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Remembering the Schley O'Niners

 

Friday, July 20, 2007.

 

By Mark Anthony Neal

 

For much of my youth, my father worked 60 hours a week, clocking in 10 hour days, 6 days a week at a combo drugstore and grill in what was then a very, very Jewish Crown Heights Brooklyn. The fact that he trekked to Brooklyn those days from our tenement flat in the South Bronx, meant that between the work hours he put in and the 3-4 hour total travel time, pops was a for real blur in my life.

 

But my father did give me small glimpses into his world, his desires and his longings. Those glimpses came every Sunday morning as my pops sat transfixed in the living room, seemingly trying to channel the smells and sounds of his Thompson, GA home, while listening to those glorious Gospel quintets and quartets like The Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Highway QCs, and of course the legendary Soul Stirrers. I was always on the periphery as my dad tried to do his best imitation of Mighty Clouds’ lead Joe Ligon while cooking up our Sunday breakfasts of runny eggs, grits and toaster-oven toast. (The latter is a well known alternative to traditional toasts where you get to butter your bread before you “toast” it.)

 

It was only after sitting in graduate schools classes that I begin to appreciate the importance of those Sundays for my father; it was the way in which he negotiated his status as working class laborer and undereducated migrant to the “big” city and that music, that black southern gospel tradition was his connection to home and memories and all the things he didn’t think he could be in the “big” city. I finally understood the look of resolve and longing that I often detected in his face whenever songs like Gladys Knight and The Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” or Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” came on the radio.

It was only during the summer months when my father really opened up a space for me to share his world. Summer always meant baseball and baseball always meant our tragic and often comic New York Mets. I was still a three-year old shortie in my first months of Head Start when the Miracle Mets of 1969 won the World Series, but I have vivid memories two years later as my mom and pops debated who was gonna win the 1971 World Series--my mom’s hometown Baltimore Orioles or the Pittsburgh Pirates led by Willie Stargell and that cool-ass “brotha” Roberto Clemente.

 

After watching Clemente’s mack-daddy gait as his cap flew off as he slid madly into second base I was hooked. By the spring of 1972 I was bright-eyed and lucid when my hapless Mets traded for Willie Mays and the “Say Hey Kid” returned to the New York stage where he once battled with Mickey Mantle for centerfield supremacy.

It would be some years later that my romance with baseball would be jaded by my understanding of what happens to little poor-ass nappy-headed boys like myself in America. It would be even later before I fully understood the travails of Jackie Robinson, who died in late 1972.

 

And even my beloved Mets would disappoint me after Cleon Jones, who until a few years ago held the team’s record for highest single season batting average, was shipped out of town like chattel in the night after he was arrested during spring training for public fornication with a white woman. Still not sure whether in the eyes of Mets management, his offence was public sex or rather public sex with a white woman.

 

By the early 1980s the team would field its first two legitimate top-tier superstars in African-Americans Darryl Strawberry and Dwight “Doc” Godden, and it’s clear to me that the still evolving personal tragedies of these two men can be connected to the fundamental inability of Mets management (and fans) in the 1980s to fully understand the complexity of being so young and so black in a town that thrives on having personal access to their sport heroes in ways that border on State surveillance. But my romance with baseball has been jaded for other reasons.

The Schley O’Niners were a collection rag-tag black and Latino boys who I played baseball with during my childhood. It was 1976 and my family managed to move-on-up Jefferson style from a dilapidated tenement building in the South Bronx and into a federally funded housing project in the North East Bronx (as if such geographical distinctions make a difference).

 

We of course affectionately (or derisively) refer to such housing today as The PJs and given the history of places like Chicago’s now defunct Robert Taylor Houses or the ill-famed Cabrini Green, the PJs are more synonymous with the utter misery of urban life than with the middle-class aspirations of my parents. Never-the-less, in the mid-1970s the move meant my parent’s asthmatic child wouldn’t have to deal with the kind of environmental dangers that are inherent to living in ghetto conditions. For my ten-year-old eyes, the move to the PJs meant the first time I could play in grass and thus the first time I could play baseball.

