A Baseball Memory

by Stephen D. Gross

I'd see him coming from two, sometimes three blocks away. Past the faded green park benches, through the acre of shade cast by the towering sycamore that filled the sky in front of the Kilkenny Grill - I could see his mouth moving before I could hear what he was saying, but I didn't have to hear the words to know what they were.
Like the waves drumming on the shore, his liturgy had a timeless rhythm you could take to the bank. In concert with the bright circus posters heralding the Ringling Bros. circus' return to Madison Square Garden and the maple seed pasted with spit on Joey O'Brien's freckled nose, Springer's chant announced the arrival of Spring. "Soon", he'd say with his bright eyes twinkling, "Soon der season shtahts!"
He adored Casey Stengel's twisted diatribes, Yogi's squat efficiency, DiMag's regal upper-deck blasts. He'd jump up and point as Milwaukee's Billy Bruton jetted around the bases, he'd shriek and curse as Bob Feller's blazing fastball cut down the meat of the Bomber's order. Baseball! No rubble-strewn lot in Hamburg with little Heinz kicking a soccer ball skull - No sleepy street in eviscerated Stuttgart with some kid named Horst dodging broken shards of glass and unexploded mines on a bike with no tires.
American bluegrass, ryegrass, lush manicured lawns, line drives and Crackerjacks, clutch singles, the hit-and-run, the snap and loud pop of leather slapping leather - what a radical turnaround from gutted, hungry Germany, with its gut-wrenching sadness and post-war pallor. I hear his passionate, "Soon der season shtahts!", and feel in my bones how much Oswald Springer loved baseball!
He'd beam at me and invite me upstairs to the Springer's third-floor apartment to watch the Yankees on his 19-inch Stromberg-Carlson. We had a ten-inch Admiral with a chubby magnifier sitting on its face which turned it into a thirteen-incher that was soft around the edges. Six more inches is a big deal when you're eleven. Besides, it was much more fun having someone to scream at the ballplayers with - especially someone whose wife loved to bake little cakes and keep us content and full! Ursula Springer might have known more about the game than she let on, but she only walked into the living room to bring us things that made us fat and happy. Pfefferneuss with powdered sugar that made you cough if you inhaled it; Dr. Brown's Celray Tonic and Cream soda in a tall glass with ice; delicious Bavarian cookies with hard, little red and green things sprinkled on and stuck to them; Breyer's raspberry-vanilla ice cream.
Springer and I would sit side-by-side in twin naugahyde La-Z-Boy recliners, each fine-tuned, just the way we liked them, and we'd eat and yell and drink, and watch the Yankees murder the American League. Springer would sit on the left (his right eye was stronger so he wanted it closer to the TV), and I would recline on his right, and Ursula would set up a pair of folding tables butted up against each other within easy arm's reach. We'd both have our legs sticking out, soles facing Broadway, and when time came for the seventh-inning stretch, we'd feel like Mel Allen was talking directly to us.
The camera would flash over at Mel grinning out from his humid broadcast booth high above the Bronx, white shirt damp with sweat, tie loosened and askew, sleeves rolled up and belly hanging out. "Hm-m-m M-mm!" he'd say holding aloft his frosty bottle of brew with obvious delight. "Ask the Man for Ballantine" he'd chant, pouring himself a cold one, never skimping on the head. Then he'd lift it and have a big swallow, and looking totally refreshed he'd say, "Man...that's beer"!
Springer would light up the entire room with his sunny, elfin grin, shpritzing German curses at the umpires, and making bawdy double-entendres that I didn't always understand. Sometimes I'd ask what he meant, and he would reply as if I were an adult, patiently explaining to me exactly what he'd said. Sometimes It wasn't necessary to ask.
He would always laugh at the way ballplayers shpritzed tobacco juice and nonchalantly scratched their privates whenever the mood struck them. He'd been raised among a different culture and thought it was hysterically funny that a grown man would claw at his crotch in front of fifty million admirers. This Yankee lack of self-consciousness was just one of the things he loved so much about Americans. One day he suggested to me that baseball might be more balanced if all the White ballplayers were born with Black appendages, and Blacks were white where Whites were black. He believed that this equalizer would improve everyone's self-image and kind of psychologically balance things out. Springer didn't really think it would make a difference - he just wanted to see my reaction.
Whenever Ursula happened to hear one of Springer's off-color remarks she would turn cherry-red with embarrassment, stamping her foot and scolding him in upper case Bavarian. Her hair was bright orange with gold highlights and her chameleon strove to match it. I had the feeling that she'd been listening to his act for about a half-century, but nevertheless, her flush was always sincere.
One of my more memorable moments with Oswald Springer came during the 1954 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants. Since we were both Yankee fans, our loyalties lay with the American League. Despite the fact that the Giants were also a New York team, they were from the wrong neighborhood, so we both rooted for Cleveland.
The first game was a 2 -2 tie going into the top of the eighth when powerful Vic Wertz came up to bat for the fifth time. He'd gotten hits in his four previous trips to the plate and there was a man on base when he strode up to face the Giant's Virgil Grissom. I don't remember the count, or who was on first at the time, but Wertz swung from the heels and unloaded a blast to dead center field. The Polo Grounds' centerfield fence was a monstrous 480-feet away from home plate, however, so the ball had a long way to fly before it hit anything. Willie Mays, ranging over the endless veldt like a methedrine-crazed impala, was off and pronking with the crack of the bat. Streaking away from the plate as if pursued by hungry lions, he outraced Wertz's boomer and caught it over his shoulder some 460 feet from where it had left the bat. Willie then planted himself and whirled about, uncorking one of the mightiest throws of all time, almost managing to double the runner off first base.
The Polo Grounds' fans erupted resoundingly, paying homage to His Magnificence, Saint Willy. Springer yelled louder than I've ever heard him yell and bounced up out of his recliner, which, like a plastic trampoline, tossed him into his TV table which showered the carpet with ice cubes and cream soda. I'd never seen this excitable person get so electrified, and I was concerned that he might do himself damage. Ursula, thinking 'heart attack', rushed in from the kitchen with her face as red as a bad boy's butt. It took her a few minutes before she realized that instead of having to call an ambulance, she just had to retrieve a few ice cubes.
The last time I saw Springer was a few years after I'd moved to California. I was visiting my folks in New York one wintry week in March and thoughts of him hadn't crossed my mind in years. I'd gone downstairs to get dad his newspaper when I saw a familiar figure bouncing - a bit more slowly now - past the park benches. As he came closer I could see his little baby's bow-like mouth, the wet lips moving, and marionette-like arms waving in the chilly morning light. I was amazed that he recognized me so quickly after all the years I'd been away from the old neighborhood. His gait was a bit more measured, his face not quite as taut and round as it used to be, but the effervescence, the child-like enthusiasm was still there. I stood with dad's Daily News in my hand, waiting for what I knew was coming, and as he drew close he grinned and winked at me and I heard, like an anthem to Spring, the ancient song that he'd repeated with such reverence down through the years - "Yah, Stevie boy, get ready, because soon der season shtahts!"