Monday, October 10, 2011

92. John Gedsudski: All Hail The Chief

Unlike most of the other fathers in their neighborhood out on Staten Island, John Gedsudski's pop pushed his boy to go farther than just high school. Tadeusz Gedsudski valued a good education and his boy was going to be a college man, and God willing, a lawyer or doctor. Mr. Gedsudski and his wife Zofia were from the old country and fully grasped the opportunity their new country offered not just to them, but to their only son. As far as those two were concerned, the sky was the limit for young Johnny.

Although stocky and but 5'-4" tall, John Gedsudski was a star athlete at Curtis High School, lettering in 3 sports (basketball, football and baseball). Clever with his hands as well as mind, as a Boy Scout he made the coveted Eagle rank in what was at the time a record three years and in school led the debate team to the state finals. His play on the gridiron induced New York University to offer Gedsudski a scholarship and he easily made the varsity squad his freshman year. Besides a full academic schedule (Gedsudski now had the ambition of becoming a lawyer) he supplemented his income by working for a youth program called "The Comanche Club" designed to keep young city kids out of trouble in their spare time. It was his role as leader of his Comanche Club group that he became known as "Chief", a moniker he initially shied away from, but over time it stuck fast, ultimately usurping John as his first name for the rest of his life.

In 1926 "The Chief" just missed being named to the College Football All-American team when he was beat out (by a single vote) by Lloyd Yoder of Carnegie Tech. On the diamond he held down first base for N.Y.U. batting .389 in his first year and .453 his sophomore year. More over, Gedsudski finished both seasons without a single error, the first time it had been done by a N.Y.U. player.

Of course it was only a matter of time before John McGraw of the New York Giants got wind of the stocky young first baseman. In the late spring of 1926 Gedsudski received a hand written note most cordially inviting him to try out for the New York Giants' baseball club at the Polo Grounds.

On the morning of May 23rd, 1926, Chief Gedsudski made the trek up to Harlem and knocked on the clubhouse door at the Polo Grounds. Traveling secretary Jim Tierney showed the young man around the clubhouse and outfitted him in a well-used Giants road uniform before accompanying him onto the field to be introduced to John McGraw.

The Giants in 1926 were a team in transition, some of the older stars who made the team world champions at the beginning of the decade were being replaced or retired and the team now was about half fresh talent handpicked by the Giants' savvy manager. Older first baseman Highpockets Kelly was being moved to second to make room for the rookie phenom Bill Terry, and The Chief, knowing how highly acclaimed Terry was, knew he had a slim chance of replacing him at his natural position.

Tierney and Gedsudski walked across the outfield grass towards the Giants dugout. Deep inside the shaded recess McGraw was studying a newspaper which, upon approach was revealed to be a racing form. A tall, thin man, too old to be a player so probably a coach, stood next to him. "Mr. McGraw, this is John Gedsudski" said Tierney. The stubby looking McGraw looked up slowly and squinted at the two men and suddenly a flash of recognition washed over him and he enthusiastically responded "yes, yes, of course, the N.Y.U. first baseman. Glad you could make it, son."

Far from being the angry, imposing man the newspapers all wrote about, Gedsudski later said that McGraw emanated a sort of casual regality, a powerful man comfortable with his position and secure in the knowledge that he need not lord it over anyone. In this split second between McGraw's greeting and Gedsudski's response, The Chief made a fateful decision - knowing Bill Terry had first base all but tied up, he mentally scanned the Giants line up and noted the weakest spot. The Chief shook McGraw's hand and said: "Pleasure to meet you Mr. McGraw, I am also a left fielder."

McGraw's eyes widened a bit. He turned slightly and nodded to the tall, thin coach who made a note on a folded piece of paper. The Giants starting left fielder was Irish Meusel, a 10-year veteran who was as of late fast showing his age in the Polo Grounds' vast left field. Although his average hovered around .280, his days were clearly numbered. McGraw nodded his square head at the tall, thin coach, and then: "Good. Take a bat and let me see you swing in the cage."

Gedsudski grabbed one of the bats spread out in front of the dugout (one of Frankie Frisch's The Chief later said) and followed McGraw and the tall, thin coach to the batting cage. Without a word, using his beefy hands to communicate, McGraw pulled Ross Youngs out of the box and directed Gesudski to the plate. He swung a few times to limber up and then faced the pitcher. The first pitch was a fastball which he promptly lined into left field. The next pitch was knocked into left center just behind the where the shortstop would be and the next 2 pitches The Chief pounded into the upper deck. Initially nervous, Gedsudski now swung free and easy, peppering the field with his hits. When he swung a missed a few, he remained unshaken and followed those rare misses with towering shots that fell into far-away grandstands.

He was in such a natural groove that it took the pitcher to straiten up and stop throwing for The Chief to realize McGraw had called a halt to the pitching exhibition. The manager talked with the tall, thin coach who finally called out to Gedsudski to grab his glove and go out to left field.

