BABE O’LEARY IS GIONG up to the ballpark and it’s probably going to kill her. Well, there are worse ways to die.
Getting downstairs is slow torment, one step at a time so the kneecaps won’t scream. She shifts her weight as if it’s a sack of laundry. Before she deals with the subway steps and the climb up the bleachers, she’ll have to deal with the mile-long walk up to the Grand Army Plaza to catch the IRT, a walk she’ll break into five-block segments, with two rest stops on stoops and a second breakfast at the Purity to sustain her.
“Mrs. O’Leary, you must be going to that American Day. If I was feeling stronger I’d go myself.”
That’s Nosey Bruscelli, a shameless spy on the first floor. She’s been standing in her doorway, her wrapper gaping, since Babe ventured onto the third floor landing.
Babe intones the same crisp line she speaks every time Bruscelli interrogates her: “I make it a practice to keep my plans flexible and private.”
For some reason Bruscelli always thinks this is a joke. “You’re a card.”
Babe drags her foot for effect. “I Am an American Day? My people have been in this country a hundred years and more.” This is gross exaggeration—her mother was pregnant on the journey over, and Babe was very nearly born in Canada before her mother slipped across the border—but certainly called for under the circumstances.
“We’re all Americans, just like LaGuardia says, and we’ll beat the crap out of anybody says different.” Bruscelli beams a pleasant confused smile and, with a little wave, pulls her wrapper tight before she disappears.
Beat the crap. It is humiliating to live among such coarse people, but Babe has no one but herself to blame for the apartment she rented for her grieving son Mickey and his four motherless daughters. Back then, she was a younger woman with better knees and didn’t have a clue what the journey to the stadium would cost her: the subway’s still a nickel, but the stairs are always torture, and in Brooklyn the very mention of the Yankees has put her life at risk on more than one occasion.
She picks her games carefully. Ordinarily she wouldn’t consider a crowded Sunday, but on I Am an American Day she calculates that the fair-weather fans will be going to Central Park to see Eddie Cantor and Bill Robinson for free. Let them. DiMag needs her more in Yankee Stadium than LaGuardia needs her in Central Park. Joe’s just starting to hit again and even though today they’re playing the lowly Browns, he could get rattled.
DiMag needs her because she is a magician when it comes to the game of baseball. It’s true: she has special powers, and she doesn’t transmit them in the usual way. She doesn’t yell support for her boys—she never yells—and she most certainly doesn’t join the hoi polloi after the game to beg an autograph. No. Babe O’Leary (nicknamed long ago by Mickey for the greatest Yankee ever, of course) is always a paragon of dignity. She has only to show up at the stadium, and to concentrate at the most crucial moments, and her men win. It is a simple equation. Over the past ten years, which is as long as she’s been keeping statistics on this phenomenon, the Yankees have won fifty-one of the sixty-one games Babe has graced with her presence, which makes her winning percentage .836. Even if you take into account how carefully she picks the games, even if you take into account the Yanks’ winning records, even if you take into account the home park advantage, it’s a record that points to, if she does say so herself, a rare gift. Might as well call it what it is: magic.
“Mrs. O’Leary.” She returns Raymond Connelly’s nod and hello. He’s a handsome young fellow, super of a big building up on the park, and he’s handsomer still in his slate-gray suit, his shoulders wide as a doorframe. His girls played with Mickey’s girls when they were all younger: there they are with their mother, trailing their father half a block, wobbling home from mass on their high heels. “How’s that neighbor of yours holding up? Mrs. Bruscelli?”
“She’s the very same busybody she was yesterday, Ray.”
“You didn’t hear, then. Her nephew was picked up last night at El Morocco. All anybody talked about at Saint Saviour’s this morning.”
“Who’d he murder? Whom, I should say.”
“They rounded up all the busboys who didn’t have papers, which was pretty much all the busboys. Three from the parish. Stupid wops.”
Babe draws herself up. She doesn’t like Italians better than anyone else in the neighborhood, especially the ones who don’t trouble to learn the language, but she doesn’t like the debasement of English, either. It’s hard to say whether she objects to stupid or wops more. The two words are forbidden at her table, but only Agnes remembers, which is why Agnes is going to college and her sisters are going to be file clerks all their lives. First she gives Ray a hard stare and then she gives him a little squeeze to the forearm, so he knows she forgives him his coarse manner of speaking.
