”Let me paint the scene. South Jamaica, 50 or 60 years ago. Middle class. Poor. Immigrants. The principal influence was the family and the church or the synagogue. No one had an automobile or a TV. In that environment picture a guy who was born in Queens. He had been a semi-professional [baseball] player. He lives with his sisters in an old house. In time he [gets a job as a manager] at the Piels brewery. And he spends his time putting together baseball teams. Listen to the names: the Dwarves, the Elves, the Shamrocks, the Erins, the Blarney Stones. Even the girls had a team…”
–Mario Cuomo, The New York Times, 3\19\84
IF YOU had happened to walk by the baseball field behind the towering collegiate Gothic main building of Jamaica High School located on 164th Place near Grand Central Parkway, in Jamaica, Queens, on a Saturday morning in July or August, 1949, around, say 8 o’clock, you would have likely seen a man of medium height with prematurely white hair dressed in T shirt and khaki pants determinedly raking the pitcher’s mound, or tending to the chalk lines or otherwise getting the field into playing shape.
And if it had rained the night before and the field was covered in puddles, he might be draining some of those.
If you were the observant type, you might notice that the man was wearing steel-tipped shoes.
But you probably wouldn’t notice that. What you would notice is that the man would be very focused on what he was doing, almost as if he were tending his own garden.
And if you waited a little longer, until say 9 o’clock, or maybe a little before or after, you would see a group of youngsters ranging in age from twelve to eighteen gather around the same man eagerly pounding their gloves. And they would be wearing uniforms with resoundingly Irish names like the Dwarves and the Elves and the Shamrocks, even though some of them didn’t look particularly Irish.
Hmmm. Doesn’t that kid look Jewish? And isn’t that one a girl?
And then, if you hung around a little longer, you would see a couple of the kids—there would be ten or fifteen by now—engage in a little exercise wherein two of the kids would stand about twenty feet away from the man and throw the ball at him and he would hit grounders to these “infielders.”
And two other kids standing behind those kids would retrieve the balls that the “infielders” missed. “Pepper,” it used to be called back in the day.
And then if you hung around a little longer—there would be even more kids by now, maybe twenty or thirty by now—you would all of them (or most of them) arrayed around the outfield, waiting for the man to hit fly balls or line drives to them with preternatural accuracy. Just before the man would hit the ball he would signal to the player he was targeting whether he was going to hit the ball to the left or to the right. That would be the boy or girl’s cue to start running in that direction as fast as he could. And they would start running. And somehow the man timed each ball so each would descend exactly at the spot where he wanted.
“He always hit them in places that were challenging,” as one former Elf recalled, still in awe of the man’s skill. “They were never hit so far away that they were impossible to catch; neither were hit so easily that I could catch them a trot. He never missed the ball or even hit grounders.”
Of course you wouldn’t know it but one of those teenagers—remember we are still in 1950—would be a future governor of New York by the name of Mario Cuomo.
And if you would walk by the same field in say 1965 or 1969, you would see the same scene, except that the man’s hair might be a little whiter. But the kids would still be as eager. And the line drives just as accurate.
And one of those boys, of course, would be Jesse Braverman.
The name of the man at the center of that perpetual Field of Dreams scene was the late Joseph Austin, better known to the thousands of kids he coached over six decades, simply as “Joe.’
AS is often the case with legends, the file of known biographical facts about Joe Austin is somewhat slim. We what we do know is as follows:
We know that Austin was born in 1904 in South Jamaica, Queens. We know that he attended Jamaica High School, when that once great high school—of which both Braverman and the author are graduates—was located on Hillside Avenue and before it moved to its present campus. One of ten children, we also know that he was forced to drop out of J.H.S. after the ten grade, a common enough occurrence in the 1920s.
