Fred Tomasello Jr. Guest Contributor
Editor’s Note: Fred Tomasello Jr. has contributed a number of stories to the Legacy Magazine. This piece is an excerpt from his book “West Tampa Stories” – a collection of memories from a hometown.
Whenever I think about Ralph Lavandera, and I’ve thought about him a lot over the last 50 years, there is one incident that epitomizes Ralph’s character and summarizes why Ralph is where he is today.
It happened in March of 1960 inside Tampa’s sold-out Al Lopez Field, the only baseball stadium that I know of in our country’s history where the namesake, Hall of Famer and Tampa native Alfonso Ramon Lopez, born on August 20, 1908 and died on October 30, 2005 at the age of 97, outlived the physical structure dedicated to him. The stands were filled to capacity that day with short-sleeved, white-shirted fans watching a spring training game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago White Sox.
“I’m gonna take Nellie Fox’s bat,” Ralph announced during the 7th inning stretch, surprising us to such an extent that we just stared at him, speechless, our mouths agape.
That simple, declarative statement, spoken by any other of my friends at the time would have resulted in a yeah, sure response. But Ralph said it, and when Ralph Lavandera said something, everybody listened.
The four of us who were hanging out at the stadium that day were still teenagers; me, Ralph, Julio Rosas and Joey Lavandera, Ralph’s brother.
We were constantly on the move during the game because we had no seats. We had no seats because we had no money and could not pay to get in. Devoted baseball fans like us never let a small thing like money stop us from seeing our major league heroes.
We had jumped the fence and were doing our best to blend in among the crowds moving from the first base line, to the area behind home plate, the best spot for viewing the pitcher’s stuff, and then to the third base line, staying in the main aisle, walking slowly, pausing often to watch the game, yelling and cheering whenever something happened. We tried to look like four friends going to the rest rooms or to the concession stands, or back to our seats. And for the last hour or so, our ruse had worked well. The game was in the last two innings.
Since Ralph’s bold declaration, the frown on his brother Joe’s face had been getting deeper and deeper as he thought about what Ralph had said and now, a full five minutes and fifty yards from that fateful spot, he could contain himself no longer
“Ralph, you’re full of shit,” Joe said.
Julio, who also had been thinking, spoke up.
“Ralph, how you gonna do that? In front of all these people . . . you’re nuts, man. You gonna get us arrested.”
Ralph’s eyes were intense, feverishly focused on the area between the first base line dugout and the on-deck batter’s circle. Here, the Chicago White Sox batboy had lined their bats leaning against this short fence, single-file, probably coinciding with their batting order. Nellie Fox’s bat was the one with the fattest handle, nearly the same size as the barrel of his bat.
Power hitters like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Ted Kluszewski, preferred a thin-handled bat with a fat barrel. When they snapped their wrists during their swing, the bat actually bent a little like a Catholic nun’s wooden pointer stick whistling through the air with fierce intensity as she whaled our butts for mis-behaving in class.
Just like her stick, right before the moment of impact, the baseball bat would uncoil and explode against the ball with a loud CRACK! The extra speed and power propelled the bat’s “sweet spot” against the ball, sending the sphere even further, hopefully over the fence. This whip-action was a scientifically proven fact. We saw it for ourselves in our school classrooms and when we watched slow-motion replays on film and television.
Nellie Fox, however, wasn’t a power hitter.
The year before, he was the American League’s most valuable player leading the White Sox to the 1959 World Series where they lost to the world champion Los Angeles Dodgers, those bastard “Bums” who deserted Brooklyn by boarding busses in the dead of night, baseball’s blatant act of disloyalty signaling to the American public the rise of the dominant almighty dollar in professional sports and that America’s real pastime was making riches–loyal fans could go to hell. At the time, I was too young and naive to believe this even though my father swore it was true.
