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It occurred to me only afterward that my boyhood interest in sports was something special. Many of my classmates knew as much about the spectator sports as I did, but their interest was pure and spontaneous, having been kindled by faces on chewing-gum cards or a few dimly remembered words once spoken by an elder. Mine was inherited, a bread-and-butter passion, you might say.
As the son of a sportswriter, I was somewhat grudgingly accorded the status of an oracle, and my word was readily accepted by at least one of the parties in any dispute. Like a clergyman's child, I was thought to have a direct link with an empyrean world. This distinction forced me to follow my subject more closely than even my bloodlines demanded and led to a certain amount of hero worship.
I did not accept my heritage at once. Sitting beside my father in the press box at Ebbets Field, I felt myself a prisoner, knowing that there were llamas and monkeys to be seen in the zoo at nearby Prospect Park. Talk about a person I understood to be named Bay Bruth held no interest for me. But a trip to the Yankees' spring training camp in St. Petersburg when I was 7 set me straight. Dixie Walker, then a Yankee rookie, played with me on the beach, and Coach Arthur Fletcher gave me a ball. I became a baseball fan.
At the time Babe Ruth was the most famous Yankee, but with a child's unpredictability I settled on Lou Gehrig as my hero. More fortunate than the average small boy who had a hero, I badgered my father to get me an autographed picture of Gehrig, and it hung over my bed for years. Later I had a picture taken with Gehrig, and that, too, went up on the wall. But most important of all was an old glove that Lou once gave my father to take home to me. Word of my prize spread through the neighborhood, and presently I was invited to join a celebrated local team, composed of other 12-year-olds, called the Wykagyl Wackers.
My glove and I were assigned to first base. Under the delusion that the glove, like Zeus's shield, imparted certain powers to its bearer, the manager went so far as to write my name into the cleanup slot in his batting order. One game served to relieve him of that delusion, and I was demoted to a slot more in keeping with my earnest poke-hitting. But I did cling to my job at first base until the Wykagyl Wackers outgrew their uniforms and the team was disbanded.
Meanwhile, there were thrills for me that were beyond the reach of my teammates. A trip to Yankee Stadium meant more than a ball game; it was also a chance to sit unobtrusively on the bench beside one of my idols.
There was always a stop in the manager's office for a chat with Joe McCarthy. Capless, seldom smiling unless he was recalling an incident that had taken place in the minor leagues years before, McCarthy leaned back in his chair and talked. One day Oscar Vitt, who managed the Yankees' farm team in Newark, joined the group in McCarthy's office.
"Wait till you get a look at him, Joe," Vitt said. "He's going to be the greatest second baseman you ever saw."
Treasuring this inside information, I could hardly wait for Gordon's arrival at the Stadium. When he broke into the Yankees' lineup the next year he immediately became, for me, the greatest second baseman who ever lived.