“I had to drop out of Jamaica High School after my first year,” Austin recalled, matter-of-factly, in one of the few formal interviews the reticent legend gave many years later. That was the end of his formal schooling. “But in those days, high school was a luxury. You had to get a job to help out at home with the bills.” It is not known how active Austin was in school sports; presumably he was doing busy helping to support his large family to spend much time in school yard. However, like so many young American of the 1920s, he certainly seems to have picked up the sports bug, particularly the bug for baseball. And he became an avid fan of The New York Giants. Years later, Austin would speak in reverential terms about John McGraw, particularly the Giant’s long-reigning manager, John McGraw, who helmed the team for a record thirty years. He also seems to have picked up a ken for playing himself.
In the meantime, Austin helped support his family by moving through a series of skilled and semi-skilled jobs. One of those early jobs, probably the best of the lot, was as a worker with the old Boyce Motor Meter Company, the long defunct manufacturing company that used to turn out those old, lollipop-like looking “motometers,” or temperature meters, back in the Jazz Age. Perhaps the most attractive aspect of that job for Joe was that Boyce had a baseball team. He joined it.
Austin was able to further pursue his passion for baseball by playing on a number of semi-professional teams around the tri-state region. He wasn’t the Natural, but he was good. “He was a good solid third baseman,” said Mario Cuomo seems to know as much about Austin’s stats as anyone else. “He would never hit a home run for you,” said Cuomo in an interview with The New York Times in 1984, in conjunction with a ceremony for Austin, at which the playground next to the Jamaica High ball field was named in his honor, confirming his status as a local hero. “But [he] always batted .270 or .280,” added the former governor, who played several seasons of semi-pro ball himself, before heading off into the political arena.
Who said I would never hit a home run? one imagines would be the feisty Austin’s response to his most famous alumnus’s faint praise. Then again, of course, it was not how Austin played the game that mattered the most to Cuomo. It was how he taught it: somewhere around that time the scrappy Irishman also picked up a ken for a ken for coaching, the activity that would become his true life’s passion. Also, as it turned out, he was pretty good at it.
Then the Great Depression hit and in 1931 Austin was laid off from Boyce. So Joe hit the pavement again, looking for a job. Hard times. That was part of Joe’s curriculum vitae too.
Sudsy times too. In 1933 Prohibition ended, enabling the old Piels Brewery—also known to New Yorkers of a certain age as the makers of Piels Real Draft and Draft Ale—in Bushwick, Brooklyn to expand. Shifting his diurnal clock, Joe took a job there that year as a dispatcher on the midnight shift, aka “the graveyard shift.” Evidently the job suited him, and vice versa, because he never took another, remaining at Piels for thirty years, until his retirement in 1967.
Working the graveyard shift presumably made it difficult for Joe to play on the Piels baseball team (if it had one). But that was ok, because it enabled him to realize his other passion—his passion for coaching—on a grand scale, putting together a raft of sports teams for the youngsters of his neighborhood, particularly baseball teams. Austin also coached basketball and football, but baseball was his first love, and that is what he concentrated on. At one time, Austin (as one of his alumni calls him) coached as many as seven teams.
He never married, choosing to live in the same South Jamaica house where he grew up with two of his sisters. As he was fond of saying, he was “married to the game.” He never had any children of his own, except for the literally hundreds of children who would show up every spring and summer for the chance to play with this one man athletic association.
Whatever money Austin was able to set aside from his modest salary, he spent on purchasing equipment for his constantly self-replenishing sports progeny.
That, essentially, is all that is known, about Joe Austin. In a sense, that is all one needs to know about Austin. He lived for his kids, and he lived for the game, in that order.
That was it for Austin. His kids and baseball. For over fifty years, from the time he first started coaching in 1933, to his technical “retirement” from the game in 1984 and beyond—from the Great Depression through the Second World War through the Korean War and the Vietnam War and the beginning of the end of the Cold War—he was there for his kids, teaching them about baseball. And, of course, about life.
“As he got older, he got more tired,” David Heckendorn, who played for Austin in the 1960s recalled. “But still everyday he would be at the field with his newspaper, his bats, and his balls surrounded by kids of all ages.
“What a comfort, what a sense of security, it was for me and generations of young boys to know that each and every day, they could walk or ride their bike to the field, and they would find Joe there to welcome us and provide us with a full day of baseball practice and games,” said Braverman.
