Pack of cards.
Except for one. I needed one lousy card to round out my complete collection of 1,324 mint condition baseball cards, arranged numerically and stacked in several vertical rows in the two small compartments of the headboard of my twin-sized bed. A different colored tabbed index card marked off the particular issues, including the 18 oversized Hall O'Fame All Stars I'd cut from the back of boxes of Pep cereal. Only one card was missing--Ray Narleski, who wasn't even on a major league roster (4-12 with a 5.78 ERA the year before) but was the final item, #587, on the final checklist card, #450, in the Topps series.
I saved up enough money to buy the last box of Fleer, about the length and width of a carton of Herbert Taryeton's at Kleinman's Delicatessen, the only place where you could buy baseball cards now that the football cards were out.
I tore open the twenty-five nickel packs. The pink gum, as thin as microscope slides, cracked one after the other on the hardwood floor. Nothing. All that for nothing. Valmey Thomases, Ted Kazanskis, Milo Candinis galore. One Laurin Pepper after another, four or five Coot Veals, more Charley Jameses than there are in the Manhattan phone book, a Walt Dropo left over from the first series issues back in April, and a Reno Bertoia in every pack.
Now, as I later testified to Estes J. Kefauver's direct questioning at the Senate subcommittee's Baseball Trading Card Anti-Trust and Monopoly hearings in 1963, and exactly one week before the Tennessee senator suffered a fatal heart attack on the senate floor, I began collecting cards in 1952 and for the life of me could never get my hometown hero Robin Roberts even after I had bought, or swiped, from the little grocery we simply called "the corner store," over two hundred packs. I couldn't get a Stan Musial or a Ted Williams either, save for the gratuitous occasional late "reissues" of those cards, and you could also forget about any larger-than-life New York Yankee, as if anyone in Philadelphia cared about a middling player like Phil Rizzuto or Moose Skowron, but once in a while I'd have the same trouble landing a Dee Fondy or Cal Neeman.
In 1958, I told the subcommittee, I could not get a Roman Semproch. I knew a kid who held a Semproch for months but wouldn't part with it. He wouldn't trade a hundred cards he needed for it. When he flipped his cards with other kids, he'd skip over it as though it were an ancient talisman. He did not know who Roman Semproch was and didn't even like baseball. So I did not get Roman Semproch until finally I beat the crap out of the kid and took it from him. Yet, I still couldn't complete the series that year because if it was Roman Semproch you couldn't get, it was an Ernie Banks; and if it wasn't an Ernie Banks, it turned out to be some other nebbish, like Toby Atwell. The next year I got fifty-six Roman Semprochs--and I still could not complete the damn series without a Hank Aaron or Frank Robinson.
So in 1960, when I had managed to find Mantle and Mays in the same pack, I could not get Ray Narleski. Without any more money, I wandered the streets of Philadelphia for several days, venturing into unfamiliar neighborhoods, filching remaining packs of cards from Rexalls and alternate mom-and-pops, if I was lucky to find any store that still had them. But I got only the usual suspects: a Ralph Lumeti here, a Willie Tasby there, Johnny Klippstein, Bob Oldis.
My friend P. J. Rones' subbasement apartment was a real dump, like those flats derelicts lived in on Dragnet. He had, however, I recall vividly, an exceptional nudie calendar. The furnace or something was always blasting and you could barely hear the other person talk. Rones was found murdered in his own apartment about a month or so before he was supposed to return to the navy from his recent R & R. I had a key to the place to keep an eye on things for him because Rones and I used to trade baseball cards to all hours of the night.
Rones had been a pudgy little guy, no more than 5'1", and his hair was thin and flaky with so much dandruff it looked like scales on a cat. He was eight years older than I was, but he was still collecting baseball cards and trading them with little kids. All the kids envied him because he had the best job imaginable before he went into the navy: selling soft pretzels at Connie Mack Stadium.
Rones was a better collector than I was. He had gotten the full series in years past, but even he could not get the Narleski card. Or at least he told me he couldn't. I wasn't sure I believed him, but he was dead before the end of the summer. I don't know what possessed me to go back to his apartment. The yellow police tape had been removed, but the chalk line of Rones' body was still there on the cement floor. Nobody wanted to rent the place, at least not yet.
