I’ve been around the block a time or two, and friends and family sometimes accuse me of being so old that I watched Babe Ruth play baseball.
That, of course, is not true but I did see Bobby Cox play third base for the Yankees which, I guess, makes me a little long in the tooth. Regarding the Babe, I never saw him play, but I did see him — twice.
The first time was in the early spring of 1947. We lived in New York City, I was 13, and it was “Babe Ruth Day” at Yankee stadium over in the Bronx and my father thought it was important we attend.
Dad wasn’t broke but it was close and we decided to walk the two miles over the Washington bridge into the Bronx and down Ogden Avenue to the stadium.
This way, he figured we could enjoy both a hot dog and peanuts. More than 58,000 people showed up that Sunday to pay tribute to the baseball idol who had been sick for more than a year.
He had undergone two throat surgeries for cancer and his raspy voice was barely audible. They helped him out of the dugout and he walked very slowly to the microphone standing at home plate.
He wore a long mohair overcoat and matching cap, which he waved at the weeping throng as he finished his brief greeting.
I had never seen so many grown men crying. Come to think of it, I had never seen my father in such a state, and never did again. We enjoyed the game and during the walk home neither of us had much to say.
The second and last time I saw him was from very close up, maybe three or four feet. It was in the main lobby of Yankee Stadium, and he was dead. It was August of the following year and he had succumbed to the throat cancer. It was hot and humid and I was alone. I had been waiting in line for more than two hours and was uncomfortable, apprehensive and maybe even scared as my point in the barricaded line finally entered the lobby. We were asked politely by the somber guards to “keep moving.”
My throat dried up as I neared the bier. I looked at the people around me for some clue as to how to act. They seemed to be all men, mostly white, a few blacks, no women and nobody my age.
Suddenly there he was, The Babe, dead. I stopped and stared. There were flowers all around him and blown-up pictures of him in his heyday.
I became dizzy and slightly disoriented. I looked at his throat and it looked terrible. At the time I thought it reminded me of a turkey’s neck. ( I am still a little ashamed of thinking that). I felt two strong hands grabbing my neck and shoulders from behind. I looked back and tried to smile at the officer who must have thought I needed some support.
Instead of smiling, I began to weep profusely and he smiled warmly and nodded. I dropped to my knees and said a prayer for the Babe.
The police officer stayed behind me and held out his right hand stopping the procession until I was finished. As I stood up, he took me off to the side and gestured to a chair. I sat down confused and embarrassed. I remember my shirt was soaked with sweat. Suddenly I was being handed a bottle of cold Coke by another officer who smiled and tousled my hair. I drank the Coke and after regaining my composure, I thanked the two New York City policemen and left.
I got home in time to play a game of stick ball with the guys on my block. At dinner, my father asked me what I had done that day and when I told him, he looked at my mother and smiled.
Tom Kistner went to school at the Universities of Alabama, Hawaii and Copenhagen. He was an intelligence operative for the NSA during the Cold War, a ships rigger in Denmark, a politician as well as director of administrative law for New Jersey where he also had a career as a sales and marketing executive.