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Frizzi: The first time I heard Spanish

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MOTA-CLEMENTE

The past few months have seen the 50th anniversary of two of the most incredible events, not just in my life, but in the life of anybody else who grew up in my generation. President Kennedy was killed 50 years ago last November. The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show 50 years ago in February.

I was, as a kid that age would say, “six going on seven” during those two significant events. However, 1964 would also be the year of a third major event: my first ever major league baseball game.

This was in Pittsburgh when the Pirates were the professional sports team. The football Steelers were long-time “also-rans.” They would not reach their legendary greatness until 10 years later. The Penguins hockey team would not be formed until 1967. The minor league Hornets were a Detroit Red Wing farm club.

The person responsible for my “right of passage” was my Great Aunt, Ann Schutzman. She was better known as “Palsy” because she was “everybody’s pal.” Everybody that is, being my grandparents’ kids. Palsy never married and lived with my grandparents. Families did that back then. Her nieces and nephews were her “kids.” And when those kids had kids, she was a pal to them, too. This meant if my Aunt Lorie needed a new dress and my grandparents couldn’t afford it, one would mysteriously appear. When my Dad wanted a baseball glove, Palsy took him downtown to Honus Wagner’s Sporting Goods Store on Forbes Avenue and got him a Wilson Ted Williams ball glove.

Palsy was as hard core of a Pirates fan anyone has ever met. She lived and died with the Pirates. When she came back from her shift as a maid at the downtown Penn-Sheraton Hotel, she’d go to her room, turn on the radio and listen to Bob Prince and Jim Woods calling the game on KDKA. She would be known to appear at Forbes Field with a nephew or two in tow. The former home of the Pirates was within walking distance from the house.

She probably fell in love with the Pirates, as her generation did, when they won the World Series in 1925. She endured the agony of the Yankees sweeping the 1927 World Series from her Bucs. She was no doubt devastated when Cubs’ catcher Gabby Hartnett hit the famous “Homer in the Gloamin’” against our relief ace Mace Brown in Wrigley. This kicked Pittsburgh away from a certain World Series appearance. She also suffered through some lean years in the 1950s, only to be rewarded when Bill Mazeroski hit the home run to win the 1960 World Series against the Yanks.

Four years later, the Pirates were a little older and a little slower. By the time I got to see them on a Saturday afternoon on July 11, 1964, the Buccos were in fourth place, seven games out of first place and six games above .500. This did not matter. Palsy decided it was time for me to be baptized in the religion of baseball and there wasn’t a more beautiful cathedral to be baptized in than Forbes Field.

The ballpark was a block south of the University of Pittsburgh’s campus. It sat in the shadow of another cathedral, The Cathedral of Learning. This was a skyscraper of classrooms, the lobby of which looked like a medieval castle. Each floor was designed to reflect the culture of another country. The Gothic-designed Cathedral was built from donations from working class families who could barely afford the donation they gladly gave so their children would have a quality university facility to go to. There was an observation deck on the roof. Life magazine photographer George Silk took the iconic photo of Pitt students, on top of the Cathedral, cheering as Maz won the 1960 Series.

We parked the car near the Cathedral and walked toward Schenley Park to Forbes Field. In between both parks was a giant statue of a baseball player. The player looked majestic; swinging a bat and looking like he smacked the ball hard and far. Palsy told me that was Honus Wagner, one of the first members of baseball’s Hall of Fame and the best shortstop that ever played.

Palsy made as big of a deal of my first ballgame as she did when I made my first communion. She led off with a dime store plastic ball glove and ball. I might actually catch a ball and I would need something for the players to autograph. She saved the best for later. Once we got to the park, she bought me a Pirates cap and a pennant with the team photo on it. This would be an actual photo attached to the pennant, not a picture silkscreened onto the fabric. But that’s not all! I got a yearbook, scorecard and a bobble head doll. Ceramic, not plastic. Then, she got me, my father and herself seats in the lower level behind home plate.

We walked into the main gate of “Lady Forbes.” Perched inside the rotunda, just in front of the turnstiles, were a cluster of nuns known as The Little Sisters of the Poor. Their cigar boxes were wide open and hungry for any contribution. Palsy put in a couple of coins and made the Sign of the Cross.

The comedian Billy Crystal has mentioned on many occasions that when he went to his first major league game at Yankee Stadium, he couldn’t get over the green of the grass. He, like most kids of our generation, never saw a game in color. Color TVs were out of reach of middle-class people. When I heard him say that, I immediately knew what he meant. The grass was a vivid green, as was the ivy on the brick wall. The seats were a dark blue. The Pirate uniforms sleeveless jerseys, trimmed in gold to accent the black t-shirt sleeves. I got to see everything up close because Palsy had taken me down to the Pirate dugout, where a crowd was gathering to get autographs.

I was told to hold my new plastic ball out so the players could sign it.  And they did. Jim Pagliaroni, our new catcher, signed it. So did utility infielder Gene Freese and bullpen coach Sam Narron. However, one player in particular came out of the dugout and everybody flocked toward him. Palsy grabbed my hand. She didn’t need to. I knew who this player was.

Everybody in Pittsburgh knew who Roberto Clemente was.

He was as close as close could be. This was “The Great One” in the flesh. He was real. Up until this time, he was mythical. You just saw him on TV or in the paper or on a baseball card. He was our star, the one we counted on for the big play. He was so close, I could hear him speak.  