“The guy was a one man day camp,” is the way Bruce Lerro, another former Shannon from the 60s puts it.
UNSURPRISINGLY many of Austin’s progeny have crystal clear memories of their first encounter with the man who would become a landmark in their lives.
Peter Lord certainly does, remembering the day in 1965 when he tried out for Joe, who was already 64–as if it was yesterday. And boy, does he remember those fungos.
“As I walked onto the field I saw something I had never seen prior or since. It was a sight to behold and almost indescribable,” gushes Lord, who went on to become a successful accountant. “I saw a mix of batting practice, infielders being hit ground balls and outfielders shagging fly balls.
At the center of all this activity was this elderly man in a baseball cap hitting balls with a fungo bat. Never have I seen such precision. Each of his swings launched a baseball like a guided missle. Was I dreaming? Did I just enter baseball heaven?!”
“But that was just the beginning,” Lord recounts. “Joe halted the practice and told his players to line up one behind the other in left field. When he signaled, each player started racing towards center field while Joe hit a Mickey Mantle like fly ball. If you were running at full speed, your glove would meet the ball perfectly in centerfield. One after the other!”
“Then came the infield work out,” Lord enthuses. “Joe hitting one ground ball after the next, with the players fielding and throwing in a perfectly synchronized movement. And then came the grand finale: Joe with his fungo bat on the pitchers mound hitting one perfectly placed foul ball after the other for his catcher to run after and catch.”
Up until that moment, the awestruck fourteen year old had escaped Austin’s notice. Finally, Austin came over, introduced himself, extended his hand, as the other players continued to practice in the background.
“He sent me to my position at shortstop, gave me an Austin style work out, sent me to the plate for some hitting.” At the end, Austin came over and said to Lord simply, “Welcome to the Emeralds.”
Young Peter Lord was in baseball heaven.
Today there are hundreds of living Austin alumni ranging in age from their forties to their nineties who have similar memories.
BASEBALL and his kids. For sixty years, that was it for this Austin. He lived for the game, and for his kids.
His lifestyle was much like that of a priest, except that instead of a church, he worked at a brewery.
“I once asked Joe how come he never married,” said Dave Heckendorn, who went on to become a successful musician. “He said, ‘I don’t think a woman would have been able to accept the way I wanted to live my life. That way of giving so unselfishly of his time and resources made each of us feel special.”
“There was only one Joe,” said Tony Macaluso, an Austin alumnus and former policeman, who, like many if not most of Austin’s alumni talks about his former coach and mentor, gushes with enthusiasm when asked about his former coach and mentor. In particular, Macaluso remembers Joe’s ecumenism. “He didn’t care what religion, race or sex you were. You were welcome.”
Leslie Mills, who played on one of Joe’s scrub teams, can testify to that. “I was only twelve years old when I started chasing balls for Joe,” she said. “He was the most generous man I ever knew.”
Lew Suber, a retired postal worker, and an Afro-American who, at a time when prejudice against black people was still commonplace, even in New York, found himself welcome on Joe’s field, can also testify to Austin’s open door policy. “He gave us everything,” said Suber. “Gloves if we needed them, knowledge, comradeship.”
INTERESTINGLY a lot of the best stories about Joe revolve around gloves.
For example, there was that afternoon doubleheader back in the summer of 1958, when Braverman, then a batboy for the Shannons, lost his glove and…
Well, let him tell it:
“One batboy experience stands out for me,” he remembers. “We were on the road that day playing a team called the Saxons.” “The road” of course, meant elsewhere in Queens. But of course for a seven year old youngster from Jamaica that was a long way.
“Their home field, named Drew Memorial, was adjacent to Van Wyck Expressway, on the way to Kennedy [then Idlewild] Airport. Not the best neighborhood, but that’s where the game was, so that’s where we went.