Rones had cards all over the place, stuffed in Tom McAnn boxes, scattered about throw rugs, strewn across the cot he slept on. I never even knew he had most of this stuff, and the cops didn't seem to be interested in it. Maybe it was the cops, or the guy who killed him ransacked the place and made the mess.
In a locker just like the ones we had at school, where he kept all his clothes, there were piles of different kinds of cards, tangled up like coat hangers. Some cards went as far back as 1908, but you couldn't tell the Snitz Applegates from the Gus Zernials. I found Blue and Red Backs, Dormad Postcards, the entire 1914 Cracker lack color set, Jimmy Fund cards, all six 1952 Star-Cal decals, the 1953 Robin Roberts I could never get, a 1910 Piedmont Honus Wagner, a Cream O' Wheat Eddie Plank, the Babe Ruth Fro-Joy Ice Cream six-set of 1928, all thirteen Jackie Robinson Homogenized Bond Bread cards from 1947, several Mecca Double Folders, and a Goudey Gum Napoleon Lajoie. A near fine 1954 Spook Jacobs lay on his hotplate.
It must have taken me all night and into next morning, but I organized all the cards into series and years. A few seemed to be missing, but they'd turn up somewhere--under a rug, as a bookmark for A Man with a Maid, in a regulation shaving kit. I searched everywhere and paid close attention to any card with an "N" like Cholly Narajano or Hal Naragan. I'd managed to locate all the Ray Narleskies, including ones from Salem Chips and Hires Root Beer as well as a Bill Narleski on a Turkey Reds--but not the Narleski I wanted. Among some recent Fleers was a curious Polaroid of Rones in his sailor's suit, holding something that looked like another photograph in his hand, but I couldn't make out what it was. I had no idea what I was even looking for. I was so tired I sat down on an old pizza box, which still had a slice (with anchovies) in it. I was so desperate and hungry I must have eaten it. I fell asleep sometime that morning and woke up in the late afternoon. The chalk body outline startled me. Poor Rones' body had once lain in that spot like a pile of soiled, smelly laundry.
There was an old duffel bag under Rones' bed, where I found 18 Swift Meats die-cut punch out cards, with accompanying game board and spinner. I put the other cards inside the bag, all properly ordered now and put into the shoeboxes. What the hell, I thought. Rones would never have use for them again, and the cops didn't seem to be interested in doing anything with his stuff. I headed for home, where my dad was dead drunk again as usual.
My father was a union heavy, an atheist, and a communist who voted for Henry Wallace and Gus Hall twice. His face was covered with old scars from getting hit in the face with clubs by Irish cops, alongside a bunch of recent stitches that looked like tic-tac-toe. My noise woke him up and he started to beat on me again because I had forgotten to get his dinner, having spent the day looking for the Narleski and clearing out Rones' apartment.
I could handle myself pretty well with my dad by the time I turned twelve, so I started defending myself. "Screw the union! Screw the party!" I said because I knew it would get him mad. "If I could, I'd vote for Nixon." And I meant it.
"Take that back!" my father said as he jumped out of his chair and knocked me down. "You take that back. Don't you ever mention that sonufabitch's name in this house ever."
He'd spent the last six years in Eastern State Penitentiary for third degree murder and got paroled only after my mother died. He was still pretty drunk, but I popped him pretty good on the chin, and he stumbled to the floor before collapsing on the living room sofa. I figured he'd sleep it off, but I decided not to stick around there anymore. I could lay low at Rones' place for awhile before deciding what to do. Maybe I would join the army. I could pass for eighteen, even though I was only fifteen at the time.
I rifled through my father's dresser where I knew there'd be some money. There was about fifty bucks as well as a pocket ledger he always talked about; the Communist Manifesto; some old red ration coupons from WWII; a few Israeli bonds; my mother's diamond engagement ring; and about a dozen silver dollars and twenty-five Franklin half-dollar coins. I didn't know what my father would make of the stolen stuff, which I stuffed into a brown lunch bag and stuck in the duffel bag. I figured I could make it look like robbery, so I messed up the bedroom and ripped the phone out of the wall because that's what I saw gangsters do on the "Italian Hour." Then I went to my grandmother's to spend the night, hoping my father wouldn't remember anything in the morning. I still hadn't given up my quest for the Narleski card. I would travel across the state, across the country to find it, if that's what it came to.
