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O.K., I'll admit that Billy Martin had more than his share of grief when he was the on-again, off-again skipper of the New York Yankees, but I wonder how he would've coped with managing a ball club that lost seven of its nine starting players just one week before the team was to play its opening game. To give you an idea of the scope of this wipeout, there were only nine players on the whole darned team. I can vouch for the truth of this disastrous happening because I was that manager.
New York's Professional Children's School was founded in 1914 as an educational haven for youngsters actively involved in the performing arts. I was in attendance at PCS during the early 1920s with classmates that included Ruby Keeler, Gene Raymond and Milton Berle.
What does this have to do with Billy Martin, baseball managing and a club that was facing the season seven players short? Well, the team in question represented our school, and I was its inspirational leader. Since we were all in show business, you've probably guessed the reason for the player shortage. The seven missing kids were all working.
Our first baseman, Berle, was breaking in an act at Loew's Greeley Square, our shortstop was at rehearsals for Bulldog Drummond and our third baseman was practicing six hours a day for a violin recital. Two of our outfielders were touring in the Shubert musical Blossom Time, and our catcher was on the road with Mrs. Fiske. That left us with an out-of-work second baseman, me, and an out-of-work centerfielder, Ashley Buck. But rituals must be observed, so on the first dry day of spring, Buck and I retrieved our fielder's mitts from some half-forgotten hiding place and headed for Manhattan's Central Park, where we joined an assorted group of teenage free agents.
When you're already in show business, you don't yearn to be discovered at a soda fountain and transformed into a star. Still, we did have our dreams. My recurring vision was of a grizzled, tobacco-chewing old character approaching me after a dazzling outing on the diamond and saying, "Kid, I liked the way you handled yourself out there today. How would you like to play for me?"
Well, that's exactly what happened that afternoon in Central Park. A grizzled, tobacco-chewing old character approached Buck and me after our workout and said, "Kid, I liked the way you handled yourself out there today. How would you like to play for me?" Hey, there it was, my dream, my fantasy come true—except for the fact that the grizzled old character was speaking to Buck.
Pop, as the old guy called himself, was a wiry little party with a high-pitched voice and short, bowed legs. He had on a roll-collared sweater just like those worn by McGraw and Mathewson, titans featured in my baseball card collection. A frayed cap with the logo of the old New York Highlanders shaded Pop's hawk-like nose, whose dented surface suggested that too many ground balls had taken too many errant hops.
Pop's vocabulary was early Stengelese, but if you paid close attention, you gathered he was putting together a team of kids from all over the city. He thought Buck might have a chance to make the team, so, if he wanted to come back to Central Park the next day and work out with the other prospects, he'd give Buck a fair shot.
The following day I was sent out from school for an interview, which resulted in my spending the next four weeks playing a lovable black sheep in a movie being made at Fox studios (I specialized in playing lovable black sheep) so I didn't see Buck again until a month later. By that time he had become a regular member of Pop's young all-city all-stars. As we headed for Central Park and a team practice, Buck filled me in on the club's weird set-up. It had no name, no uniforms, no home field, but the kids were paid five dollars for every game they played. In the early '20s five dollars bought a week's worth of groceries. So how come Pop was so generous?
Buck explained. The old guy was running a Machiavellian swindle, using his ball team as the bait. When his boys weren't playing, Pop scouted prep and high school games in the wealthier areas of nearby Westchester County and Long Island. He'd sit in a section populated with proud parents and alumni and artfully belittle the locals' playing skills. After thoroughly annoying his listeners, Pop would boast that he could pick up a bunch of kids on any sandlot who'd beat the tar out of their no-talent ball club. That did it. Bets were made and a game was arranged.