“I loved to play catch with some of the Shannons before the doubleheaders and was looking forward that day to their high velocity tosses breaking in my new baseball glove. During the game there was no need for my glove, and I placed it behind the bench. It was a good day, with the Shannons sweeping the twin bill.
So it was. Smiles all around, with handshakes and pats all around, including one for the eager beaver bat boy, Jesse Braverman.
Jesse was smiling, too—until he looked behind the bench and found that his precious glove was not where he had left it. Frantically, the youngster searched through all of the large equipment bags the team had brought with them. Nothing: it had been stolen.
This was the seven year old’s first experience with crime, and it hit hard. “Tears welled up in my eyes. How could I tell my parents? The glove, “ a rare left-handed model, “was too expensive in the first place. “I decided to conceal the news, but had no long range plan.”
The following day, just as Austin was about to begin his usual pepper routine, a gloveless Jesse, who had been looking to getting in some playing time himself, disconsolately sat on the bench near the pepper field, still at a loss as to how to replace the precious glove, convinced that he would not be able to play for the foreseeable future.
Braverman, who would wind up becoming one of Austin’s most passionate devotees, tells what happened next.
“Joe greeted me as usual. Without saying a word, he reached into his duffle bag and presented me with a brand new glove.”
That was Joe Austin.
AUSTIN’S generosity, and generosity of spirit, didn’t stop when the game was over. Every few weeks or so he would take his young charges to the Polo Grounds to see “his” Giants, as he called them, paying for everything himself. Other times he would take his kids to Yankee Stadium or the old Madison Square Garden, to watch basketball.
Amazingly he paid for everything—tickets, refreshments—himself. “He would know the ticket taker, the usher, the cop on the beat,” Austin alumnus Chris Green remembers. “Sometimes he even knew the players and coaches!”
On other days he would take his “kids” to spend the day on Coney Island. A good time was had by all—unless you didn’t like riding the Cyclone, the world-famous, vertigo inducing roller coaster ride. Joe would insist.
In the event, Jesse was one of those who didn’t care for the Cyclone, but he pretend he did, so he wouldn’t let Joe down. It was on those excursions that the trim, well-disciplined septuagenarian came as close to letting his hair down.
That was also part of the Joe Austin experience.
BUT the key attraction, the real treat, of course was being able to play for Joe. To his kids Joe was baseball. He personified the game, and in a way had a genius for it.
Oftentimes Austin’s philosophy of baseball, coupled with some of the special techniques he taught—or, rather, demonstrated—to his kids, allowed them to overcome the odds and defeat more highly-vaunted opponents. Braverman remembers one memorable such instance:
“I recall one Emeralds game, when we were playing first place Rosedale, who boasted a Murderers’ Row line-up, including a flame throwing pitcher from Christ the King High School, Bob Shortell. We didn’t think we had much of a chance against such a bigger and talented squad.”
Joe thought otherwise, offering his standard advice about not worrying about the other team, and instead letting them worry about them. The Emeralds duly nodded and took the field, while their highly favored opponents in the other dugout laughed and smirked.
In the end, however, it was Joe’s kids who would have the last laugh that day. “Somehow, using the Austin style of bunting and playing hit and run, we managed to scratch out a pair of runs,” said Braverman, who was on the mound that day in 1967.
“I didn’t exactly overpower the opposition, but I was throwing consistent strikes.” The air-tight, Austin-trained Emerald defense, led by third baseman Peter Lord, pirouetting like a balletomane and turning around two key double plays, took care of the rest. The scoreboard told the stunning story at the end of the day: Emeralds 2, Rosedale 0.
Once again, the expert baseball training and philosophy which the boys had learned served them well.
And yet, as effective a baseball technician and teacher as Austin could often be, Braverman and his fellow Austin alumni are agreed, what the utility of what The Old Man taught—or, rather demonstrated, went far beyond the field.
Commitment. Tolerance. Selflessness. These are some of the central life lessons his kids learned from him.
Commitment. “What I got from Joe was the strength of commitment,” David Heckendorn says. “He imparted a dignity about playing life’s game for all it was worth. A game where losing was ok as long as you gave it your best.”