So that’s why Bruscelli went on about being an American. Does the woman even have papers herself? Who knows what Italian spies Bruscelli could be hiding in her dim little hovel. Ironic that Babe is on her way to see the Dago, which just goes to prove that she is not a biased woman. DiMaggio’s not as cold as people say. He’s shy, because he grew up speaking two languages—who wouldn’t be confused?—and because every time he opens his mouth those teeth of his loom. (She’s a sucker for homely fellows. Dorothy Kilgallen can say till the cows come home that DiMag is handsome but she, Babe, knows a looker and Joe DiMaggio is no looker.)
DiMaggio is the proud quiet type, which is what Mickey is, the type who requires a forceful woman behind him. Mickey might have accused her of interfering when she advised him not to marry Gloria, but he needed to be told that his shy, quiet sweetheart was capable of a good deal of trouble. Just as later he needed to be told that his little girls ought not be in her care after she claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary at the curb, straightening the garbage cans, and that he needed to institutionalize Gloria before she did any more damage than she already had—but Babe knew then, and knows now, that she was only the bearer of the bad news Mickey couldn’t face himself. None so blind as he who will not see, and it didn’t take a psychic to see that Gloria would come to no good end. No one was less surprised than Babe when her daughter-in-law (a word that always stuck in her craw) draped a rope over a steam pipe to kill herself and nearly brought the building down. I hope you’re happy now, Mickey whispered at the hospital. Well, she has long since forgiven him. She’s a bigger woman than that, not to recognize that it was the shock speaking. After all, who (whom?) did he beg to come take care of the little girls? Who (whom?) did he beg to leave the apartment so close to Yankee Stadium and come to (she shudders) Brooklyn? He does not accuse her of destroying his life now, not when he relies on her to run the household and make scant ends meet.
Anyway, Joe DiMaggio hasn’t had much luck with women, either. Babe’s seen Mrs. DiMaggio at the ballpark: a cheap blonde siren, a showgirl. A Midwesterner they say. There’s something about the cruel set of her scarlet lips that makes it clear poor Joe has fallen under a spell. The marriage won’t last—she’d stake her powers of prediction on that. She knows it sure as she knew Mickey’s marriage couldn’t possibly last.
Five blocks. Here’s the first resting place, a good broad stoop on which a large woman in her sixties can sit for a moment without looking common. It’s never crossed her mind before, but her journey to Yankee Stadium is something like the Stations of the Cross, a ritual she has always considered another opportunity for the pious to weep and moan and congratulate themselves.
She arrives at the stadium forty-five minutes before game time, according to plan. It’s taken her three hours to traverse Brooklyn, Manhattan—where she changes trains—and the Bronx. If she were perfectly honest about it, she’d admit that her second breakfast takes up a good chunk of time. The descent from the El is the hardest part of her journey but the smell of sauerkraut is in the air and the hawkers below on 161st distract her from her hip, her knee, her shoulder. This is a glorious Sunday. This is her morning mass, her Broadway musical, her I Am an American Day. She makes steady time along River Avenue, where they are selling flags on sticks by the fistful. The “I Am an American” banners are everywhere. In the bars across the street men are pouring back patriotic pints. They’ll be weepy in time for the national anthem.
She stands in line for a seat. It’s nothing like the old days, when the wooden bleachers stretched across the outfield, but she’ll still be perched in center left, where she has a good view of DiMag’s profile when he’s in the outfield and a chance of seeing a homer whiz by when he’s at bat.
“Tom.” She has been going to the same box office window for eighteen years: since the week the stadium opened. “Who’s scoring today?”
“My sources tell me it’s Daniel’s turn.” Tom winks, and she winks back. “Beautiful day for a ballgame.” The beauty of their exchange is its economy. Her gestures, too, are economical as she backtracks round the ballpark toward the bleacher entrance: she crooks an elbow, ready to push past out-of-towners. Her shoes linger on the concrete, sticky with spilled ginger ale, and burp as she releases them. She’s tempted by a bag of peanuts but indulges, as always, in a program instead.
