By Larry Centor

I never really knew what my parents did as children -- the games they played, the friends they had, what their home lives were like.

My father grew up in Poland, and from the time he was two until he arrived in New York in 1920, age nine, he didn't have a father.  My zaide left in 1913, World War I happened, and he couldn't bring my bubbe and father over for seven years.

What was life like in Myszyniec?  I asked on a couple of occasions, far too infrequently -- and the picture I have is probably drawn more from novels, history texts and film than from what my father told me.

He was a man of few words.  "We went to cheder.  We played punchball."  I didn't ask; he didn't say -- until near the end of his life.  I had suggested taping his memories.  He asked me about it once -- and died a few months later.

Most of his memories are lost forever, unless you believe they live on in your children and grandchildren, waiting to be reclaimed by a mystery of life as yet unexplained.

My children seldom ask about my childhood.  I make a point of telling them whenever the occasion arises.

Proximity helps.  I grew up in The Bronx -- in New York -- and we still live in the city.  Now and again we pass a memory.  We speed past Yankee Stadium on the Major Deegan Expressway, and I tell my children how I used to sneak past the guards late in the game.  We knew all the tricks, every which way to distract them.

I was an adult before it dawned on me that the guards were probably playing at being tough.  In those years, it was a more benevolent Yankee organization.  Dozens of kids snuck into every game.  Sneaking in was seldom done alone; it was a group effort, usually involving three to eight or more kids at a time.

I saw 102 free innings one season; it was probably 1949 or 1950.  Three of them were exhibition innings against the Brooklyn Dodgers, the only time all season I sat in the bleachers.  Yes, I remember the Brooklyn Dodgers, but living just a few blocks from the Stadium, I was a Yankee fan.

Once, I snuck in in the ninth with the game tied.  Moments later, Tommy Henrich -- Old Reliable -- hit one out for the Yankee win over the Red Sox.  I hadn't missed a thing.  Tommy Henrich figured in another incident.  I was sitting in the right field grandstand, just behind the Yankee outfielder, when someone shouted at him, "Bet you could go for a good cigar about now!"  Tommy said he could. 

"Bet you could go for a beer, Tommy!" I added, quick to join in the camaraderie.

"Sure could kid," never taking his eyes off the action.  Tommy Henrich actually spoke to me -- to me.  I have Henrich's 1948 Bowman baseball card.  It's black and white and smaller than today's cards -- but he spoke to me.

And recently, I was talking to a customer in our comic book store.  He asked if he could reserve some books, and I said, "Sure Tommy," and gave him a card to fill out.  When he returned it, I noticed his last name, Henrich.  It turns out the Yankee great was a distant cousin.  "I'm named after him, but I've never met him," said Tommy Henrich.  "I hate baseball."

Another time, my sister and I were hanging around outside the ballpark when someone gave us tickets to the mezzanine, great seats just on the third base side of home.  We watched the game from the second inning, leaving after the Yankees beat the Washington Senators.  As we walked along our block, we found out that it was a doubleheader, so I doubled back and entered the Stadium in the fifth of what was to be the second Yankee win of the day.

In my memories, the Yankees seldom lost, certainly not to the lowly Senators or the even lowlier St. Louis Browns and their elf-like caps.

On Sundays, I sometimes sat in front of a sixth floor window of our apartment, and listened to Mel Allen broadcasting the game from a few blocks away.  I could hear the cheers for my heroes -- DiMaggio, Henrich, Page, Shea, Reynolds, Rizzuto, Raschi and the rest.  I sat there typing the game, pitch for pitch, on my old used Underwood upright -- and then tossed the single-spaced pages away.

Sunday was quiet around my block in Highbridge, a Jewish-Irish amalgam of kids who either went to P.S. 73 on Anderson Avenue, or to Sacred Heart a few blocks away.  Sunday was church, family get-togethers, quiet times -- generally boring.

It was on a Sunday just a few years ago that I read that Spec Shea would be at a card show at a nearby temple in Queens.  I took my son Joshua and my '48 Bowman of Spec Shea and went to share a memory.

With my son alongside, I asked the former Yankee if he remembered a game against the Tigers in Detroit one night 40 years ago when he pitched against the great Hal Newhouser.  "I remember you gave up a single to Newhouser with two out in the third -- and that was it, a one-hitter.  Am I right?"

"It was a hanging curve," Shea said.  "I knew I shouldn't have thrown it as soon as I released it."

I now have an autographed Spec Shea card -- and my son was with me.  And the story is on paper, so that one day -- perhaps half a century from now -- Joshua will sit down with my great-grandson and tell him how he was there when his father got Spec Shea's autograph.

And he can show him the actual autographed 1948 Bowman, and this story written on the last day of December 1995 -- so long ago, today.

©2001 Larry Centor