Sunday, August 28, 2011

   Searching For Joe Garagiola
        at the Polo Grounds

Mays catching the ball a few feet in front of the wall.
For most people “seeing is believing” but not for Anthony Scillia.
Dr. Scillia, a psychiatrist from Denville, New Jersey is a life long San Francisco Giants fan. His allegiance to the team dates back to its days at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan, across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium.

When Dr. Scillia read Joe Garagiola, had a direct view of “The Catch” Willie Mays’ dramatic game-saving over-the-head grab of Vic Wertz’s 450-foot blast in the eight inning of game one of the 1954 World Series against the Cleveland Indians, he wanted proof.

Who could blame him?
(First, for most of us, “Who is Joe Garagiola?”)
How did Garagiola, who played for the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs wind up at the game? And how did he have one of the best seats of the 52,751 fans there.  A journeyman player, his best-known baseball achievement is growing up in The Hill section of St. Louis, near his close friend, New York Yankee Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra.

“I was not the best catcher in baseball. I wasn’t even the best catcher on my block,” Gariagola once said.

His career took off after his playing days ended. Author of “Baseball is a Funny Game” he hosted NBC’s Today Show and its Saturday Game of the Week. He often guest-hosted Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show including the Beatles only appearance on that show and was a panelist on To Tell The Truth


The score tied 2-2 and no outs, base runners on first and second, power hitting Wertz, a four-time all-star slammed Don Liddle’s fourth pitch to centerfield. When Wertz connected with the ball, Mays known for playing a shallow centerfield, turned and ran over 130 feet with his back to home plate. If the ball remained in play everyone knew Willie would catch it. And he did! His throw to the infield prevented runners from scoring. The Giants won the game and swept the series; their last in New York. They moved to San Francisco in 1957.

While reading “Baseball’s 25 Greatest Moments” published by The Sporting News (the catch ranked ninth) the following quote spurred Dr. Scillia’s interest.

“It was an impossible catch, but what amazed me was how quickly Mays turned and fired the ball all the way to second base," said Garagiola. “He had to leave skid marks there-that’s how quickly he stopped and braced himself to throw.” Garagiola saw the play from a clubhouse window 483 feet from home plate, less than 30 feet from Mays.

After making his over-the-head catch of Wertz's blast Mays stops quickly
ready to throw the ball to the infield. Garagiola watches from the window.

He called his friend, Carl Kahn, a Brooklyn Dodger fan and a sports memorabilia collector. Kahn who knows Garagiola personally told Scillia “If Joe said it, then it is true.” Dr. Scillia thumbed through his baseball video library. He played his film and saw someone in the seventh window, on the far left side of the clubhouse. He noticed another face by the second window but that person had an obstructed view.

Scillia  had a quote and a photo but he needed more.  This had personal ties.
“My parents who are deceased were enthusiastic Giant fans. My best friend is a Yankee fan. He always urged me to become one,” he said. “If I had I would abandon my father.

 “Rooting for the Giants keeps me connected with my parents. As a fan I was curious but I had to do it for my father.”

Dr. Scillia visited baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He found his evidence in their archives, a photo showing the entire clubhouse with Garagiola hunched by the window. He sent the picture to Garagiola who signed it.

So how did Garagiola wind up in the Giants clubhouse?  He played five games with the Giants - batted 11 times, with three hits, two doubles. The Giants did not add him to their World Series roster and he watched the game from the clubhouse. “I had nothing to do with the outcome of the game,” he said.

Borrowing a phrase made popular by the late Red Barber, a sportscaster for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees, Garagiola had the enviable position of sitting “in the catbird seat.”

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Pier 57: Innovative WWII Concept 
Heralded New Age in Pier Design

On Sunday September 29, 1947 a fire swept through Pier 57. Flames soared six stories high. Huge clouds of smoke darkened the skies over the Chelsea and West Village waterfront.
Six fire boats plus eighty fire and emergency vehicles responded to this eight-alarm blaze at Pier 57 between 15 and 16th streets. Hundreds of firemen worked double shifts to contain the fire, which at one point threatened two adjacent piers.

