This year has been unlike any other for me. Covering a team that has been far worse than anyone could have imagined, a midseason job switch that brought me to BaltimoreBaseball.com, and the deluge of Orioles trades and declaration of a rebuild.
This was also the year that I lost my mother.
I’ve been thinking about my mother a lot recently because this past Wednesday was the 99th anniversary of her birth. When death came on Jan. 24, it was not unexpected. Nor was it a time of great grief because of her age.
I was incredibly fortunate to have my mother for so long, and she savored the blessing of a long life and aimed to reach 100. She came close.
Sadness has accompanied my thoughts about her just twice. One came on the season’s first Sunday when I realized that I always called her on my short drive to the ballpark each and every Sunday.
The other came when I was interviewing longtime Orioles broadcaster Joe Angel last week. Angel and I would delight in telling stories about our mothers, and he’s fortunate at 71 to still have his mother, who’s hale and hearty at 96.
People are living longer these days, but women who live as long as Cecilia Angel and Isabel Dubroff are still rare.
My mother was a great baseball fan, but that came late in life. Unlike many others whose words are so gracefully shared here, my love for baseball and other sports came not from my parents, but from neighborhood friends in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn was a special place for sports, particularly my two favorite ones, baseball and basketball, and my friends and I played and talked sports endlessly.
At home, there wasn’t that much sports talk. My father, whose career at Western Union lasted 49 years, was a casual baseball fan at best. He’d take me to two or three games a season, and lightly engage in talk, but he preferred that I hit the books instead of a curveball.
He wasn’t an athlete growing up. He was a highly skilled technician for Western Union, the long-defunct communications company, and I enjoyed accompanying him on visits to local hardware stores and gas stations.
Gone before Home Depot came to Brooklyn, I am always reminded of him whenever I go there, and think how much he would have enjoyed shopping there.
He was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and in the early years of my parents’ long marriage, they lived a short walk from Ebbets Field and occasionally went to games.
My father’s favorite player was Jackie Robinson. Although he wasn’t knowledgeable about the game, he talked about how daring Robinson was on the bases.
Once the Dodgers left, his interest in baseball lagged, but when I came of age in the early years of the Mets, he insisted on taking me to Yankee Stadium for my first game.
The Mets played their first two seasons at the Polo Grounds, the antiquated park across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium. It featured bullpens in left-center and right-center field. The power alleys were so deep (center field was about 475 feet away) that balls in play never reached the bullpens.
Since my father was a Dodgers fan, he despised the Giants, and the Polo Grounds, so I couldn’t go to a Mets game until they moved to Shea Stadium in 1964.
My mother liked baseball and would sometimes watch it with me, but like most casual fans, my parents only got involved with the Mets or Yankees when they were in the World Series.
In 1964, my father actually helped out Western Union at Game 5 between the Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals, something that excited me much more than it did him.
When Game 7 was played, and in those days they were all day games, he was setting up the telegraph lines for President Johnson’s trip to New York. He found out that LBJ and Robert Kennedy, who was running for the Senate in New York, would pass a short distance from our house.
Instead of watching the majestic performance of the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson, my mother, older brother Jerome and I waited on Nostrand Avenue and Kings Highway for a glimpse of LBJ and RFK’s limousine.
While we waited, other people listened to the game.
My mother’s fandom didn’t evolve until late in life. While she sat with my father, who was riddled by Alzheimer’s disease in his final years, she listened to her favorite radio station, WCBS, which had an all-news format—except for broadcasts of Yankees games.
She became an intense fan and listened or watched regularly. My mother worked in the insurance business for many years, until she was 77, and one of her colleagues at the agency was Phil Linz, who was a utility infielder for the Yankees in the ‘60s and played in that great 1964 World Series. Linz was the Ryan Flaherty of his time, a player who could fill in at nearly every position, but he had one distinction.
In 1964, he brought a toy harmonica on to the Yankees’ team bus and, after a four-game sweep by the Chicago White Sox in late August, he began to play it on the way from Comiskey Park to O’Hare.
Yogi Berra, who was in his first iteration as Yankees manager that year, told Linz to stop playing in no uncertain terms.
When Linz asked Mickey Mantle what Berra said, The Mick told him, “he said, ‘play it louder.’”
A scuffle ensued. Linz became famous, and the Yankees, who were 3 ½ games out of first place, went on a tear shortly thereafter and went 30-13 to win the pennant and set up the World Series with the Cardinals.
Linz was fined $250, but earned a $10,000 contract with the harmonica company after the season.
My mother proudly introduced me to Linz more than two decades ago, and he told me the story, which he eagerly shared with the firm’s clients.
I told an abbreviated version of the story in the eulogy at my mother’s funeral, but choked up when I got to the eulogy’s money line.
“She grew up in New York at a time when there were three baseball teams — the Yankees, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants.
“As a young woman, she rooted for the Dodgers, and as an older woman loved the Yankees, but to me, she was always a giant.”
Orioles beat writer Rich Dubroff grew up in Brooklyn as a fan of New York teams. He adopted the Orioles and Colts after moving to Baltimore. After nearly two decades as a freelancer assisting on Orioles coverage for several outlets, principally the Capital Gazette in Annapolis and the Carroll County Times, Dubroff began covering the team full time in 2011. He spent five years at Comcast SportsNet’s website and wrote for PressBoxonline.com the past two seasons. Dubroff lives in Baltimore with his wife of more than 30 years, Susan.
Editor’s Note: My mom developed her love for baseball from her father. She also helped me develop my love for The Beatles. I thought about her on Wednesday, when Ringo Starr celebrated his 56th anniversary of becoming one of the Fab Four — “56 years ago today John, Paul and George invited me to become part of The Beatles. It was a great day for me! peace and love.” My mom bought me Meet The Beatles on a night when I was upset because I couldn’t go to teen center. She was just a shade under 5 feet, but I relate to what Rich said about his mom — to me, she was always a giant.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.