They’re already admitting the bleacher bums. She bypasses the line, ready to invoke the privilege of age. She knows every usher in this end of the park. Nick, a hairy gnome who guards the portal, tips his cap to her and she tips her own black boater in turn.
She must descend another short flight of steps. Offer it up, the nuns would say, offer it up for the poor suffering souls in purgatory. She’d like to offer the Sisters of Saint Joseph up. She proceeds around the field and then up to her seat with her shoulders throbbing. As she hauls herself up, row by row, lopsided and limping, middle-aged men slide across to give her a hand, but she wields her pocketbook as weapon and waves them off with a scowl. The pocketbook is nearly empty: it contains one ruby lipstick, one subway token, one smuggled box of Cracker Jack that must last her nine innings, one pencil to score the game. One foot up the steps, then the other. Breathe. It’s a glorious May day, fair and cool, and she draws her spring coat around her as she makes her slow ascent.
She always sits low enough that she won’t collapse en route, high enough to ensure that no one with a small child will try to keep her company. She can bear any insult but a toddler. Even Mickey at two or three—face it, children are not attractive at that age, with their incessant questioning and their streaming snot. Mickey was five and a perfect gentleman when she took him to his first game in Hilltop Park, back when the Yankees were the Highlanders.
Two more rows to go. She takes a deep dignified breath. The trick up here will be to avoid thinking of the toilet or her rumbling stomach: no turning back, once she’s settled. Next to her spot a tall lanky teenager is just claiming his place. She heaves herself down with a great thud of displeasure, but the boy’s oblivious. He scans the field, his cap pushed back over a high forehead, a lick of sandy-colored hair escaping. The angles of his nose and chin are sharp enough to give him a movie-star look. Ballplayer himself, she’d wager.
She sees with alarm that they are setting up a pregame I Am an American ceremony. LaGuardia and FDR, the warmongers, are whipping people up—though of course there’s nothing else America can do now but go to battle Hitler. That ridiculous mustachioed man. She has a sudden vision of his little shriveled penis. Sometimes she has visions of the Yankees as naked men, too, though of course they are not shriveled—just the opposite, they are alarmingly…robust. Would Albert be horrified? She thinks not. He liked to prance in the nude himself.
She sighs, loudly, and in response some knucklehead comes to the microphone to remind the fans how blessed they are to be Americans. To break the monotony of his speech, she pictures him without his pants, too. She feels her young neighbor’s eye on her and senses that he would like to strike up a conversation. Just let him try.
“I don’t think DiMag’s heart is in it,” the young man says, and she makes a point of not answering. He’s right, though. The rest of the Yanks, in martial line-up, at least make a show of patriotic sentiment, but DiMaggio stares at the ground, wincing, as a soprano breaks into “I Am an American.”
Finally, the Yankees are allowed to take the field. Gomez is pitching, which is a big reason she has deigned to come to a Sunday game. Lefty’s days are numbered, and his last few outings have been disasters, but he always puts on a show, win or lose. And she’s figured out another thing: when Gomez pitches, DiMaggio hits.
Gomez is aging well—Irish and Spanish, an excellent if explosive combination of genes—and he’s hurling them hard today. She feels the boy lean forward: “Put it in there, Lefty.” Lefty puts it in there and gives up a double. She consults her program: the runner is Lucadello, the new batter Estalella. Have these mellifluous names been arranged especially for I Am an American Day? As if to answer her, Estalella promptly scores Lucadello. A poor start, but Lefty settles down and the Browns are kept to the one run.
The boy turns to her as the Yanks head for the dugout. Without the least encouragement he says: “I wish McCarthy wouldn’t bench Rizzuto. That’s who I came to see.”
Babe cannot resist: “Whom.”
“Actually—if I’m not mistaken—it’s who. Predicate nominative.”
Babe gives him a withering stare. She cannot for the life of her remember what a predicate nominative is, though surely the nuns beat it into her.
“That is who,” he adds helpfully. “The way you might say This is he.”
Her cheeks flare. Can he possibly be right? It wouldn’t be the first time her grammar-school education let her grammar down.
“I see you’re getting a good education,” she sniffs. “Christian Brothers?”
