Thursday, September 9, 2010
49. Warren Spahn: My Father's Favorite
My Father died one year ago this week. In some ways it seems like a million years since he passed and yet at the same time I still reach for the phone to call him several times a week as if it never happened. I'm not going to go on about The Old Man dying, but in honor of his passing, I give you a card of his all-time favorite player, Warren Spahn.
When I was a kid, I was a Mets fan. I suppose I still follow them. It was pre-destined that I wind up that way. See, my Father's Father was a die-hard Brooklyn fan and having a Cieradkowski being a fan of the Yankees was just not going to happen. So all I had was the Mets. This was the 1970's- Not the giddy, pennant winning Mets of the early 1970's, but the stinky, bottom-of-the-barrel Metropolitans of the late 1970's. Because the Mets stunk so bad, talking about them just wound up turning into angry complaining sessions, so out of a lack of quality Mets topics to discuss, baseball talks with my Dad often turned into question and answer sessions with me asking The Old Man about baseball when he was my age, kindling my interest in baseball history.
The best baseball talk I remember having with my Pop happened one muggy Saturday afternoon. The two of us had just got home after working a half-day in the factory. My Dad was a garment cutter and on Saturdays I swept floors, made boxes and did other menial and filthy things to have spending money and to teach me the meaning of a good day's worth of work. Plus I was convinced Pop lived to bust my balls and what better way than to make your kid work in a garment industry sweat shop. Anyway, I was about 12 and we're sitting in the kitchen and The Old Man was working on his first beer of the afternoon. Growing up in Passaic, N.J. and being the son of the biggest Brooklyn fan in the tri-state area, I always figured Pop would have been a Dodger fan, but I was wrong. Pop was a Braves fan! "How the hell did that happen?" I asked incredulously. Ignoring the swear word (a luxury he allowed me and my brother when Mom wasn't around) he uttered one phrase: "1957. Grab me another beer".
I was intrigued. I never met anyone who liked a team other than the Mets or Yankees, or if they were older, maybe the Giants or Dodgers. But the Braves? My Father told me that back in 1957, everyone knew the Dodgers were skipping town. He was 8 that year and was fishing around for a new team. Remember, the Yanks didn't factor into this choice and the Mets were just a nightmare in Casey Stengel's dreams. So the World Series rolls around and in '57 it was a fairly tight race. Both Brooklyn and St. Louis made a good run for the pennant but it was Milwaukee behind the pitching of Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette that carried the Braves to the finish line. They'd been pretty competitive in the years prior with guys like Adcock, Aaron and Mathews but Brooklyn and New York always seemed to have the edge over them. On the other side that year waiting to take them on lie the New York Yankees. They won the World Series 5 times already that decade and they were heavily favored to win again. But it wasn't meant to be. Lew Burdette beat the Yanks 3 times and Warren Spahn won another to give them the Series win and a young Polish kid in Passaic, N.J. had a new favorite team.
Yeah, I know it might seem strange that a boy would choose his favorite ballclub based on the fact they defeated another team. But hell, this was the Cieradkowski's and we just didn't do things the right way. See, my family's hatred of the Yankees was an artform all its own. It was a seething, horrible hate that was carefully passed down from generation to generation, the seed of which festered and grew in each of us as we aged, manifesting itself in different and terrible ways. I'll pass on telling about how I deal with my distaste for the other New York team, but I'll tell you this about my Dad: he would watch every Yankee game year after year just on the off-chance they would lose. Yeah, that's right. Instead of having a beer, enjoying a Braves game and watching a team and players he liked, the Old Man would sit and simmer in front the tv watching the Yankees play their sterile, winning games, all the while listening to whatever annoying announcer they had at the time blather on about Yankee Glory. That was my Dad. Hell, ask him who his favorite football team was and he'd say the Philadelphia Eagles. I don't think he ever even stepped foot in Philly his whole life, but he loved those Eagles. Why? Well, in 1960 the Eagles defeated the dreaded New York Football Giants in the season championship. Yeah, in my family the Football Giants warrented the same hatred as the Yankees. (My Grandfather's favorite team was the old Cleveland Browns. Why? He saw them defeat the Giants sometime long ago and he never forgot that).
So anyway, back to the Milwaukee Braves and Warren Spahn. As the sun set that day and The Old Man worked through a double sixer of cheap beer, the baseball stories poured forth. Up to that point, my father and I were never particularly close. I was a loner then and like him not very talkative. But that humid day we found a connection for the first time. He told me about how he and his cousin Glen would write away to all the Major League teams asking for free stuff and how Milwaukee sent them the biggest package with all kinds of stickers and pennants. Told me about how all he wanted for his birthday one year was a baseball mitt and when he opened his present that year, there was a mitt, but it was a second hand split finger model, not the modern pocket ones everybody else in the neighborhood had. But mostly he talked about Warren Spahn. I had never heard of him before. Pop reeled off numbers that seem astronomical to a Mets fan like myself. 21 wins and 11 losses in 1957. 22-11 in '58. 21-15 in '59. The stats went on. I got dizzy, I was lucky if one of my guys on the Mets could put up a winning record let alone win 20 or more games 13 times in a career. Told me how he was a bona-fide war hero, getting a battlefield commission and Silver Star during the Battle Of The Bulge. Pop talked about listening to Spahn pitch on the radio and then finally seeing him pitch against the Mets in '62 and '63 at the old Polo Grounds. How he threw a no-hitter against the Phillies at age 39 and then another against the Giants at age 40. He told me how Spahn wore number 21 and that it became his number whenever the need for one arose. Told me about the stately indian brave's head that the team wore on their sleeves and how they changed it later to a cool screaming brave. He went on about how stunning the dark blue and bright red uniforms looked on television and in real life when you watched them from the bleachers. That how as an artist I of all people could appreciate that. How the tomahawk was such a cool logo when he was kid and how he'd try to draw it over and over again. He told me how Spahn would throw his arms back behind him and swing them forward like some graceful machine to begin his delivery. How he would kick his leg high into the air, higher than anyone could think was possible. "Spahn finished all his games, too" he said and a quick check with the record book shows this to be true, he led the National League in complete games 9 times in his career. And he told me how he watched first hand as his hero Warren Spahn finished up his career playing for the '65 Mets, going 4-12 with them, only the second time in 21 years that he recorded more losses than wins in a season.
So, as the sun set that day in New Jersey, I had found a common ground with my Dad that lasted the rest of his life, growing more and more as we both aged. Through each season, every time we talked or got together in person, there was always baseball. And through it all, I secretly adapted Warren Spahn as my good luck charm. Whenever I played ball, I wore the cherished number 21 on my back. A colored pencil drawing I did in high school of Warren Spahn going through his wind up won a major award, was featured in a calendar and started me on my way to a career in art. Years later we both liked to team up and play roulette in Atlantic City and ol' 21 red became the lucky bet for us. And in 1998 when I got to meet Spahn over a few drinks in a hotel bar, I couldn't wait to tell The Old Man about it, how his old idol was really a pretty damn good guy in person. I could hear the relief in his voice all the way on my end of the country.
So anyway, this entry is dedicated to my Father, Gary Joseph Cieradkowski and his boyhood hero, Warren Edward Spahn.