Bard of the Braves

Bard of the Braves

As the baseball season opens, Fair Lawn baseball writer Dan Schlossberg talks about his love for the Atlanta team

Dan Schlossberg poses with a cardboard cutout of Yankee star Derek Jeter at the Louisville Slugger Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.
Dan Schlossberg poses with a cardboard cutout of Yankee star Derek Jeter at the Louisville Slugger Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.

It does seem quixotic to be a nearly 68-year-old lifelong New Jerseyan with a nearly equally lifelong passion for the (first Boston, then Milwaukee, and finally then-and-still-now Atlanta) Braves. Not only has the team’s many homes never included New Jersey, it’s also a team that never won until it did, hugely, amazingly, for 14 (almost) consecutive years — and then hasn’t won so much since then.

Dan Schlossberg, who grew up in Passaic and now lives in Fair Lawn, has nourished his passion for the Braves not only as a fan but later as a sportswriter, able not only to indulge that passion but to be paid for it.

He comes by his willingness to follow a quixotic dream naturally. Mr. Schlossberg, a baseball historian, former AP sports correspondent, and the author of 36 books about baseball, also is the son of “the first native-born American to speak Hebrew as his first language,” Mr. Schlossberg said. It was his parents’ passion to make the ancient language live in the modern world.

His father’s parents, Shulamit and Meyer Schlossberg, both were born in Russia, and both were active participants in the verbal war that raged between Yiddishists and Hebraists in the first decades of the 20th century. Strong Zionists, ardent disciples of Theodor Herzl, they taught their son, Ezra, and then their daughter, Esther, Hebrew, and left them to learn English from the outside world. They were “Hebrew school teachers and missionaries,” Mr. Schlossberg said. Their mission was to spread the gospel of Hebrew; the Hebrew schools they built were attached to Conservative shuls.

The elder Schlossbergs lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Sioux City, Iowa, Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Lynne, Massachusetts, setting up Hebrew schools as they went.

Mr. Schlossberg’s mother, Miriam Serban, was born in Russia; her name was truncated at Ellis Island. That entire Ellis Island experience was so deeply unpleasant that years later she resisted her family’s entreaties to go back, this time as a tourist. “She had terrible memories of going through it for real,” her son said.

Miriam Serban Schlossberg was a nurse, and Ezra Schlossberg was a physician — a radiologist who was chief of staff at Beth Israel in Passaic, a hospital that exists no longer. They met at Lake Waramaug in Connecticut, they married and lived in the Bronx, and a week after Dan was born they moved to Passaic.

Miriam Schlossberg spoke Russian and Yiddish, but no Hebrew. Ezra Schlossberg never learned Yiddish. They spoke to each other and to their children in English. But they remained Zionists.

“I was born on May 6, 1948,” Mr. Schlossberg said. He almost shares that birthday with the state of Israel (which was born eight days later). “And my 13th birthday fell on Shabbat!” Those are both auspicious things to have happen, he said. He celebrated that bar mitzvah at Ahavath Torah, a then-thriving Conservative shul in Passaic. “It was a thriving Jewish community then,” he said; it once again is thriving, but now, in a break from its past, as mainly Orthodox.

He was an athletic kid, if not a particularly athletically gifted one. “I played a lot of stickball,” Mr. Schlossberg said. He also played a lot of softball.

Mr. Schlossberg cast his lot with the Milwaukee Braves when he was young. “In 1957” — that infamous year, the year that brought exquisite suffering to New York fans when both the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants decamped for California — “most of my friends were Yankee fans. But the Milwaukee Braves beat the Yankees, so I figured the Braves were the best team,” he said.

Bobby Cox, right, talking to Dan Schlossberg, was Atlanta’s manager during its winning streak.
Bobby Cox, right, talking to Dan Schlossberg, was Atlanta’s manager during its winning streak.

Yes, he added, he does have many friends who responded to their abandonment by becoming Mets fans. He sympathizes with them without feeling their pain or walking their path himself.

Mr. Schlossberg’s first baseball game was in 1958. His father took him to see the Yankees play the Washington Senators, the now-defunct, hopeless, hopeful team that the musical “Damn Yankees” was based on. (After all, “You Gotta Have Heart!”)

Instead of summer camp, Mr. Schlossberg’s father sent Dan to summer programs at Phillips Andover Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he played hardball. Second base, he said, but he wasn’t very good. “I was pretty good at stealing bases,” he said — but you have to be able to get to base before you can steal the next one. That part he wasn’t so good at.

When he graduated from Passaic High School, Dan Schlossberg went to Syracuse University, because he knew he wanted to be a journalist, and he enrolled in the university’s excellent Newhouse School of Public Communication. “I also got a BA in political science,” he said. “I wanted to cover the White House. But then Nixon got elected, and it soured the whole deal for me. I realized I’d rather cover baseball. So I did!”

