I was pleasantly surprised by the favorable reaction from readers of my first “A Boyhood Memory” column (Weekender, Aug. 2), in which I wrote about my favorite player during my teenage years, Max Alvis of the Cleveland Indians. It inspired me to tell another story about something that happened on my way to the ballpark one September day in 1964. I hope you will also enjoy reading this one as we once again turn back the calendar 38 years. To set the mood, my high school photo appears in the column head.
I am reminded of this episode every time I’m at a Yomiuri Giants game at Tokyo Dome when, about 8 p.m. or two hours after the first pitch was thrown, in about the sixth or seventh inning, I leave the press box for a bathroom break or to get a drink, and I see fans just entering to watch the action.
Apparently, many of them use their company’s season passes but, having worked overtime until 7 or 7:30, they cannot get to the Big Egg until about two-thirds of the game is over. But they will have to do worse than that to beat my record of Friday, Sept. 4,1964, for late arrival at a pro baseball game.
My cousin, Leo Strychowski, invited me to a New York Mets-Los Angeles Dodgers game at Shea Stadium. He actually bought four box seat tickets and also called his brother-in-law, Ray Menke, who was to bring his son, also named Wayne, and my age at the time, 16. A previous rainout transformed a single-game 8 p.m. start into a twi-night doubleheader beginning at 6, so we would be getting two games for the price of one. Or so we thought.
Since Leo worked in Manhattan, the Menkes were to pick me up at my house in Clark, N.J., then drive to New York and park on the roof of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Leo was to meet us on the ground floor as we stepped off the elevator, about 5:30. Then we would ride the subway out to Hushing and be in our seats at Shea, eating hot dogs and drinking Cokes, by 6:15, probably in about the bottom of the first inning of the first game.
Ray and Wayne showed up to get me at 4:30, in plenty of time for the 20-mile drive to NYC, and we sailed along on the New Jersey Turnpike, through Elizabeth, Newark and Secaucus, listening to WABC Radio deejay Dan Ingram play the number one hit of the day, “Everybody Loves Somebody,” by Dean Martin.
It was 5:05 when we approached the loop that serves as the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel in Weehawken, anticipating arrival at the bus terminal parking lot in about 10 minutes, at 5:15 or thereabouts. No problem. Or so we thought.
Then, suddenly, we noticed up ahead cars were stopped, a line had backed up and a sense of panic set in. It was the start of the Labor Day weekend, and we were about to become trapped in one of the most horrendous, congested traffic jams in the history of automobile travel.
It took us about 45 minutes just to move the 100 yards or so to get into the tunnel where the stop-and-go traffic became stop and stay. By the time we got to the New Jersey-New York borderline marker halfway through the Lincoln, it was 7:30! There were no cell phones in those days and, even if we had one, it probably would not have worked deep under the Hudson River.
We thought about poor Leo waiting in front of that elevator for two hours, wondering what in the world had happened to us. About 8:45, we finally exited the tunnel and saw daylight again, only it was night. At last, we got to park the car on the roof of the bus depot at 42nd St. and 8th Ave., and we hurried to ride the elevator. It was 9:12 p.m.
Ray said Leo would probably be long gone, and he had the game tickets but, when the elevator doors opened on the ground floor at 9:15, there was Leo, all bleary-eyed and looking half-crazed after apparently watching those elevator doors open and close a hundred times during the four hours he’d been standing there. “What in the heck happened to you guys?” he asked. “I grew a beard waiting here.”
We explained and apologized as we rushed to the subway platform downstairs and made our way to Shea. It was 10:02 p.m. when we passed through the turnstiles and our rain check stubs were torn by a very surprised ticket taker. We were just getting there in the top of the seventh inning of the second game of a doubleheader!
The ushers were astonished to see us too, as were the fans sitting in our seats who were asked to move. “You fellas are a little early for tomorrow’s game,” said one wise-guy, as Leo tipped an usher 50¢ for wiping off our chairs.
We got to see about 40 minutes of baseball before the game ended. I don’t remember much about it, except that George Altman played left field for the Mets and Willie Davis was the Dodgers’ centerfielder, and I later got to know them and watch them play here in Japan.
The ride back to Jersey was made in good time, and Leo slept all the way home. Wayne and I kept wondering if anyone had ever arrived at a Major League game later than we did that night, and Ray vowed never again to drive to New York on a holiday weekend.
I was reluctant to mention the elevator wait to Leo after that, for fear he’d freak out just thinking about it. He died in 1985 at age 65. Ray Menke died in 1970 at 52, and Wayne Menke is now 54 and a free lance computer technician in New Jersey.
George Altman went on to play eight seasons (1968-1975) here in Japan for the old Lotte Orions and the Hanshin Tigers, then retired to become a commodities trader in Chicago. He now lives in St. Louis. Willie Davis also played here in 1977 with the Chunichi Dragons in Nagoya and in 1978 with the Crown Lighters Lions in Fukuoka. He then returned to the Majors and was later arrested in connection with his wife’s death after she fell off a cliff in Hawaii.
Dan Ingram still plays “Everybody Loves Somebody” and other oldies on WCBS-FM in New York, but singer-actor-comedian Dean Martin died in 1995.
The memory lives on.