Since little Nellie Fox thrived on singles and doubles, he couldn’t care less about whip action. He wanted to extend his bat’s “sweet spot” from the barrel as far down as possible, even to his knuckles if necessary, so if a pitcher fooled him with a slider or curve, or jammed him with a fastball, the part of the bat striking the ball was still thick enough to propel the ball through the infield for a hit.
We loved players like Nellie Fox. At 5 feet 9 inches tall and 160 pounds, we had a chance to grow to his size, and if Nellie could make it to the majors, then damn it, so could we.
Nellie Fox was a “hustler” and hustling helped make him a star. He never walked or trotted. He ran everywhere, out to his position when the inning started and into the dugout when the inning ended. He bolted towards every ball hit anywhere near his position and ran the bases at full speed even when he knew the ball had popped up and someone would easily catch the soft fly ball. He ran to first base after ball four even when he was entitled to “walk.”
A few years later, Pete Rose would say, “hustle is free, it’s a gimme” and we already knew what Rose meant. God may not have given us tall bodies, great hand-eye coordination, bulging muscles or blinding speed, but all of us could hustle.
In addition to his hustle and fat-handled bat, Nellie Fox’s other trademark was a giant-sized chew of tobacco that so grotesquely inflated his cheek, the eye on that side would squint nearly shut and we were amazed that he could see through what looked like a painful deformity.
Always a league leader in the lowest number of strikeouts and consecutive games played at second base, Nellie Fox was tough and fearless, holding his ground against people sliding into second base trying to break up a double-play, their sharp spikes flashing in the sun, ready to flay open a second-baseman’s skin and expose his white shin bone.
Casey Stengel, the manager of the New York Yankees, said of Fox, “That little feller, he ain’t so big, but he’s all fire. He’s caused me more grief than any other player on the White Sox.”
And so the stage was set on that bright and beautiful spring day in Tampa when Ralph Lavandera, with declaration and determination, decided to take Nellie Fox’s bat.
“What if Fox sees you?” Julio asked. “He could jump the fence, chase you down and beat your ass in front of all these people. I won’t help you, man. You’re on your own.”
“How are you gonna do it?” I asked, as we once again walked down the ramp towards the concession stands. It was the top of the 9th inning. The game was nearly over.
“I’ve got an idea,” Ralph answered. “I’m gonna make it work. Don’t come near me when I make my move. If something happens, run like hell. Just stay away and watch me.”
I’ve been watching Ralph from the day we first met in 1957. It was at the Tropical Paradise, an ice cream, soda and snack place in West Tampa on Armenia Avenue near the West Town Theater. On Saturday mornings, we kids would congregate at the West Town for two movies, cartoons, the news and a weekly serial like “Commander Cody of the Space Patrol.” It cost us fourteen cents to get in, a nickel for popcorn and another nickel for soda. For that reason, my mother only gave me a quarter. I couldn’t beg another dime from her. Forget about asking my dad–he would scream at her for giving me the quarter.
“Freddie, you come straight home after the movie,” she’d order me. “Don’t go to the Tropical with those dead-end kids. If you hang around with them, you’ll get in trouble. You’ll end up in Marianna, in reform school.”
Sometimes my uncle, who boxed professionally under the name Joe Miller, would dig into his pockets and give me all his change. Whenever he did that, I felt rich. Nearly all the other kids got thirty-five cents from their parents and with the extra dime, they’d go to the Tropical Paradise after the movies to meet, listen to music and talk. I went too and just sat there and watched, broke and a little embarrassed that my parents were so cheap. Many years later I realized we were poor in those days.
One Saturday afternoon, after the movies, I was sitting alone in the Tropical when Ralph and I made eye contact.
“Hey man, come over here,” Ralph told me. “Sit down. Have some fries and a Coke? What’s your name?”
I introduced myself, joined him and his friends and we all sat together, talking and laughing and having a good time.
Someone at our table finished their soda and when they sucked on the straw, the cup made that horrible grating sound, that brrrraaat-brrrraaat-brrrraaat sound.