She feels some measure of superiority again. Mickey was a member of the first graduating class at Regis, which even then was establishing itself as the best high school in the city. Xavier was a poor pretender, for those who had to have the Jesuits but couldn’t get past the Regis gatekeepers. A terrible, terrible worry, getting Mickey an education. Someone told her the Jesuits were starting a new scholarship school for the children of immigrants, and she didn’t sleep till she’d wangled his way in there. Mickey was not, strictly speaking, the child of immigrants—she and Albert were both born on these shores—but he was one smart whip of a lad, which justified the means. And Mickey might have been fatherless, but she gave him baseball. Who could have predicted that it was she, not he, who would fall in love with the game? He was nineteen years old when he choked. Nineteen when he gave up on baseball and the scholarship she’d secured for him, nineteen when he renounced his mother’s advice and married Gloria Calabrese. Gloria was pregnant, of course—tricked him into it—and Babe can still feel a shadow of the rage she felt when Gloria tugged on the grimy scapular round her neck as the happy couple gave her the news. Babe herself was four months pregnant by the time she and Albert scraped together the license fee (judge not!) but she would not tolerate those meek women who bejeweled themselves in mean religious medallions to proclaim their own sainthood. Saint Gloria: knocked up, like the best of us. And where is Gloria now, if not in the bowels of hell? Wasn’t that what her religion told her? Where is Mickey now? A middle-aged man with four daughters, living with his mother.
She feels herself drifting, but the boy who sits beside her buzzes in his seat like radio static and brings her back. Tommy Henrich, Old Reliable, has doubled, and here’s Joe up to bat. She groans as his grounder beelines for third base, but the ball bounces off Harland Clift’s glove.
“We’ll see about that.” Babe is more secure about the capricious rules of scoring than she is about the rules of grammar.
“Sure looked like an error to me.”
“Dan Daniel’s scoring today, and that’s a whole lot of latitude. Not to mention attitude.”
“World Telegram, big DiMaggio booster.”
“You mean he just gave Joe the hit.”
“That would be a fair call,” she says, firm as a Josephite. “Joe walloped the ball, and that’s why Clift couldn’t scoop it up.”
The boy says nothing but looks at her sidewise with a kind of wonder. The Yanks have pulled ahead, but in the top of the second Clift makes up for his bumbling with a homer that sails by them into the left-field stands. They both shake their heads: now it’s 2-2, which means she must really focus. If the Yanks lose to the Browns, they’ll be seriously shaken up, and Joe’s dubious hit will only drive him, doubting, back to his slump. She lowers her head, as if in prayer, and wills the Yankees to pull themselves together. She wills DiMag to hear her, and Lefty, and even Rizzuto, riding the bench.
Lefty Gomez hears her. Leading off the bottom of the second, he actually gets a hit. The boy says: “I don’t believe it. Usually Lefty can’t bunt.”
If only the boy knew what she was up to when she bowed her head and summoned her forces. If only someone, just once, could witness her powers. The Yankees turn fierce before their very eyes. You can see them all crouching at the plate like bobcats: Sturm walks, Rolfe doubles. And already DiMag is up again. Babe goes into a near trance when Joe is at the plate.
“Home run, Joe,” the boy hollers. The crowd goes silent. Babe watches what she cannot see from this distance but imagines is DiMag’s steady effortless breathing, knows he will crack the ball long and hard, toward right—no, center. No, right-center. Impossible to follow it from their angle, but they can make out the right fielder tearing toward it and, you have to give the guy credit (who’s that, Laabs?), that is one swell catch he stretches his glove to make.
Only then Laabs drops the ball. The bleachers let out hoots and bleats: derision, contempt, awe. “Well, that was an error,” the boy says.
Babe smiles the slightest of smiles. “We’ll see.”
“Don’t tell me. Joe hit it so hard Laabs shouldn’t have caught it in the first place?”
The Yankees are ahead now, 4-2, and Babe knows the danger has passed. You can see the Browns shriveling in the outfield, diminished already, as the mighty Yankees do what the mighty Yankees do. The Browns thought they had a shot today, but they didn’t know Babe O’Leary would be sitting in the bleachers watching over her fellas.
The boy reads her mind: “Looks like Joe’s got somebody watching out for him today.”