I'm not sure when the idea came to me to go to the Fleers Fun Factory. I think it was something Rones once mentioned about the place being so near. The Fleer Chewing Gum Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Broad and Tioga Streets, makers of Double Bubble chewing gum, paid major league baseball players a total of one hundred dollars to use their pictures, and paid that same amount to Willie Mays or Ray Narleski, although the Topps Company of Brooklyn, New York, had exclusive contracts to all its major league players. The Fleer Company actually took two pictures: one with a cap and one without, just in case a player was traded to another team, a practice that the Topps Company adopted shortly after the courts ruled in its favor during the infamous "Baseball Card Wars" of 1963 between Joseph ("Bazooka Joe") Toppsicocolla and Frank ("Little Frankie") Fleer, Jr.
In 1960, the Fleer Company took the two pictures of Mr. Narleski. He had been assigned to a Double A minor league team, but refused to report. The company nonetheless issued the hatless card, though how many no one knows--the first time in the history of baseball cards that a player on a card was no longer on a team for some reason other than his own death.
In the two weeks before school started (not that it mattered to me anymore--I never graduated), I began making nightly visits to the "Fun Factory," as it was known to elementary school kids who used to make class trips there. Perhaps I could find the Narleski card, somehow, I hoped.
It was easy enough to get into the building. There was always a window or two left open, in the days before security systems and Dick and Perry. There were mainly vats where they made the bubble gum. But in the office of company accountant and now vice-president Walter Deimer, "the man who invented bubble gum," I found a whole bunch of interesting things, including boxes and boxes of mail order novelty items--joy buzzers, hot pepper gum, black soap, sea monkeys--the kinds of things a kid got when he sent in fifty or sixty Double Bubble comic strips. I also found all 80 cards in the 1959 Ted Williams Set, the very baseball card series that started the wars, including #68 with Bucky Harris, which I did not hesitate to add to my collection.
I spent the next several evenings going through the file cabinets in Deimer's office. There were contracts for hundreds of baseball players, with all sorts of information about them, including phone numbers and addresses, not to mention an "Ethics Profile" on whether the player was morally fit to be on a Fleer Card ("Mr. Duren is suspected of pitching while intoxicated").
There was no Narleski card, but I found the contract, which had a few notes, a couple of doodle-like cartoons, Narleski's career stats, and some personal information like Narleski's height and weight (he had put on twenty pounds since his rookie year). Someone had scribbled on the sheet, "Ray's son Rickie plays in the same little league his dad did when Ray was a boy." That's when I realized that Narleski could not have been living in Parma Heights, Ohio, anymore, as his 1959 card indicated. One of the sketches was that of a hitchhiking baby with a hobo's suitcase slung across this shoulder, carrying a sign that read, "New Jersey Bound." Narleski was going home. A little box in the contract reading "Send complimentary card to this address" provided a street number in Woodlynne, New Jersey, on the other side of Philadelphia across the Delaware River.
"Complimentary card," I wondered and wrote down the address. But just as I was leaving, I was spotted by the night janitor, who was rolling a bucket on the linoleum floor. He had his name, Candy, sewn on to his work shirt. He didn't seem surprised that I was there, like maybe I was lost or something. "What you doin' here, boy?" he said to me. "This place don't open up 'til eight in the morning."
"Where do they keep the cards?" I said.
"They don't make no cards around here, son," he said, leaning on his mop. "Make the gum in them vats. Thems cards get made some place upstate."
And that's when I just blurted out my story, the same story I'm telling you, my story about not being able to find the Narleski card, the reason I was searching and what my quest was. Candy was like the last sentry who guards the gates of the labyrinth, where your quest comes to its end. If he lets you pass, you get another chance at slaying the monster or finding the grail. I told him all about baseball and the game of life and how the cards were part of the game; how you get your first Solly Hemus when you're eight years old and he's young and has his whole future ahead of him, and then seven years later you don't seem so much older yourself, but he's this old coot, this worn-out veteran with a grizzled face and bad legs who's struggling to last another year on another card; how baseball cards were like looking at pictures of your morn and dad when they were really young and when you did not know them and they did not know you.
