When the crowd roared it washed over them like a wave, starting slowly and building to a crescendo. It wasn't just the sound of cheering, it was also the sound of the wooden seats snapping as people jumped up to get a better look at just how far the ball was going. The crowd could tell from the crack of the bat it was going to be a long one, and they needed to stand to see just how far the ball would go.
Eddie wasn't inside the stadium to witness any of this. It was still the Depression and there wasn't enough money to go to every home game, even though he begged his parents. None of his friends’ parents had money either. So, the kids would hang out in the empty field next to the Stadium. They could hear the roar when the Yankees played well and could see the game in their minds. The crowd was cheering, the ball was sailing, the batter was rounding the bases. They didn't need a radio announcer to know what was happening. They could tell based on how long the cheering went on.
Once, he and his friends circled the stadium to see if maybe there was an unguarded door they could slip through, but if there was, they couldn't find it. Instead, they made the empty field their own stadium. They would kick away the garbage, sending plumes of dust into the air. They marked where the bases were, where home plate was, and where the pitcher would stand. They took turns. It wasn't much of a game. There were only four, sometimes five, if they were lucky six, kids playing. But they got to practice pitching and hitting and running the bases while their heroes played next door.
This day was special. DiMaggio was on his way to beating the all-time hitting streak. Would he keep it going? That morning Eddie grabbed breakfast, grabbed his bat and ball, and grabbed his Yankees cap. He yelled, "Bye Ma, see you later," and ran out the door. Eddie didn't bother with the elevator. He bounded down the stairs and out onto the sidewalk. If the guys couldn’t be in the stadium, at least they’d be at the field.
He walked down the Grand Concourse to East 161st Street. As he passed the butcher and the hardware store he glanced in to see if anyone he knew was there. Someone opened the door to the bakery and the warm scent of bread baking enticed him but he hurried by. He passed the entrance to the subway that his father took downtown to work. He could hear the rumble of the train entering the station. Eddie wasn't sure which of his friends would show up today but it didn't matter. They'd divide into two teams and make a game of it. They agreed on the rules. The distance you hit the ball determined whether it was a single, a double or a triple. You had to hit it out of the field and into the parking lot to get a homerun.
Eddie met up with his friend Phil a few blocks away from the stadium. As they walked, they talked about the game they'd listened to the day before. Phil was Eddie's best friend. He was a great joker, a great ball player, and he was a head taller than Eddie. All the guys were. While they may have been bigger and stronger, none of them were as passionate as Eddie was about playing baseball. Baseball made Eddie feel six inches taller! He'd been practicing a new swing lately. It gave him more power, but less control. Nothing frustrated him more than striking out. Singles didn't get you the roar of the crowd so he swung and he swung hard.
When he got to the empty field the sun was shining, glinting off the windows of the building across the street. Six guys showed up that day. Phil was pitching for the other team. Inside the stadium, the Yankees were playing the Red Sox. Every time it was Eddie's turn he imagined Phil was Earl Johnson.
Eddie's new swing wasn't working for him. He couldn't seem to connect with the ball. When he struck out he felt as though he was letting his Yankees down. He imagined DiMaggio looking grim but saying, "Don't worry, kid, you'll get the next one." The more frustrated he became, the harder he swung. The harder he swung, the more he struck out. Phil was showing no mercy. Eddie could imagine Yankee Manager, Joe McCarthy shaking his head.
There had been no sounds coming from the stadium for a while. He and his beloved team were both losing. He hadn't connected with the ball once and from the sound of it, none of the Bronx Bombers had either. The kids could tell it was getting late because the sun was low in the sky. He and his friends needed to get home. Eddie had one more turn at bat.
Inside the stadium, Joltin’ Joe was up at bat for the last time that day also. Was this going to be the end of his hitting streak? If he was as frustrated as the eleven-year-old in the field next door, he didn't show it. He stepped up to the plate.
Phil and Eddie eyed each other. Eddie glared. When you're short you have to be tough. Phil shifted his weight, raised his throwing arm, then extended it and let the ball fly. As it came at him, Eddie focused. His held his head still and straight. He had both eyes on the ball from the moment it left Phil's hand. This time he waited. He waited a fraction of a second longer than usual. Then he unleashed the power of his whole body through the bat and against the ball.
DiMaggio too, eyed the ball and with the power and grace he had shown all season sent it soaring. The baseball flew over the outfield. The crowd jumped out of their seats screaming like one large, roaring beast.
The sound of success reached the field next door just as Phil’s pitch connected with the sweet spot on Eddie's bat. As DiMaggio rounded the bases inside the stadium, Eddie rounded the bases in the empty field. Both of them were pumping their arms to acknowledge the roar.
It was a great day to be a kid in the Bronx.