Posts Tagged ‘Personal’

I’m On a Publication Deadline Break.

December 2, 2009

Hi, folks! I’m on a publication deadline break that has saved you from the spam of my blogs these past few days. I will be done with my work pressures and back on the blog firing line by the weekend. If any of you do not want to receive notices about my pretty much daily, heavily baseball oriented articles, just let me know and I will drop your name from the mailing list. I don’t want to be a bother to anyone.

There is a one-liner answer Q&A that I heard on TV Sports last night that goes with the banner photo above of our one dollar bill. I’d give credit if I knew who came up with the line, but that wasn’t revealed, but as a contemporary sports observation in Houston these days, it’s priceless. I’ll leave it with you as our thought for the day:

Question: How is a one dollar bill different from the Houston Texans NFL club?

Answer: You can get four quarters out of a one dollar bill.

Have a nice Wednesday, Houston professional football fans!

Why Was The Sandlot So Joyful?

November 23, 2009

Our Eagle Field (1950) is Now Called Japonica Park.

The Pecan Park Eagles were real. Back in 1950, we played on an East End site in our neighborhood that we called Eagle Field. We played other places too, but this was our turf, our home field, our hatchery for every baseball dream that any of us ever knew. We had no lights at this sacred ground, but we didn’t need them. At a time in our young lives when summers meant we owned the place from from dawn to dusk, we didn’t need night baseball. Besides, night time was Houston Buffs time, a time for all of us to either be at Buff Stadium in the Knothole Gang, or else, to be listening tight to Loel Passe broadcasting the games over AM radio station KTHT, 790 on the dial.

What none of us knew back there in those innocent days of our young lives seems simple now. No matter what any us accomplished from there, some things would never get any better than they already were back in the summers of 1947 through 1952. Those years, especially the summer of 1950, were the seasons of the Pecan Park Eagles, and Eagle Field is where we all yielded our hearts and best playing efforts to the game of sandlot baseball. Nothing ever, in any form, yielded more pure joy to any of us than those treasured moments in the sun that we Eagles shared with each other on that hallowed turf.

Unfettered by normal adult responsibilities and the kind of cultural cynicism that now seems to ooze from every loose seam in the talking heads media, and also from every social network site on the Internet, we simply lived out the days of 1950 living in the moment of acting out our grandest dreams on a field that was tailor made by God for bare-feet running, heavy sweat bat-swinging, and rag-tag ball catching with hand-me-down gloves on a makeshift diamond that just happened to be available to us at the place where Japonica bleeds into Myrtle Street, one block over from Griggs Road and about two blocks east on Griggs from the Gulf Freeway.

The old place is still there in 2009, but it’s sadly now cluttered with playground equipment that we would’ve hated and probably destroyed sixty years ago. These things would only get in the way of a good game. Sadly too, today’s kids of my old neighborhood don’t seem to need that good game as once we did. They also don’t seem to either need the playground swings, etc., that the City of Houston has so thoughtfully constructed for them. I usually check out the old place about once a year – and I’ve never seen a kid playing there anytime I’ve driven by my oldest and strongest early haunt.

Driving slowly past Eagle Field, I sometimes stop and walk out upon it again, just to note all the landmarks that still remind me of what it was like to play ball there. The telephone pole in deep center field appears to be the same one that was in place all those many decades ago. There’s a big mixed breed dog in Mrs. McGee’s fenced backyard that now barks at me as though it would eat me alive if it could. I can still look over to the front porch of Randy Hunt’s old house. It seems that my presence on the “The Lot” (it’s other name) would bring Randy bounding out the front door to join me with a ball and glove, as it once did, but that never happens these days.

I never leave the place without saying something to Eagle Field like, “Goodbye, old friend, until next time!”

If I really have to explain why my personal sandlot was so joyful, I guess I can’t do it. Just know that some loves never end. And this was my big one.

Ode to Prince’s Drive Inn

October 1, 2009

PRINCES 02

PRINCES 01

When the long day’s done, when nostalgia seaps through, there’s still time left, for a burger and brew, at the one place in town, that’s pulled Houston  through – the Depression, the wars, and the freeways.

“Fit for a King,” don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that fling, that original sauce bling, that seeded bun sting, that all crisply tells us, “you’re eating at Prince’s tonight!”

 From 1934, through the ’80s or so, your good taste in burgers, was all we could know, of a meal that was laid out, quite perfectly so,  in a kitchen just this side of heaven. 

With rings on the side, as the onions were fried, you charmed us with carhops and Elvis. – We flocked to your gate, and we always stayed late, but the smooching was hard on the pelvis. 

On South Main you were royal, to your subjects so loyal, and you soon built a thousand locations. – Then hitting them all, ‘came our gist of it all, as our favorite on-the-go avocation. 

You closed down for a while, but you came back in style, with a plan for the new generation.  No carhops this time, just burgers sublime, and a dab of the ’50s, in sweet spiritual decoration.  

And now that you’re back, with a storefront or two, it’s still nice to taste, a great burger from you, but I still have to ask, ‘fore the clock on me, gently, I hope – just slips me away too:

“Who is that beautiful girl whose carhop cutout figure now hangs on the wall of your Briar Forest place? I remember her from the old days, but I never got her name!”

Houston: A Grocery Store Memoir.