A group of girls were sitting at the next table and everyone got very quiet, embarrassed. I don’t know if our guys thought the sound hit those girls like a loud fart, or if that type of sound was considered simply rude. To suck a straw so hard against the bottom of an icy cup and make that sound may have equated to picking your nose in public. But whatever the reason, there was an awkward moment that seemed to last forever.
Maybe Ralph’s future wife Alice was one of the girls sitting at that other table. Ralph’s been with Alice forever, probably since the day she first stood up in her crib, Ralph saw her and selected her as his girlfriend, steady and forever, just like the marriage vows specify, “till death do us part.”
The awkward silence continued until, finally, one of our guys, probably Ralph himself, took the initiative to say something.
“God, I hate that sound. It sounds like . . .”
Ralph had started to say what he was thinking and then abruptly stopped, coasted to a halt without a verbal period, like he suddenly realized that what he was just about to say could possibly be even more offensive so he stopped, tried to rethink and drew a blank. This created another awkward silence. His attempt to restore the jovial mood got jammed and the ensuing silence hung in the air.
Suddenly, right in the middle of Ralph’s pause, I blurted out.
“Yeah, I hate that sound too. It means you’re empty; the soda’s gone; that’s all there is; finito; you hit bottom; out of gas; sucking air; or in this case, ice.”
Everyone looked at me, paused for a moment, and then started laughing, especially Ralph. Conviviality returned to the room and Ralph and I cemented our friendship.
I lived on Saint John Street and Ralph and Joe lived two blocks over on Beach Street. They were a Spanish family dropped somehow behind the Italian lines and were now surrounded by an island of Sicilians.
We ate some sort of pasta every day and had spaghetti sauce three times a week; they ate white or yellow rice every day. Our families spoke Italian at home; theirs spoke Spanish. We were outgoing, loud and boisterous; they were shy, quiet and reserved. Italians knew each other not only by name but also by our Sicilian city of origin.
Ralph’s family knew no one at first and we looked on them as those Spaniards from Spain. We kids met regularly at school and on the playgrounds, became friends, fought often and competed in whatever sport was in season. In West Tampa, summer sports were always in season and baseball was king. We played year round, every day.
We rode our bicycles to the baseball diamonds at Macfarlane Park. The first two kids to arrive warmed up with each other and played hot pepper against the backstop. As soon as the third kid arrived, we played baseball using cork ball rules; a batter, a pitcher and an outfielder.
Sometimes we played Home Run Derby, batting from center field and trying to hit the ball over the backstop for a home run. Anything else was an out. When six kids arrived, we switched to modified baseball, picking 3-man teams and using half the diamond. By 10 am, we usually had enough kids to play using the entire field.
There were no umpires, uniforms, or adults to regulate us. We negotiated our own rules, argued, improvised and argued some more. Sometimes we fought with our fists, pouted, made peace, took turns and played until dark. At noon we broke and went to the local grocery store for an RC Cola and a Moon Pie. Then back to the diamond to resume the game. We kept score, often near the hundreds, until kids began to leave for dinner or it got so dark we couldn’t see well enough to play.
We did this every day during the summer and every afternoon during the school season. I was going to say “even during winter,” but in Florida, winter never stopped anyone from playing baseball. That’s why a lot of major league teams came to Florida for the winter.
Baseball equipment was precious to us.
We never threw away baseball spikes. We repaired them with duct tape, needle and heavy thread, shined them with black shoe polish and sharpened the rusty steel spikes with a metal file.
Stiff, dry baseball gloves were resurrected each season, brought back to life by rubbing them with our mothers’ olive oil and re-stringing them with shoelaces when the leather cords rotted and broke. We borrowed our mothers’ face-powder pads and taped them inside our gloves to protect our palms and dampen the sting of a line drive or hard fastball.