"Yeah, my boy on one," Candy said.
"Your boy's on what?'
"A card," said Candy.
"Green. Pumpsie Green."
"Your Pumpsie Green's dad?" I said.
"Believe so. Fust black boy to play for the Ressox."
Candy took something out of a beat-up wallet. It was the 1960 card of Pumpsie, his mouth open and his tongue hanging out all pink and white just like the bubble gum. He wore a blank expression on his face and seemed to be holding the bat so lightly you could have blown it out of his hands. The card was signed, "TO DADDIE, FROM YOUR LOVEING SON ELIJAH GREEN."
"I didn't know his name was Elijah," I said.
"Prophet of God," said Candy, who let me keep the card, even though I already had dozens of Pumpsie Greens, "Prophet of God. My boy get on a plane to go to the Holy Land, Iz-ro-ale, with Mr. Gene Connolly," Candy added. "Got them boys into a heap of trouble!"
"Hell, Candy, fathers and sons. That's what it's all about. My dad never even picked up a baseball bat in his life unless it was to hit someone with." But Candy just started mopping away and told me I'd better get going. "Neighborhood around here ain't safe for no white boy," he said. From time to time, he'd just lean on his mop and stare into space. I couldn't help noticing how much he looked like Pumpsie on that card. No doubt in the world they were father and son.
I went back to Rones' apartment and looked closely at all the Narleski cards. I suspected that was the Narleski card Rones was holding in the Polaroid. Using one of those plastic magnifying glasses you could get for 25 cents or 100 "Pud" comic strips, all I could make out was that the man in the picture Rones was holding wasn't wearing a cap.
What could I learn about Narleski from these cards, and what would it matter. I spread them all out on Rones' cot, looking for something. Born in Woodlynne, New Jersey, in 1928, "He's the Indians' chief troubleshooter," and there's a cartoon as crude as a cave drawing of a guy coming out of barroom doors wearing a ten gallon hat and a holster. Narleski combined with Don Mossi, one card noted, as the "Indians' bullpen twins." I looked at his stats; he had some pretty decent ones: 11 and 5, 9 and 1. I had Narleski's address. I knew what I had to do.
Narleski's house was an old twin with new pink aluminum siding, which Glenn Hobbie of the Cubs, who made millions hawking the stuff, according to The Sporting News, sold to him during the All-Star break.
It was late morning of the third day of my ordeal, and the working class neighborhood was quiet. A small, skinny kid with a fat, flat Polish nose was shooting baskets in a makeshift hoop nailed to the garage.
"You Rickie?' I asked.
"That's right," he said. "My dad named me for the kid in I Love Lucy because that's my mom's name, Lucille."
"I want to talk with you," I said.
"If it's about the card, you can forget it," he said, making a one-handed jump shot. "Don't look so surprised. Do you think you're the first? Some sailor came here a few months ago and paid me fifty bucks just to let me take his picture holding the card. I gave that money to dad so he could buy my morn a steam iron and new ironing board for her 30th birthday. He still thinks he might get picked up on the waiver wire by the time the pennant races roll around. He's been pitching in the local leagues to keep in shape. He's ready to go. He struck out Harry Perkowski the other night to win the game, brushed him back, too, when he crowded the plate, just like Early Wynn showed him how to do. You shoulda seen my dad. Don't tell me he can't pitch anymore."
"Yeah, well, no one seems to be able to get his card."
"That's all my dad was this year in baseball--a card. That one card. That wasn't fair, that was no way to treat a guy who gave his life to the game. One bad year and he's gone, all because of a slight sore shoulder from that bastard Billy Norman working him too hard the year before. Never had arm trouble, no control problems. He's only thirty-four. Prime age for a relief ace like him, and nobody's interested. Not even the Phillies. You know what he's been doing all summer?" Rickie said, head bent in shame. "Selling tonsorial equipment, that's what."
I didn't know what that was.
