By: Fred Aaron

Mets Memories: First Day at Shea


Yesterday, we celebrated my Uncle Ernie’s 90th Birthday. It was a great afternoon at Morton’s Steakhouse, seeing all the family together. My parents flew up from Florida for the weekend, and my wife and kids had a great time. Now, you are probably wondering, what does this have to do with the Mets? Well, it wasn’t too long ago, just a few decades back, that my Uncle would celebrate his birthday by taking the family out to a game at Shea, usually batting helmet day. This was way back when I was a young child. As Bob Seger sang, “seems like yesterday, but it was long ago.”

I don’t know how or when the tradition began. My mom was the youngest of four, and she grew up in Flatbush before the family moved to Rego Park in the early 40s, not far from where Citi Field stands today. Her oldest brother is my Uncle Ernie and he was always a New York Giant fan. He tells me stories of how Mel Ott would hit this homers down the short right field line in the Polo Grounds, and then Carl Hubbell would make that lead stand up with some masterful pitching. Ernie was joined in his love of the Giants by the youngest of the three brothers, my Uncle Danny (who sadly passed away last April 2015). My mom was a diehard Dodger fan whose favorite player was Roy Campanella. She was joined in her love of the Dodgers with her middle brother, my Uncle Stanley (who also sadly passed away last April 2015, just over a week after Uncle Danny). Even though the family was divided during the baseball season, they were united for the World Series, since whichever team made it to the Fall Classic would usually face off against the hated New York Yankees. Sadly, as we all know, the Yankees would usually win. To this day, the only family members who are Yankee fans are the ones who married into the family, since we have all been raised Met fans.

My first Met game was Batting Helmet Day, July 27, 1969. According to the box score that day, the Mets were beaten by a good Reds’ team by the score of 6-3. Former Met Gerry Arrigo got the start for Cincinnati and got the win, while veteran Don Cardwell started for the Mets and took the loss. Going with his steady platoon system, skipper Gil Hodges started Bob Pfeil at second (batting second), recently acquired Donn Clendenon at first (batting cleanup), Rocky Swoboda in right (batting fifth), the Glider Eddie Charles at third (batting sixth), and Al Weis at short (batting eighth). Regulars Tommie Agee (leading off and playing center), Cleon Jones (batting third and playing left) and Jerry Grote (batting seventh and catching — he threw out three base runners that day) all started as well. But for me it wasn’t the game as much as what was happening in the stands.

In 1969, I was five years old having just graduated nursery school. Earlier that week, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men on the moon, while astronaut Michael Collins remained in the command module. I will always remember Michael Collins since, as the youngest of three boys, I had to play the role of Michael Collins while my two older brothers got to be Armstrong and Aldrin whenever we would “re-enact the Apollo moon landing.” My uncle got tickets for my grandfather Papa Jack, my three uncles, as well as my cousins Mark and Stephen and my two brothers and I. My dad was a never a baseball fan and begged off the game. Mark, Stephen and my oldest brother brought gloves in case of the extremely rare chance that a ball would be hit into the stands near them. The gloves went unused as usual. I had driven by Shea more times than I could count and will never forget the blue and orange aluminum around the park, as well as the abandoned World’s Fair pavilions that I never went to since I was just a baby in 1965. When we got to Shea, we all got batting helmets except my cousin Mark who was already 6 feet tall at his age. Papa Jack got into a huge argument with the ticket taker, insisting that his grandson was under 12, until the man relented and gave Mark a “genuine facsimile New York Mets batting helmet.” When I got older, we used to joke that this was more dangerous than not wearing a batting helmet at all, since it gave you a false sense of security.

I didn’t remember much about the game itself, other than the fans chanted things I couldn’t understand like “A-Gee!!!!” and “Let’s Gomez!” (I may have been five but I was already a lifelong Addams Family Fan, so this cheer made me smile). I did get to have one of those ubiquitous Breyer’s Dixie Cups they’d sell at the games, and I entertained myself by mixing the vanilla and chocolate ice creams together into some indescribable mish-mosh. I also got a San Francisco Giants bobble head (my Uncle Ernie picked it out since the souvenir kiosk at the entrance to Shea were all sold out of Mr. Met bobble heads). My middle brother got one of those obnoxious blue plastic horns which he insisted on blowing into throughout the game, annoying the entire section. My other memories were of my uncles taking turns walking my middle brother and I around the concourse behind the stands since I would get bored, and my middle brother preferred watching the subway trains go by. The park smelled of hot dogs and Schaefer Beer, which my brother and I thought was funny since the vendors would open the cans and turn them over into cups until they overflowed. And my genuine facsimile New York Mets batting helmet kept falling off my little head. But it didn’t matter. The Mets may have lost that game, but they gained a fan for life. Happy Birthday Uncle Ernie, and thank you for introducing me to the wonders of going to the ballpark to catch a game. I’ll be there next week to see our Mets take on the Pirates.

About Fred Aaron

Recommended for you