The summer between third and fourth grade was probably the time when I truly became addicted to baseball. Playing and watching. It was my second season of T-ball. The 1963 Roosevelt Bedbugs lost every game on Mondays ... and won every game on Wednesdays. Go figure.
I was the catcher. On a T-ball team. With no pitching. Go figure. Why? Because I had inherited some catching equipment that my older cousin, Robert Alexander, had long since outgrown. A sturdy mask, a hearty chest-protector, and very cool dark blue shin guards. All totally unnecessary for T-ball, so I only wore them at home. Along with the complete Detroit Tigers uniform outgrown by family friends, Freddie and Eddie Weiner.
One early summer evening after dinner at Oak Park’s premier family restaurant, Stafford’s, the Lewis’ did what the Lewis’ do. We walked two doors down, past the mysterious Metropolitan Bridge Club, with their heavily curtained windows ... a place no one known to me had ever entered or exited. Mysterious, indeed.
Far less mysterious was every Oak Park kid’s Heaven-on-Earth.
The most perfect toy store in the whole wide world. Every birthday present came from Hy’s. All holiday gifts, be it Christmas, Hanukkah or just because your grandparents loved to spoil you. It was Hy’s. Only Hy’s.
I fancied their Matchbox Cars and built quite a collection. But it was their baseball stuff that drew me in. My first wooden bat — a Hillerich & Bradsby Louisville Slugger "Nellie Fox" model — came from Hy’s. My annual edition of All Star Baseball, the board game featuring player discs and spinners, came from Hy’s.
But this was the night of nights. It was love at first sniff. "Smell this new catcher’s mitt!" I ordered my Dad as I shoved it under his mustached nose. It smelled rich, like the upholstery in my Uncle Aubrey’s new Cadillac! What a beaut! Perfect orange leather! It already had a pocket to catch the speedballs and a hinge to grab the curves. It fit my hand like ... well, like a glove.
"Dad, can I get it?" He asked me how much it was. "$9.00?" He reminded me that I already had a fielder’s mitt — an off-brand "Bobby Shantz" model that I had broken in perfectly over the winter, with neatsfoot oil, a hardball, wrapped with string and rubber bands, stuffed between my mattress and boxspring during football and basketball season. You know, like you do.
Dad told me that if I wanted the catcher’s mitt, I’d have to buy it for myself.
Being an almost fourth grader, I quickly did the math. I had $2.75 in my safe at home. It was one of those gray safe banks with a combination lock. I got it for my birthday. From Hy’s. And, with a $1.00-a-week allowance, this mitt would be mine ... sometime during junior high. Math was never a strong suit.
Sensing my disappointment but not wanting to give in, my Dad suggested I buy it on layaway. Layaway? A term as yet unknown to me. "Ask Arnie," he suggested.
Arnie Fuller owned Hy’s. He was a pleasant man about my Dad’s age. He knew every kid in town and their parents. He was the lord and master of Hy’s Juvenile. Whoever Hy was.
So I took the mitt to the counter and asked Mr. Fuller what layaway meant. He explained that if I wanted to purchase this magnificent catcher’s mitt on layaway, he’d be glad to open an account in my name. I could give him some money tonight (a down payment) and he’d put the mitt in a safe, secure place in the mysterious backroom so no one else could ever buy it but me.
Every time I had at least $1.00, I could make a payment on the mitt. And once it was paid for in-full ... it would be mine! Layaway was now the greatest thing I’d ever heard of! Yes! Layaway!
Dad loaned me the initial $2.75 (until we got home and I could open my safe) and Mr. Fuller filled out a layaway payment card with my name on it. It had places for the date, my payment amount, and balance due.
When allowance day came, Saturday, I’d collect my loot and me and the boys would ride our bikes up to Hy’s at 9 Mile and Coolidge. Mr. Fuller would go into the mysterious back room, bring out that beautiful hunk of cowhide, let me try it on and pound it a few times. While he’d make the necessary transaction notes on my payment card, Barry, Teddy, and Howard could each take a turn putting fist-to-glove. Jealousies abound.
To help expedite the process, I’d do odd jobs around the house for extra loot — things beyond my normal allowance responsibilities. I may have even cleaned up my brother Roland’s side of the closet for 25¢. But knowing him, I made sure it was cash up front.
Then one Saturday, the boys gathered for the trek to Hy’s. Again, Mr. Fuller brought the mitt out so we could each try it on and pound the pocket and imagine catching a Hank Aguirre fastball for a called-third strike against Mickey Mantle. Mr. Fuller took back the glove and handed me my layaway card. "Only $1.20 left!" he announced to the team.
We rode back to my house on Harding and sat on the porch dreaming aloud. By next week, that catcher's mitt would be ours! I mean, MINE! I could soon wear my entire catcher's ensemble. "The Tools of Ignorance," as the catcher’s gear was known. Because you had to be stupid to want to be a catcher. I didn’t care.
All of a sudden, my world changed yet again. My Mom came to the screen door. Obviously, she had overheard the boyish dreams being shared on the front porch. "I’ll make you a deal," she announced. "If you agree to dry the dishes for the next week, I will pay you $1.20."
Shocked to silence, our jaws dropped. "And, if you promise to do it ... I’ll pay you in advance."
"DO IT!" shouted the other Musketeers.
The Four Horsemen mounted our Schwinns and set forth to the promised land. Hy’s Juvenile. We marched in and didn’t have to say a word. Mr. Fuller was standing behind the counter looking a bit perplexed, as we’d already had our visitation with the mitt. I unrolled the dollar bill and put it and the two dimes right there in front of him. He smiled.
"Let me see your card." I handed it over. He took out his pencil. Filled in the appropriate boxes and pulled out a rubber stamp. He pressed it first on the ink pad, then onto the card...
PAID IN FULL
He handed me the card and hurried to the mysterious back room. Moments later, he emerged and handed me my catcher’s mitt. Still fit like a glove and smelled like Uncle Aubrey’s Cadillac.
That night at dinner — with the catcher's mitt still in sight but out of harm’s way of spilled ketchup or juicy corn on the cob — my Dad asked me what I’d learned.
I told him. "Layaway was cool!" Then he reminded me what I had really learned.
"You can have anything you want ... as long as you are willing to work for it."
I don’t remember ever asking my parents to buy me anything again. Except school clothes. At Brody’s. Of course.
THE 1963 ROOSEVELT BEDBUGS T-BALL TEAM
FRONT ROW (L to R): Jamie Cohan, Mitchell Young, David Rubenstein, Roill Katzman, Les Feldman.MIDDLE ROW (L To R): Gordon Sinkoff, Barry Rose, Ted Stern, Jim Raiskin, David Baumhaft.TOP ROW (L to R): Coach Ron Taylor, Larry Zaks, Stu Zonder, Leonard “Paul” Johnson, David Lewis, Jeffrey Tamaroff.
David Lewis is a graduate of Oak Park High School ('72), son of Sol and Elaine (both of blessed memory) of Harding Avenue, north of Kenwood. David recently retired from a career in advertising that started in the mailroom at W.B. Doner & Company in Southfield, where he then wrote his first commercial, a radio spot for The Detroit News. David later wrote memorable commercials for Bud Light, McDonald’s and Kellogg’s and less memorable stuff for cattle wormers, sorghum hybrids, and turkey bologna. David lives in Chicago’s scenic West Loop in a loft filled with Tigers memorabilia and framed mug-shots of his Purple Gang great uncles.