"Oh, it's barbershop stuff," Rickie said. "He sells razor strops and talcum powder and that blue disinfectant they put dirty combs in. He's also drumming this electrical device that massages your hair. He thinks it's going to big a really big item. The customers love it. Yep, it's going to be our ticket to Easy Street. Right now he's at a trade convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He really couldn't afford to go, but he played there in the minors in 1950 and it's where I was born. When we moved to Parma Heights, Ohio, we lived right next door to Chef Boy-ar-dee. My dad used to play bocce with him on Sundays after church, and during the off-season my dad drove truckloads of macaroni and cheese to people in the poor part of town. Since we moved here he sells this other stuff, only he has to do it all year round. How do you like that after six years in the major leagues? And he needed only one lousy season for his pension. That was the real reason the Tigers let him go and no other team would take him, the cheap bastards."
"Can I see the card?" I said.
"Everyone wants to see it because no one can get it. No one knows how many got out before Fleer stopped the presses. I might have the only one. You don't have any money, do you?"
I didn't. I just needed to know that it existed, that there was still hope.
Then he told me I had to wait outside; he wanted to see if his morn was decent.
He came out again and threw the basketball he was still holding into the hoop from the doorway, letting it bounce into an old barbecue pit. "Okay," he said, "you can come inside. And don't try anything stupid. I got my black belt in karate when I was ten years old."
Narleski's house was filled with imitation Early American pine furniture, the kind of knock-down stuff you send away for in catalogues. "My dad likes to work with his hands," said Rickie. There were a couple of deer heads on the wall. "My dad hunts every winter with his baseball pals Ray Jablonski and Lou Skizas: the Koscicusco Street stooges, my morn calls them." The chairs and sofa were of plaid Herculan and there were more Jesus paintings than in a museum. There was a table filled with World War II memorabilia, including several guns. "They're loaded," Rickie said, showing me one. "Look, hammer and sickle. My dad's a collector. He's got a Jap skull, too."
The wall in the den was covered with baseball photographs and team pictures. There was one of Narleski in the year the Indians won the pennant, waving from a motorcade in the same car with Bob Feller. The sign on the door said NARLESKI/FELLER. "Dad got top billing," Rickie said proudly. There was a framed news photo of Narleski tipping his hat at the All-Star game. "Pitched three scoreless innings," said Rickie. Lucy Narleski, sitting in a loveseat, was wearing a housecoat and slippers that matched the sofa. She was watching Queen for a Day. "Hello there," she said and waved. On the television a woman who told about her brain damaged husband and two kids with polio got an 85 on the applause meter.
Rickie's wall in his bedroom was filled with Cleveland and Detroit pennants and team pictures, lots of photos of his father, and a Jesus whose eyes opened and closed when you walked one way or another. There were also some karate certificates and a science achievement award from Parma Heights Elementary School for inventing a baseball bat made out of aluminum.
"Just wait," he said, "they'll catch on. I hit .395 with it in Pee Wee League until they outlawed it."
Then he showed me a framed collection of five Narleski baseball cards, with the fugitive card smack in the center. "Here, take a look," said Rickie. "There's glass on both sides so you can read the backs."
On the back of the elusive card the word PROOF had been stamped but you could still see the cartoon of a ballplayer coming off a train to a cheering crowd. The player was carrying a suitcase, and the caption read: "Ray was optioned to Wilkes Barre in the Eastern League where he began his professional career."
On the front of card was a picture of Narleski without his hat on, staring at you with a strange face that looked like it invented beady eyes. "Yeah, he took it all in stride, except ..."
"Except what?" I said.
"It was the hat," said Rickie. "My dad didn't like it that he didn't have a hat on. The year he got traded to the Tigers he still got to wear a hat on his baseball card. 'You've got to wear your cap, son,' he always told me. 'It's the rules!'"
Rickie was throwing a baseball against a soft patch on his wall. The ball had some writing on it and also something that looked rusty colored.
"That's dried blood," said Rickie, matter-of-factly. "It's the ball Gil McDougald hit Herb Score in the eye with ... ruined Score for good. It's signed by Neff Chrisley and Mike de la Hoz and Chico Fernandez and also Larry Doby, who is a really great guy and the first nigger to play for the Indians. I also got Coot Veal, whose real name is Orville, which is how he autographed it. And Uncle Don Mossi, who was my dad's roomy and bullpen mate.
