Hoot Evers, Vic Wertz and the Bagel King of Detroit
July 1949, the very steamy, humid summer I turned 12. My mother
decided she wanted to see her cousin in Flint, Michigan. My father
agreed a drive out of New York would be a good escape.
Flint—a town of automobile factories, where most people either worked
in the plants or in service industries related to the factory workers
and their families. My mother's cousin, married to the owner of one
of Flint's major jewelry stores, had a house on the outskirts of town.
In their grand home I discovered my cousin Ronnie, who'd graduated
high school, drove his own car, had a beautiful girlfriend and was
readying to enter Michigan State. Ronnie was as beautiful as the
girlfriend—and the car a convertible.
Driving around with them, out of my parents' purview, felt like a
dream. One morning they offered to show me Detroit and introduce me
to another of my mother's cousins, one she knew of but had never met.
He owned a bakery near Briggs Stadium, home of the Tigers, and styled
himself The Bagel King of Detroit. I thought, even then, since there
can't be many bagel bakeries in Detroit, being the King had to be more
a product of scant competition than of the quality of his wares.
My 12 year old's cynicism was confirmed when I bit into one of those
gummy objects. As my father had taught from the time I was old enough
to chew, "Just because it's round and has a hole in the middle doesn't
make it a bagel."
Ronnie and his girl, it turned out, had their own plans for the day
and took off soon after our arrival. Stuck with The King -- short,
square, florid, an expansive non-stop story teller -- I tried to put my
best face on it. Cousin Manny, nobody's fool despite all the big
talk, saw at once I wasn't going to be a happy summer vacationer
hanging out at a bagel shop. Single and middle-aged, he lived in a
residence hotel just a few blocks away—a swell place, he assured me.
"Let's take a walk. I'll show you."
The hotel itself, though there was a doorman and some fancy furniture
in the lobby, didn't impress much. And his rooms were nondescript.
But as we headed back to the lobby, a pair of tall snappily-dressed
men boarded the elevator with us. They knew Manny, and even had good
things to say about his bagels—clearly they were not connoisseurs.
Then Cousin Manny introduced them to me.
Hoot Evers and Vic Wertz. Tigers. Detroit Tigers. I'd been an avid
baseball follower from the age of 10, so I knew Evers, the Tiger left
fielder and clean-up hitter, and Wertz, the slugger who played only
against right-handed pitchers. Still, I had my doubts about these two
guys. They didn't look much like their baseball cards. I felt fairly
certain they and Manny, the teller of tales, were putting me on.
But Wertz dug into his jacket pocket and pulled out a ball, an
official American League baseball. He handed it to me and they
offered to sign it. "I'm a Yankee fan," I choked out, feeling a bit
shy yet needing to let them know, no offense intended, that I'd rather
have some Yankees sign it.
I worried they might take the ball back. They laughed and assured me
it was great to be loyal to my team. In the lobby they shook my hand and
patted me on the back. "Sure, kid, get some Yankee signatures," Evers
said, and they walked off toward the stadium.
I eventually got those signatures, though how that came about is a
whole other story.
Vic Wertz went on to his moment of fame in the '54 World Series, when
Willie Mays made the impossible catch of his nearly 470 foot drive
into right center at the Polo Grounds, the only stadium in the majors,
possibly in the world, where it would not have landed rows deep into
the bleachers. (I was 17 by then and watched it live on TV.)
Hoot Evers and Manny the Bagel King have pretty much disappeared from
public memory. But you can still see the ancient clips of that catch
if you Google Vic Wertz/Willie Mays, or you can see it here on YouTube.
And 60 years later, I still have the ball.
©2009 by Rich Yurman