September 26, 2009

Haenel's Groceries

Once upon a time, about 1950, this now fairly abandoned site at the corner of Myrtle and Redwood in Pecan Park thrived as Haenel’s Grocieries, one of the many small family-run grocery stores that threaded their way all over the Houston East End. In fact, Haenel’s was located directly across the street on the Redwood side from Graves’ Groceries. There was room enough for both little stores, in spite of the nearby competitive presence of larger grocers, like Weingarten’s, Henke & Pillot, Piggily Wiggiily, A&P, and Minimax.

Right around the corner from Haenel’s and Graves was the Griggs Road Butcher Shop, where they sold only fresh cuts of meat from beef cattle, chickens, and pigs. You could also buy fish there, sometimes, but special fish markets stores also took care of those items for most people.

Saturday was the big day for family shopping back in that era. Most people didn’t have time to shop fully during the week because of work schedules and limited shopping hours. Most stores opened from 8 AM to 8 PM. Monday through Saturday, with all stores being closed on Sundays. Some of the smaller stores, like Haenel’s, even shut down at 6 PM, Monday through Thursday. So, since most families only had one car that dad used for work during the week, and mom was busy watching kids and fixing meals during the week, most of the family shopping for a whole week pushed toward Friday nights and, especially, all day Saturday.

As a veteran checker, sacker, and stocker at the A&P on Lawndale near 75th, all I can tell you is that there was nothing quite like a Saturday morning at the grocery store back in 1954-56 era I worked the trade. In so many ways, it was the most enjoyable job I ever had – and also the most challenging.

Starting pay back then was  50¢ per hour as a “package boy” (sacker) – with a raise to 75¢ possible upon one’s promotion to checker. That wasn’t bad for the times. Some customers tipped 25-50¢ for help with a heavy load of groceries. What was bad for us was the lesson in economics we faced with promotion. By getting a raise to checker status, we also lost money by losing the opportunity for tips.

One Saturday morning, as I was contemplating my lost income to my checker promotion, an elderly woman customer stopped me as I was walking away from my register on break. It was a case of best/worst timing for the question she shouted my way. “Young man,” screetched the woman, “can you tell me where this store keeps its all day suckers?”

“Well, you’re talking to one of them,” I replied.

Unfortunately, our store manager in 1955-56, Mr. Wright was coming around the aisle just in time to hear both parts of our brief exchange. I received a severe lecture for trying to be funny on the job and summarily ordered to finish the afternoon “mopping the slop” all the rest of the day at the freight dock behind the store. At the end of the day, Mr. Wright wanted to know if I still thought that my  grocery store job was a place for funny business. What could I say? Short of “take this job and shove it,” there was nothing funny about “mopping the slop” for several hours in 100 degree temperatures, but I was too stubborn to let Mr. Wright run me off from a job I sorely needed. And I also saw his humorless point and learned more about working with uptight, authoritarian bosses at the A&P than I would ever see anywhere else. It’s also why I’ve spent most of my adult life, as much as possible, self-employed.

Nearing Christmas of 1954, I convinced my previous A&P manager, Mr. Dodgen, that some seasonal music owuld help sales by putting customers in the right buying spirit. Mr. Dodgen allowed me to bring down a record player and put on a little Bing Crosby Christmas album that belonged to my parents. It played very well over the loudspeaker system, bringing praise to Mr. Dodgen from customers – and looks of managerical approval to me. I thought, “Oh Boy! I’ve finally done something that’s going to help me around here!”

Then, one day, Mr. Dodgen had to be out of the store for a district meeting. We used the opportunity to remove Bing Crosby and started playing Little Richard at the A&P. When Mr. Dodgen came back earlier than expected, rock and roll was still blasting away, but the customers didn’t seem to mind. In fact, some of the younger mothers were even bopping in the aisles – and our little adolescent task force didn’t mind that action at all.

Mr. Dodgen was no music expert. If he were, he wouldn’t been down at the A&P, approving checks, but even he knew that some change had taken place in his absence.

“That doesn’t sound like Christms music to me!” Mr. Dodgen said.

“”No, but look at how happy the customers are, sir!” I replied.

Mr. Dodgen looked, smiled, and walked away. After that time, it didn’t matter what we played. We had music in the store. And I’ve always guessed that we may have been the first in Houston to do so.

The store Christmas party of 1954 couldn’t have happened in 2009. Once the store closed, several days before Christmas, all of us employees were invited to stay and help celebrate the season with Mr. Dodgen and our other bosses. Beer and hard liquor was available to everyone, including those of us who were only 16.

Well, everyone ended up grossly overserved and, for me, it was my first experience with having way too much to drink. It was also my first opportunity to slide into a level of thinking that can only come from alcohol or similar mind-altering chemicals. We decided that it would be a good idea to take an unopened bottle of Jim Beam bourbon and stuff it into one of the turkeys we had on sale at the meat counter. My companions and I carried out this immature act – and then spent the next two days waiting to see who actually ended up purchasing our “bonus surprise bird.”

Someone did buy the loaded bird, but we failed to see it happen. Then we started worrying that such a customer might actually bring the loaded bird back to the A&P and start complaining. That didn’t happen either. We never knew who got the bird. We just knew that we were lucky. Had it become public, a lot us could have gotten the bird from A&P. As I matured, I always worried that we may have passed on the loaded bird to someone who was looking for a sign from Heaven that they needed to stop drinking. Hell! What we passed on was the Devil’s green light. All I can say now is – I’m sorry for any real harm we may have caused by our immaturity.

I still loved the camaraderie with my co-workers – and I loved my favorite customers. Fifty-five years later, I still see their faces in the check-out line of my mind, as they waited for me to manually ring up their groceries and make change, using little more than my ability to do addition and subtraction in my head. Hey! I had to have something going for me! Without mathematical accuracy, I wouldn’t have been able to keep my job.