"People used to see the two of them sitting in the bullpen with their beer bellies and hangdog faces, looking like a couple of gas station attendants on a dead stretch of highway where maybe one car would pass every hour. But what a fastball my dad had. Has. Four winning seasons, led the league in appearances and saves. Here," he said, handing me something. "My mom made decoupages of the box scores of his four-hitter and five-hitter. He still wears his World Series ring on the same finger as his wedding band. Baseball was his life, man."
Rickie said all this without a smile, throwing his bloodstained autograph ball against the wall with greater and greater ferocity.
I knew how much the card meant to Rickie Narleski, but I still thought about smashing the glass and grabbing the card, making a dash for it. The card meant almost as much to me. I already planned my escape route. I could even grab one of those Russian guns if I had to.
Rickie seemed to know what I was thinking. "Don't even think about it. You can't have it. No amount of money can buy it. It doesn't really mean anything to you, at least not how you think." Then the kid started going nuts. He stood up and looked at me eyeball-to-eyeball like a manager shouting down an ump.
"What do you care about Cot Deal, Bob Trowbridge, or Rance Pless?" he said, his voice getting louder with each name. "Would you lay down your life for Herman Wehmeier? Would you sell your soul for Vito Valentinetti? You son-of-a-bitch, would you kill a man for Harry Dorish?"
But I had, I told him. I had. He must have known.
"What about Eddie Miksis, Al Zarilla, the Cusses Niarhos and Triandos! JESUS MacFARLANE DIED FOR YOUR SINS!" he screamed. I dove for the card while he was railing away. And the next thing I know I get a terrific karate chop on the back of my head and I'm in and out of juvenile detention centers, funny farms, vo-tech schools, and a whole lot of other places I can't remember too well, except for someone showing me a Daily News headline: SON ADMITS WHACKING COMMIE POP and another person saying, "Aw, let the kid keep his baseball cards."
Lucky for me I did keep them. I turned the pocket ledger over to the U.S. Attorney General's office and testified before the senate subcommittee on baseball cards in exchange for immunity from criminal prosecution in what turned out to be my father's death. Maybe they thought I also killed Rones; I don't remember. My court-appointed lawyer, a good looking woman fresh out of University of Pennsylvania Law School, had to sleep with Bobby Kennedy before she got him to agree to anything, though. But there was also this thing about my dad maybe being an FBI informant. I never found out what was in that ledger, but everyone wanted my case to just somehow disappear, so things, in the end, worked out okay for me.
When I turned eighteen three years later, I was on my own and got that dream job--selling soft pretzels at Connie Mack Stadium. I met all the players and got lots of autographs for my cards, long before collecting cards became a lucrative business and ballplayers started charging for their names.
When they tore down Connie Mack Stadium in 1970, I returned to the old neighborhood and found an apartment--the one P.J. Rones used to live in. "Boy was shot in this place, hope you don't mind," the landlord told me. "Never cotched the guy who robbed him of nothing." Funny thing, though: my old key still fit the lock.
One bright summer day, I was reading the box scores in the neighborhood paper when I came across not one but two Narleskies, abbreviated N'l'ski, playing for the Woodlynne Killers (one pitching, one playing shortstop) in some semi-pro league, which was designated Class "D" ball. Class D was designed for faded high school stars, gym teachers, injury-ridden former bonus babies who never got their bonuses, draft rejects (both baseball and military), and a handful of retired pros.
That evening the Killers were scheduled to play the Cardinals of Kensington at one of the local playground ball fields, half hour's ride at most--except that I got dreadfully lost. The game had already begun when I arrived at what I hoped was the field. There were only a handful of fans scattered throughout the three rows of bleachers, which sat behind the two team benches on the other side of a fence on the first and third base sides of the field. I immediately recognized Rickie; he had grown taller and lankier and was sporting a five o'clock shadow. The Cardinals were ahead by two runs in the bottom of the fifth. With two outs in the inning, Rickie had brought the game even with a two-run double, though he was thrown out at third trying to stretch it into a triple. He got angry at the call and had his face buried in the umpire's face, but the third base coach calmed him down. "Kid's a real hothead," someone said. The same third base coach walked to the mound to pitch: Raymond Edmund Narleski in the flesh.