But I couldn’t understand any of the words.

I’d heard Clemente speak before. He spoke English with a very thick accent, much like my great-grandmother did. Back then, it was called “broken English.” In fact, when I was a kid, living in an Italian neighborhood, I thought all old people spoke broken English.

But I could understand them. Not this time. I had never heard anyone speak like this before. Clemente was speaking to his teammate, Manny Mota, who would make a name for himself by being one of the best pinch hitters in baseball. They spoke to each other, then left for the clubhouse. I was just that close to getting Clemente’s autograph.

“Pal”, I said, “What did they say?”

“I don’t know”, she said. “I don’t understand Spanish.”

“Spanish.”

So, the first time I’d heard anybody speak Spanish in person was from a person who was not only one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived, but was one of the greatest humanitarians. He would die eight years later in a plane crash while taking supplies to earthquake victims.

Back in those days  ̶  and remember, these were so-called “simpler times”  ̶  when Clemente or any Spanish-speaking player was interviewed in newspapers, their quotes would always be printed phonetically. For example, if Clemente said, “It was a good day. I hit the ball hard”, it would be written like this:   

“Eet was a goot day. I heet the ball hard”

Naturally, this rankled Clemente, a proud Puerto Rican, to the point where he would be very selective in giving interviews. Those he snubbed would call him a whiner and a hypochondriac. Clemente was also a proud American who served proudly in the Marines. That still didn’t matter to those who enjoyed mocking him. “He no speeka dee Eengalish no goot!”

Since Clemente was my childhood idol, I was sympathetic toward him. Let those who made fun of him try to speak Spanish!

When I moved to Dallas, I understood that Texas was a bilingual state and I wanted to learn Spanish. Spanish is part of Texan culture and is as viable and as beautiful of a language as the Texan version of English.

Whenever I hear people say that English should be the official language of America, I kind of chuckle. I’m a byproduct of immigrants as we all are and I still remember Palsy and my grandmother speaking “Plotzdeutch” when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about.

I worked retail when I was in Dallas in the late 1980s. Many times, I would have to get help from an associate who could translate Spanish into English. One time, on a slow night, there was a young mother and her little girl. Mom couldn’t speak English and there was no one working that night that could help me. The little girl looked at me and said, “I can speak English. My Mom wants me to speak for her.”

She couldn’t have been much more than 6.

I must have had the damndest expression on my face. This child was going to play translator. Then, I looked at Mom and she had an embarrassed expression on her face.

Then, Mom spoke to her little girl, who looked at me and translated, “My Mother says she sorry that she can’t speak English.”

I felt horrible. So I told the girl to tell her Mother that I was sorry that I couldn’t speak Spanish.

I have a feeling that this little girl is now working somewhere, maybe the UN, as a professional translator.

Trust me; I’ve tried to learn Spanish. I envy those who can speak it. I was horrible in Spanish class in college. And I took two semesters of Latin in High School! I tried to pick it up by watching baseball with the SAP on. I wish I had taken classes when I was in Dallas. My wife has talked about brushing up on her Spanish at ICC and asked me to join her. I think I’m too far gone for that now. I still find the rules of English hard to master, as this story no doubt proves.

I like that the United States is bilingual. Maybe trilingual if you count the language known as “Pittsburghese”. This is a form of English that is indicative to the Pittsburgh region. Google it and see what I mean. Especially if a Pittsburgher tells you they’re going to “redd up their house” or that you’re “nebby”.

Back to 1964. The Pirates tried to come back but lost the game to the Milwaukee Braves, 9-8. Hank Aaron drove in two runs and Joe Torre was 3-5. The Bucs stumbled through the rest of the season and finished tied with the Dodgers for 6th place with an 80-82 record.

But I was hooked. I followed the Pirates to the 1971 World Championship and beyond! Like Palsy, I live and die the Pirates to this day. Of course, I also became a Texas Rangers fan from my years in Dallas. I saw Nolan Ryan get his 3,000 strikeout at old Arlington Stadium. Palsy had set me on the road down the path of an incredible journey through baseball. This includes minor and foreign leagues. I read the Mexican Baseball League daily and have managed to have picked up a just a small sliver of Español. Thank goodness the Japanese League website is in English!

I’ve even been known to take in a Chiefs game or two! I just wish the Pirates or Rangers had teams in the Midwest League.

I could never play the sport worth a damn. But I’ve enjoyed watching it and learning its history. I’ve been to about 20 different ballparks, past and present. I still have the ball cap, autographed ball, bobble head and other gifts that Palsy gave to me 50 years ago.

When PNC Park was built, they sold personalized bricks. Heddy and I bought one and put Palsy’s name on it, so that she will always be at the ballpark. The brick is right next to the Honus Wagner statue, which now sits outside of PNC Park’s main entrance.

I wanted to thank the woman for two things. One was passing on to me her love of baseball. The other was introducing me to a whole new wonderful culture.

 

About the Author
Donn Frizzi is a well-traveled man, if you consider Pennsylvania to southern Indiana to Texas and finally Peoria to be the definition of well traveled. But in each of his stops he gained certain insights that make him who he is — including a Pirates and Rangers fan who must travel to St. Louis to watch quality baseball without buying a plane ticket. Poetic justice, perhaps? A talented writer, Donn also can make a good point by putting pencil to paper and drawing with satirical splendor. We’re hoping to persuade him to grace our website with an occasional toon, as well.