Last week was the end of an era for my family. For the first time since April 1955, someone other than a Dubroff owns what was our house in Brooklyn. My mother lived there for nearly 63 years, and neither my brother, his children nor I had any interest in keeping it. Because even decidedly non-trendy sections of Brooklyn are considered hot, the house was on the market for fewer than three weeks.
The house sold even though it needs lots of work and has only one bathroom. It has, unusual for Brooklyn, a garage, driveway and ample street parking. Most important, and not contained in any of the real estate listings, it’s around the corner from Marine Park, which was my Disneyland growing up.
Marine Park is Brooklyn’s second largest, and my friends and I spent countless hours playing nearly every sport imaginable. It was where I met my first major league baseball player and played against a future NBA player and coach.
It was where, long before I knew what diversity was, I watched cricket. Each Sunday, perhaps 50 Jamaicans dressed in their cricket whites, set up a field in a far corner of the park. And years before there were soccer moms, we played soccer with the coolest ball I’d ever seen. My brother, who started medical school in Belgium before a school in the U.S. accepted him, brought it home from Europe for me.
My friends and I had makeshift track meets. There were two ovals around the park, one for bicycling, the other for running and walking. We also had street hockey games in the playground.
Mostly there were baseball and basketball games. There were touch football games, too, and a local club, The Mariners, played its games there, but mostly football was for arguing Jets vs. Giants.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Brooklyn produced scores of major league athletes. Joe Torre grew up on the other side of the park, and the father of one of my childhood friends coached him. Once, when Torre played for the St. Louis Cardinals, he left tickets to a Cardinals-Mets game for us.
Mets manager Gil Hodges didn’t live far away, and famed football coaches Vince Lombardi and Joe Paterno also lived nearby long before my time.
One day when I was about 10, I heard that a local sports group had invited Don Drysdale to meet with its team in the park. The Dodgers, who a decade earlier had moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, still inspired strong feelings.
Drysdale arrived, and I ran up to him clutching his baseball card and a pencil. “No autographs,” I was told by the largest human being I had ever seen at the time. Drysdale was 6-foot-5. I was much smaller.
Lee Mazzilli, whom I later covered as Orioles manager, played baseball in the park. He lived about 10 or 15 minutes away and went to a rival high school.
But the sport I played most was basketball. I wasn’t good enough to play on the James Madison High School team, which featured Fly Williams, a brilliant player but indifferent student. Fly left school after his junior year and eventually led the country in scoring at Austin Peay. After a year in the American Basketball Association, Williams’ pro career ended. Sadly, his life went downhill, and he is awaiting trial on heroin distribution charges.
My friend Ted Wallendorf played on the team with Williams, and he was good enough to attract Division I scholarship offers, including one from Rutgers, whose assistant coach and head recruiter was Dick Vitale. Wallendorf honed his considerable skills at Marine Park, and although I wasn’t in his class, that never deterred him from allowing me to play on his team.
One night, he brought over a friend, Mike Dunleavy, who was from another section of Brooklyn. We all knew who he was. Dunleavy was one of the most heavily recruited players in the country, and one of many Brooklynites of that time who’d play in the NBA.
Ted and I teamed up against Dunleavy and my friend, Chris Smith. Dunleavy and Smith beat us, but even as a teenager, I was able to feel the intensity Dunleavy brought to a simple 2-on-2 playground game.
Years later, I covered Dunleavy as an NBA coach and his son, Mike Jr., as an NBA player.
But besides playing sports, we talked them. It was a wonderful time to be a New York sports fan.
The Mets, managed by Hodges, Jets and Knicks all won world championships despite being decided underdogs when I was 12 and 13, the ideal age for a young person to appreciate sports teams.
We grew up hearing the stories that the odds were heavily against anyone who hoped for a career in professional sports, but with so many great athletes near us, it was hard to take those stories seriously. If we didn’t personally know a big-time athlete, someone close to us did. Everyone knows people who exaggerate their closeness to well-known people, and that certainly happened around us, but so many people we knew were close to athletes.
In retrospect being in close proximity to top athletes probably helped me not to be intimidated by them, but Drysdale was certainly intimidating at 10.
The Brooklyn of 40 years later features better restaurants, much more expensive housing and many fewer major league baseball players. I hope the new owners of our house appreciate what they’ve purchased.
Editor’s Note: Rich’s memories of the underdog New York teams trigger some painful ones for Baltimore sports fans. The Jets of Joe Namath stunned the heavily favored Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl, and the Mets added to that misery by upsetting the Orioles in the 1969 World Series. The then-Baltimore Bullets would lose to the Knicks in the 1970 Eastern Conference playoffs, but the Knicks’ takedown of the Lakers in the finals was the bigger story because they had Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West.
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.