I might have survived at A&P without change, anyway, had Mr. Dodgen remained our manager, but not with Mr. Wright around. Mr. Wright needed to know that everyone at A&P understood that there’s nothing funny or enjoyable about selling groceries. I didn’t get that lesson, but I did learn a lot about taking personal responsibility for my behavior from Mr. Wright. He turned out to be a pretty cool old school guy afer all.

Heroes: My Personal Mount Rushmore!

September 17, 2009

Solly Hemus 010

Jerry Witte …  Larry Miggins … Frank Mancuso … Solly Hemus! From left to right, that’s the order of these four men in this 1998 photo from the Houston Winter Baseball Dinner. Sadly, two of the men shown here, Jerry Witte (2002) and Frank Mancuso (2007), are gone now on the date of  this 2009 writing. God rest their souls as those of us who loved them keep their memories alive as best we are able.

Those four men could have comprised a carving of my own personal Mount Rushmore of early baseball heroes. During the era of my kid fan days at old Buff Stadium in Houston over the post World War II zenith years of minor league baseball, these were the guys whose play, whose very names, mind you, just worked upon me electrically, drawing me to the ballpark like so many magnets – and as as often as possible.

As I wrote only yesterday, Jerry Witte (Buffs, 1950-52) was the “Darth Vader Comes Home to the light” figure of the group. When Jerry joined the Buffs in 1950, after first slugging the bejabbers out of our pitching staff during his 1949 fifty home run year for the Dallas Eagles, and if there had been a Darth Vader around back then to conjure up as an image, that is exactly how it felt to me as a 12 year old kid when I got the news that June 1950 summer morning of Jerry Witte’s assignment to the Buffs by the parent Cardinals. I was so excited I couldn’t even finish my breakfast. I had to hit it outside to the sandlot, asap, so I could start talking up a trip to nearby Buff Stadium with my fellow members of the Pecan Park Eagles club. We all just knew that that the big righthanded slugging first basemann Jerry Witte was going to turn out to be the Buffs’ version of Babe Ruth – which he pretty much did in 1951 when his 38 homers led Houston to the Texas League pennant.

Larry Miggins (Buffs, 1949, 1951, 1953-54), the hard-hitting righthanded left fielder wasn’t around in 1950, but he returned in 1951 to power-team with Jerry Witte as the duo of sluggers who would pace the Buffs’ offenseive charge on the ’51 pennant. Whereas Witte polled those Ruthian Rainbow shots, Miggins laced those Gehrig Guidewire homers that simply roped their ways over the fence – as they did on 28 separate occasions off the Irish spring wrist action swinging of the Gaelic slugging prince. Miggins was even known to sing prior to some games as part of special event programs at Buff Stadium, warbling out a beautiful Irish tenor version of such classics as “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” I consider myself lucky today to include Larry Miggins among my special handful of dearest old friends in the world – and that friendship extends to his lovely wife Kathleen and the whole very large Miggins family.

Frank Mancuso (Buffs, 1953) arrived last as a Buff but he got here first in my mind, long before baseball. You see, we lived just don’t the street on Japonica in Pecan Park from Frank’s mother all the while I was growing up. My mom used to take Frank’s mom shopping with her. So, when someone who was practically a neighbor, vis-a-vis his mother, joined the Buffs, it was almost as though one of our own Pecan Park Eagles finally had made it onto the Buffs roster.  What a thrill it was seeing Frank behind the plate as a Buffs catcher, and not wearing one his former foe uniforms from San Antonio or Beaumont. The fact that Frank Mancuso had only nine years earlier played in the only World Series ever engaged by the 1944 St. Louis Browns simply made his Homeric return home all the merrier. Frank Mancuso went two for three for the Browns as a pinch hitter in the 1944 World Series. How many other clubs in the 1953 Texas League season could brag that they had a .667 career World Series hitter in their lineup for the season? (Frank Mancuso also had an older brother Gus who played more than a little ball as a big league catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Giants.) After baseball, Frank Mancuso served the East End admirably for thirty years as a member of the Houston City Council.

Solly Hemus 009

Solly Hemus (Buffs, 1947-49) was always special with me from the standpoint that he was the George Washington of my personal Rushmore, my first ever baseball hero when I first ever discovered professional baseball (thanks to my dad) in 1947. They called him the “Little Pepperpot” when he was playing second base for the ’47 Houston Buffs Texas League and Dixie Series champions – and it was his fiery play that led the Buffs to one of the most successful years in their rich minor league history. My early affinity for Solly Hemus undoubtedly fed upon the fact that he wasn’t really any taller than my dad, who had aso been a fiery amateur player in my native Beeville, Texas before our move to Houston during World War II. Dad also threw right and batted left, as did Solly – and it was dad who first took me to Buff Stadium when I was age 9 – just in time to promote my falling in love with Buff Stadium and baseball, ’til death do us part. – When I first had a chance to really meet Solly Hemus at the 1995 Last Round Up of the Houston Buffs, I found him almost quietly shy and reserved, and not at all like the fiesty public personna that he developed as a player and manager, thanks to some differences in his playing character, and with some considerable distorting help from the media about his true character. The more you get to know Solly, and I still do not know him that well, the more you get to see how much good he does for others while also doing everything possible to avoid recognition or get credit attention for his actions. – In my  adult understanding of heroism, Solly Hemus ranks at the head of the hero class, but his other three friends and former teammates in our first photo rank right up there with him in their own personal commtments to right action over recognition-striving as the real goal of genuine philanthropy.

