Where have you gone Dom Dimaggio?

Dom DiMaggio

Dom DiMaggio

As soon as I was old enough to drive, my parents decided I was old enough to work. I worked at a CVS Pharmacy for several years in high school, earning just enough cash to partially support the silver 1983 Dodge 400 they bought me.

I certainly wasn’t looking for a employment on my own but my dad had just turned his attention to my need for a job to support the car. I was ambivalent, to say the least. I had a lot of schoolwork to do and wasn’t too keen on the idea, but seeing as how there would be no driving without some income, I agreed (like I had a real choice). I think my ambivalence was derived from simply not knowing how to proceed. I didn’t want a laborious job, and I didn’t have the patience to work as a waiter or something like that. My mother frequented the pharmacy all the time, saw the other clean cut high school kids working there and thought I would fit in. So, she brought home an application.

If I remember correctly, the manager who hired me had a nephew or son who graduated from my high school, so she was inclined to take a little risk on me. All things considered, it wasn’t a bad job. I would work two shifts a week, about 10 to 12 hours altogether. I always had to wear a shirt and tie, which was no problem because I had to wear that to school, and a red smock with a name badge on it. I think we still have the badge at my parents’ house.

I worked at a CVS far less nice than this one

I worked at a CVS far less nice than this one

The pharmacy was located in a strip mall in East Haven off Foxon Road. Nestled between a Waldbaum’s grocery store and a women’s clothing store, it had its fair share of eccentric types who walked through the doors. The old men buying tobacco for their pipes. A guy named Marty who wore a dress, carried a purse, and was prone to fainting. I remember a girl from East Haven High with big hair who worked at the grocery store next door and always came in on her break to buy a chocolate bar. I liked to think back then she might have had a crush on me. There were a parade of crotchety old people convinced you were personally out to screw them out of their retirement savings. Come to think of it, those people are probably all gone by now.

I remember ringing a bell to call for help when the line got too long. I remember taking the photo envelopes and writing down all of the names and addresses into a ledger. I enjoyed washing the windows at the end of the night. I also enjoyed carpet sweeping the whole store – it was an oddly zen job. I hated “facing” the store – making sure everything looked fresh, neat, and restocked. I could never get it exactly the way they liked it. I used to have to look up people’s names in another ledger when they wrote a check – CVS was diligent about us checking to make sure we didn’t have any freeloaders. I can only imagine how humiliating it must have been for an adult to have been told by a 16-year-old that their check was no good.

There was one fellow who stuck with me. He was a man most likely in his late 40s – I had no real sense of how to judge an adult’s age – bald, with gray hair on the sides. He came in every time I worked and bought the Italian newspaper. He would come in with exact change – 43 cents – and toss it casually on the counter and walk out. I occasionally bristled at that because I thought he should have waiting in line like everyone else and what if I forgot to ring it up because I got slammed – something like that. Occasionally he would buy short cigars. I remembered him because he was the only person I ever saw buy the Italian-language paper. He never really talked to me much, if at all.

dimaggio

One day he asked me, “do you know who Dom Dimaggio was?” I certainly did. “You look just like him – skinny, dark-hair, glasses,” he said. I laughed and thanked him, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about that – I had read about the Red Sox center fielder  because I read all about baseball in the 1940s as a kid, but I don’t think I knew what he looked like. I guess as a Yankees fan I would’ve preferred he said I look like Joe D. himself. As a baseball crazed kid, I think I liked that an adult thought I looked like any kind of ballplayer at all (I wasn’t one at that point, and was a bit self-conscious about it, going to all-boys Catholic school.)

Recently, my girlfriend and I met my parents on the East Haven Green. They were going to listen to old time Neapolitan music. My girlfriend was about to leave on a pretty exciting, but stressful trip, so we decided to go with them just to take her mind off her big adventure (we would be engaged shortly thereafter). We chatted with my parents and listened to the Italian songs, which always makes me a bit nostalgic. I went up to get a bit of Italian ice, and I saw this old man watching the stage intently, standing alone.

I am sure it’s the guy from CVS. I mean, I think I’m sure. I don’t really know, but what’s the likelihood? So I peel off from my girlfriend, mainly so she’s not embarrassed when I accost a stranger, and approach this fellow. “Hi, I’m Steve,” I said. “This is a completely crazy question. But did you go into CVS in the early 1990s to buy the Italian paper?” “Yeah?” “I was the kid who worked behind the counter? Who you thought looked like Dom Dimaggio?”

Tony – I just found out his name – laughed and said he absolutely remembered me. He remembered my mom. And her certainly remembered the Dom Dimaggio line. I think he still thought I looked like the guy. We shook hands warmly, and I left him to the music and I to my girlfriend and my Italian ice.