“He never yelled at us for making physical mistakes,” remembers Bill Rappaport. “What he demanded was 100% effort.”
And when he didn’t get 100%? That’s when he got upset. Everyone who showed up played—but you better give it your all. That was the core of Austin’s philosophy, which he demonstrated by his own (there is no other word) fanatic devotion to the game. Or as he was wont to put it somewhat indelicately: If you want to play ball, play ball. If not, get the fuck off my field.
In Joe’s book, winning was not everything, but you’d better it give it your all, and no futzing around while you’re at it. One Emerald pitcher, one of Joe’s stars, discovered this codicil to his regret one day back in 1965, when he reacted to an error by his shortstop by throwing his glove in disgust, Rappaport recalls. “Joe walked up to the mound and told him to ‘get the fuck off my field. It was one of the most impressive acts in sports I have ever seen.” To Austin’s mind, the pitcher, by dint of his childish behavior wasn’t serious about the game. So out he went.
Of course, no one could doubt Austin’s own commitment to the game, as anyone who saw Joe during his sixty some odd seasons of coaching baseball, year after year, beginning with his daily pre-game ablutions. “Everyday he would come straight from work,” marvels Michael Schwab. “You’d come in the morning and see him in the outfield with a sickle, swinging it back and forth, mowing down the weeds. Everyday.”
Of course, sometimes he did tend to overdo it. “He even missed my sister’s wedding because he had a doubleheader,” his nephew, Garry, recalls, shaking his head. “And Joe was her godfather!”
Another precept the Austin alumni agree they learned from the coach was tolerance. “Everyday the field was teeming with kids of all ages, races and nationalities. Everyone who wanted to be involved was.”
“He didn’t care what, religion, race or sex you were,” says Lewis Suber, a black Austin alumnus from Springfield who made the weekly pilgrimage to the field, along with the rest of his mostly white brethren. “He didn’t care, as long as you showed up for practice.”
“Mind you,” this was in the days when racial prejudice was overt, yet Joe was above all that,” notes Bill Rappaport. “We all played together like brothers.”
Commitment. Tolerance. Selflessness. These are some of the things that Joe’s kids learned from him.
To be sure, the same Austin alumni are agreed, he was no saint. “Joe was not a goody-goody,” Bruce Lerro declares. “He cursed and he did tend to exclude you if you did not come on a regular basis.” Then, of course, there were the Eddie Stanky-like temper tantrums.
Also, despite their fondness of him, some parents tended to look askance at Joe’s off beat choice of after hours meeting places, especially Bradley’s café. “I was preparing for my Bar Mitzvah when I was 12,” Michael Schwab says. “I came home and told my parents how I had just learned to read ‘The Racing Form’ at Bradley’s Café with my teammates from St. Monica’s. They said, ‘This is our bar mitzvah boy?’”
Somehow, with Joe, it evened out.
No, in case you’re wondering, Joe didn’t produce any major leaguers. “I’ve produced a lot of cops and firefighters and businessmen,” Austin would reply when asked about his placement record. “They’re all major leaguers in my book.”
And, of course, he did produce, one governor. Needless to say, the man whom Cuomo calls the most important man after my father was in the front row when his former star player was inaugurated in 1981, along with a number of other Austin alumni. “I looked out and saw him rap his left hand into his right palm, the old signal to hit away,” said Cuomo. “I stopped and returned the signal and when I did, I saw all the other guys giving the signal. Nobody knew what was going on.”
“I was lucky to have known Joe Austin,” concludes David Heckendorn. “He gave me something that I cannot exactly put into words but I know that has given me a strength and an integrity that has helped me in my life. And if there’s a heaven—and I know, Joe, a devout Catholic, believed there was—he’s up there hitting fungos with a nailed-together wooden bat, or playing ‘pepper’ in the dusty dirt of an inner city ball field.”
“Joe never had any kids of his own,” says Michael Schwab. “But you know about large Irish families? We’re all his kids.”
(END CHAPTER/TO BE CONTINUED)