant Yogi Berra.”
“Better than him. Come on, let’s go.” He grabbed a fistful of sunflower seeds and we went and got his bike under the lemon tree and then found the spare bike in the carport.
We never biked anywhere that I can remember and we never did after that day. Not that it was bad or that anything bad happened that day; it’s just that it wasn’t a sport, it was just a mode of transportation and we walked everywhere, all over Burbank. But this was something new and I was looking forward to it. We got on the bikes and headed east down Verdugo Avenue. I didn’t bother to ask Lenny where or how far or who the baseball expert was. We rode almost a mile and were coming up to Victory Boulevard before I spoke.
“Where are we going?”
“We’re going to Casey Stengel’s house.”
“Did you just say who’s he?”
“Yeah.” The name was familiar but I wanted some clarification.
“Oh. Nobody, just some guy who managed the New York Yankees to like 10 World Series, that’s all.”
I went silent for another mile. We were on Glenoaks Boulevard before I decided I would speak. I didn’t know much about baseball. I realized that day that although I loved the Los Angeles Dodgers I could only name three of them: Sandy Koufax; Don Drysdale and Maury Wills, and Koufax was retired. I tried to dredge up some face-saving factoid about the Yankees, but all I could think of was Babe Ruth and a pitcher by the name of Whitey Ford. I only knew Whitey Ford because I had heard my brother talk about him. I don’t know how the brain works exactly but a name came to me that was out of my mouth before I even realized I had said it. I think that I was probably trying to make amends for my Yogi Bear gaffe.
“I thought Leo Durocher was the Yankees manager,” I said with an understated authority.
“No, Jake. Durocher managed some other team called the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ever heard of them?”
Why was baseball so essential? Football and basketball are so much better; they were fluid where baseball was static. Football is the best sport of them all. I recalled a question in a kids’ magazine asking which sport is known as the King of Sports. I was sure it was football and stared in disbelief at the answer: Horseracing. I hated baseball. All that standing and waiting and sitting and waiting. I couldn’t hit, field or throw, and I thought standing in the batter’s box trying to not make a fool of yourself was like attending church naked and hoping to go unnoticed. Nevertheless, I was intrigued at the prospect of meeting a famous major league baseball manager from a legendary baseball team.
“Where the heck does he live anyway?”
“Relax, we’re almost there.”
“If he’s from New York what’s he doing in Glendale?”
“Whatever he wants. He’s retired. There’s lots of old people in Glendale, so he’s in the right place.”
We turned on Glenview Avenue. The houses were nice but not at all ostentatious. It seemed to me if you were a well-paid famous person you would live in San Marino or Newport or maybe Los Feliz—I always thought it would be cool to live in one of those houses on the way to the Griffith Park Observatory—but Glendale, well Glendale wouldn’t be at the top of anyone’s list. I was 15 and didn’t know circumstances and choices of adults any more than I knew baseball history.
“There it is.” Lenny called out, pointing at the house with the bat.
“Who told you where he lives?”
“Marty? Who’s Marty?”
“Fat Marty. He played football at Verdugo a few times. You liked blocking him because he was blubbery.”
“Oh yeah, Marty. How’d he know?”
“He’s got connections.”
“Huh.” I couldn’t imagine anyone our age having “connections,” even in LA.
We dismounted and walked our bikes up the driveway. We stood on the porch and looked at each other, laughing with joy, quietly. Lenny pressed the doorbell which after a moment’s delay chimed in a humble, modest tone.
“Do we call him Mr. Durocher or Leo?”
“Don’t say anything,” Lenny answered, shaking his head in disbelief.
We stood on the porch for what seemed an inordinate amount of time but I was impatient and didn’t want to get chased away.
“Nobody’s here. Let’s go.”
A moment later we heard footsteps inside the house, followed by the unlatching of latches and unbolting of deadbolts. When the door opened an elderly woman stood before us, smiling, waiting for one of us to speak.
“Um, hello,” Lenny began tentatively, “we were in the neighborhood and just wanted to say hello to Mr. Stengel.”
I pondered the notion of being in the neighborhood from five miles away but concluded that our two towns were the neighbors. I raised my eyebrows and nodded my head enthusiastically, accustomed to playing the role of Harpo. The woman looked at us like we were little cherubs hovering on her front porch bearing good news for the Stengels. Lenny had the bat resting on his shoulder.
“Well, isn’t that nice? Why don’t you come in boys?”
“Thank you,” Lenny said, smooth as glass,” I hope we’re not disrupting your Saturday.” He had suddenly morphed into a decorously mannered young man I had no idea he was capable of imitating, let alone becoming. There was no Eddie Haskell in him at the moment; he was sincere.
“Oh why, it’s no disruption at all,” she chuckled at either the word or the notion. “Wait here, I’ll see if Casey wouldn’t mind some visitors. I’m sure he wouldn’t.”
“Thank you, ma’m. I’m Lenny and this is Jack. We won’t stay long.”
“Nice you to meet you, both. I’m Edna, Mrs. Stengel, Casey’s wife. I’ll be right back.”
We stood in the dark, quiet entryway. Lenny took the bat off his shoulder and simply held it at his side. I felt like we were getting away with something because Mrs. Stengel was treating us like were adorable little kids who came to see their hero but we were in fact too old at 15 to be adorable, and my heroes—Roosevelt Grier, David Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy and Merlin Olsen—were football players. Casey Stengel was too old to be our hero; Lenny knew about him because his dad grew up in New York and was an avid sports enthusiast. And while the visit would mean more to Lenny than it did to me, he was still there on business.
“If the bat is valuable are you going to sell it?”
“Then you have a bat worth a lot that you’ll never sell.”
“You don’t get it.”
I was going to ask Lenny to explain what it was I didn’t understand when Casey Stengel appeared from the back of the living room, appraised us for a moment and then moved toward us, slowly. I knew he was old but I somehow had expected him to still look athletic. He was old but not frail. He moved slowly but with certainty, greeted us amiably and invited us to follow him to the den where we stayed for half an hour listening to stories of the glory days of baseball. He showed us his trophy case but shrugged nonchalantly when we made sounds to express our awe. Lenny was able to carry a conversation with Casey—they talked about the Mets, the Yankees and how the game had changed over the years. I stayed in Harpo mode, mugging, nodding, and putting my hand on my head at what I thought might be appropriate moments. Just when I thought Lenny was going to pass on asking about the bat, he held it up and presented it to Casey.
“Casey, I found this bat and it looks pretty old. It’s autographed and I was wondering if you could look at it,” Lenny said as if it didn’t matter much to him.
“Huh? Oh yeah,” he said, holding the bat in both hands as if he were weighing it. “It’s a bat all right.” He looked at one end and then the other.
“What do you think?” Lenny asked, unable to maintain his matter of fact tone.
“Well, I’ll tell ya. This bat? It’s just a bat. It’s not rare or nothing.”
“It’s not special or nothin’, but it’s especially not worth nothin’ to you.” He smiled and then nodded with finality and handed the bat back to Lenny. No one knew who should speak next but Mrs. Stengel arrived as if on cue. We all stood up and made ready to leave. We thanked him, we thanked her and in a moment we were on the front porch picking up our bikes, the door closing behind us. Lenny was in a funk but I knew if I said something sympathetic he would take the opposite point of view and shake it off.
“Oh well,” I said as we rolled down Grandview Avenue.
“The bat doesn’t matter,” he said with conviction, “we had a visit with Casey Stengel. The bat was just our excuse to go see him.”
“Yeah,” I said, taking my feet off the pedals and for a moment I had that memory of riding a bike for the very first time.