A decade has passed since New York City was darkened by the blackout of Thursday, August 14, 2003. Pino’s Restaurant, made famous by David Halberstram’s book, The Teammates, closed the following year. Bobby Murcer, the former New York Yankees centerfielder and a regular at Pino’s, died in 2008. All that’s left are memories of the Saturday night following the blackout when I sat around a table reminiscing with Murcer and his wife, Kay, and Jerry Casale, ex-Boston Red Sox pitcher and owner of Pino’s.
The entrance to Pino’s, located on East 34th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues, was marked by an oversized Topps 1959 baseball card. Customers received a reproduction of the card (#456) signed by Jerry.
In The Teammates, Halberstram writes of Pino’s: “This old-fashioned and unhip Italian restaurant, more Southern than Northern, has a warm and comfortable ambiance, and has the flavor of a ‘50s hangout. It serves hearty portions of traditional favorites and is popular with neighborhood regulars and sports stars, both present and past.”
I went to Pino’s to see Casale, a 19-game winner for the San Francisco Seals in 1956, and instigator of a bean-ball battle between the Seals and Los Angeles Angels that started when Casale decked Angel slugger Steve Bilko. “I threw a fastball that took off on me, and it went and knocked him right on his ass.”
The Angels retaliated the next inning with hard-throwing Dick Drott plunking Casale. “It wasn’t a case of cream puffs at 20 paces, but one of bullets at 60 feet, six inches,” one sportswriter reported.
“I swear to God that if I didn’t put my arm in front of my heart, it would’ve broken my heart,” Casale said. “It hit me on the left forearm. It blew up on me. And I went down and I saw stars. I couldn’t believe that a pitcher would throw at another pitcher, especially as hard as I was throwing in those days. You wouldn’t want to do that.”
Casale fired the last bullet, aiming a fastball at Drott’s mouth as he squared around to bunt. The ball smashed Dick’s right pitching hand, fracturing the index finger. He was sidelined for 15 days. “I thought it broke all his fingers. If he doesn’t put that bat in front of him, the ball would’ve gone right in his face. That’s how mad I was.”
On arriving at Pino’s, I was directed to a big man who obviously enjoyed his own cooking. “Gaylon!” Jerry yelled as if I was a long-lost cousin. “I was wondering if you would make it. Sit down.”
We were scheduled to meet the night New York City and parts of eight states were blacked out by a major power outage. Jerry was just coming out of the Holland Tunnel that afternoon when the blackout occurred. By the time he reached his restaurant, candles were on the tables and customers were having themselves a party. With no power, Jerry couldn’t serve food. But there was plenty of beer and the drinks flowed until Pino’s closed at 11 o’clock and Jerry drove his employees home.
Moments after we sat down at a big round table, an employee rushed up and said, “Jerry, there’s a request to play the tape.”
The tape is Jerry’s most treasured memento. It’s a blow-by-blow radio account of a home run he hit in 1959 for the Red Sox against “Bullet” Bob Turley, the Yankees star right-handed pitcher. Jerry jumped up from the table, turned off the ‘50s music that was playing and rolled the tape.
“[Turley] will be facing the pitcher, Jerry Casale, who’s a pretty good-hitting pitcher,” Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto begins. “He’s batting .170. He has eight base hits but he has two doubles, and two homers and eight runs batted in.”
The scene is depicted in a mural of Fenway Park behind the bar. The scoreboard shows the Red Sox leading 4 to 1 with no outs in the bottom of the second inning. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Casale stands at the plate. “Bob Turley ready, his first pitch…is high, outside, ball one.”
Suddenly, Rizzuto blurts out: “There’s a…oh, there’s a home run. Holy cow! Did he hit that one! That’s out of everything here…over the fence and across the street. Jerry Casale hits his third home run. I don’t know how he hit that ball. It was a high fastball and he swung up at it and that ball just went right out of the park. Did he hit that one? I’m telling you, boy, he hit that one. A home run by Jerry Casale, his third of the year and ninth run batted in. Ahhhh, man. Incidentally, he hit one….earlier in the year the same way, right on out of the stands and out of the park.”
Jerry’s brother, Lou, takes credit for the tape. “It’s still under investigation. He doesn’t remember it himself.”
The tape played “three, four, five times a night” – 42,000 times Jerry once estimated. “Turley keeps making the same mistake every night,” he quipped. “No matter who comes through the door – Tony Bennett, Rudy Giuliani – they say: ‘Jerry, put the tape on.’”
