Park stirs memory, but its fate unclear Recreation: While the "Easterwood Park boys" can treasure their memories of playing on Baltimore-sponsored teams more than 60 years ago, budget cuts have eliminated those programs for the next generation.

September 15, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

So Babe Ruth is standing in the Yankee dugout and he goes, "Hey, who's that boy sitting on the bench?" Half-curious, he glances at this string bean of a kid whose rookie face is full of excitement and fear.

The kid doesn't say much, but somebody knows his name. He's Donnie Heffner. From Baltimore.

That same spring in 1934, hundreds of miles away, a rag-tag crew of boys spends the season thinking about Donnie -- the kid who lived up Clifton Avenue and played on Pop Reitz's team at Easterwood Park in West Baltimore.

They could be just like him, they say, if they keep swinging their fungo bats and shagging flies and running the bases from morning to dusk.

And for the rest of their childhoods, that's exactly what they will do.

Most of them, in their 80s now, still call themselves the Easterwood Park boys. They remember the games, the players, the streets, the nicknames, the grand slams, the heartbreaking losses and, most of all, the park. All seven acres of it.

The next generation of kids may remember little about Easterwood. The city-sponsored sports teams that drew hundreds of boys to Easterwood decades ago are gone -- the victim of budget cuts this summer.

The Easterwood Park boys don't know this. They rarely visit the park from their homes a few comfortable miles outside the city. They almost think about Easterwood in the past tense.

"I don't want to talk about what it is," said Sigmund "Siggy" Holtzman, 83. "I want to talk about what it was."

'That park was everything'

There used to be so many kids in that park, the grass couldn't even grow.

"That park was everything," said Gilbert "Dodgie" Solomon, 81. "We never had the niceties. But we had the park."

The kids invented games in it, like caddy -- hitting a six-inch piece of broomstick with a bat. They slept in it -- leaving their hot rowhouses and saying good night in the outfield. They ate in it -- gathering a couple of friends and heading to Levitt's deli, splitting an Easterwood Special (thick quarters of rye bread loaded with bologna and dripping with mustard) and a High Rock soda three ways for 15 cents.

Most of all, of course, they played in it.

More than 1,000 boys divided into 41 Easterwood clubs in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. The Pontiacs. The Mohawks. The Outlaws. The Pals. The Comets. The Westons. The Premiers.

David "Dutch" Baer was paid by the city to oversee games at the park from 1927 into the 1930s. A slight man with a roaring voice, he built athletes who took on rival parks such as Patterson, Roosevelt, City Springs and Clifton.

The aging teammates are still delivering the play-by-play.

"I once hit a ball 365 feet -- my father measured it," said Bill Lewis, 72, a powerhouse even as a peewee. "Do you believe that? That would have been over the fence at Camden Yards."

It's not just the victories that make the highlights.

"The game was tied," said Sid "Winnie" Weinberg, 79, who

played catcher for the Cliftwood Athletic Club, an Easterwood team. "It's the last at-bat and the opposing team is up in the ninth inning. The bases are loaded. All I had to do was catch the ball."

He can't forget what happened next. "I dropped the ball, blew the whole game, blew the championships. That was it. I was talking to Louie the other day, and he brought it up again."

They still call each other nicknames. Buddy, Mugsy, Lefty and Butch. Big Eats, Little Eats, Acey and Fritz. "When you look at an Easterwood boy, you don't see him like any other person," said Solomon. "You look at them and see how they were."

Next month, nearly 400 former Easterwood Park boys from around the country will gather for their 69th reunion. They have formed a nonprofit group, the Easterwood Park Boys Inc., that has raised more than $300,000 for charity.

Dutch will come out again this year. So will Sid, Bill, Siggy and Dodgie. They will celebrate the park from a banquet hall about 20 miles away in Woodlawn.

When they go back to their old neighborhood, they feel slightly disoriented. The synagogue where Dodgie was bar mitzvahed has become the New Mount Hebron Baptist Church. What used to be P.S. 29 is now Carver Vocational Technical. Some homes show off flower-covered porches by carefully tended front lawns, while others are boarded up and strewn with rubble.

"I haven't been around here in a long, long time," Dodgie said as he and his wife, Ruth, drove recently through Easterwood Park, where the two courted 62 years ago. "Look at this, Ruthie. It's hard to believe."

"Well honey," she said, "it's a long time ago."

Somebody's always playing

Easterwood Park is surrounded by a chain-link fence that never used to be there.

But not much else looks different today. On a recent afternoon, Donald Baker watched his son, Shannon, 16, pound up and down the basketball court. The youth's face is a mixture of concentration and sweat.

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