My grandfather, Jim Kilgallen, “Pop” to us kids, was my mother’s dad and the inspiration behind her foray into journalism. In addition to supplying the footsteps in which she followed, he was one of the kindest, brightest people I’ve ever known; kind in word and deed, the most gentle of dispositions, bright in that he shined as a human being, both personally and professionally.
He lived 97 years, married to the same woman, Mae, for 70 of them, and almost until the end, he could rattle off the streets that crossed his home town of Chicago from one side to the other. He’d do it for me almost every time we got together and I never tired of it. He’d speed-rattle them off- from one side of town to the other – and then do it backwards. I laughed and laughed, thinking he must be some wizard of geography, the smartest man alive. He loved to tell stories to his grandchildren, as I’m sure he did with his girls, my mom and her sister Eleanor, as they grew up. He oozed a gentle, loving and warm spirit that he withheld from no one.
Pop took me to my first baseball game at Yankee Stadium when I was seven years old. It was an early afternoon in late spring, one of the first regular season games of the year. The Yankees were taking on the Baltimore Orioles. Prior to this day, I’d only ever seen baseball on our black and white television set, still magical in those early days, a miricle we prayed would never break down.
We got to the ball park via the uptown IRT subway, packed with fans like us, dressed in the peculiar way baseball fans have to show they’re part of the team – hats, shirts, even the occasional full Yankee uniform, pinstripes and socks, the whole nine yards. Even in those days, the Yankees were “The Tribe” in major league baseball, a force to be reckoned with, like New York itself, it was scary to find yourself in the middle of them. Scarier still, they came with a gang of equally dangerous temperament – the fans.
We arrived at the stadium early. Every step, starting in the parking lot was larger than life, the stadium itself gigantic, circular levels going up and around forever.
My first surprise came as the usher, a man who my grandfather called by name, brought us down the endless steps toward the field. I wondered for a minute if we were perhaps going to watch the game from the grassy field. It turned out that we had seats directly over the Yankee dugout, smack dab on the first base line.
As soon as we sat down I began taking in the size of field, the enormity of the stands, the number of fans – overwhelmed at how incredibly large everything seemed. The players were the icons of the greatest of all American sports, many of them whose cards I collected and prized. They were same larger than life men that I’d only ever seen on TV in black and white. Now here I was, almost close enough to reach out and touch them, my heroes proudly trotting out to the first base line in all their glory.
We stood for the national anthem, hands over our hearts. As I looked over the players’ shoulders at the huge masted flag, flapping proudly, looming over center field, I felt proud to be an American boy, alive in the greatest American city, watching the great American sport played by the best team in the world.
The game was thrilling, every minute of it. Pop and I cheered our team to victory. We ate hot dogs and sodas. I watched the capacity crowd, filling the seats all the way to the top of the enormous stadium, awe-struck by all those people in one place at one time. It was a great game, handily won by the Yankees, six to four.
I was breathless after the game, having yelled myself hoarse, filled with hot dogs and sodas. Reluctantly, I mentally readied myself to head home, the story I’d be telling my friends the next day at school beginning to build. Today was one giant feather in my cap, waiting to be shared. As the yelling, whistles and applause died down, the players waved as they exited the field and the fans around us stood to leave, I moved to the lip of my seat, ready to stand. But Pop remained in his seat.
“The game’s over, right, Pop?” I asked.
“The game’s over all right.” he said. He looked around at the crowd as they gathered their things and started to move up the aisles toward the exits. I followed his gaze. He looked towards the field, leaning forward to peer into the dugout, which seemed pretty empty. People were leaving.
“But we’re not quite done yet.” He said. I looked across at him quizzically, wondering if he thought maybe there was more to come at the ballpark. Pop was an old man. Even in my early childhood, he seemed ancient. In fact, by the time he brought me to Yankee stadium that day, he was 73 years old. Maybe he was imagining there was more to the game, I thought.
“Come on my boy, let’s see what we can see.” Hmmm. I wondered what there was left for us to see, after the spectacle of the game itself. Everyone else was leaving.
Pop had been, for many years a reporter who athletes trusted and respected. He reported fairly, knew what he wrote about. And he was a nice guy. People liked him. He was easy to be with, soft-spoken, never pushy. Players didn’t need to fear that he was after a “scoop” at their expense.
When he finally stood and began moving out of our row of seats, he turned right, towards the field, rather than up the stairs toward the exit.
“Pop?” I questioned, confused at his direction, thinking maybe it was he that was confused, him being rather old.
“C’mon, Kerry, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.” I scanned the crowd that was streaming up the stairs towards us, looking for someone that stood out as if waiting to meet someone. I saw no one. Pop moved down the stairs, against the stream of people and towards the field. He stopped and looked back at me.
“Come on, you’ll see” he said with a sly glint in his eye.
We walked down to the rail that surrounded the field, just above the dugout where a uniformed security guard stood, alertly eying the departing fans, next to a small gate that allowed access to the field.
“Hi, George” Pop said to the guard. “Good game, eh?”
“Yessir, Mr. Kilgallen. Who we got here?” George asked.
“This is my grandson, Kerry. Youngest one. He’s a big fan.”
“Please to meet you, Mr. Kerry”, George said with a bow and a broad smile.
“We’re goin’ down to visit, George, if you don’t mind.” And with a wink, he grabbed my hand, George grinned knowingly as he opened the gate, and down we stepped onto the turf of the house that Ruth built.
I was overwhelmed. I looked down at my sneakers, which were standing on the field at Yankee Stadium. The story for my friends at school tomorrow was really growing now.
Pop took me around the wall of the dugout and down the three steps into it. There were players in uniform, actual Yankees sitting around, talking and laughing. Before I could realize what was happening, Pop was introducing me.
“Kerry, this is Mr. Mickey Mantle. And …”
“Hi Kerry, I’m Yogi Berra. You know your grandpa’s a great reporter?” My mouth fell open. The intros continued. It was like a dream….
Others. It was to much to be real. Had to be a dream.
I had my picture taken sitting in between Mickey Mantle and Yogi Bara a photo that, if there were to be a “proud look on the face of a child” contest, would win without a close second.
Following that, we went up to the Yankees locker room, where I met many of the rest of the team, some of them naked, but none of them bothered by Pop and me. Except maybe Tommy Tresh, who just seemed to be not very nice.
Imagine being a seven-year-old boy at his first ballgame and experiencing that. Are you kidding me? It was beyond any dream my sleeping mind could have created.
It’s still a bit hard to grasp. That was my first ballgame.