Anytime someone else also wants to carve a monument to these four honorable men, just give me a call. We’ll even add former Buffs President (1946-53) Allen Russell to the center of this mix in the name of fairness and balance. I was just focusing on players today, but Allen Russell belongs up there too for all of his contributions to Houston baseball for decades.

Just get me a rock that’s big enough. I’ve got the tools to get the job done.

Jerry Witte: A Man of Love and Loyalty!

September 16, 2009

HBF - WITTE 1B

Yesterday I wrote about the three major villains of my Houston Buffs during the post World War II years. I also pointed out that all or any of the three bad guys, Russ Burns, Les Fleming, or Joe Frazier, could’ve been wiped clean of that dark designation had they simply done one thing – that is, to have signed or been traded to the Buffs for the sake of finishing their careers as Houston Hometown Heroes. – It didn’t happen, not with these three guys.

There was a fourth villain in this group, however, and he was far worse than all of the others because of his prodigious ability to slam monster-like Ruthian home runs, blows that exploded local hope like one of those mushroom cloudy atomic bombs we’d all witnessed in wild-eyed fear in the movie theatre newsreels.
And his name was Jerry Witte.
Jerry Witte had cracked out 46 homers at Toledo in 1946. The “46 in ’46” had landed him a late season call up by the parent club St. Louis Browns, but that didn’t work out too well for Jerry at age 31. After another bad start with the Browns in’47, Jerry found himself back at AAA Toledo for the balance of the season.
After the ’47 season, Witte was dealt to the Red Sox, who assigned his contract to their AAA Louisville club. Owner Dick Burnett of the Dallas Eagles then acquired Jerry Witte as one of the veteran bonecrushing players he pulled together for his ’49 Dallas Eagles.
The ’49 Eagles broke fast from the gate, crumbling every foe that came up on the schedule until a couple of things began to happen. – Their veteran players ran out of gas – and their pitchers failed miserably. The club of villains fell miserably Still, in 1949, Jerry Witte crushed 50 home runs in the Texas League and, to me at least, it seemed as though he hit them all against our Houston Buffs. Our ’49 Buffs had little hope, anyway, but what they did have was quickly stomped into the dirt beneath the grass at Buff Stadium by a predictable barrage of homers that flew off the bat of the slugging right handed hitting first baseman.
After the ’49 season, Dallas sold the contract of JerryWitte to the St. Louis Cardinals, who in turn then assigned the former Eagle AAA Rochester. Due to an overstocking of younger first basemen at Rochester and Witte’s desire to play in a warmer climate, Jerry was reassigned to play for the ’50 Buffs on June 11, 1950. As I said in the 2003 book on his life and career that we wrote together, “A Kid From St. Louis,” learning in the Houston Post the next morning  that Jerry Witte was now a Houston Buff was roughly the emotional equivalent to me of learning that Darth Vader suddenly had been dealt to the forces of the light. My favorite enemy had been instantly transformed into my biggest life hero.
Jerry Witte and I wouldn’t really connect personally until the September 1995 Last Round Up of the Houston Buffs, but we quickly made up time for all the years we lost.  Jerry Witte and his wonderful wife Mary are both gone now, but I shall both love and miss each of them forever. They were like second parents to me – and their seven lovely daughters became like seven sisters, as well. There’s nothing I would not do for any of them, if it were  in my power. They are all just such good souls – the kind we need more of in our harvest of American people.
Jerry and Mary Witte were both down-to-earth midwesterners who retired in Houston after Jerry’s three seasons with the Buffs (1950-52). All seven of their lovely daughters are quite accomplished people professionally, but all have retained that basic one-two punch of integrity that once flowed so readily from their mom and dad: (1) say what you mean, and (2) do what you say.
May the memory and the values of Jerry and Mary Witte live on forever in the middle of our everyday lives. Such is the stuff of real heroes – that the practice of love for and loyalty to others always outweighs all ambitions to use other people for selfish  personal gain. You don’t befriend people because of how useful they may be to you. You befriend people because it’s the right way to be – in a world where heroes really aren’t just determined by the names on their uniforms, but by the actions of the people who wear them.

My Greatest Buff Stadium Memory: 1951.

September 4, 2009

NYY@HOU 51 Sunday, April 8, 1951 was the date of the most memorable game I ever watched at old Buff Stadium – and it didn’t even count in the standings. It didn’t have to count, except in the heart of play we witnessed that day – and in the pictures it imprinted upon the minds of the record crowd of 13,963 fans who attended that hot and sunny spring afternoon exhbition game.

I was only 13 at the time, but I was already seriously interested in photography. Unfortunately, I never had the money needed to pay for film and development of my pictures down at Mading’s Drug Store. Had I been able to spring for those costs back then, I would be showing you the pictures I took with the family’s Kodak Brownie box camera – not just trying to tell you about the images that remain on my soul-mind’s eye to this day, some fifty-eight years later.

First let me offer some perspective on where these pictures were taken.

Because my dad felt we wouldn’t need to buy tickets in advance, he, my kid brother John, my best friend Billy Sanders, and I all ended up standing behind the section of left center field that had been roped off for all of the other SRO fans who thought like my dad, but that turned out to be way more than just OK. First of all, we caught space on a section that was directly on the rope in the front row. There were four or five rows of other fans standing behind us. My dad was only 5’6″ and the rest of us were kids. We’d have been lost any further back, but that’s not how it happened. Next, and most importantly, we were standing no more than about ninety feet away from Joe DiMaggio in center field, to our left – and Gene Woodling in left field, to our right. They were wearing their blousy gray road uniforms with the words “NEW YORK” arching in dark letters across the breast plates of their jerseys. I don’t have a physical picture of DiMaggio wearing his road uniform that day, but I’ll never forget the one that plays on forever in my mind. DiMaggio was as graceful as the writers always described him in The Sporting News.

