As a boy, I ran everywhere I went. An errand, any passage from one place to another, was an exercise in speed and agility. A trip to the grocer or butcher was punctuated with bursts of acceleration during which I felt the exhilaration, the joy of running.
Sometimes I would be staving off the challenge of a rival to the finish of a hundred-yard dash. At others, threading and stiff-arming my way through a battalion of downfield tacklers to the goal line, or racing from first to third to beat the outfielder’s throw on an imagined single to right.
These are memories kinesthetically etched in consciousness, conveying, even now, so many years later, a perfect attunement to time and place.
Throughout preadolescence, life centered around baseball. Starting with spring training in March, until the conclusion of the World Series in October, virtually every waking moment was spent with a ball. We played punchball in the street, during lunch recess, and after school, maybe a pickup game, or batting and fielding practice, fungo.
In the evening, I would shamelessly waylay my father when he came home from a hard day’s work for a catch or to throw me grounders in the dirt driveway. Or, alone, I would practice throwing strikes with a spaldeen ball at the small target painted on the clapboard siding of the house.
The Bushwicks were a local semipro team. My friends and I could not afford even the meager price of attendance, but the proximity of the railroad freight yard to their right field fence seemed an act of providence. From atop a boxcar one had a perfect view of the field. From these self-styled bleachers we cheered the often hapless Bushwicks and studied the intricacies of the game.
Before Little League there was little organized competition for boys of elementary school age. By the age of 8 or 9, I was playing with teams in the PAL (Police Athletic League) and the C.Y.O. (Catholic Youth Organization), but before that, competition was haphazard. We rushed, Saturday mornings, to a sandlot ball field to be sure of inclusion in the choosing up of sides. Neighborhood boys banded together into teams and challenged others nearby.
I had some talent for the game and, prompted by early success, devoted endless hours to the fundamentals: thousands of repetitions before the simple act of catching the ball and throwing it with power and accuracy became “body knowledge.” Many more would be spent on batting and fielding skills and the refinements of the game.
The “Moey catch” is unforgettable. It is a moment frozen in memory, untouched by time. It was in the spring of 1941. We were not yet at war. It was baseball season. Soon it would be different. Pearl Harbor was but six or seven months away.
Allen Goldberg, the older brother of my friend Jesse, would be drafted and begin his wartime journey to Normandy and Germany and back. His friend Benny would die at sea in the Pacific. The world and I would change. But that was yet to come.
For the time being I was a boy, it was June, and the Dodgers were on their way to a pennant. I would sit by the radio for hours, listening breathlessly to each play of a game, described for me by the voice of Red Barber. It was, of course, before TV. He was my eyes and ears, the only way that I could “see” my heroes. His excitement matched and enriched my own. He made it possible for me to feel that I was there, at Ebbets Field, that magical place where I had never been, watching the thrilling play of Pete Reiser, the Dodgers’s young centerfielder who had not yet — playing with characteristic abandon — knocked himself senseless against the outfield wall, a practice which would cut short his exceptional career.
It is within this framework that I saw the “Moey catch” one afternoon in Alley Pond Park. The Goldberg clan spent sunny Sundays there to picnic and play softball. I was always invited. We were in the late innings of a game when an opposing batter hit a drive to deep center field where Moe, a Goldberg cousin, was positioned.
Moe was reputedly a good high school ballplayer, which was apparent from the ease and grace with which he threw and caught the ball and moved about the field. He had already, that day, collected a couple of hits and made some good plays in the field. Due to his range, and his confidence, he was playing shallow, not expecting that much power from the hitter.
At the crack of the bat, Moe spun, his back to the plate, and raced deep to the outfield. (The phrase “at the crack of the bat,” as baseball fans know, is not hyperbole. So finely tuned are his senses, so acute his concentration that, literally, at the sound of impact, the skilled outfielder moves unerringly in the direction of the hit.) We watched as Moe, digging hard, attempted to outrun the ball.
Without a single backward glance, he ran directly beneath the path of the ball and looked skyward to pick it up at the precise instant the ball arced, in its descent, above his head. Leaping forward, his left arm fully extended, he presented his glove to the ball and took it in.
Jesse and I immediately dubbed it “the Moey catch,” in acknowledgement that it required some point of reference. After the cheers, after the game was over and I was back at home, I was still in awe. Something had been stirred in me. I understood, intuitively, that I had seen something special, something more than a good catch.
I replayed the catch repeatedly in my mind, reviewing each element; Moe’s speed, his grace and fluidity of motion, the impeccable timing and balletic quality of his leap for the ball, the extraordinary body control exhibited in every movement to the final cradling of the ball in his glove. It was, however, some indefinable aspect of the play that gave me wonder — that was Moe’s incomprehensible sense of the ball.
I had seen some good over-the-shoulder catches. I had made a few myself. It was clear, as Moe turned to run, that he had made an instantaneous sensory calculation regarding the path of the ball and the distance it would carry. What seemed miraculous was that there was never a need for a corroborative backward glance, a correction. If there was, the catch would not be made. There was no such margin.
Moe “knew” the precise trajectory of the ball, its exact landing place, and ran unhesitatingly to it. But what instinct informed him to look upward at that one one-hundredth of a second when the ball came into view and there was still sufficient reaction time to bring it in? Were I told the ball had called to him I would surely have believed it, for so it seemed.
In the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians, Willie Mays made the over-the-head catch of all time on Vic Wertz’s drive to the center field wall of the Polo Grounds, the deepest in the majors. It is the most famous catch in baseball history. But it is the “Moey catch,” occurring when it did, that remained for me the symbol of boyhood aspiration, a standard of physical and athletic mastery.
I would never see Moe again. It is my feeling that he had never previously attended the Goldberg’s outings, nor did he again, thereafter. His appearance that Sunday seemed apocalyptic, in the Greek sense of the word, revealing to me athleticism in a new dimension. For when Moe impelled his physical being to its limits and beyond and by force of will and concentration made his catch, he captured a moment in time and made it his own. Though I could not yet articulate it as such, I was introduced to excellence raised to the level of artistry.
Fred Nagel, a retired educator and psychotherapist living in Springs, is the author of “Twenty-five to Life, A Love Story. ”