Willie Mays lost his cap chasing fly balls, so I did too. I dropped a truckload of Spaldeens practicing his basket catch. His baseball card was the highlight of my shoebox collection and was handled with the care of Dead Sea Scroll parchment. When I lost my Giants to San Francisco, I followed Willie religiously through the radio broadcasts of Les Keiter, not realizing that the games were re-creations. I saw that Willie was black, but I didn’t notice.
My father was born in Naples, and Joe DiMaggio was baseball for him. After the “Yankee Clipper” retired, my father lost interest, but would take note if Sal Maglie pitched or Yogi Berra homered. He thought I should root for Roy Campanella because he was half Italian. The other time I heard my father say something about a black person was when he put on a 78 record of “Sophisticated Lady” by Billy Eckstein and laughed to my mother that he first thought Eckstein was Jewish.
I could slice a horsefly in two with a tossed baseball card. Don’t snicker. Okay, it’s an exaggeration. Winning flipping competitions, tossing cards closest to the wall, was an alternative to spending a nickel for a pack. Lenny Spazzolato and my best friend, Gene Kaplan, vied with me to expand our collections. I called Lenny “Cousin Weak Eyes” because his peepers protruded like a crab. The two of us tussled to see who was toughest, and we tied for the honor. Gene was a Jewish redhead from down the block. His grating-voice younger brother Carl would insist that Gene give him cards so he could compete. Carl tossed like a flounder with a broken fin and was soon cleaned out. He hung around like a poltergeist, doing his best to disrupt my concentration. I wanted to stuff Carl into a sewer drain, but my friendship with Gene kept me at bay. Carl would cry to his mother if he tripped on a sidewalk crack. If I retaliated for his pepper-in-my-butt behavior, Gene would be punished for not sticking up for his brother.
My technique for tossing was to fade the card’s flight, which gave it a better chance to crawl up the wall and become a “leaner,” inclined against the wall. The best leaners had two corners gripping the wall, but if even a single corner was raised, the next player was required to make three tries to knock it down. Failing, the leaner owner profited the three attempts.
I’d sent my Al Kaline into a sliced arc and been rewarded with a one-corner leaner. Lenny’s mouth clamped down. He looked like a walleyed pike.
Carl shouted, “Lenny, knock it down.”
Gene gave his brother’s shoulder a push, but Carl became adamant.
“Lenny, you can do it.”
Lenny crouched. He wiped his hands on jeans and gripped an Ernie Banks by the corner, thumb on top. With a sharp flick of the wrist, the card flew like a Nike Ajax missile, bouncing off the brick wall a millimeter away from Kaline, pictured with bat shouldered as if ready to swat “Mr. Cub” away.
As his second attempt, Lenny readied Lew Burdette, pictured with arms raised in pitching motion, face as grim as Lenny’s. I gulped. This was trouble.
Lenny let fly. Burdette grazed Kaline. The Tiger star tottered but held.
I puffed out a breath in relief.
Lenny had only one card left, Mickey Mantle. “The Mick” card was a prize of great worth. The baseball card producer knew that most New York kids regarded Mickey as their hero and printed fewer Mantle cards to keep them buying. Lenny wouldn’t ordinarily flip his Mickey, but the rule mandated three attempts.
Carl crouched near Lenny like a fight trainer. “Lenny, take your time.”
The tension in the air was palpable. Lenny took a deep breath and readied Mantle for the attempted take-down.
Just then, a shadow covered Kaline. The four of us turned toward a black kid about our age. He asked, “What are you doing?”
Mrs. Jackson had recently moved into the corner apartment building. I’d seen her rolling groceries back from the A&P in her trolley. She had a dignified demeanor, but the sway of her rounded hips held my eye. She wore red lipstick and dangling purple earrings against dark skin. I still thought my mother was more beautiful. The Jacksons were the only black family on the block. I’d seen this kid bouncing a ball on the corner when I returned from school.