Being a first baseman, Gedsudski of course only had a first baseman's mitt with him. Designed to take throws from the infield, the design of a first baseman's mitt was decidedly different than the type an outfielder would use. Armed with the wrong equipment, The Chief jogged out to left field and stationed himself in front of the blue Arrow Collars sign.

John McGraw himself lumbered out to the plate and hit screaming liners out to Gedsudski whose 5'-4" stocky body struggled to field. Solidly built for a first baseman, he was just not properly constructed to roam the Polo Grounds' cavernous left field. His first baseman's mitt also hampered him as he tried to make running catches - the ball popped out time after time. After about a dozen or so missed opportunities, The Chief could see McGraw stop and look intently at him. After a long moment he waved the tall, thin coach over who shrugged his shoulders and walked slowly back behind the batting cage. McGraw grabbed another baseball and hit a high pop-up to shallow left, just behind the infield dirt. Gedsudski ran his fastest but the ball dropped about a foot in front of him. By the time he recovered and looked towards the plate, McGraw was walking back to the dugout and the tall thin coach was walking out towards him, crossing something out on that folded piece of paper.

It was a long ride back downtown from the Polo Grounds, but The Chief was undaunted. He may have failed his tryout with the mighty New York Giants but he truly was more interested in getting accepted into N.Y.U.'s law school next fall. Sports were fun and rewarding, but more than that they were a vehicle with which he could use to obtain a higher profession in life. Where as his father could hope to do no better than his job as a cutter in the garment industry, The Chief had the goal of becoming a prosecutor for the City of New York. Two months after his tryout with the Giants he was formally accepted into New York University School of Law.

With the need to earn money to support himself while in law school, Gedsudski took a larger role in the Comanche Club's activities. One of the few club leaders who held a driver's license, Gedsudski worked extra hours driving the organizations' converted school bus. The Chief poured himself into his leadership role and taught his boys how to play football, baseball, box and build fires (not actually lawful in Central Park, but Gedsudski was an expert at putting out fires as well as starting them). The first aid expertize the Chief displayed when mending a wounded Comanche coupled with his unwavering honesty in umpiring their sporting events earned the unbending respect of a whole generation of grammar school street toughs. When the sun was too hot or the rain too hard, The Chief would gather his boys around inside the converted bus and tell stories to pass the time. Some, told in his shy, modest way, recalled his past stardom on the football field and the Comanche's never tired of hearing about his brush with the great John McGraw. But it was the fictional stories, told in serialized form, which The Chief made up out of thin air that really fascinated the boys. Some were so good his Comanche's actually wished for a rainy day in order to hear the next installment. One, which he called "The Laughing Man" featured a hideously mutilated superhero accompanied by a wolf, a giant, a dwarf and a strikingly beautiful half European-half Asian girl who spent their time fighting evil Chinese bandits.

Even with his law studies and Comanche Club duties, Gedsudski found the time to fall in love. Mary Hudson was a fellow law student and though both were from very different backgrounds (her family was the Connecticut Hudsons, her grandfather was Pierce Hudson III, founder of the New York and Northeastern Railroad), the two hit it off on an intellectual level. When Mary showed up at a Comanche Club baseball game and playfully demanded a place on one of the teams, her surprise prowess with the bat and speed on the bases not only won over the boys but made The Chief love her even more. Then, as so often happens, Mary and The Chief found themselves in a bit of trouble - Mary was pregnant.

The Hudson's, already biting their tongue at Mary's relationship with the son of recent immigrants who they deemed to be below their daughter's station, now brimmed over with anger and resentment. The contemporary plan of action called for Mary to be sent on an extended vacation (say 6 months in a secluded Swiss resort for women), returning perhaps a few pounds heavier but sans an embarrassing baby and her suitor to be rebuffed and sometimes paid to walk away.

The Chief had other plans.

After many heart filled and some downright inflammatory conversations with Mary, The Chief made the decision to leave law school and take a job beside his father in the garment factory. It wasn't high wages, but it would be enough to raise a family on. They would be married as soon as possible so as to avoid unpleasant rumors. The Chief pledged his love to Mary. One afternoon the boys in the Comanche Club, watching from a far, even saw him get down on one knee before her.

In May of 1928 Mary went to Switzerland and John finished law school.

Upon graduation, The Chief took a position with a small but respectable firm on Long Island that specialized in immigration law. Sometime around 1934 or so, The Chief boarded a train to Jersey City where he waited patiently on the dock for a small boy recently arrived from overseas on the S.S. Bremen. Carrying a Swiss passport, the stocky 6 year-old was quickly processed through Ellis Island and was deposited on the New Jersey shore. The Chief, his tongue twisted like a pretzel trying to speak hastily-learned French, welcomed his son home. On the long train ride back to Long Island, The Chief entertained the boy with the first installment of a new fictional story.

His son, chin resting on his knee, listened intently.

Thanks to J.D. Salinger.

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