Within a year of my arrival in my neighborhood I had put together the core of what would became the Schley O’Niners, named after the block that we lived on Schley Avenue. We were a sandlot team in the most traditional sense of the word, basically playing game against collections of teams from different sections of our projects. For nearly five years I played some decidedly uninspired and undisciplined baseball with my childhood friends, as it was clear that for many of them baseball, like wiffle-ball, skullies, man-hunt, basketball and a host of other games were merely childhood distractions during long summer days when there wasn’t “shit” else to do.

 

But other things were also becoming clear to me also. Though I was not the only boy on the team that had two parents present, I was one of the few on the team, who had parents that were actively involved in my extra-curricular activities. My pops may have been away for half of the day, but my mother was fo’ real on my ass about my ass being in the house before the sun went down.

 

I was a young adult before I finally accepted that the fact that my mom’s stayed on my ass wasn’t the reason why I never became a major league baseball player, but there were sure enough days when I was 14 or 15 year-old and she wouldn’t let me play in the rain or after school that I swore she would be the reason that I never achieved my goal. But her choices became clear to me shortly before I left for school and finally abandoned my dream of being a baseball player.

Out of those 10 or 11 boys who formed the core of my child-hood friends, I was one of the few who ever seriously engaged the idea of going to college and still the only one to get a degree. The years that I was away at college in the mid-1980s, happened to coincide with the emergence of the crack-cocaine industry as an equal-opportunity employer. By the time that I returned home with my degree in hand, many of those same boys that I played baseball with and shared so many childhood days, were standing in front of my building, often in the cold, wearing hoodies,. checking beepers and working ‘round the clock slangin’ rock. Amazingly it was my own choices then that were under scrutiny, by both them and myself, as I hopped on the bus and train to my entry level job that paid me just enough to be able to afford to still live at home with my parents, while they hopped into Suzuki mini-jeeps (the ones with the proclivity for tipping over on sharp turns) to do nothing but drive around the block. Those were the “lucky” ones, as there were still others who were more enticed by the rush of the “rock” as opposed to being enterprising ghetto entrepreneurs. There’s not a person who has truly experienced “authentic” ghetto life that can forget the dramatic changes to our neighborhood landscape when crack to took hold of our communities. We didn’t need Paul Lawrence (“Strung Out”) or Oran “Juice” Jones (“Pipe Dream”) to make it any more vivid for us. Even worse were the sunken faces and rotted teeth of once vibrant people, who were now cracked out. For so many in the post-Soul and hip-hop generations the crack cocaine epidemic will be remembered as their middle passage, finally destroying the communal fabric of so many urban communities that had already been under siege.

These day when the baseball season rolls around I rarely think about those days of running bases wildly or the joy and fun and mischief that came with being young and black and poor and not knowing why that was significant. My most vivid memories turn to “Randy.” He had moved up to the Bronx from the south to live with his elderly grand-parents. He was one of the youngest of our core of neighborhoods friends and so he never really developed a real bond with some of the older boys like myself. He was also a runt which added to his relative distance from some of the older boys. We often referred to him as “Mastadon” ‘cause he kinda looked like one of those characters that came on the Godzilla movies on Saturday afternoons.

 

The last few time I saw “Randy” he had that glassy crack-head glaze in his eyes. Months later he was dead—shot by a dealer in an argument over money and product. For some time after that when I returned to my parent’s house there was a make-shift was a memorial to “Mastadon.” By then it was tattered just like any romantic connections I had to my old neighborhood and even those friends, who I still see from time to time when I return with my wife and young daughters.

 

As a kid I believed in the all freedom that watching and playing America’s pastime was supposed to engender for those who wanted to invest in its power. It’s power, romantic or otherwise, offered little if any thing for so many of my child-hood, so many of whom are dead or incarcerated. It is a constant reminder that for so many, America offers little or anything, but just the promise to invest and consume in its dreams.

 

Dr Mark Anthony Neal is an Associate Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University where he also serves as the Director of the Institute for Critical U.S. Studies. He is a columnist for Vibe Magazine and also writes for other reputable publications. Mark blogs at New Black Man.

 

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