My brother Fred enlisted in the Air Force in 1962. After spending some time at several US bases, he was sent to England in 1963. Later, he was informed that his next stop on his tour of duty would be Taiwan in 1964, but that he would first be given a little time for a short leave and a visit home. Fred was ten years older than me. This created an almost generational difference in our life experiences, but he was my big brother, the coolest guy I knew. Back in the day, he had been a New York Giants fan but had left home before the New York Mets had arrived.
The whole family couldn’t wait to see my brother again so when the time came, we all piled into the family’s 1961 Chrysler and headed for McGuire Air Force Base in central New Jersey. Fred’s flight was delayed, and I remember that the waiting room at the Air Force Base had all the comforts of a mid-town bus station. There were only so many times an eleven-year-old boy could visit the water fountain or the men’s room, so after asking my parents, “When is Fred going to get here?” about a thousand times, my brother’s plane finally arrived.
As we drove home on the New Jersey Turnpike, most of the questions from my parents had to do with life in the Air Force, “What kind of food did they feed you? How was the weather? Did they give you warm clothes? Was there church on Sundays?” I was more impressed with his real nifty uniform and wondered if I rolled up the pants legs and the shirt sleeves, would he ever let me borrow it.
As the barrage of questions began to slow, Fred had a chance to ask a few of his own. “So, Tommy, are you still scared of the monsters under your bed?”
“Only the ones who want to eat me!” I answered, trying to sound brave but knowing that living beneath my bed was a gaggle of evil child eating creatures.
“I didn’t get much baseball news overseas in Stars and Stripes,” Fred said. “How did your Mets do last season?”
“We won about a dozen more games than the first year,” I said, “and we’re moving into a brand-new stadium in 1964 out by the New York World’s Fair.”
“I read an article about a rookie pitcher on your team. I believe his name was Grover Powell,” Fred said, “The article even mentioned that he was from someplace unusual for an American baseball player. Does this story sound right to you?”
On August 20, 1963, he pitched a four-hit shutout against the Phillies. No one knew at the time that this would be his only win. The Mets beat reporters, starving for a good story, crowded around the kid’s locker and fired off every question they could find. Manager Casey Stengel saw this and decided that he’d join in the fun. He grabbed a pad and a pencil and merged into the group of newspaper men. The reporters asked such mundane questions of this budding star as, “Were you nervous before the game? Where’d you go to school? What’s your favorite color?” and Powell had a rather funny answer for each one.
Casey — the reporter — then piped up with a ridiculous question of his own: “Wuz you born in Poland?”
This line would go down in Mets history as a classic example of Stengel’s sense of humor. Unfortunately for Powell, he would be hit by a line drive off the bat of future Met Donn Clendenon in his next start and would never pitch in the major leagues again. Powell’s final career record was 1-1.
“No, Fred, that was just a joke by Casey Stengel,” I explained. “Casey asked, ‘Wuz you born in Poland’ because all of the reporters were going so crazy. Powell was actually born in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania.”
“Now that’s even funnier than Casey’s joke,” my brother added.
I paused and asked, “I don’t understand, what do you mean?”
“Only the Mets would have a player from a town called ‘Why-You-Losing’ Pennsylvania.” Fred said.
Everybody in the car laughed and laughed as my New York Mets were once again made the butt of somebody’s joke.
I looked at my brother for a moment and then quietly said under my breathe, “So, when did you say you were leaving for Taiwan?”