From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

Lessons in Living a Humble Life

Around 1980, when I was a reporter for a weekly newspaper in Albany, New York, I obtained permission from the editor to do a feature story on the New York Yankees. While I would eventually produce a story that ran on the front page, my hidden agenda was no secret to anyone who knew me well: As a die-hard Yankees fan, I wanted to get near the players. With press credentials, I could do more than that; I would be allowed into the team’s clubhouse and dugout, and I could plant my sneakers on the field indented by the cleats of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.

I knew this opportunity would give me bragging rights for the rest of my life. After all, how many people get behind the scenes of the most famous sports franchise in history?

I received two press passes from the team’s public relations office. Puffed up with anticipatory pride, I invited a coworker and friend named Jon Harrington to come along. He worked in advertising, but I decided I could sneak him in with me if I draped a camera around his neck and declared that he was my photographer.

About twenty years older than I, Jon had grown up in New York City and, like me, was a lifelong Yankees fan. I was sure this trip would knock his socks off. He had to be wowed by my “connections,” even though they consisted entirely of making a phone call or two to the Yankees press office.

When we got to the Bronx and I flashed the press credentials, we were waved past security guards and into places only imagined by ordinary fans. Once inside the bowels of the stadium, I held tightly to the secret hope that Jon was impressed with me. But I soon noticed that he was a very reluctant participant. He seemed nonchalant as I fulfilled my boyhood dreams and collected autographs (violating a basic journalistic code). In the fabled clubhouse, as the players dressed for batting practice, I chatted with sports stars while he stood quietly in a corner. When I headed toward the dugout, he trailed behind me. As I was about to trot up the steps to the field that some of the most famous ballplayers in history had run on, Jon called to me.

“I’m going to go to our seats,” he said. “You go ahead.”

I was stunned and a little miffed. He had to be jealous of me, I concluded. What else explained his hesitant behavior? What avid Yankees fan would be so shy about talking to players? What keen student of the game wouldn’t want to plant his shoes on the grass of Yankee Stadium?

The questions lingered in my mind as I finished my assignment, and they remained throughout the game. On the drive home, after I poured out stories about the players I had talked to, from famous outfielders to journeymen infielders, I asked Jon, “How come you didn’t seem impressed? Was something wrong?”

“Not at all,” Jon replied. “Thanks for bringing me. It’s just that I’ve been there before.”

I nearly drove off the Thruway. “What are you talking about?” I asked. He had never told me any such story, and we had worked together for nearly ten years.

“My father was a cop who walked a beat in Times Square, back when Times Square was the center of New York life,” he said. “He got to know a lot of celebrities, including sports stars like Jack Dempsey. He introduced me to them. When something big was happening at Yankee Stadium, he would be assigned there. Sometimes, he took me with him and introduced me to the players he got to know. So it didn’t mean as much to me as it did to you. But I’m glad you had the chance.”

His voice trailed off. Sometimes, getting Jon to talk about himself requires a chisel and crowbar.

“Like who?” I asked. “Who did you meet?”

Jon shrugged, “Oh, Lou Gehrig, for example. Babe Ruth. All of the Yanks from that era.”

Now I fought to keep the car’s wheels on the highway. “Gehrig!” I shouted. “Ruth!”

Jon continued, “My dad would let them take me into the stadium with them. I would do errands for them. Lots of times, I ran to a bakery about two blocks away and got them cakes. We hung around a lot.”

He said “we.” Meaning “me and Lou Gehrig.” I was amazed. “Who else?” I said.

“Several times,” Jon continued, “my dad brought Grover Cleveland Alexander home, and he stayed overnight.”

The Great Alexander! The Hall of Fame pitcher who spent twenty years in the bigs! The hurler portrayed by Ronald Reagan in a movie with Doris Day as his wife! The notorious tippler who sometimes needed a friendly place to dry out! A friendly, cozy, baseball place like Jon’s house when he was a boy.

No wonder he wasn’t impressed by my half-hour in the clubhouse. He had spent his entire youth hobnobbing with some of the game’s greats. I had sought to impress Jon by giving him the chance to shake hands with the Yanks’ second-string catcher. But he had palled around with the Iron Horse and the Sultan of Swat, and served breakfast to Alexander—and never felt the need to say a word about it.

Jon is like that about other aspects of his life—his Army service in Italy during World War II, for example, or the hundreds of good things he has done for charities when no one is looking.

Two decades after our trip to the Bronx, Jon and I remain good friends and avid Yankees fans. We talk about all sorts of things, but I am smart enough never to bring up my feeble attempt at impressing someone who lives with such memories—and such humility.

James Breig

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