With a ballpoint pen, we’d print our names and phone numbers on the leather and then protect our eyes with two pair of sunglasses as we burned the information in by holding a magnifying glass under the bright sun and tracing the hot dot like a laser over each letter.
Smelling the wisp of burnt olive oil reminded me of cowboy movies and how the smoke from cattle must smell as their hides were branded and marked for identification, a ranch owner’s first line of protection against thieves and rustlers.
This was the era before aluminum or metal composite bats had been invented and when they were, they far were too expensive for us to even consider.
Since wooden bats would often crack, we’d take them to Ralph’s house for repair. The Lavandera family had moved to Bradford Street and their house had a workshop in the large two-car garage. Like a bone and joint doctor, Ralph would secure the broken bat on his Dad’s vise and get out the glue, small nails, hammer and tape. Two of us would gently pry open and expose the crack so Ralph could peer inside and squeeze white wood glue into the wound, apply pressure with the vice and seal the wound by tapping small nails into the wood to keep the crack closed. Sometimes Ralph drilled a hole clean through the bat and secured the crack with a nut and bolt, it’s sharp edges filed smooth and round. Ralph was the head surgeon and Joe, Julio and I were his assistants. We’d leave the bat on the vise overnight, under extreme pressure, and the next day the repaired bat was released, sanded down and wound with his dad’s sticky black electrical tape until the bat looked like new.
The thinner the handle, the more difficult the bat was to repair. One good crack from not keeping the trademark up when swinging, was all it took to ruin a bat. We all knew this and maybe that was another reason Ralph wanted Nellie Fox’s bat, a more practical reason that just happened to coincide with our admiration for Nellie Fox, our small-statured hero. Nellie’s bat would last longer than the Mickey Mantle or Ted Kluszewski styled bats. And we needed equipment that would last.
Balls were plentiful. At night, we would climb over the Al Lopez Field fence, jump onto the infield and climb up the backstop screen behind home plate. We were like spiders climbing up an invisible web, three stories high with no visible support beneath our hands and feet.
At the top of the stadium, where the screen joined the roof right above the press box and announcer’s station, there was a flat air conditioning panel, a sheet metal barrier that would stop foul balls, trap them and keep them from rolling back onto the diamond or over the roof and onto the sidewalk below. We would salvage between three to ten balls after every game.
If it rained, the balls were soaking wet. We’d take them to Ralph’s garage, rub them down with his family’s bathroom towels and, using his mother’s blow dryer, blast them with hot air until the leather dried and shrunk, stretching the threads and exaggerating the size of the stitches until the covers were ready to explode. After hitting them with a bat several times, these balls would rip apart and if we didn’t have any more balls, we’d continue to use them. If it rained during our game, we’d stow our good balls and switch to these water logged, ready-to-split balls.
When someone hit a long fly ball into the outfield, the broken, spinning ball would shed a round rooster-tail of water, like a wet pinwheel, all the way down. When the sun hit it just right, tiny rainbows would appear and disappear just before the ball plopped into our gloves, the sizzling leather flap suddenly silent, like we were holding a deep-fried hot potato.
So, back to that beautiful day at Al Lopez field. The game’s just about to end. Ralph warns us again to stay up here in the main aisle. He makes his way down through the expensive box seats towards where the bats are still lined up against the fence. These seats are occupied by rich people who drink huge cups of beer, shell salted peanuts and mindlessly drop the husks onto the concrete ground, not caring that people poorer than us will clean up their mess after every game.
Rich people can afford to take an afternoon off of work and pay big bucks to get in and watch these games. Many even purchased plane tickets and flew in or drove their cars all the way from Chicago or Cincinnati to Tampa, then rented a hotel room and came to watch the game. We could very easily spot these tourists, these Northerners, these “yankees.” Their chests, faces and arms were pale and white. They often removed their shirts to get a tan, to try to look like us, we dark and swarthy native Floridians, so sadly outnumbered by them, then, now and forever more.
Ralph saunters down the aisle between these box seats like he belongs there among these people.