And that's when I began to recognize almost everyone around me. Walt Dropo was at the plate facing Narleski, and Casey Wise was waiting on deck. I saw Moose Moryn playing centerfield, letting go a wad of yellow spittle as big as a sourball as he flagged down Dropo's long fly ball. Sammy White, catching, gave me a wink.
Wise struck out and Cuno Barragan stepped up. Narleski peered at the signs with eyes like dimes. I ran to my car to get the Minolta XMG I had swapped for a 1960 Morell Meats Duke Snider with a soldier from Brooklyn I had met at Dirty Frank's, the bar I went to on Friday nights, and everyone mugged for my camera. I got Gino Cimoli and Marcelino Solis. Don Buddin did a shortstop scoop for me, and the O'Brien twins posed identically. Bob Cerv and Whammy Douglas did a "Mounds Rivals" parody that had everybody laughing. I got a great head shot of Schipio Sphinx.
Barragan had walked, but Bubba "Wycliffe" Morton fanned on three straight pitches.
The innings slipped by quickly, I was having so much fun. Rickie never took his eyes off me. I knew that he knew who I was. He wouldn't let me near the Killers' bench. In the top of the eighth, Coco Laboy doubled, followed by an Ernie Oravetz single, but Narleski, getting a little fatigued (Whammy Douglas was warming up near some ping-pong tables, which served as the bullpen area), got Steve Bilko and Carol Hardy out on long fly balls. Reno Bertoia put Kensington ahead by two with a mammoth triple over the head of Clyde Klutz in the centerfield. However, Rickie tied it in the bottom of the eighth with a two run-run homerun that was just fair, smashing the side view mirror on Bob Purkey's Chevy Corvair.
I had to take a leak. Stepping up to the plate when I returned in the top of the ninth with two runners on (Billy Consolo and Bob Turley) and two out and the score tied was Spook Jacobs. Spook, looking cool up there, laid into a high heater that Narleski tried to fog him with; it shot past Suitcase Simpson in right, scoring both runners to put the Kensington Cardinals in front by yet another pair. For some strange reason, the crowd had departed. I was the only one watching now, a solitary bleacher bum.
Bo Belinsky, the pitcher, was scheduled to bat, but Spook Jacobs called time out and came running in from second base, which he'd just stolen on a late, errant throw. "Needs some in-sho-rence runs here," said Spook, who was also the Cardinal's manager. Coot Veal was handing me a 36-ounce bat. They all turned to me.
"What?" I said.
"Let's get up there, kid," said Spook. "Everybody play for the Cards." Then Jocko Conlon, umping at home plate, asked me my name so he could write it on his scorecard. They wanted me to bat. All of them in their own way were offering to take me into their game. "C'mon, less go," said Spook. "You a Card now, bro'."
All except Rickie, that is, who was standing on the mound, talking with his dad, furious and disgusted at these turn of events. He had his hands on his hips, his glove flapping at his thigh.
I had played some softball in juvenile hall and could still swing a decent bat, I thought.
"But I'm not wearing a uniform," I said.
"No problem. In this league, there are no rules," said Sammy White. He took off his catcher's mask. "Look," he said, pointing to his bald scalp, "no cap!"
I was facing Ray Narleski. "U-oh, Narls better take hisself outa the game. Dis guy look like trouble," I head Rocky Bridges say and laugh.
Rickie was chattering at short: "Brush'm back, Daddy, brush'm back. Knock'm down; Early Wynn'm; bean ball the sheeny bastard."
"Hey, leave the kid alone," said Cot Deal, coaching at third.
I hadn't noticed it before, but all the positions seemed to be changing with every pitch. One second it was Pancho Herrara at first; then it was Eddie Bouchee; then Tito Francona, who could balance a baseball bat on his nose. At two-and-oh I looked at a fastball like I've never seen before. A major league fastball. "Stee-rike," Jocko yelled.
The next pitch, a curve, came up letter high, but I was ready. I leaned into it and, as if the ball and bat had been destined to meet, socked the ball over Rickie's outstretched glove into short left field for a single, moving Spook to third. "Shit," said Rickie Narleski, "shit, shit, shit."