DIMAGGIO JOE 001I watched every single nuanced thing DiMaggio did in the field – and I loved it when he had to run over near us for a fly ball. He was close enough for us to hear the ball pop leather on the catch many times. I even thought we made eye contact once.

I watched the way Joe DiMaggio leaned in from center field prior to each pitch, getting some kind of instinctual/visual/baseball savvy gauge on which way he needed to lean in anticipation of a batted ball. Sometimes I would lean in with him and close my right eye. That closed eye blocked out my sight of Woodling and allowed me to pretend my way into the left field spot next to the great DiMaggio. And why not? There was a kid that was only five years older than me playing over in right field that day – an eighteen year old “phenom” from Oklahoma named Mickey Mantle. He was catching all the ink back then as the logical successor to Joe DiMaggio on the Yankee rosary chain of greatness.

Before the day was done, we would hear much more from both Mantle and DiMaggio. Mickey got the Yankees on the board for their first three runs by slamming a home run over our heads and over the double deck wall in left field in the fifth inning. Mantle nailed it off Buffs lefty starter Pete Mazar. Mantle’s blow almost swallowed the entire 4-0 Buff lead and with it, the player/fan delusion that the Buffs might actually defeat the World Champions that afternoon.

Not to be.

After Mantle’s reality blow landed, everybody else in the Yankees lineup began to hit Houston pitching awfully hard. We could have injured our necks watching balls fly over and into the walls that stood behind us that day. Joe DiMaggio also later homered with one on  in the ninth off  Buff reliever Lou Ciola.

buff Stadium 03

Wierd! And I learned about this later from dear friend and former slugger Jerry Witte. – After Joe DiMaggio’s top of the 9th inning homer, he sent the same home run bat over to the Buffs’ Jerry Witte as delivery on a promised gift. – Jerry Witte then immediately used it to hit a three-run homer to left for Houston in the bottom of the ninth. This may have been the only time in history, at least, at this level of professional baseball competition, that players from different teams have used the same physical bat to homer in the same inning of the same game they were playing against each other.

Mickey Mantle

Franks Shofner and Russell Rac also homered for the Buffs that day. Gil McDougald of the Yankees had three hits and teammates Johnny Mize, Yogi Berra, and Gene Woodling each had two bingles in the game. Mize’s hits included a double and Yogi’s production produced four runs batted in. The Buffs broke Yankee starter Tom Morgan’s streak of 27 innings pitched without giving up an earned run. The Yankees won the game, 15-9, and they out-hit the Buffs, 19-14.

I went home mildly disappointed that the Buffs had lost, but even at 13, I was proud of our boys for giving the fabled Yankees all they could handle. Wish I could say that I made a total return to reality by the time we got home, but I probably didn’t. You see, I’ll always remember that day as the game in which I sort of got to play left field next to DiMaggio in center – and Mantle in right. – In my most cherished baseball memory box, I even have the pictures to prove it.

MY EARLY LIFE ROLL-YOUR-OWN MODELS.

September 3, 2009

BOGART 001 I grew up in a Post World War II era of blue smokey haze. Everything I saw, heard, or breathed vicariously into my lungs from the adults in my life said to me: “Smoking is good! As soon as you’re old enough you’ll be able to light up too!” My dad smoked, but so did most of the other dads and quite a few of the moms in our Pecan Park neighborhood in Houston. At Sunday Mass, it was like a stampede at the end as 75 to 100 men herded toward the front door for a post-spiritual firing up of the old Chesterfield and Camel nicotine incense out front. Hallelujah! None of those mamby-pamby filtered cigarettes were strong enough for my dad’s generation. These were real men who smoked only those short full-tobacco blast sticks fromthe “Big C” companies. And why not?  “Seven out of ten doctors preferred and recommended Camels for your smoking pleasure!”

Forget the doctors’ recommendations about Camels being the best. All of my baseball and movie heroes were busy lighting the way for the addictive-prone members of my generation – and I was a charter member of the chemically addictive proneness group back in the mid-1950s. My role model list reads like a “who’s who” call of the biggest stars from our post-war period: Humphrey Bogart, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Ted Williams, John Wayne, and Stan Musial stands out in memory. Man! even Stan the Man was there, but it wasn’t just him!  They were all there – and they are all names that jump to the front of my mind as favorite stars who either smoked or pushed cigarettes through advertisements and commercials.

By the time I reached St. Thomas High School, I was still free of nicotine at age 14, but I saw that more than half of my Basilian priest teachers smoked, efficiently using those three minute breaks between classes to step outside and catch a break from all us snot-nosed Catholic pubescents in the what is still the best all male Catholic secondary school in Houson. We thought nothing of it. The priests were just doing what most of the other men from that era were doing. We even had a post-lunch smoking area for students at St. Thomas. No one had to bring a note from home to be allowed smoking privileges back in the day. They just had to do it on “the green slab” after luch only. The Green Slab sort of resembled that scene from so many old prison movies. Know the one I’m talking about? It was the yard scene where the inmates gathered to plan their escapes and essr schemes. SOmetimes a good fight even broke out. Smoking and looking out of the corner of your eye for impending trouble were just standard behaviors.