He’s an outsider, an interloper, one of us. His dark Spanish complexion stands out among the pale people in their white short-sleeved business shirts.
Just as he reaches the fence, the final out is made and the game is over. People jump out of their seats and rush towards the aisles. The players trot off the field toward their dressing rooms, trying to avoid the souvenir and autograph seekers. They’re anxious to peel off their sweaty spring training uniforms, hit the cool showers and wash off their sun tan lotion, irritatingly speckled with Florida sand. Then they’ll be ready to party long into the night.
God—what a life!
The batboys and equipment managers are gathering up gloves, jars of pine tar, rosin bags, tobacco pouches, canvas bags, jackets and a variety of “hidden” batting helmets starting to make their debut since mandated by the Pittsburg Pirates in 1952. Their heads and eyes are looking down, intent on completing their job so they too can be out of here, onto the bus and headed for their hotels.
That’s when Ralph makes his move.
He leans over the waist-high fence, reaches down and grabs Nellie Fox’s bat. He lifts it over the fence, clutches it to his chest and turns around with his back to the field. He jams the bat down into his pants behind his belt buckle and slides it down his right pant leg.
Walking up the steps, mingling in with the crowd, Ralph looks like he’s got the biggest and fattest boner in baseball history. The long stiffness of the bat down his leg doesn’t allow his knee to bend so he goes up the steps with a huge limp, like he’s a horribly disabled accident victim, some crippled kid who got to watch the game from the box seats, paid for by some charitable paleface, some rich executive from up north.
Ralph has a faint smile on his face. His eyes are mirthful but there’s a touch of fear in there mixed with pride as he finally reaches us.
We break into huge grins. As he hobbles the last few feet, we reach out, catch him and close around him like a glove and shield him as we leave the stadium.
“What balls, man! You did it! You got Nellie Fox’s bat!” Julio and Joe are cheering. “Let me see it, Ralph! Stop! Let me see it!”
But Ralph keeps hobbling ahead.
Outside the stadium gate, people are dodging around us to leave, frowning at us when Ralph stops and pulls out the bat. To me, right now, Ralph looks like Sir Lancelot, one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, pulling the huge, heavy and magical Excalibur out of its sheath, holding it up with both hands, taking short choppy swings, careful not to strike any tourists close by who now give us a wide berth.
“Hey, watch it, you kids,” they say and walk around us.
We take turns holding Nellie Fox’s bat and examining its details. Its 35 inches long, has the fabled fat handle, and it’s perfectly intact, no cracks, only a few white scuff marks from hitting brand new baseballs. There’s a small dark patch of pine tar just below the trademark and up near the barrel, right on the “sweet spot,” we see the famous signature, branded, burned-in and permanent, “Nellie Fox.”
We used that famous bat for years and if I know Ralph, he still has that bat somewhere in his lakefront house, or maybe at his beach house, hung on a mantle over a pretty but rarely used Florida fireplace, or maybe it’s in his office, right behind his desk.
In the 10th grade, Ralph quit school and went to work. Everyone freaked out and worried about his future. We stayed friends and even paid to enter a team in Tampa’s Municipal League, promising sponsors we would print their business names on two baseball jerseys if they gave us $25. We were the youngest co-managers in the league.
Then Ralph joined the Army, got out and went to work as a electrician. I got married, joined the Marine Corps and we went separate ways for many years.
Today, Ralph owns Lavandera Electric, his electrical contracting company and is a success story by anyone’s standards. He’s well known and respected for his diligence, honesty, hard work and his loyalty to his employees.
I admire Ralph for what got him to where he is today: his courage and his focus. The Yiddish call this essential success trait chutzpah and the Spanish call it cojones.
Ralph Lavandera has them both, by the tons.
And he’s got Nellie Fox’s bat to prove it.
Fred Tomasello Jr. is an author living in Florida. His book “West Tampa Stories” can be purchased here LINK