My 82-year-old mother, Jeanne, called the other day from Florida and said I must write something about the baseball strike. "Write about your father and the Yankees," she said. "Maybe Steinbrenner will read it."
My father used to say that the guys he grew up with on the Lower East Side of New York either went to jail or into show business.
There were gangs back in the '20s. The Italians claimed the rights to some territory in Hell's Kitchen, the Irish owned a few blocks to the north, and the Jews held the tenements on 14th Street where my father and his friends roamed the streets. School was something they attended when the burlesque shows and movies were changing headliners.
He was the youngest of three sons born in America to European immigrants. And what an American he was. He loved everything American. Especially the New York Yankees.
My father didn't teach me much in terms of a philosophy about life or how to interpret great literature. He didn't have a line of poetry available for the opportune moment, as did the father of one of my friends. What he did teach me was baseball--New York Yankees baseball.
We cried together when Babe Ruth died. We cheered Hank Bauer, Vic Raschi, Johnny Mize, Phil Rizzuto, Billy Martin and the great Joe DiMaggio. We never booed our own. "Never boo someone who's doing their best," he always said. I still remember all the names, their positions--and my father. Baseball was a vehicle for communication and companionship. A way of expressing heartbreak, happiness and character.
My father was passionate in victory and elegant in defeat. He was a no-excuses kind of guy. He was a Yankees fan and they were champions and in his own way so was he. Champions don't make excuses, they don't complain, but they love to win.
Few would say he was a winner in life. He started working in the financial district in 1929. He watched a man jump from a window. He walked from Manhattan to Philadelphia for a job. Whatever dreams he had, and I never knew what they were, the Depression destroyed them.
By the time I was born he was working for the United States Post Office by day and behind a soda fountain at night, in a little store my parents owned in Queens. He had his first heart attack because he couldn't account for $100 in stamp receipts. My father was one of those guys who couldn't lie.
His glory years came when he moved to California to be close to his children and grandchildren. Then, one day, in September, 1983, my father blurted out how he was angry with George Steinbrenner. "How come?" I asked. "I wrote him a letter telling him I've been a fan for 70 years and I asked him for a team jacket and he sent me a form letter back, thanking me for my loyalty," he said.
I was astounded. My father never asked for anything from anybody. "Daddy," I said, "what made you think in a million years that Steinbrenner would ever send you a jacket?" I laughed at his naivete, but he didn't join in. He was dead serious.
And then he told me something that I will never forget. All of his life--he was 76 at the time--the only thing he ever wanted was a Yankees team jacket. As was his style, he never told anyone. God forbid he should ever ask for something!
His birthday was Nov. 29. I found an official baseball outfitter and bought him the jacket. My kids bought him the official field hat. When he opened the box I saw an expression on his face that must have been the same one as when he saw Yankees Stadium for the first time.
He never took the jacket off. He took the garbage out wearing the jacket. He went out to dinner wearing the jacket and he wore it inside his house.
On Jan. 3, barely a month after his birthday, he suffered a massive heart attack. While he was being wheeled away for a series of tests, he motioned me to follow him down the hospital hallway. He asked about his jacket and I told him it would be waiting for him when he got back to his room.
My father died on Jan. 13, 1984, and at his funeral, for all to see, was my daddy, Nathan Knaster, wearing his New York Yankees official field jacket and hat. In his eulogy, I told everyone about the famous New York Yankees players and what my father taught me about life.