Baseball’s opening day at the ballpark is just around the corner. It usually falls in early April near our birthdays and it’s a good time for my Dad and me to catch up and even play a little catch if we’re together.
This year opening day is March 30. Soon we’ll hear the words “Play ball!” and another season will unfold.
The eldest of six, I was nicknamed for iconic baseball player Mel Ott, one of my Dad’s idols.
My Dad was a star athlete in his day and, like Mel Ott, was ambidextrous and a solid hitter. Dad recalls that he was once the only player in an exciting exhibition game to get a piece of Satchel Paige, the great pitcher. All the other batters were struck out by Paige but Dad got a foul tip.
At 95, Dad is still amazingly agile and competitive. Poker is his game now and he’s often a winner, although his recent move to be near family on the California coast took him away from his favorite haunts in North Las Vegas where he’s lived for the past 20 years. He misses his card tournaments, his cronies and the dry heat of the desert, but he’s a baseball fan anywhere he lives.
The late 1930s and early 1940s were his baseball playing years. His sports skills took him from rural and tiny Landisville, N.J., to supporting his Italian immigrant parents playing ball on the East Coast in the days when local teams toured and money was made.
Scholarships to Temple and Duke universities were offered but Dad was actually recruited by the then Brooklyn Dodgers, so he went to New York to start spring training only to be drafted by the U.S. Army. Guess who got him.
After Army training and flight school, he earned his wings as an Army pilot and was ready to be sent overseas just as the war ended. So he mustered out and came home to life as a husband and father in Southern California with his wife and infant daughter.
Years passed and along the way they had five more children after moving to a quiet beach town. He worked construction in the greater Los Angeles area and was gone from dawn till dusk only to fall into bed after dinner to do it again the next day.
While Dad worked hard, his Army-issued regulation pilot’s oxygen mask and baseball gear were gathering dust or used by us for dress up. Our military bunk beds from the surplus store rounded out the decor. Money was tight and the hand-me-down clothes were even tighter.
Needing to support his family, dreams of more baseball glory days were finally set aside for good after a few attempts to play with the Hollywood Stars. His talent was still there but the money wasn’t, so he passed.
Instead, on the weekends he’d watch us play “hit the bat” and other street-style baseball games. Dad taught all the neighborhood kids how to hit the ball and we loved it when he came out to play with us.
I always wanted to impress my Dad and his highest compliment to me was, “Mel, you should’ve been a boy!” when I hit the ball well, made a good catch or showed some spunk. (I wasn’t sure that being a girl was all that great then, but that was before I hit puberty.)
I cut my hair so short that even the dog didn’t recognize me. And unfortunately I was barking up the wrong tree when I tried to sign up for Little League and applied to have my own paper route. In those days only boys could do that. No girls allowed. No fair.
Luckily, I was good at things Dad valued: school, sports and trying my best. These were worthy attributes for anyone to possess. His praising me for all the “boy” things I could do was Old World-chauvinistic on his part and identity-forging confusion for me, but I was proud to be a tomboy until I wasn’t one.
On my April opening day 13th birthday, I decided boys were cute and pretty clothes were cool, so I grew my hair long and never looked back. Suddenly, instead of wanting to be a lawyer or a detective like Nancy Drew, I also wanted to become an airline stewardess. I literally outgrew that dream when I shot up in height to 5 foot 10 inches by 14 years old. I was a girl for sure, but too tall to work for Pan Am. Eventually I became a traveler, model, teacher and an occasional batting coach to anyone I thought could benefit.
Baseball season brings out the tomboy in me and although I can still whack a ball far enough to get on base, I haven’t played much since my husband “proposed to me on a triple” when we were dating. An avid first baseman he had taken me to a company picnic and I surprised him with my batting prowess and speed at rounding the bases all the way to third on my monster hit for the opposing team. I guess all those years of practice paid off.
(Wishing Dad a very happy 96th birthday on April 6.)
Melinda Biancalana, a writer and educator, has a master’s degree in cultural anthropology, lives in Reno and frequently visits Boulder City. She enjoys observing and reflecting on the diversity of human nature.