Mr. Schlossberg’s first big break was a direct result of Syracuse’s ghastly weather, he said. There was a huge blizzard in 1966, his freshman year at college. “It was before the time when the Weather Channel named storms,” he said, so it was creatively called the Blizzard of 1966.

“I was trying to get back to school from Paramus, from the bus stop,” he said. “The driver said that Syracuse was closed. I thought he meant that the school was closed. He meant that the whole city was closed.

“He got as far as Albany, then he said that this was as far as we could go. We all slept on the floor of the train station for two days, until a train came through with a plow attached to it.

“A trip that should have taken four hours took three days.”

Once he got to Syracuse University, he found that life still was upended. “Food was rationed at school, the newspaper didn’t get printed, and you had to wear your boots inside the dorm,” he said.

Later that semester, Mr. Schlossberg wrote about the semi-trying, semi-funny ordeal and sent the story to the then-Passaic Herald News, “which is now the North Jersey Herald News,” he said. A week later, the story was printed.

In April, Mr. Schlossberg got an interview at the Herald News. He was looking for a summer internship; there were three openings and about 150 applicants. He handed in a resume and was about to skulk off, frustrated, when the editor taking the applications said, “ ‘Wait. How do I know your name?’” Mr. Schlossberg recalled. “I said, ‘I wrote that story about the storm a few months ago.’ And then he said, ‘You showed initiative. You have the job.’

“And then I was off and running.”

After three summers interning at the Herald News, Mr. Schlossberg went to work there full time after he graduated.

Next, Mr. Schlossberg took a job at the Associated Press, off Broad Street in Newark. It was hard work and good training. “I was the sports editor for New Jersey, and also was a radio editor,” he said. “I had to write copy every hour — news, not sports — and also do the sports.” That was the way it worked then, he said. Everyone was a general reporter and also had his or her own specialty. Work shifts ran all night long and all through the weekend; the less seniority you had, the less desirable the shifts you got. Mr. Schlossberg, as the new guy, got the least desirable shifts. After three years and much experience, he left.

After that, Mr. Schlossberg’s career included a stint at the newly established Bergen County Jewish News, a short-lived newspaper established by the Jewish federation (which was not yet named the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and was structured in a way very different than its successor agency is today). Mr. Schlossberg was the paper’s editor for most of its existence; he left it in 1986 and soon it folded.

“I’ve been freelance ever since,” Mr. Schlossberg said; since then he has written about baseball and travel.

Why does he love baseball as he does? “It’s the easiest sport to understand,” he said. “My father often would put it on TV, turn the sound off, and he would tell me what was going on in the game.” It’s also relatively easy to play, at least if your standards aren’t too high. “You can be any age, any size, any shape, and you can go out and play it,” Mr. Schlossberg said.

And why has it always been the Braves? That’s not as easy to answer as why it has never been the Yankees. “Rooting for the Yankees is sort of rooting for U.S. Steel,” Mr. Schlossberg said. “Or like rooting for General Motors, or for big tobacco. That’s why the Mets are so lovable. They’re losers. And any team that plays the Yankees automatically is the underdog.”

Why has there always been a romance between Jews and baseball? “Probably because they weren’t good enough to play any other sport,” Mr. Schlossberg said, blithely pushing aside the many Jews who have succeeded at other sports to get to what he thinks is the matter’s deepest truth. “Baseball players can be short and fat.”

They’re also real. “That’s why the Brooklyn Dodgers were such a lovable team. They lived in the neighborhood where they played, and they really melted into the neighborhood. People knew them as real people, not just as players.”WhenTheBraves

Mr. Schlossberg’s latest book, “When the Braves Ruled the Diamond,” has just come out. “It’s timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the 1991 Atlanta Braves,” he said. “That was the only team in baseball history to go from being the statistically worst team in Major League Baseball one year to nearly winning the World Series the next year.” That year, “the Braves came agonizingly close to winning. The seventh game — the last game — was 0 to 0 in the ninth inning, and then Minnesota won, 1 to nothing in the tenth inning. Five of the games in that series were decided by one run.”

The Braves had “picked up a lot of free agents” after their disastrous 1990 season. “They were very strong fielders, and as a result of the better defense, the Braves’ young pitchers had more confidence. In 1992, they won again.

“My favorite game of all time was during the playoffs of 1992,” he continued. “And they had a 14-year winning streak, 1991 to 2005, with only one year missing — 1994, and that season was incomplete because of the strike.

“No other team in the history of professional sports has ever won 14 consecutive titles. That’s what the Atlanta Braves did.”

