By Meredith Kurz
New York was founded in 1624 and about 60 years later Madison Square Park became public and about 160 years after that, baseball was born, in that park, in New York City. Sure, you’ve heard Cooperstown, but I’m sorry. The Knickerbocker Rules? From the Knickerbocker Club right here. The nine innings and the whole schmiel are still used today. We could argue about it. I’m sure someone somewhere is.
Morty Gilbert started playing ball in Central Park in the 1940s, near Umpire Rock, which used to be called Rat Rock. All the rats would climb up there after dark; probably still do. This team, his team, is called the Morty Gilbert Division. Morty, now in his 90s, still shows up, and Jimmy Bitros the team’s general manager, still calls it Morty’s Game. This is the longest running team in the park.
Running for Morty As Morty has gotten older, he chooses one of the men to run for him. They’ll wait for Morty to slam it, and then run the bases. Todd Montgomery wrote “Morty’s Song.” It’s refrain is “I’m gonna run ... for Morty.” It’s considered a high privilege.
Bitros, aka “the Mayor” in Central Park’s Heckscher ball fields, draws up the two teams. Sitting in the shade on the bleachers, he goes over the roster, considering the merits of his players. The others mill around, check their gloves, their shoes, feel the weight of the bats, and wait. It has to be an even match. It has to be fair, just like when they were twelve years old.
Bitros yells at one of the guys to get out there and pitch, warm up. The others wander out, some to the ballfield, others work on a ‘who’s up’ batting order. They’re soft passing the ball to the bases, to the outfield, then back to the pitcher, Willie Ferre. He offers the batters gentle lobs to they can power the ball deep, or not, where the outfield waits.
About six years ago, the team was in need of help. Jimmy Bitros quit his other general manager job and took over Morty’s Game. He is warm, concise, and direct. No one questions his decisions, at least to his face, when he’s divvying up the talented, and not so talented, into even-sided teams.
The RosterThe players range from 19 to over 80. “It’s a bit of a scramble to get the young guys,” Bitros told me. “You used to have 65 percent of the boys in sports. It’s dropped down to about 35 percent. They’re stuck in front of their phones or the TV. It’s a shame.”
Jack Oppenheim, who just celebrated his 87th birthday, has been playing since the 1950s. Jack Cutler, an actor who moved into the city in 1979, then moved to LA in 1998, swings into the city every year for the softball season.
Nineteen-year-old TJ is in between semesters at Albert University. He has the quiet way of someone with real talent. His skill speaks for him. He bats, throws, catches and runs with fluid ease. We admire his age, his moment. He’ll elevate the game quite a bit when he steps onto the field.
Louis Crocco, another younger player is a drummer in a Broadway show. Broadway folks are an easy recruit, because they have weekday afternoons off. There are four Broadway teams who play on the field during the day, so if you’re looking for the famous, now you know.
Smokey, who was as much part of the team as the players for decades, has recently passed. He used to clean up the field before selling peanuts, soda, perhaps a beer or two. No one knew his last name. Someone who hangs around the field who knew Smokey told the team about Smokey’s death. He’d been part of the experience for decades. No one has taken his place.
Joel Goldman, who’s on the cusp of becoming a grandfather, pitches well, and bats well. “Typically, I bat second,” he said. I know that’s a good spot, even with my weak softball knowledge. He’s just dipped his toe into his seventies, but he looks much younger, which I won’t tell him, because the other men, I’m sure, will razz him.
Camaraderie and TestosteroneThere’s a lot of teasing, a lot of banter, the semi-cruel typical guy chatter on this team. It is the conversation of men. It is the way they tell one another they like one another, hell, love one another. They’re going to name-call, criticize hits and misses, your bad politics, your hair, the fact that you may or may not wear a cup, and the size of the cup. This is camaraderie, testosterone style.
They play with me, the stranger, tell me I can’t be taking pictures “See the sign?” and I stupidly look around. They laugh and I realize, they’re bringing me in. I had three older brothers: I get it.
The game starts and the mood switches from verbal jousts to focusing on the ultimate pleasure of playing their best, doing their best. Most of these men know the Achilles heel of their mates, know their ace moves. Will they exploit one, or allow the other to shine through?
It’s just a game, they say. For over seventy years, hell for over 160 years, they keep coming back.