"One more swear word out of you, young man," said Dusty Boggess, the umpire at third, "and you're outta here."
The Cards' bench went wild, and I stood on the bag clapping my hands. Marvelous Marvin Throneberry, who was playing first, gave me a playful pat on my rump, but Spook pulled me out and brought in Guido Grilli to run.
"Way to go, kid," said Peanuts Lowry, the first base coach, as I ran back to the Cardinals' bench.
Foster Castleman walked to load the bases. "C'mon, we is only down by deuce," said Harry Chiti, the catcher. But who should step up to the plate next to face R. E. Narleski with the sacks full? Who indeed but Pumpsie Green!
The first four pitches were all takes and all close. Pumpsie looked like he was dreaming up there with the bat loosely on his shoulder. In the distance I thought I saw Candy, sitting in a web-backed lawn chair, in a straw hat and short sleeves, swigging from a brown paper bag and giving me a quick wave.
Narleski had Pumpsie two-and-two, and he knew he couldn't afford to waste the next pitch. He shook off one sign, then another. Narleski took his cap off to wipe his brow, or maybe get some grease to throw Pumpsie a junker. He was looking straight at me, or so it seemed, poised like that capless figure on the forgotten unobtainable card of so long ago. I had him framed perfectly in my viewfinder. The great Charles Conlon could not have caught the moment any more perfectly, but all that I saw was a pinkish blur like a white cat's ass just before the snap of the shutter and the shatter of glass. Rickie had thrown a perfect strike to the aperture.
"Not while I'm alive," I heard him shout as I dropped.
When I came to, Rickie had been ejected. Pumpsie had knocked the ball over Carlos Paula's head in right field to give the Cards a 5-run margin. Wilmer "Vinegar Bend" Mizell retired the Killers one-two-three in the bottom of the ninth.
Elio Chacan helped me off the ground. Ossie Chavarria bandaged what turned out to be my broken nose. Chico Carrasquel put cold compresses on my eyes. Choo Choo Coleman poured me some hot coffee from his thermos bottle. I thanked them. Sibby Sisti gathered up the pieces of my camera. Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish drove me home. I thanked them all.
I don't collect cards anymore. I still go to card shows occasionally since it's how I make my living. I sold my 1912 Honest Long Cut Tobacco Chief Bender card to buy my condo in Rittenhouse Square, and I traded a car dealer the 1910 American Caramels even up for my 1995 Jaguar XJ6, which still runs fine. I won't even tell you how much I got for the Honus Wagner, or the famous celebrity I sold it to. It's all ill-gotten goods, of course, and I'll have to answer for that to the Big Commissioner, maybe, but what happened happened, and I can't change any of it.
I'm well invested and live comfortably on some killer annuities (pardon the pun), so I really go to the shows these days to tell my story to anyone who will listen, just as I'm telling you now. No one believes me about the Narleski card or that I once hit a major league curveball. They tell me the only Fleer baseball cards in 1960 were of Hall of Famers like Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Mel Ott and maybe Ralph Kiner, who did not have a contract with Topps, but I don't remember it that way. The only cards I forgot to save were the ones I collected on my own. But I don't care. Too bad you can't look this one up. They think I'm crazy when I show them the blown-up picture I made of Rones holding the card. They just humor me because they want my rare Firpo Marberry.
Once in a while I go to a game at Woodlynne Junior College, where Rickie Narleski coaches men's baseball (and basketball) and teaches biology for thirty-seven grand a year (he neglected to patent his aluminum bat or learn to hit a slider). He sees me in the stands but doesn't acknowledge me. His dad pitches batting practice, chases foul balls, and puts numbers up on the scoreboard between innings.
Rickie will never part with his card, and I don't blame him. He'll never tell anyone about it because he knows it will legitimize my claim, and he'd rather see me be a ranting old fool. I browse through my own cards and try to remember the faces, now grown old, weather-beaten, jowly, and baggy-eyed, those, at least, who are still alive: a legacy of lost fathers in the crucible of mediocrity. In a few years I will look like them, and I'll sell what's left of my cards and retire to my winter home in Naples, Florida. But come hell or high water, I will never part with one card: my 1960 Pumpsie Green--signed by Pumpsie and given to me by Candy, his dad.