Bobby and Kay Murcer arrived a little after nine o’clock. When Jerry told Bobby I spent Thursday night sleeping on the sidewalk because of the blackout, Murcer asked: “Do you know where I was in ’77 during the blackout? Right field at Shea Stadium. I was playing for the Cubs. The lights went out and I stood there 20 minutes before I went into the dugout. Stayed at the Astoria and used candles to go up the stairs to my room.”
Murcer hit 252 home runs during a 17-year career that spanned three decades – 1965 to 1983. “If you’d been pitching,” Bobby said to Jerry over dinner, “I’d have 200 more homers.”
The banter continued as the music played; Jimmy Dickens was singing:
Hey, Hey, good lookin;
Whatcha got cookin’?
How’s about cookin’
Somethin’ up with me?
Johnny Mathis followed with Chances Are. Bobby and Jerry sang along:
Guess you feel you’ll always be
The one and only one for me
And, if you think you could,
Well, chances are your chances are awfully good.
The chances are, your chances are…awfully good.
On a television overhead, the Yankees and Baltimore Orioles were playing at Camden Yards. The sound was muted so the old ballplayers could enjoy the music. “He’s a good singer,” Jerry said of Bobby.
The Murcers finished dinner and were leaving when the Yankees won on a fluke play in the 12th inning. Jack Cust of the Orioles was caught in a rundown between third and home plate. Yankees third baseman Aaron Boone dropped the ball and Cust broke for home with the tying run. He fell down about two feet away and Boone tagged him out. “The Yankees are the luckiest team around,” Jerry said, shaking his head in dismay.
The conversation returned to the radio tape of his home run against the hated Yankees. “Every time I play this tape, I can feel it. I can feel the excitement, the build-up to the pitch, and I can feel the power that I had behind the pitch. God, I can just close my eyes and feel that ball just jumping out of the…oh, my God, that ball left that stadium in seconds.
“But I hit a couple like that. I hit one on opening day over the centerfield wall in 1959, my first game in the big leagues. And then I hit one in the centerfield seats off of Early Wynn. So I hit three home runs that year and each one of them had to go between 450 and 500 feet.”
A Casale homer in ’56 against the Angels at San Francisco’s Seals Stadium made headlines in the San Francisco Examiner: CASALE HITS 551 FT. HOMER.
Jack McDonald, a columnist for the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, even gave the home run a name: CASALE’S THUNDER-CLAPPER.
“They’ll be talking about the thunder-clapper he got in the first game for years,” McDonald wrote. A sportswriter for the Call-Bulletin “paced off the distance from the fence to a spot near the end of the parking lot where attendants saw it hit a car and fall… added to the 404 feet from home plate to where the ball passed out of the park totes up to 551 feet.”
The monster blast came off of Angel pitcher Marino Pieretti, who grew up in San Francisco’s “Little Italy” district. “I’m glad it was an Italian,” Jerry grinned. “I really hit the heck out of it but I had a lot of wind behind me to help. I wasn’t a good hitter but I had a lot of power.”
Yogi Berra was the Yankee catcher when Jerry teed off on Turley. “He was asking me how my family is, how’s my wife, how’s the kids. I couldn’t believe he was even talking to me. He’s Italian. Being Italian, I thought he took a liking to me. The pitch before I hit the home run, I turned around and the ball went by me without even looking. And right then and there I said: ‘I’ll never trust another small, fat Italian catcher again.’
“So he’s asking me how the wife is and I’m telling him to shut up. And then after I hit the home run, which was the funniest part, I got to home plate and said, “Yogi, I’m not married.”
The back of the baseball card Jerry handed me earlier reads: “During the 1959 season Jerry Casale was the Red Sox most promising young pitcher gifted with a powerful throwing arm and a talent for hitting. He finished that season with a 13 and 8 record that included three shutouts…plus three homers!”
I read the last part aloud. “Isn’t that nice?” Jerry said. “I enjoyed the homers more than I did the shutouts. It was a thrill; it was a thrill, Gaylon. And you never forget that. I can forget a lot of things in between but certain things like those home runs I never forget.”
I mentioned Turley lived near Atlanta, Georgia. “I heard from him awhile back. He said, ‘Jerry, you’re making me famous again.’ I said, ‘You keep throwin’ it, and I keep whackin’ it.’”
In 1951, Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants hit a pennant-winning homer that came to be known as “the shot heard ‘round the world.” Jerry’s homer wasn’t as historic but for the 27 years he operated Pino’s, it was “the shot heard over and over again.
The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.
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