Artie Wagner - A Remembrance
just received the news a few days ago that Artie Wagner died. Artie was 86 years old when he died, and was the only person I knew who had seen Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle play for the Bronx Bombers, the New York Yankees. It is with both sadness and fondness that I recall Artie, a humble man from my Bronx neighborhood of Walton Avenue, between Tremont and Burnside Avenues. I received the news too late and I lived too far away to attend the service for him so I am putting my thoughts of condolence into words to heal and to share my thoughts of the man, Artie Wagner.
I met Artie in 1963,when I was sixteen years old and friends with his sons, Robert and Warren. My mother, Helen Albert, watched Artie’s younger children, Lois and Tommy for a while and became great friends with him. Thinking of him brings back the memories of playing stickball in the middle of Walton Avenue on balmy summer nights, with Artie walking around, hands in his pockets, watching the kids play in the street. In between games he would entertain us with his stories of seeing the greats play in the gladiator arena of the old Yankee Stadium, telling us of the speed that Ruth had in the outfield and on the bases, of Gehrig’s awesome power, DiMaggio’s grace, and Mantle’s determination. Or he’d be watching us play football on the same streets, “button-hooking at the end of the Buick”. But this is not about baseball or football. It is about an ordinary man, in an ordinary time, who had an extraordinary impact on a young man from the Bronx.
Artie was a man who always had something nice to say about everyone. He was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. A single parent, he successfully raised four children on a workman’s wage. He was a man with a wonderful smile and a large heart. Not the tallest of men, Artie had the stature of a giant when thought of by others.
His oldest son Robert and I were great friends back in those heady, innocent days of the early Sixties, before Vietnam, war protests, and a forever changed world. That was when the Loews’s Paradise was the theater for a date, but asking the girls to meet us inside was part of the ritual. Late Spring days we’d skip school to go to Orchard Beach and check out the newest in two-piece bathing suits on girls we didn’t know. We’d turn off the lights at parties and find a girl to make-out with. Days were filled with stickball, punchball, penny-poker parties, rock and roll, and the “British Invasion” after February, 1964. I remember Robert, myself and almost all the others we hung out with on Walton Avenue, more than twenty of us, taking the subway all the way to the Brooklyn Fox, alien territory for Bronxites, to see the Murray the K holiday shows. I remember we all would walk up the Concourse to Fordham Road to shop at Alexander’s, or to go to Jahn’s on our birthdays for their free sundae. And there we were, the Walton Avenue kids, boys and girls, playing Johnny-on-the-pony, hanging on the street corner, and just living our youth. Among us all was Artie, just hanging in the background, watching and enjoying city kids doing what city kids do, never upset at us, even when we would do stupid things like almost hitting old ladies with our spaldeen. He was a man who had eternal youth and the youngest of spirits, who after twenty years never looked older.
Thinking of Artie brings to mind a story of one year, 1964, when we all seemed to get into playing pool. I was not great but not bad either. We would go to the pool room on Jerome Avenue, just past Burnside. One night we were hanging around, talking about pool and Artie was telling us some stories of when he was young, and of the great players that he had seen like Luther Lassiter, Willie Mosconi and others. Feeling cocky, I invited Artie to come to the pool room and shoot pool with me. I always liked the ten-by-five table. It was longer than regulation and I had pretty good long and rail shots. Artie and I met on a Friday night to play Eightball. I broke and soon had a lesson in humility from a man that was unassuming and certainly did not look like a pool player. In baggy pants, loose shirt, and rubbing his eyes, saying he wished he had not forgotten his glasses, Artie proceeded to beat me every game we played. He so demoralized me, I lost my eye and could never shoot pool as good again. Picture a small, balding man, rubbing his eyes, making shot after shot, telling me that he had not played in twenty years. After it was all over, in his typical, humble way, Artie paid the check, said how he just got lucky and next time, he was sure that I would do better. It was a lesson in humility and how to be humble in victory that I have never forgotten.
My thoughts and love go out to his children, my old friends, Robert, Lois, and Tommy and to Warren, who passed a way a few years ago and is now joined with his father. I loved the man and the person that was Artie Wagner, a friend who was always there, who traveled from New Jersey and was there when my mother died, offering comfort and kind words. I am sure that he and my mother are sitting together in heaven, chatting about old times, reading the New York Daily News and watching the children, theirs and each other’s. Farewell, my friend. Too soon, our lives on this Earth are gone. I am comforted to know that those that live fondly in our memories never really die but remain alive in our hearts and minds forever.