Riverdale beckoned baseball's greats


By Kevin Deutsch

For some of baseball’s all-time greats and record-holders, the luster of Manhattan just wasn’t enough.

Ballplayers like Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig, Ron Blomberg, Julio Franco, and Sal Maglie — each of whom hold unique places in baseball lore — all chose Riverdale over its glitzier neighbor to the south.

Some lived here at the height of their fame and glory. Others came after their talent had faded, finding a quiet place to look back on their accomplishments.

With spring training under way, and baseball-hungry Riverdale residents anxious to see new ballparks in the Bronx and Queens, local residents need only stroll through Riverdale to get their own taste of baseball history — and a sense of the men who made it.

Riverdale seemed so cozy for one hall-of-famer that he decided to keep an apartment here, even though he’s now associated more often with San Francisco than New York City.

Willie Mays, the winner of two Most Valuable Player awards and 12 Gold Glove awards, still keeps a penthouse apartment at the Whitehall, employees and residents there say. He spends much of his time at out-of-state residences, but when he returns to his Riverdale home, the “Say Hey Kid” always has a kind word for neighbors and Whitehall workers.

“Willie’s as nice as they come,” said one employee, who has often seen Mays kibitzing with kids and adults alike in the Whitehall’s pristine wooden lobby. “You can tell he loves it here. That’s why he sticks around.”

Another Whitehall employee, who has worked at the luxury residence since Mays’ playing days, said baseball fans always wished him good luck when they saw him in the building during the season. Maybe their kind words helped: When he retired, Mr. Mays had hit 660 home runs, accumulated 3,283 hits, and amassed a lifetime batting average of .302.

After 22 seasons with the Giants baseball franchise — in New York and later San Francisco — and one season with the Mets, Mays was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1979.

One of Mays’ neighbors in the Whitehall happened to be Yankee Ron Blomberg, baseball’s first designated hitter. The two became fast friends.

“Since I was a Jewish guy, I knew people in the garment center. Willie and I went down there in his pink Caddy with the “say hey” written on the side, and we got some free clothes,” Mr. Blomberg told New York magazine in 2006. “I took three, four suits. But Willie took 300, 400. All polyester. Orange and purple. He looked like a Goodwill explosion.”

As great as Mr. Mays was on the diamond, Bronxites could never love him the way they might have had he patrolled centerfield at Yankee Stadium.

The honor of greatest Yankee to move to Riverdale doubtless belongs to Lou Gehrig.

Dubbed the “Iron Horse” for his durability, Gehrig held the record for most consecutive games played, with 2,130, before Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed him in 1995. In 17 seasons with the Yankees, Gehrig hit .340, smashed 493 home runs, won two MVP awards and an American League Triple Crown, leading the league in average, runs batted in and homers.

His career ended after he was struck with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” The disease destroys nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. On July 4, 1939, he gave his famous retirement speech, telling fans at Yankee Stadium, “I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”

The Yankee legend moved into a three-story, Colonial-style, wood-framed house at 5204 Delafield Avenue, one of more than 140 homes built by the architect Dwight James Baum. Mr. Baum was a distant relative of L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, according to Jonathan Eig, author of Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig.

Gehrig’s move came after Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who lived just a few houses away in Riverdale, appointed him parole board commissioner. Under payroll rules, Gehrig had to live within the boundaries of New York City.

Riverdale may have held a certain allure for Gehrig, too.

“I think he liked having a house,” said Mr. Eig, adding that the Gehrigs had moved from a high-rise in Westchester. “It was nice having an outdoor yard, especially as he became immobile.”

As Gehrig’s health deteriorated, Mr. Eig said, the house on Delafield may have become harder to live in.

Mr. Eig described the stairs leading up to the home, and two more staircases inside, as “a disaster for anyone with ALS.”
Gehrig died inside in the house in 1941.

Stephen Kaminsky, 51, and his family bought the house in 1999. The room where Gehrig succumbed to illness is now the room of Mr. Kaminsky’s 15-year-old daughter, though she hasn’t been troubled by ghosts, Mr. Kaminsky jokes.

“We’ve had a whole variety of people come by, wanting to see where Gehrig lived,” Kaminsky said, adding that a Yankee fan last year brought his 10-year-old son by the house to pay homage during a tour of Yankee-related historical sites. “There’s a fan base that outlasts his life by so many years. Unlike most other ballplayers, he’s present everywhere in our culture.”

Despite the feats of Gehrig, Mays, and Blomberg, there is only one ballplayer to have lived in Riverdale and played for all three New York teams. Sal Maglie, the hard-throwing pitcher who once called Riverdale home, was the last player to ever accomplish that feat.

Nicknamed “Sal the Barber” because of his tendency to pitch high, hard and inside, Maglie cut an intimidating figure on the mound, his mouth twisted into a scowl, his face unshaven. But his first wife, Kathleen, who died in 1967, said that was just an act.

“He isn’t tough at all,” she once said, according to Maglie’s obituary in The New York Times. “He lets his beard grow before a game so he’ll look fierce. I used to wonder what people were talking about when they said he scowled ferociously at the batters. Then I stayed home one day and watched him on TV. I hardly knew him.”

Maglie died in 1992 Niagara Falls, N.Y. He was 75.

Another record holder who lived in Riverdale was former Met Julio Franco, the ageless wonder, who at 48 became the oldest player to ever hit a home run in the big leagues. The record-breaking blast, hit off of Randy Johnson on May 4, 2007, was the last home run of Franco’s career.

What’s drawn accomplished major leaguers here for so long?

Mr. Eig thinks part of the reason is Riverdale’s proximity to Manhattan, minus that other borough’s bluster.

“If you’re looking for something a little more suburban or a bit quieter, Riverdale might be attractive,” said Mr. Eig, a Brooklyn native and lifelong Yankee fan. “A lot of the ballplayers were country boys who were a little uncomfortable in the city, as some ballplayers still are.”

The bottom line: “Riverdale’s not Manhattan,” Mr. Eig said.