WILLIAMS-MUSIAL

Songs of the day celebrated cigarettes as both a lamp of love and a source of comedy. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by The Platters is an exemplary romantic model song; “Cigareets and Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women” was also a typical funny song, but my favorite number by Phil Harris, “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette” included these engaging true-to-form lyrics:

“Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette!

Smoke, smoke, smoke, and if you smoke yourself to death,

Tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate that you hate to make him wait,

But you just gotta have another cigarette!”

By my senior year, I was still a non-smoker, but I had become the designated cigarette purchase runner to the store for my home room teacher whenever he ran out of smokes during the middle of the school day. I got the job by having a car and an expressed willingness to miss a little class time running errands. I still wasn’t tempted to start smoking at 17, but then something happened I hadn’t counted on.

SINATRA 001

I tried out for the senior play and got the lead part in a little known work called “Brother Orchid.” Edward G. Robinson had played the same part in the movie version back in the early 1940s.

Our play director asked if I smoked. I told him no. Then he said that I might be more effective in the role if I took up smoking cigars during the run our practices through the performances of the play. I did. And I felt it helped. I even improvised one my play entrances to be announced by a puff of blue smoke that I exhaled onto the stage before I made a dramatic entrance. When the audience reacted with a roar of approval, I was hooked on the idea that smoking was just too cool to quit.

DIMAGGIO JOE 002

After the play, I bought my first pack of cigarettes, a pack of Old Gold, to more exact – and I didn’t sop for fifty years. Finally, on March 24, 2006, through the Grace of God, I took my last drag from a cigarette. With the help of God, Nicorettes, and the support of my wife, family, and friends, I quit smoking altogether. I lost some considerable lung power from my half century of misadventure, but so far, my lungs remain clear of cancer.

It’s a different world today. I don’t blame anybody for the fact I became addicted to cigarettes. All of us, including my high school mentors, were simply products of our time. It was a very different era back in the 1950s. Unless you lived through it, it’s hard to explain. When life backfired on us back then, our major first response was not to find someone to blame. We were simply taught to take resposnsibility for the consequences of our own bad decisions.

The main thing I can say about cigarettes now covers five points: (1) If you’ve never smoked one, don’t do it; (2) If you want to quit, find a way that works for you to get totally away from them and then don’t pick another one up; (3) If a half century smoker like me can quit, so can you;  (4) whatever you do, take it one day at a time, and don’t beat up on yourself if you have any setbacks. Just get back up and keep after it; (5) find something else to do (and I don’t mean drinking, drugging, or eating) that you enjoy. – For me, baseball, reading, research, writing, and photography are my joys, but yours may differ in this “whatever floats your boat” world; and (6.) Don’t procrastinate. Just do it! The time of your life is now. Always is. Always only is.

And remember – your life is only precious – if it’s precious to you.

6646 Japonica Street!

August 26, 2009

PPE 006 The front of our little house bore no resemblance to the one that now features a long porch across the street-side portion that faces north – nor did we possess or have any need for a museum quality fence across the front yard. – but it was home. From February 1945 to October 1958, from the time I was 7 and just finishing the first grade at Southmayd Elementery until the time I was a 20-year old junior and full-time working student at the University of Houston, “6646 Japonica” Street in Pecan Park, in the Houston East End, just east of the Gulf Freeway off the Griggs Road intersection, was the place where I hung both my baseball cap and my heart.  I lived there with two parents who stayed together 58 years in marriage until death took each of them just five weeks apart in 1994.

I grew up with a funny little red-headed brother named John, who was fours years my junior, and a cute little blonde-headed sister named Margie, who got here late enough to be my eleven year junior sibling in 1949. With the arrival of Margie, Dad added a third bedroom, but we still had to make do with only one bathroom, a one-car garage, and no air conditioning. That was OK. Up until about 1957, everybody in our part of town pretty much lived the same way. It didn’t really bother us because none of us knew any better. Besides, we all had attic fans that did a pretty good job of sucking hot air through every window in the house during the humid summer months. The fact this method of cooling also brought dust, allergens, and the smell of rotting figs mixed in with the aroma of the Champions Paper Mill perfume didn’t seem to get to us either.

We were tough old birds back in the day.

PPE 015

The picture of me sitting on our front porch with my 1957 girl friend will give you a little better idea of how our house actually looked back in the day. No frills. Most of the houses in our block were built back in 1939 or 1940. We were the second occupants of the house when we moved to Pecan Park from our rental house on Oxford Street in the Heights back in 1945. My dad had worked as a welder at the Brown Shipyard during World War II. We moved to the East End after he took a post-war job as Parts Manager for the Jess Allen Chrysler-Plymouth dealership on Harrisburg.

Dad had owned his own Dodge-Plymouth dealership in our original hometown of Beeville, Texas prior to the war and was hoping to work his way back to that kind of situation again. We didn’t care what he did. He was our dad and we loved him. He was the dad who played catch with us after he came home from work. He was the dad who introduced us to Houston Buffs baseball at old Buff Stadium in 1947. He was the guy we could count on as a guide to how we handled responsibility, as was Mom the lady we could depend upon to help us dream of a world that was bigger than the little house on Japonica Street.

The irony is that neither Mom nor Dad seemed to really understand that what they were giving to us at 6646 Japonica was already bigger and more important than anything else we were going to find out there in the larger world of greater achievement and attainment. All of us grew up and moved away from Pecan Park, but my heart never really left the place. Everything I am and everything I value started there. And it never left me.