In the end the blaze injured over 153 people. It took 15 hours to extinguish the last smoldering ashes. Over 300 feet of the 800-foot pier crumbled into the river and with it a bit of waterfront’s mystique. Pier 57 served the great trans Atlantic ships of the French Line, including the luxurious Art Deco masterpieces Lafayette and Ile de France.

Fire Commissioner Frank J. Quayle ruled the blaze “suspicious but undoubtedly due to carelessness.” The fire started in creosote piles in oil-covered water underneath the pier about sixty feet from its western or river end, where two tugs worked.

Built by the city in 1907 at a cost of $1,200,000 the Grace Line leased it in 1939 for twenty years. The worst fire in the river’s history completely destroyed it, a loss of $5 million.

Within months the Department of Marine and Aviation planned to replace it with a fire and marine borer proof concrete and steel structure with a basement. No pier had ever had underwater storage before. This innovative concept, designed by noted architect and civil engineer Emil Praeger, consisted of three watertight concrete boxes which would support it instead of wood piles, the standard material used. The pier would rest on two boxes or pontoons, set end-to-end, measuring roughly 360 feet long, 82 feet wide and weighing 27,000 tons. The two boxes would connect to the third caisson, which at 19,000 tons and almost equal size supported the bulkhead and created a T-shape.

Praeger designed the rectangular floating breakwaters used by the Allies for the D-Day invasion in World War II. Years later Praeger also designed the Tappan Zee Bridge, the Nebraska State Capitol, Shea and LA Dodger Stadiums. He also renovated the Capitol in Washington.
Due to its size construction took place in an abandoned clay quarry turned lake near Haverstraw, New York about 38 miles north of the city along the Hudson.

Construction began August 1950. Two years later six tugboats, under the supervision of the Moran Towing Corporation, whose boats had worked the Hudson waters for generations, floated the first box down river. At 57 engineers filled it with water and sunk it, the first commercial effort employing the “float and sink” principle used by the Allies at Normandy. The two other boxes arrived a month later.

In December 1954 the new pier opened. At $12 million it far exceeded original estimates. It doubled the size of the old one and provided additional open space on the roof and basement storage for perishable goods. It also directed passenger traffic to unload in a third basement by the bulkhead where Passengers then proceeded to a huge receiving hall on the second level by elevators. Cargo trucks used a separate ramp to the second level.

Although its innovative design drew praise from the maritime and engineering world success proved short-lived. In less than ten years passenger travel and cargo shipping underwent massive change. Jet planes cut travel to Europe from days to hours and siphoned away business. Container shipping and the need for large tracts of land made the west side piers obsolete. In 1960 W.R. Grace Company sold its operations.

For the past four decades the MTA has used it for bus parking and a maintenance garage. During the Republican National convention in 2004 it became a detention center for protesters.

Pier 57, which is listed on the State and National Registers of Historical Places, sits in the middle of the Hudson River Park. It once symbolized elegance. It is now an eyesore and obstacle for thousands of walkers, bikers and joggers who use the park daily. On a negative note it became a detention center for protesters during the Republican National convention in 2004.

A makeover is in the works. Plans call for developing several acres and levels of public space for cultural and recreational uses, plus a public market and rooftop park. This summer the Hudson River Park Trust, the keeper of the Hudson River Park, accepted public comments for its redevelopment project. Old shipping containers are the special feature this time around.

For more information check the Hudson River Park Trust’s website .

Monday, August 1, 2011

     Runyonesque Character Left 
       Imprint on Times Square 
In a neighborhood full of colorful and zany characters William Kanafsky easily ranked at or near the top of any list. He possessed all the traits of a typical Damon Runyon character - a slick, racy, fast-talking, wisecracking wit. He packaged this with an attitude that said  "I'm going to verbally strip you down and embarrass you and have fun while you squirm."   
And he often did just that, in a tough-love way, to anyone who walked through the doors of his shop.
The final chapter of this Clinton story ended on March 11, 2001 when William Kanafsky died at St. Clare's Hospital. He was 58. He had lived and worked in Clinton and Times Square for over 25 years.