Because I’ve lived in the same place all my life, I pass over a lot of ghosts. Memories of how places were then and now. Glimpses of people I might have known, maybe for a moment. I did this here. I saw that there. I spoke this person over here. As a nostalgic person, its always every time for me.

Maybe he was telling the truth and maybe he was just being polite, but I’m sure we were both pleased to be remembered for something from such a long time ago.

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Baseball and theatre: Our Town

This is where I've been hanging out these days - Grovers Corners

This is where I’ve been hanging out these days – Grovers Corners

Shortly after basking in the glow of writing about New Haven’s first win of the season against 15 losses, I went to the Hall of Fame for a weekend to relax and do a bit of research.  I’ve had a few weeks off from work, been distracted by summer, and the plight of the Elm Citys has gotten away from me a bit.

I’ve also had another happy distraction. I’ve also started directing Our Town by Thornton Wilder, a play I love dearly, for New Haven Theater Company. The performances will take place at the end of September. Here is a piece I wrote about Wilder, a Yale man and a Hamden resident buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery. 

It turns out that baseball plays a reasonably significant role in the play, which mostly takes place around the turn of the 19th century. Take this bit of Act Two dialogue between Si Crowell, a young paperboy, and Howie Newsome, a milkman.

“Howie: Anything in the papers I ought to know?

Si: Nothing much, except we are losing the best baseball pitcher Grover’s Corners ever had – George Gibbs.

Howie: Reckon he is. Could hit and run bases too.

Si: I don’t see how he could give up a thing like that just to get married? Would you Howie?

Howie: Can’t tell Si. Never had no talent that way.”

True to life, a old cop named Constable Warren, comes around to inform the duo that players may have been a bit better back in the good old days. “Back in ’84 Si we had a player, Si – even George Gibbs couldn’t touch him. Name of Hank Todd. Went down to Maine and became a parson. Wonderful ballplayer,” Warren said.

George, one of the young lovers at the center of the story, is smitten with the game, forgetting to do chores for his mother because he’s always at practice, not focusing too much on his school work, and walking the streets of Grover’s Corners throwing fly balls to himself. He’s a bit of a small town jock, and he likes the attention his skills bring him. The actor playing George and I discussed how intrinsic ballplaying is to understanding the character.

Emily, his would be sweetheart, finds herself concerned that George’s success on the diamond and his tiny slice of small town fame, has made him a smaller, more self-centered person, not the boy she liked growing up. The duo would reach a poignant and true understanding of each other.

Baseball players heckling their buddy George Gibbs before his wedding in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Our Town

Baseball players heckling their buddy George Gibbs before his wedding in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Our Town

Tonight, as the cast was taking press photos, one of the actors and I started lobbing a baseball around. He tried to show me how to throw a curve differently, and I tossed him a non-moving knuckleball (meaning it was just an exceedingly slow, straight pitch.) He told me that he really wanted to play shortstop as a kid, even though he was left-handed. I liked that.

There have been two things in my life, important to me at very different times, that have consistently challenged me – baseball and theatre. John Malkovich once said that when one works in the theatre you have to be comfortable chasing ghosts you never really catch. One could say the same thing about playing baseball.

The fictional events of Our Town take place about 40 years after the Elm Citys’ single season of existence in 1875. It isn’t a big leap to imagine someone like George stepping on to a National Association roster for a day. Maybe Sullivan or Evans, two of the unknown men who played a couple of days for the Elm Citys because of injuries to their regulars, were like George, small town heroes who would go back to their girls or their jobs, baseball as just a brief interlude in their lives. Maybe they didn’t realize how important those few days playing ball would be, that people would be trying to write about it over a century later.

Sartorial splendor: The Elm City club unveils their uniforms

The New Havens made a key decision for the upcoming National Association campaign – they decided on their new uniform. “[The uniform] will consist of white flannel cap, shirt, and knee breeches, with blue stockings and trimmings, and the name of the club on the breast of the shirt in English letters,” according to our friend at the Daily Palladium.

The paper would be more expliciting in its description of the uniform in a later story: “The uniforms of the Hartford, New Haven, and Athletic club are very nearly alike,” the Palladium reported on March 15, 1875.

The 1875 Hartford Dark Blues. The New Havens wore a uniform almost identical to this one.

The 1875 Hartford Dark Blues. The New Havens wore a uniform almost identical to this one.

This is helpful to us at the remove of over 130 years – the Elm City club left no photographs behind to show us what the team looked like on the field. The Hartford Dark Blues did leave contemporary photos.

I believe that the letters spelling out New Haven on the front of the uniforms looked generally like this:

Jim Creighton, baseball's first superstar from the 1860s. Notice the E on the front of the uniform.