My dad told me that he bought “6646 Japonica” for something like $5,000 back in 1945. Today it’s material and locational worth is valued by the Harris County Appraisal District at close to $88,000.  As for me, I couldn’t even put a dollar mark on what that little site is worth to the value of my life.

All I can say is, “Long live Pecan Park! And long live the champion eagle heart spirit that stills soars the skies of that special place – and all the other special ‘6646 Japonica’ addresses in history where we each got launched, one way or another, for better or worse, on the path of becoming the persons we are today.”

If it was a good trip, we need to celebrate it. If it wasn’t so easy, we need to make our peace with it. Both are important to moving on.

My Team: Houston Buffs Forever!

July 31, 2009

HBF - Big 4A couple of days ago, I presented y choices for the All Time Buffs team, based upon career performances in the big leagues and their accomplishments with Houston. Four future Hall of Famers filled nine of those spots, but none of these guys are members of my all time favorite Buffs starting lineup. “Houston Buffs Forever” is my Buffs club, the one I grew up watching, the one I’d be willling to go to baseball war with as either a field or fantasy all star club manager. These guys were my heroes – and they all played during the years of my “open-to-role-models” years, 1947 to 1953. Anyone who played for the Buffs before or after that time frame had little to no effect upon me as a character mentor, with a few exceptions, but I did continue to learn about life and baseball from all the guys I watched play at Buff Stadium through their last year of 1961. Bob Boyd, who broke the color line in Houston in 1954, would be the biggest example of a teacher who came to me in thr middle of my adolescent years. I admired the cool-under-fire way in which  Boyd handled the pressure of performing very well as the first black man to play for the previously all white Houston Buffs. I also loved watching future left fielder Billy Williams, third baseman Ron Santo, and pitcher Mo Drabowsky of the 1960 season club, but none of these guys, not even Boyd, made it to my personal starting lineup – the one I call “Houston Buffs Forever.” Here they are – my personal favorites – now and forever. I’d take on the whole baseball world with these guys – and I’d keep on trying, win or lose, with this same lineup, to excel against all odds. These guys are all a generous blend of baseball character and athletic talent.

HBF - HEMUS 2B SOLLY HEMUS, SECOND BASE: Solly was my first baseball hero back in 1947, that is, unless we don’t count my dad. but he was definitely my first role model from the professional ranks. Hemus played three seasons for the Buffs (1947-49) before going on to his very successful career in the majors with the Cardinals and Phillies. He is still going strong today in the oil business at age 86. Solly went into private business after concluding his tenure in baseball as a manager and coach, but he has stayed in touch with the game and a variety of charitable causes supported by various baseball concerns. Solly Hemus is one of the most humble philanthropists that the game has ever known. He supports a number of worthy works, but he avoids any action that will draw serious attention to his giving. If everyone we know had the heart of a Solly Hemus, and the modesty that only comes from the anonymity of the giver, the world would be a much nicer place for all of us. Solly Hemus is also the only member of the All Time Buffs Performance Club to make my personal Buffs preference team.

HBF - EPPS CF HAL EPPS, CENTER FIELD: They dubbed him as “The Mayor of Center Field.” His speed and defensive skill spoke to the origins of that nickname, ut he laso patrolled the Buff Stadium middle garden as though there were no term limits on his tenure of service. Long before I ever saw a Buffs game, Hal Epps played in Houston from 1936-1939 and again in 1941-1942. I first saw Hal play during his last three years in Buff Stadium, from 1947-1949. The former Philadelphia A’s and St. Louis Browns outfielder was a pivotal player for the 1947 Houston Buffs’ Texas League and Dixie Series Champions. After he left baseball, Hal Epps lived quetly in the Houston area until his death at age 90 in 2004.

HBF - MIGGINS LF LARRY MIGGINS, LEFT FIELD: Irish Larry Miggins had a four season stay in Houston (1949, 1951, 1953-1954) as a slugging outfielder for the Buffs. His 28 HR during the 1951 season were a big factor in the Buffs capturing the Texas League pennant that year. He also had a great tenor voice and was sometimes asked to sing at games on special holiday occasions. “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” is the number I remember best. Miggins was noted for his honesty. One time, when he was playing left field for the Columbus Redbirds in a playoff game, a batter hit a ball over Larry’s head that the umpire ruled a ground rule double for landing in an unplayable area short of the stands. When the other team protested that it was really a home run that had then been dropped into the unplayable area on field, the umpire called time to ask Larry which call was correct. Larry’s words supported the opposing team’s view – that it, indeed, had been a home run for the opposition – thus, costing his own team a run. For that honesty, Miggins was almost run out  of the stadium on a rail by the home crowd, but it was honesty the umpire wanted.  And honesty is Mr. Miggins’s middle name – or should be. Larry Miggins is one of my dearest friends in the world. Today, at hearly age 84, he still lives in Houston with his lovely Irish wife Kathleen – and very near their surviving eleven grown children and numerous grandchildren.