Lenny’s fingers clutched the Mickey Mantle card. He grimaced at the black kid like gum on his shoe. “You broke my concentration.”
I said, “Cousin Weak Eyes, you have to make another toss.”
Lenny stood. “He broke my rhythm. I want a do-over.”
The black kid repeated, “What are you doing?”
Gene said, “Flipping cards. Who are you?”
“Lenny,” I said, “you need to flip that Mantle.”
Lenny said, “No way. Sambo disrupted play.”
Samuel said, “My name’s not Sambo.”
Lenny frowned. “I’m not tossing Mickey.”
Carl said, “You tell him. Lenny doesn’t have to do anything.”
As usual, Carl was the voice most unwelcome.
I said to Samuel, “You screwed up our game. What do you want?”
He said, “I’ll play. Gimme some cards.”
Lenny turned his back.
I said, “You need to buy them.”
He moved close to me. “You have plenty. Gimme some.”
Samuel shot his right fist into my gut. The air went out of me. I doubled over and dropped my handful of cards. Samuel scooped them up and ran. Gene gave chase. To my surprise, Lenny and Carl followed. The corner apartment building door was heavy, and Samuel was slow to get it open. The guys surrounded him.
Lenny’s fists were balled. “Sambo, give back the cards.”
Samuel was confronted by three angry faces. He threw the cards to the street like a folded poker hand. Gene picked them up.
Lenny said, “Don’t come back.” Smirking, he, Carl, and Gene backed away from Samuel and came over to me. Samuel ducked into the apartment building. By the time the three reached me, I’d recovered my breath. Even Carl looked solicitous.
“I’m all right. Thanks.”
Gene asked, “Why did he punch you? You didn’t insult him.”
Lenny said, “What do you expect.”
The incident put a pall on the game and we went home.
* * *
Dinner that evening was my mom’s steak pizzaiola. My father had me bring in the jug of home-made wine from the backdoor step where it was kept during cool weather. My father poured me one finger in a tumbler. He cut his with Hoffman Cream Soda in a water glass. My mother took only a taste of red.
I told them about the incident with Samuel.
Their forks stopped in midair, and I assured them I was all right.
I said, “Lenny called him Sambo.”
My mother said, “Don’t repeat that. It’s impolite.” She shook her head. “I’ve not met Mrs. Jackson, but maybe I should talk to her.”
My father said, “And say what? Three kids ganged up on Samuel. We don’t talk to the Spazzolatos every time Anthony and Lenny fight.”
“Molly Spazzolato said that the neighborhood was changing. It could affect home prices.”
My father huffed. He left for the living room and returned with a book, How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob Riis. He read, “Cleanliness is the characteristic of the Negro. In this respect he is immensely the superior of the lowest of the whites, the Italians.” His eyes rose to meet my mother’s. “Italians used to be bad for the neighborhood.”
She nodded. “We won’t say any more about it.”
I asked, “Why did Samuel try to steal my cards?”
My father said, “Maybe he didn’t have money to buy some.”
* * *
The next day, I saw Samuel bouncing a ball against the wall of the corner apartment building. I neared him. He gave me a brief glance, then continued to throw his ball. I took a handful of doubles from my card collection and placed them on the apartment step. The sound of the ball smacking sidewalk and brick continued. I sighed, turned, and walked back up the street. Willie Mays was my favorite player. Now, I noticed he was black.
Joe Giordano was born in Brooklyn. He and his wife Jane now live in Texas.
Joe’s stories have appeared in more than one hundred magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, and Shenandoah, and his short story collection, Stories and Places I Remember. His novels include Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, and the Anthony Provati thriller series: Appointment with ISIL, Drone Strike, and The Art of Revenge.
Visit Joe’s website at https://joe-giordano.com/
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Willie Mays Was My Favorite Player”:
We liked in this pointed historical piece how author Joe Giordano captured the attitudes of the time in some unexpected ways. Admittedly, because of the subject matter, we had initial reservations, but in the end we decided that dodging issues of the past (and present) is a disservice to history and to our magazine.