Baseball was big when I was a kid, at least in our house. Mom rooted for the Dodgers, because she liked underdogs, hated the establishment, and cheered for Jackie Robinson. I would have been a Yankee fan, because I liked winners, but I didn’t want to disappoint my mother. I was an unaffiliated baseball fan.
The Buffalo Bisons played triple-A ball in the International League, and the family would go to games from time to time. I loved it.
The games were played at Offerman Stadium, on Michigan Avenue, just off Main Street. The stadium had a seating capacity of 14,000, but sometimes they let additional fans sit on folding chairs on the field in front of the big scoreboard in center field. On the field! Other than those temporary seats, there were no seats between the foul poles. The stadium sold out often.
(Food is big in Buffalo, so although it has nothing to do with this essay, I can’t go on without mentioning Freddie’s Donuts at the corner of Main and Michigan. I loved going to the ball games, and I also loved stopping at Freddie’s after the game to pick up a dozen donuts!)
Luke Easter was the Bisons’ star of the early 50s. Luke was a big man, noted for hitting prodigious home runs. Easter was the first man to homer over the centerfield scoreboard, 400 feet from home and probably as tall as the Green Monster. Easter had spent about three seasons with the Cleveland Indians in the early 1950s, but age and injuries had relegated him to the minors. People loved to say that if Easter had made it to the majors when he was younger, he would have been a big star.
Luke was black. In our house, we were proud that the star on our team had followed Jackie Robinson to the major leagues.
Children in Buffalo knew baseball was important, because you could be excused from attending school on opening day. Bring in a note from your parents stating that you would be attending the game, and you were sprung! Some kids parents’ had season tickets, and every year they skipped school – an authorized absence! – for the opener.
When I was in eighth grade, Joe and I and a couple other friends decided we’d go to the home opener. My parents agreed, so we bought the tickets and made our plans. For me it would be something of a mini-vacation. The game was on Wednesday. On Thursday I was scheduled to have several wisdom teeth removed. My parents decided I should stay home from school on Friday to recover from the surgery. So I had three days off from school.
In 1961, the Bisons had abandoned Offerman Stadium for War Memorial Stadium, a football stadium that could accommodate, just barely, a baseball field. War Memorial Stadium was on Jefferson Avenue, about a mile farther downtown from Sears & Roebuck, where I often shopped with my mother. The stadium had been built in 1937, when Buffalo was predominantly white. By 1961, it was in the heart of the black ghetto.
We took the Main Street bus to Best Street and walked about four blocks to the stadium. After the game, we walked a couple of blocks down Jefferson from the stadium to the neighborhood grocery store Joe’s father owned. He would give us a ride home.
I was uncomfortable walking to the grocery store. I knew Main Street, and the walk from the bus stop on Main to the stadium was short enough that I knew that if I had a problem and had to get home, all I had to do was get back to Main Street and get on the bus. But Jefferson was on the other side of the stadium from Main Street, farther into the ghetto. I could feel that I was in foreign territory as we walked. I knew that the black neighborhoods were supposed to be dangerous. I didn’t like it.
We got to the store and were treated to a soda and a snack. Joe’s father had more work to do before he could go home, and we could either wait for him or leave now and take the bus back home. We opted for the bus. We could walk four blocks to get back to Main Street, or we could walk ten or twelve blocks down Jefferson to Main Street, which would give us a shorter bus ride. We decided to walk down Jefferson.
I was an oblivious fourteen-year-old kid. After a block or so, I wondered why my three friends were walking so fast. That’s when I noticed a gang of ten or eleven African American kids following us. Soon they had surrounded us.
A few of the boys were about our age, and several others were younger and smaller. I was the tallest boy in our group, and one of the taller boys approached me and said something. Between my fear and his dialect, I didn’t understand what he said. I asked him to repeat it. Again he said something unintelligible. Then he punched me in the mouth.
Pure primal fear. That’s all I felt. It was fight or flight, and I’ve never been much of a fighter. I burst out of the small melee that had erupted and took off running down Jefferson, away from the grocery store and toward Sears & Roebuck, about a mile away. One or two or my friends went with me. I was the fastest.
After sprinting a couple of blocks, with an occasional frantic glance behind me, I slowed to a trot – I couldn’t sprint all the way to Sears. I kept looking behind me and convinced myself that none of the gang were following us. I began to walk. I knew that Sears was my island of safety. There were white adults in that store, and security. And I was familiar with the bus stop there, so I could get home. It was still pretty far away, but every block I walked, it got closer. If the gang reappeared, I might be able to outrun them to safety.
As I recall it now, it didn’t occur to me simply to walk into any of the stores that lined Jefferson. There were adults in every one of those stores, responsible adults. But they were probably black, and I was heading for whiteness above all else.
A few minutes later, as we continued to walk down Jefferson, a car pulled up beside us. The driver called to us and told us to get in the car. My first thought was “I’m not getting in a car with a black man.” He said it again, and something in his manner told me he could be trusted, that he was there for me. We got in the car. We turned around and headed back up Jefferson, away from what I thought was safety. It was then that I realized that the man worked in the grocery store and had been sent to pick us up. I had met him in the store, but I hadn’t recognized him.
Back at the store, someone cleaned up my bloodied and already swollen lip. We all told our stories about what happened. Joe, who by reputation was more about fight than flight, had landed one good punch before he took off back to the store. It became a matter of legend that in full sprint on the way back to the store, Joe hurdled a bench at a bus stop. A cop came and asked us about what happened. It was obvious that to him this was a boys-will-be-boys event, my injury was minor, no money had been taken, and that was going to be the end of it.
I don’t know how we all got home. I assume Joe’s father decided that under the circumstances his work could wait and he brought us home. Our parents wouldn’t have been pleased if he’d just sent us to the bus stop again.
Both of my parents were home when I arrived. They were a little anxious, because by the time I got home, the game had been over for several hours. I came into the house and told them what had happened.
Then, for the first time since the incident, I sobbed and cried.
The next morning, the rumors of the mugging were all over school. Everyone knew that I had been assaulted, and the speculation about my injuries grew, because I wasn’t in school. They grew even more the following day, when I was absent again. Of course, I was out of school for my oral surgery, not because some kid had punched me.
When I returned to school on Monday, my mouth was still a little swollen from the surgery. My lip had healed. I was the subject of much curiosity. Kids thought I had been beaten so badly that I had to miss two days of school.
I was embarrassed. I assumed that for some kids, the important fact was that I hadn’t fought – I had run.
Thankfully, in a few days, the kids lost interest.