Mr. Schlossberg remembers the 1992 National League pennant series. It was the last game of the series, and the Pittsburgh Pirates were playing in Atlanta, at the old Fulton County Stadium. He was in the press box, he said, freelancing for the press service UPI, and his team, the Braves (because reportorial distance can go only so far, and there was no hiding the fact that it was his team) was losing. He got a message from his bosses. He was to go to the clubhouse, which he knew “would be a morgue.” But his orders were to go, so he went.

“Then the Braves put on an unbelievable rally, they scored three runs, and they won the pennant.

“The winning run was scored by the slowest runner in the league, against the arm of Barry Bonds, whose one weakness was throwing. He did not have a strong arm.”

So there Mr. Schlossberg was, almost alone in the clubhouse. Everyone else was on the field, watching and screaming and pounding each other and dousing each other with champagne and acting like maniacs.

The only other person there was the owner’s wife. The owner was the CNN magnate Ted Turner, and his wife was Jane Fonda. “She said she was in there because Ted was on the field with the players, and she didn’t want to get messed up,” Mr. Schlossberg said. “She looked beautiful.”

Mr. Turner sold the team in 1995; its owner today, John Malone, “is the wealthiest owner in baseball — but he doesn’t spend a dime on the team,” Mr. Schlossberg said.

“It will be historically bad this year. They’ve already lost their first five games. Gave them away. And most of them were home games.”

Still, Mr. Schlossberg believes that his beloved Braves will rise again, and soon. In 2018, to be precise. The organization traded away its expensive older stars and has put a lot of care into its minor league system. In two years, those young players will be ready to rise, he said.

Al Clark was one of baseball’s few Jewish umpires. He and Dan Schlossberg co-wrote his memoir, “Called Out But Safe.”
Al Clark was one of baseball’s few Jewish umpires. He and Dan Schlossberg co-wrote his memoir, “Called Out But Safe.”

Mr. Schlossberg’s favorite local baseball stories all center on Yogi Berra, that human shaggy-dog story, whose cuddly malapropisms, inadvertent witticisms, and genuine humility made even generally sober people fall in love with him.

Many of his sayings are well known; beneath their silliness they are true. “The restaurant is so crowded that no one ever goes there anymore,” he famously said and Mr. Schlossberg repeated. We all know what he means.

“When you come to a crossroads, take it,” he told visitors trying to make their way to his house. That sounds as if it might be profound, perhaps, on some level; what he really meant is that the road to his house split and then rejoined, so either way was the right way to go. (Maybe that still is profound, on some level.)

“When he and his wife went to look at their first apartment, which she already had leased, he couldn’t see the bed. She pointed to the Murphy bed, folded up into the wall, and said, ‘Here it is.’ And he said, ‘We have to sleep standing up?’” That joke, as Mr. Schlossberg told it, is just funny.

But there was more to Yogi Berra. For one thing, he was charitable. For another, he was down-to-earth. “I used to bowl at the Berra-Rizutto bowling alley in Clifton, next to Styretown,” Mr. Schlossberg said. (Phil Rizutto was another career-long Yankee, who, like Mr. Berra, lived in New Jersey.) And he was humble.

“One time I was having lunch in Montclair, and I saw Yogi walking, all by himself,” Mr. Schlossberg said. “He was just all by himself. And I was thinking, here he is, this big star, and no, he’s just walking down the street in Montclair, all by himself. You’d think there would be an entourage, but he was humble. There was no entourage.

“Last year, when Yogi’s museum” — that’s the Yogi Berra Museum, on the campus of Montclair State University — “was robbed, Yogi’s comment was priceless,” Mr. Schlossberg said. “His Most Valuable Player trophies were stolen — later they were replaced by Major League Baseball — and Yogi said, ‘I don’t need them. I know that I was the most valuable player.’”

This year, Mr. Schlossberg has been out hustling his new book. He had a book signing at Disney World’s Champion Stadium, where the Braves have spring training. The day he’d agreed to be there was the day of the first exhibition game at the stadium, featuring the Mets playing the Braves. “They asked me if I would like to throw out the first ball in the game,” Mr. Schlossberg said. “And I said, ‘That’s only Number One on my bucket list.’

“I wore my Braves jersey from the Braves summer camp in 1987.”

Many New Yorkers winter in Florida, and many of them are Mets fans. Many of those fans show up for exhibition games.

So, what did it feel like to make that first pitch? “It was interesting,” Mr. Schlossberg said. Interesting how? “Interesting because 60 feet and six inches — the distance from the pitching mount to the catcher — doesn’t seem like too much until you are suddenly standing on the pitching mound, in front of 10,000 people.”

And where else should a lifelong baseball fan be but on a pitching mound in early spring, with the whole season in front of him?

There could be no place better.

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