by Marty Appel
My friend Ron Blomberg has always been just a little off-center, enough to confuse and confound. And to make you smile.
Our Yankee careers paralleled each other’s (although I’d have traded every day of mine in the front office to have played one game, and to have my name in the Baseball Encyclopedia). He was the nation’s first selection in the June, 1967 free agent draft, and his selection by the struggling Yankees was a huge national story. He was to be the “Great Jewish Hope,” the big box-office attraction, the wondrous slugger of long Yankee Stadium home runs. He had the body, the appetite, and the innocence of the cartoon character L’il Abner, although I’m not sure younger readers will know who that is. (For the uninformed, go to www.lil-abner.com)
Quietly, that same summer, I was interviewing in the team’s front office for a summer job in the PR department, answering Mickey Mantle’s fan mail.
By 1970 I was the assistant PR Director and Ronnie was with us in spring training in Ft. Lauderdale, charming the New York media with the great smile, the southern charm, the innocent observations, and the remarkable power to take a fastball from a right-handed pitcher and propel it great distances.
The “Blomberg Watch” began around that time, everyone hoping that he would bring that great bat to New York ASAP and help a depressed franchise. No one wanted it more than the CBS executives running the club, struggling to draw a million fans a year.
He joined the team in the summer of ’71, on the same day the Yanks acquired another Ron – Swoboda – and put two instant media delights in uniform at once. One Ron was on the way up, the other on the way down, but for a time, the news cameras would head for Yankee Stadium for some good stories.
In that first week, Dick Schaap, doing local sports for WNBC-TV, asked me to bring Ron to the set for a live interview. He knew a good story.
“C’mon, Bloomie,” I said. “We’re going to go on Channel 4 with Dick Schaap!”
He had trouble with the name. He kept repeating it as we drove downtown. “Jack Snapp, Jack Snapp, Jack Snapp.”
“No no no,” I said, “it’s Dick Schaap! He’s pretty famous, you know!”
“Got it,” he said.
“Jack Snapp, Jack Snapp, Jack Snapp.”
He was on the set, Live at Five.
“…and now we’re got the Yankees’ new first baseman, Ron Blomberg, with us,” said Schaap, “and Boomer, thanks for joining us.”
“Nice to be with you………Dick.”
Not only did he nail it, but on live TV he turned towards me off in the wings and winked. He was impossibly funny.
We became neighbors in Riverdale, a nice section of the Bronx about 12 minutes from Yankee Stadium, and we socialized a lot. Furious games of table ice hockey – the game where you control the players by pulling levers in and out – turned into a league with standings. His neighbor, Dr. Stanley Gedzelman, a noted meteorologist on the staff of City College, was dragged into the competition. Bloomie usually won.
He ate prodigiously, but needed the comfort of the familiar. He hated to try new places or new foods. Once he settled into a place, he liked returning over and over, and always asked for a full pitcher of water on the table. When the social occasion seemed to call for the maturity of ordering a mixed drink, he would order a vodka gimlet – he must have heard someone else doing it – but would never take a sip.
I went to Atlanta with him and his first wife, Mara (I’m still friends with her too), during the World Series of 1973. He had little interest in watching the Mets-Oakland games. He was not a spectator, and his attention span was fairly limited. I once gave Mara something for their home and she said, “This would go well in Ronnie’s study,” which I thought was a fantastic oxymoron, until I realized she was serious.
We stayed at his parents’ home, and his mother Goldie was constantly reminding him to towel off the sink in the bathroom, because he had a habit of splashing the room full of water. I thought I was having a sleepover at a 5th grader’s home.
In his driveway, we played home run derby with wiffle golf balls and a plastic bat. The road was a home run. I reached it a few times – imagine being proud of hitting a wiffle ball home run 75 feet off a major league first baseman – but what I really remember is him hitting a line drive off me, or rather through me. I think the ball entered my chest cavity, came out the back, and still reached the road.
Oh, could he hit. You had to be there in Yankee Stadium to see the batting practice shots he sent into orbit because, of course, they didn’t make the box scores or the game stories. I believe – I’m too much of a perfectionist when it comes to history to say I’m sure – that he hit the famous old Yankee Stadium façade once or twice during batting practice, the place where Mantle had twice done it, quite famously, in regular season games.
We went to Cooperstown together for a winter sports banquet some time after his ”first DH bat” was put on display and he posed with his bat and asked the director of the Hall of Fame, poor old Kenny Smith, the most outrageous question about local village customs that had surely ever been asked by a visitor to that innocent little town. I’m not sure that Kenny ever recovered.
Bloomie was an usher at my wedding and walked my 75-year-old grandmother down the aisle, totally enjoying the attention and his mission.
I never saw anyone better with fans. He signed, he posed, he kibitzed, he learned their names, and if he was too busy, he’d politely make up some outrageous excuse about why he couldn’t stop at that moment (“I’ve got to go study to be a doctor and a lawyer like my parents wanted.”).
He went to dinner with sportswriters, one of the few players to do that. They were just as good company as his teammates as far as he was concerned. The only real criteria he had for dinner was that the helpings be plentiful and it not last more than an hour. The attention span thing.
As for his career, he certainly had some highlights – hitting .400 as late as the 4th of July one year to share a Sports Illustrated cover and. of course, the first DH thing, in which I played a small role by getting the bat up to Cooperstown (only bat in Cooperstown that celebrates a walk!) – but mostly, and sadly, his was another career that failed to reach its potential. He was riddled with injuries, including the one that essentially ended his career, crashing into the wall in Winter Haven, Florida, running down an unimportant spring training drive while playing in unfamiliar left field. Defense was not his strong suit, either at first or in the outfield, but that was pretty much the end of the Blomberg era in New York. He was technically a member of the championship teams of 1976 and 1977, but he played one game in those two years. I called him at home to get in the team photo because I figured someday he’d want to show his son Adam that he was on a pennant-winning team.
The Yankees weren’t happy when he opted for free agency and went to the White Sox in ’77. They had paid for his rehab, and now he was bolting. But he needed a fresh start. He loved the Yankees, but the team had really passed him by, he wasn’t a favorite of Billy Martin’s, and he needed to make a name for himself somewhere else. Sadly, it didn’t happen for him in Chicago either, and that was the end of his short but fabled career.
We’ve kept in touch like two old pals, and the fact that he is a former big leaguer has become largely irrelevant, except when he’s called to ask me about the growing value of his “first DH” status in baseball history. I know he could still put a wiffle ball through my chest, and he knows that I can name all the MVPs from the beginning of time, but geez, we’re gonna both turn 60 one of these days, and it’s nice to have a friend who makes you still feel like a kid.
The attention span, however, is still a little lacking.
“Hey big guy, how ya’ doing,” he’ll say, when he initiates a phone call. And then after a minute or two, comes, “Listen big guy, ya gonna be home later? Let me give you a call!”
He was the one who made the call in the first place. He’s impossible. And this is why I love him.