I got hooked on baseball on a Sunday afternoon in May 1948, when I was 13 years old, relatively late in life for a baseball fan. Before that fateful Sunday, I'd tried halfheartedly—and failed—to understand what all the excitement was about. As early as I could remember, I'd sensed that something important was going on around me. In the New York City apartment building where I grew up, the other children would shout and argue about what must have been the comparative merits of the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants. And, at school, fathers with pipes or cigars in their mouths would come in the spring to take their sons away to the Opening Day game, or in the fall to the World Series. But the shouted arguments meant nothing to me. And my father wasn't an admirer of baseball.
A transplanted German intellectual who was curator of rare books at Columbia University's library, he harbored nothing but disdain for the "silly game they play in little boys' knickers, with the man on the hill who acts like a dog at a hydrant." In the privacy of our home, he would often rail against "that great American hero Babe Ruth, a drunken bum in a monkey suit." Of course, when my father showed up at school for such occasions as parents' day, he would muffle his hostility to the game. Now and then, to make conversation with the other fathers, he would tell a story I'd heard before—about how, a few summers earlier, one May Lott, a baseball player, had sublet our apartment in the Bronx. As a courtesy, this May Lott had pressed a couple of tickets on my father. It would be years before I made the connection between May Lott and Mel Ott, the New York Giants' great rightfielder.
Perhaps I sensed that however much my father might dislike the game, he saw baseball as a passport to American culture, because I kept trying to become a fan. I dimly felt that there had to be something wrong with an American boy who didn't root for a major league team. This message was conveyed to me most acutely in 1947, a year my family spent in Berlin, when my father was assigned to track down works of art that had been confiscated by the Nazis. In the corridors of the school for U.S. military dependents, I was literally backed against the wall and asked for what amounted to my credentials as an American.
"What team you for?"
"Uh, well... New York."
" New York! New York what? The Giants or the Yankees?"
"The New York...uh...."
"Where you from in New York?"
" Riverdale. The Bronx."
"The Bronx Bombers!"