Jim Creighton, baseball’s first superstar from the 1860s. Notice the E on the front of the uniform.

Or, perhaps the name on the front of the white uniform looked like lettering on the belts of these Brooklyn Excelsiors uniforms.

Here is a photo of the Excelsiors, with Creighton in the middle. The team name was listed on the belt on English script, the kind of script on the front of the Elm City club's uniform

Here is a photo of the Excelsiors, with Creighton in the middle. The team name was listed on the belt on English script, the kind of script on the front of the Elm City club’s uniform

The last vestige of the Old English lettering found on the front of the Elm City uniform is in the current home jersey of the Detroit Tigers.

One of the best uniforms in the current major leagues. The D is an example of the script found on New Haven's uniform

One of the best uniforms in the current major leagues. The D is an example of the script found on New Haven’s uniform

Often times the 19th century uniforms featured components that we might consider a bit uncomfortable while playing a ball game, such as neckties. Here are the 1874 Philadelphia Athletics.

The 1874 Philadelphia Athletics. Great neck ties

The 1874 Philadelphia Athletics. Great neck ties

This man, an amateur from 1871, shows a very good example of a 19th century era uniform.

This man, an amateur from 1871, shows a very good example of a 19th century era uniform.

Non sequitur. For a few years, back in the mid-Oughts, I played slow pitch softball with a team called Midwood Electric. We played on Sunday evenings thoughout the summer. I shouldn’t say we played – they played, I kept the scorebook and hit a very light .400 as a part-time designated hitter, although I did win one of the two games I pitched. Makes me 2-0 in my life. The first year the team was together, we wore a simple green t-shirt and frankly, the team looked like garbage on the field.

When you look bad, you play bad. Poor form all around.

When you look bad, you play bad. Poor form all around.

The second year, we got really nice gray sleeveless shirts with blue trim and a yellow Michigan M on the chest. I wore my number 56 in homage to Pilots pitcher and Ball Four author Jim Bouton. Other popular numbers – 2 (Derek Jeter), 23 (Don Mattingly), 69 (well, you know), and 99 (Charlie Sheen in the movie Major League). One guy on the team wore the number he had as a minor leaguer in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. We looked good and we weren’t too bad, if I remember correctly.

(Update: here it is. Nice take on the 1984 Topps card)

midwoodcardSCOOPS

Given what would happen in the next several months, I wonder if my slow-pitch team couldn’t have beaten the Elm Citys?

The Baseball Hall of Fame has a fine website devoted to the evolution of the baseball uniform.

 

A lot of hours in right field …

I played baseball for a long time as a kid. My mom still talks about the countless hours she spent on dusty Little League fields all over New Haven.

My career, such as it was, was nothing to mention. I played from the ages of 8 or 9 to 14. Most of the early days were spent playing two innings or getting to bat a single time. I remember standing in right field at Betsy Ross Field, marking off the number of steps from the foul line, the view of the tennis courts behind the batter, knowing that if a ball went over my head it would end up in the marshy reeds behind me.

I did have a few days of glory. I once pitched in a game and was responsible for making all six outs myself (three strikeouts, caught a pop up, picked a guy off, and threw out a batter on a ground ball back to me, thanks very much!) I still remember striking a guy out looking (3-2 count, pitch was low and inside – probably was ball four.) I had a couple of three hit games. I remember hitting a double of one of the best pitchers in the league. I think I was more stunned then he was. I think I hit .253 in my career (yes, I was the nerdy kid who knew his batting average, no matter how bad it was). I know I am undefeated on the mound … 1-0. Like the minor league pitcher Bill Ferrell in Ball Four, you can just call me A Thousand.

As a kid, one of my constant companions was the Baseball Encyclopedia. The volume, the Domesday Book of the baseball world, contained the stats of every man who ever appeared in a major league game and a few tidbits of biographical information. A nickname, perhaps, and where they lived and died. I loved the book – I thumbed through the whole thing. I could tell you the names of ton of obscure ballplayers whose fame, if they ever had any, had lone since subsided.

What I learned, much to my fascination, was that New Haven had a major league professional baseball team. Yep, for one glorious year, 1875, my home city was big league. The team, named the New Haven Elm Citys, played in the National Association, a paleozoic version of Major League Baseball – a evolutionary point towards the game we know today.

I’ve decided to research that lone season and write about what I find – the thought of creating a blog on one subject, and attempting to complete that subject, was appealing to me. I’ve already gone through months of the long defunct New Haven Palladium newspaper with more to follow.

Why tackle such an obscure subject?

Maybe I want to remember how it felt to stand in a dusty batter’s box, a little scared, wearing a polyester uniform and an ill-fitting helmet, thinking about the thousands of men who made their marks in a heavy blue covered book, having been to a place where I would never go.