Few people knew his real name. He had more monikers than a character in a Runyon short story. Mention Wild Bill, Billy Kane, Colonel Finkelstein, White Willie, Billy Dancing Shoes, Billy Kanocker, The Bearded One, and then most everyone knew you were referring to Billy from the Manhattan Plaza Winery.

He managed the wine shop since 1985. When he first started there Clinton still had a hard edge, neighborhood in transition. Vacant stores, shoddy storefronts, dilapidated tenements, drugs, street prostitution and high crime created an unsafe feeling, especially late at night. Ninth Avenue did not enjoy the bustling restaurant and cafe buzz it has today.
Yet he took a struggling business and made it into one midtown’s best wine and spirits shop.

He saw change coming to Hell’s Kitchen. He hung out with everyone from hookers and hustlers at the Full Moon bar on Eight Avenue to the struggling actor’s, celebrities, and bankers who frequented the Film Center CafĂ© or the West Bank Cafe among a score of  local restaurants, bars and dives. He lived it up mightily and became friends with many, who in turn became his customers.

He had a knack for building a business. Prior to joining the Winery he managed Bernard's, a popular theater and late-night bistro on West 48th, a site now occupied by the Morgan Stanley building. There the clientele ranged from Broadway celebrities to professional athletes to the biggest names in porn. Of course many of the latter became “close” friends.

He chatted up actors Tony Roberts, Frank Langella, Nell Carter among others and wrestling's Andre the Giant and Greg Valentine. He honed his blatant descriptive sexual humor with the likes of Ron Jeremy, Candida Royale, Ginger Lynn and Danielle stars whose names draped the marquees of Time Square biggest porn venues.
"He was the funniest man outside of showbiz and definitely the most irreverent man I have ever known," said Jimmy Kissane, an actor who worked with him for thirteen years. "You couldn't even print his best stuff. He was a born comic. He had to get a laugh at any expense even if it made you boiling mad. You got mad but ten other people were on the floor laughing."

Born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami Beach, Mr. Kanafsky not only sold spirits but entertained customers with stories and one-liners usually laced with a sexual, racial and ethnic zings.

He loved talking about his "big" missed opportunity after his family returned to Brooklyn. "My mother's friend begged her to get me to take her daughter out. We went
to Erasmus Hall High School together. I couldn't be bothered. She was dumpy, fat and had a big Jewish nose, " he used to say (minus the expletives and sexually derogatory descriptions). But admitted "What an idiot I was." The girl was Barbra Streisand.

Everyday he had a new story. Once he complained of severe back pain but still described in X-rated detail his all-night romp with two dancers from the Melody, a Times Square strip club.
His spicy talk and raunchy humor shielded his "heart of gold" added Kissane." He was the first to dig into his pocket to help someone whether it was some dreg on hard times, a whore from one of his old haunts or a highbrow who ran short of money drinking or snorting coke the night before.”

His generosity touched houses of worship, block associations and theater groups. Several years ago, he coproduced, with Denzel Washington, a series of vignettes written and directed by the late O.L. Duke, an actor friend who had trouble financing his work.

In the early sixties he served in the Navy and did two patrols in the Mediterranean. His mother, Freda and sister Sandy, of Georgia; two sons, Burton, of California, and Marlon, of Oregon; and two grandchildren, survive him.

"If you rub up against money long enough, some of it may rub off on you," is a quote from Damon Runyon's "A Very Honourable Guy."  Runyon definitely had Billy Kanafsky in mind.

Photo: Billy Kanafsky, Kacy Duke (celebrity personal trainer) and two legitimate friends. 
Photo by Rudi Papiri