If he only knew who—whom?—Joe had looking out for him. She has warmed to this young man and now feels the same swell of affection she used to feel explaining the infield fly rule to Mickey, who as a child was completely trusting of her authority. She had to be the final word for her son, the Supreme Court, the president, the pope. She leans a little closer to her neighbor. “You know what?” He turns toward her with the lopsided grin of a charmer and she says: “DiMaggio’s going to walk out of this game ready to break some records.”
“I hope you’re right,” the boy says, but then, seeing her glare: “I know you’re right.”
Of course she’s right. By the bottom of the fourth, she and the young man are practically pals. He’s a Joe D too—Joe D’Ambrosio, he says, thrusting out a hand—and, like her granddaughter Agnes, about to graduate from high school. What a wonderful name he has. Ambrosia is something important, she’s sure of it, but her grammar-school education lets her down again: she can’t remember what. She begins to contemplate the marriage of Agnes O’Leary and Joe D’Ambrosio. Agnes D’Ambrosio. Babe’s already in love with him herself, so how could Aggie not fall for him too? She plans the meal she will make when he treks out to Brooklyn: a fat roast chicken, surrounded by rutabagas. The girls think Babe won’t tolerate another Italian in the family, but Babe wants them married off, and this Joe D’Ambrosio’s a fine catch, Italian or not. Agnes’s college plan looked sensible twenty-four hours ago, but now this plan looks more sensible still: a handsome smart young man who respects Babe’s baseball knowledge. Agnes should snag him.
In the bottom of the fourth, DiMaggio slams the ball at Harland Clift again. Clift—ready this time—pockets it neat as you please. Despite her poor eyesight, Babe has seen what no one else but the umpire sees: the catcher’s mitt has grazed Joe’s bat. The plate umpire calls interference just as Babe does. An automatic single for DiMaggio, his third hit of the game.
Joe D’Ambrosio is dumbfounded—Babe can tell he thinks it an injustice, even if it is DiMag. “I don’t know,” he murmurs, so only she can hear. “I don’t know about that one.” She herself is taken aback, though she knows the rule well enough and called it herself. But surely it’s not what DiMaggio or the umpire’s done that disturbs them both: it’s what she’s done, willing this DiMaggio onslaught. She feels the weight of her powers, of tipping the world her way.
Joe D’Ambrosio lets her know he’s on to her. “Did you arrange this?” he teases, batting his movie-star lashes. Strange that this Joe D’Ambrosio she’s picked out for Agnes is a mind reader too. Is he perhaps a little too cocksure for his own good? He’s not sitting in some kind of judgment of her, is he? The more he beams at her so innocently, the more she’s rattled.
Babe O’Leary doesn’t often feel guilt, but somehow Joe D’Ambrosio has managed to make her feel guilty for what she always does, what is second nature. She came to the ballpark today to make certain that Joe DiMaggio would not falter, and in three at-bats he has been given three hits. Why then does Joe D’Ambrosio’s smile rankle so? Because of what he is flinging in her face: that the three hits are undeserved, manipulated, summoned. Gold spun from straw. She is the wicked witch, that smile says, the meddlesome fairy godmother, the cruel stepmother. She has committed the worst kind of interference you can commit in baseball: psychic interference. Though he must know as well as she does that it’s the best kind, too.
As if to confirm her suspicions about the smile, Joe D’Ambrosio, standing beside her—like the rest of the fans they’ve had no choice but to rise to celebrate this scoring bonanza—leans his head back to laugh again:
“Just what you predicted!” Then he adds the words no one has spoken to her since she rushed to meet Mickey in the emergency room of the Brooklyn Hospital all those years ago:
The boy is pretending to be lighthearted, giddy even, but Babe knows that he has sneered the two words. Her spring coat weighs a hundred pounds and the sweat rolls down her back. She sits, heavily, and surveys the bleacher bums around her. She must get hold of herself. She is dreaming, surely. He’s not a mind reader.
She looks again at Joe D’Ambrosio’s profile, eyes on the field below, and feels her equanimity returning. He’s only a confident young man watching a ballgame. Maybe he’s son-in-law material, but she is the one with the powers. No one in this ballpark, not even this golden boy, has the least idea what she is capable of doing.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.