HBF - WITTE 1B JERRY WITTE, FIRST BASE: My first sacker is one of the greatest sluggers in minor league baseball history. Jerry’s 308 career home runs included the 38 he blasted to lead the 1951 Buffs to a Texas League pennant and, more incredibly for that pre-steroid era, the 50 HR he launched for the 1949 Dallas Eagles. Jerry Witte didn’t simply “”Crawford Box” these homers, he blasted them – high, hard, and faraway into the night or late afternoon skies – and in a manner that reminded of Babe Ruth. They were the baseball trajectory version of the great western Arch Memorial in St. Louis. – As a kid, Jerry Witte was the biggest hero I ever had. As an older adult, he was also my best friend. – A few years ago, I helped Jerry Witte organize and write his memoirs in a fine little book called “A Kid From St. Louis” (2003). (If anyone is interested in a copy, please contact me by e-mail for information about the purchase of a hard-bound first edition. As in all other matters, my e-mail address is houston_buff@hotmail.com . Jerry and Mary Witte were both myclose  friends – and they spent most of their lives  in the same East End section of Houston where I grew up, and attending the same St. Christopher’s Catchlic School that was my place as a kid. We lost Mary to cancer in 2001. We lost Jerry to a broken heart in 2002 at age 86. Jerry and Mary had seven daughters, whom I love today as if they were my own family. Jerry Witte was the most down-to-earth good man I ever met. Wish we could have kept him forever. The world would be a much better place for it.

HBF - BOYER 3B KEN BOYER, THIRD BASE: When Ken Boyer joined the 1954 Buffs, he came with “great major league future” stamped all over his travelling trunk. He could run, hit, throw, hit for average, and hit for power. His 1954 Buffs stats included a .319 batting average, 21 home runs, and 116 runs batted in. He was too good for a second season in Houston, but he was the offensive force of that championship club while he was here. He actually performed better in Houston than Ron Santo did, six years later in 1960. Either guy is a great pick at 3rd base, but I’ll take Boyer as my personal choice – and that’s probably influenced by remnant bias in favor of people and things of the Cardinals over the same from the Cubs. I’m pretty much biased in favor of St. Louis, except for those times they stand in the way of our Houston Astros. Under that circumstance of St. Louis versus my beloved hometown, I’m for Houston all the way. Every time.

HBF - BASSO RF JIM BASSO, RIGHT FIELD: Jim Basso was a Buff in 1946 and for part of the 1947 season. I really didn’t get to know Jim until later in life, but that made up for a lot of lost time. Basso was one of fieriest guys I ever met. His biggest disappointment in life was his  failure to reach the big leagues long enough to get into the record books as a former big leaguer. His greatest thrill was meeting and partying with Ernest Hemingway in Cuba during spring training one year in the late ’40s. – If Jim Basso were alive today, I’d want him in my lineup.

HBF - MANCUSO C FRANK MANCUSO, CATCHER: I grew up on Japonica Street in Houston’s Pecan Park subdivision in the Est End. Frank Mancuso’s mother lived just down the street on Japonica, at the corner of  Japonica and Flowers. My mom knew Frank’s mom. They went grocery shopping together in my mom’s car. Frank Mancuso and his brother Gus were everyday names in my life for as long as I could remember. The former Senator and Brown, who survived a parachute freefall in the Army during World War II – and then got home in time to catch for the only Browns club to ever visit the World Series in 1944 was another great human being. He didn’t reach the Buffs until 1953, but he was already deeply in the heart of Houston as a citizen. After baseball, Frank ran for a place on Houston City Council. He won – and then he stayed there for thirty years as probably the most honest politician to ever serve this community. He represented the East End well and he promoted the improvement of parks and sporting venues for the inner city kids who, otherwise, had little. When Frank left us in August 2007, at age 89, the people of Houston lost a man who really understood what public service was supposed to be about. Frank Mancuso was another good friend that I miss a lot, everyday. No one else could be the catcher of my “Houston Buffs Forever” club.

HBF COSTA SS BILLY COSTA, SHORTSTOP: Little (5’6″) Billy Costa served two stints with the Buffs in 1946-47 and 1951-52. He was another of those Rizzuto-type pepperpot players who kept everyone on their toes, both on and off the field. When Billy came down with polio in 1951, I was crushed by the news. I promptly made all kinds of prayer and pubescent reform deals with God, if He would just cure Billy Costa of his affliction. The efforts of so many kid fans in prayer and bargaining must have done something because Billy Costa was well enough to play for the Buffs again in 1952. After baseball, Billy served a long time in politics as an elected member of the Harris County Commisssioner’s Court. I never met Billy personally, but I always liked him as a player. He died several years ago, long before the normal time span for most people. I’ll take Costa as my “HBF” shortstop, even if he couldn’t hit as well as Phil Rizzuto. Billy never made it to the big leagues.

HBF - PAPAI P AL PAPAI, PITCHER: On a day when knuckle balls are totally on my mind (I’m attending tonight’s Knuckle Ball Benefit Dinner downtown), Al Papai stands out as the clear choice to be  my starting “HBF” pitcher. Al went 21-10 with a 2.45 ERA for the ’47 championship Buffs; he returned  to go 23-9 with a 2.44 ERA for the championship ’51 Buffs. When his knuckle ball was bobbing right, nobody could hit it – and few catchers could catch it – but batters still swung at it, hopelessly, in self defense. Papai also had a wry sense of humor. In 1951, he was called upon to escort beauty queen Kathryn Grandstaff to home plate in a pre-game ceremony at Buff Stadium. When that same queen later married crooner Bing Crosby and became something of lesser light movie star, Al Papai enjoyed reminded others of his earlier service to the lady. “Just remember,” Al said, “I gave her the start that made her who she is today!” When Allen Russell was planning the last Round Up of the Houston Buffs in 1995, sadly, Papai’s invitation arrived in Springfield, Illinois on the day of his funeral. Dead at 78, the world lost another of the grandest old Buffs, but he survives here in this roll call of those who played with great heart on the field to take his rightful place with my eight other picks for the “Houston Baseball Forever” nine. As I said earlier, I’d take on the world with these guys playing for Houston in their prime.