I was relaxing in my den a few weeks ago, unable to do what I would normally do — watch baseball on TV — when I realized how much I missed the game. America’s pastime has been and continues to be an important part of my life.
My dad introduced my closest childhood buddy, Joe, and me to the opera and classical music, to “The New York Times” and its daily crossword puzzles, and, yes, to baseball.
It was baseball, however, that affected my life the most. Every summer my dad took us to games at Yankee Stadium. On most of those occasions, the home team was playing the Detroit Tigers. I vividly recall my father yelling, “Look at that! Herschel got another hit,” whenever Hank Greenberg — aka the “Hebrew Hammer,” who most don’t realize refused to play in a pennant-race game on Yom Kippur, 31 years before Sandy Koufax sat out Game 1 of the 1965 World Series — reached first base or hit a home run.
Joe was the youngest of 10 children in a family of devout Catholics who accompanied their widowed mom to church every Sunday morning. The difference in our faiths did not matter; I was part of their family for Christmas dinner; Joe always sat at our annual seder table; and he and some of his brothers and sisters were in our shul when I was bar mitzvah’d.
When school was in recess, Joe and I would spend hours discussing our favorite sport, baseball. We also talked about our plans for the future. Joe was going to be a physician. My parents wanted me to become a teacher. At the time, these plans seemed out of reach since our respective families had no funds with which to send us to college. Joe, however, did manage to work his way through Columbia University and through medical school and, until his untimely passing, was a successful physician in North Carolina. I worked my way through NYU and became a writer — just a couple of poor kids of different faiths who were able to fulfill their dreams.
Despite our professional and religious dissimilarities, it was baseball that linked Joe and me for close to 75 years.
We visited each other’s homes and got to know each other’s children. And we never forgot a birthday or the birth of a grandchild. It was a family tradition. Shortly before my dad passed away in Connecticut, 29 years ago, Joe and his wife came north from their Raleigh home to see him for the last time. They brought with them a Yankees baseball cap, which my father wore proudly until his death.
Joe and I would occasionally disagree on politics, world and domestic affairs, and even baseball. But these disagreements were never angry. I recall one visit, in fact, when Joe’s wife, Eleanor, said to my wife, “Look at that, the world is screwed up, but these two grown men still argue over a game.”
As I thought about making plans for the Fourth of July with my children, I could not help but think of my late buddy once more. Joe was a good Catholic, and I was raised as a proud Jew, but our bond, thanks in part to the game of baseball, was unbreakable. It was obvious that love transcended our differences and, thanks to the game, our love and respect for each other continually strengthened. Maybe it was bashert — the way it was supposed to be. The United States, the “goldene medina,” brought our families and millions of other immigrant families of all faiths here and enabled us to fulfill our dreams.
When Joe died a few years ago, his children inherited his massive collection of baseball cards, precisely arranged by year. I do not know the monetary value of this collection, nor does it matter. What I am certain of is that these mementos are emblems of the true value of friendship that remained in our hearts. These cards and the game they represent brought us and kept two disparate families together.
As I prepare to display Old Glory on July 4, it will be more than a symbol of pride in America. It will express my appreciation for the country that welcomed our parents and provided them with the opportunity to live freely, pray in their chosen house of worship, and feel free to enjoy the good things of life — including baseball.
I remain a proud American and a proud Jew whose childhood buddy I will again, as in the past, remember during the High Holidays. I will continue my annual commemoration of Joe’s birthday next November by calling his daughter to remind her of my love for her dad and mom. And I remain indebted to the game of baseball and to my close friend, who will always be in my personal Hall of Fame.
Manny Strumpf is president of Hadassah Associates of Monroe Township, where he resides.