One of the few regrets I have in my life, is the time I turned down an invitation to meet Pele.
In 1975, I won the Morsan’s Sporting Goods, “New York Cosmos Ball Boy Contest”. I was 13 at the time, and was thrilled when a Morsan’s Representative called my house one day, and told me I’d won. A week or so later, a letter from the New York Cosmos soccer team arrived, congratulating, and instructing me to meet a Mr Dan Rooney at the Press Entrance to Yankee Stadium on a certain date (I don’t remember the date now). I was also told to return to Morsan’s where I’d be given a soccer ball (a cheap plastic one) and an official NY Cosmos ball boy shirt (which turned out to be a generic green rugby shirt).
About a month later, three of my older brothers, Jimmy, Johnny and Brian, along with family friend, John Murphy, piled in my brother Jimmy’s Dodge Challenger and headed to The Bronx.
I had never been to NYC before, and my mouth went dry when I looked out the windows at the burned out buildings and the homeless people wandering the streets. This was the Bronx of the Son of Sam era, a time when “The Bronx is burning” blazed across the headlines of the New York Post. I had barely left West Haven at this point in my life, and this was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It was frightening. I was intimidated when I saw the giant baseball bat shaped smoke stack that stood just outside the Stadium entrance. My brothers told me to “calm down” and pushed me to the Press gate. There, I presented my official Cosmos letter to Mr Rooney, a stern, balding, middle aged Irish immigrant with piercing blue eyes, and a bulbous red nose. He snatched the letter from my shaking hand, and barked “Follow Me!” I ran after him as he led me through a labyrinth of tunnels under Yankee Stadium, and was awestruck when the hallway finally opened up into the Yankee dugout…and in turn, the majesty of Yankee Stadium. I remember it was a night game but the stadium lights made it look like noon. I swallowed hard, and shook hands with my fellow ball boys, all native New Yorkers with names like Vinny, Tony and Sal. They all talked, and swore ,with thick New Yawwwkk accents, the kind I’d only had heard from the kids on Wonderama. I innocently asked if they were contest winners too. They stroked their pubescent mustaches, thumbed their gold chains and laughed. They said they got PAID for this gig…”good money too!” It seems I was the only slave labor there that night. In a thick Irish brogue, Mr Rooney warned that we were to be alert at all times and there’d be no dilly-dallying chasing after the balls that went out of bounds. I was then instructed to stand on the sidelines in what would normally be considered center field, near the 417 marker.
My only recollection of the game itself is hearing my brothers cheer every time I’d touched the ball, ”Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!” The more $2 beers they ingested, the louder the cheering got. Somewhere along the way, John Murphy struck up a conversation with two beautiful French women, who were all dressed in white from head to toe. My brother Johnny would later say that they “smelled of money.” He was right. The older of the two women turned out to be a French woman, who was the long time “friend” of Leroy Neiman, the famed artist whose paintings seemed to be everywhere in 1970’s America. He was the official artist of the 1976 Olympic Games and his works could frequently be found in the pages of Playboy and Sports Illustrated magazines. His specialty was painting sports figures, and he just so happened, at that very moment,to be in an underground studio at the stadium, preparing to paint Pele, the Cosmos superstar. Pele, at the time, was arguably the worlds’ most famous athlete, and here I was…his ball boy.
After the game, I met my brothers in our designated spot in the stadium hallways. Neiman’s “friend” and her beautiful daughter stood there still talking to my brothers. Neiman’s “friend” told me she had connections and invited me to go with her to meet Leroy Neiman AND Pele.
I said, “No, thank you.”
I don’t remember why now...but I think the whole evening was overwhelming for me. I just wanted to go home. On the way home, my brothers all took turns harassing me about turning down the Pele invite. “You’ll regret it someday”, they said.
They were right.