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Rich Yurman

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

Besides being a baseball fan for more than 60 years, Rich Yurman has been a writer for more than 50 years, publishing poems, stories, and essays, as well as movie, theater, and book reviews, in a wide range of magazines, journals, and newspapers. In 2008 he became a grandfather for the first time. Welcoming Jacob to the world has put all past pleasures and avocations in the shade.

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