It was sometime around 1972–maybe a little earlier–when a friend invited me to play baseball. Not wiffle ball; not stickball. Not softball. Baseball. Where you wear spikes and run 90-foot baselines. If you grew up mostly anywhere near a city, baseball was something you simply watched or listened to. Only a few guys I knew played Little League baseball, and that ended at age 12 or 13.
As a kid, I played 50 different versions of ball–wire, stick, wiffle, soft, step, awning, half, fungo, running bases, and others. But facing a live, over-the-top pitcher throwing probably 70 miles-an-hour was new, and it was exciting. I didn’t know it then, but those were the most fun days of my life.
We chose sides. Sometimes there were 24 guys (12 fielders!). Other times there may have been as few as 10 (no hitting to rightfield). We played in the rain, and on fields sometimes too small for baseball. We chipped in to buy wooden bats and baseballs. Guys came and went. Only one thing remained consistent: the pitcher.
The pitcher threw for both teams, and the games lasted until we couldn’t see anymore. We played twice a week, each game probably 11 or 12 innings. Balls and strikes were not called. So the pitcher threw about 500 to 600 pitches a week.
The pitcher was Leonard Berk, a failed minor league pitcher in the 1950’s who became the principal of a Philadelphia elementary school. Back then, we guessed as to his age, but when he died last week at 92, I could figure out that when he was throwing a quarter-ton of pitches each week in the 1970’s, he was in his fifties!
The games ran until the early 1980’s. I recently heard Mr. Berk continued to pitch in some form or another until he was 68. Mr. Berk had three sons, all of whom played in the “Berkball” games. At his funeral last week, Mr. Berk’s sons carried themselves with the same poise, grace and respect that was the standard bestowed on them by their Dad (and Mom, I should add).
Mr. Berk’s funeral was a reunion, a celebration, and a chance to look at some faces not seen for decades. I did not have to look hard to find the same ball-lovin’ face on each former Berkballer that I saw each week many years ago.
People spoke about Mr. Berk’s delightful idiosyncrasies and his caring approach to his neighbors. The former players spoke of his devotion, and how he would bring rakes and forgotten baseball gloves to the games, and how he’d never –never –missed a scheduled game.
To me, though, the larger point was missed, at least as it related to the Berkballers. Mr. Berk brought a bunch of otherwise disparate guys together, twice a week for over ten years, to revel in something we absolutely could not duplicate: competitive, intense baseball games. With no entry fee and no uniforms and no judgment. It would not be a stretch to estimate over 200 different guys passed through those innings. I remain friends with many of those guys today, including one who was 6 years old and standing on the sidelines when I began playing, and went on to dominate our games.
We were rich and poor, smart and dumb, from the burbs and from the city. All pretenses were dropped when the first pitch got thrown. We were brothers, from 6 p.m. until it got dark, twice a week. Some guys dropped out to pursue relationships, others to go away to school or the military. Mr. Berk remained.
His passing was monumental to me, and I know I am not alone. As his family sat on the front row of the chapel and mourned, a very large band of boys, grown up and scattered everywhere now, felt the same loss.