The Arctic Plunge

The picture you see above is Gus Brickner aka the Human Polar Bear. My dad was fascinated with the exploits of this long distance swimmer who distinguished himself by his winter swims in the Monongahela River in the winters around Pittsburgh. His famous New Years Day plunge in 1962 was witnessed here by yours truly and my dad. He said,” Patrick, lets go down and see Gus Brickner jump in the Mon.” As an 8 year old kid, I was thrilled that my dad wanted to take me and off we went to see the guy who eventually logged 38,500 miles swimming, two English Channel attempts, and swimming behind the ice breaker boats in the Mon during the most brutal winters near Charleroi, Pa.

My dad was an engineer and he always wanted to show me things that meant something to him as a technical person. I remember going to Geneva on the Lake when I was a kid and my dad taking me to Sandusky, Ohio to see the big ore freighters that traveled the Great Lakes bringing iron ore to the steel mills. He would explain the process of making steel and eventually built a continuous caster scale model for me to enter into the Buhl Planetarium Science Fair. Now, I knew nothing about continuous casting in the steel industry as a young kid and when asked about the project, I fumbled my way with the nuns trying to explain what my dad had told me. To my surprise, I was not a technical person, but my explanation along with my contrite personality with the nuns, got me a good grade and also an entry into the Science Fair. I( we- my dad) eventually ended up in the finals and once again, I had beads of sweat coming out of the arm pits trying to explain the virtues of the continuous caster. My dad was so proud of his- er a – my project.

Not long after the visit to the Mon to see Gus the Polar Bear, it seemed like spring came early and off we were to the ball games at Forbes Field. My dad, being a fan of baseball, explained the technical aspects of fielding a baseball to me and under no circumstances was I ever to do a “basket catch” like my idol Roberto Clemente. My dad dissed him as a “hot dog” but I was impressed that he could throw out guys at the plate all the way from right field. To me – the “Great One” was something but to my dad, if you did not have the glove over your head and trap the ball with the other hand so as not to drop it, you were not technically a good ball player. My dad- seen here in the middle with the great Honus Wagner back in the day in Bellevue.

It really did not matter to me that we went down in the middle of winter to see a guy jump in the icy river, or make the trek to see the giant ore boats, or go to the ball park, or launch Estes rockets across the street that my dad had built for me. It was the chance to spend time with my hero, my dad. He took the time for me and showed me things as a young kid that I remember to this day- a man in my 60s. I remember the kite flying when my dad would use three balls of string and stretch the kite out into the stratosphere- or so it seemed to me. The cleaning bag flying balloons powered by a little can of sterno glued to a cross bar of balsa wood – floating away into the clear night air. So many fun projects and excursions. The first time my sister and I went skiing, we were stuck in a raging snowstorm on the Pa turnpike – on my dad’s birthday, because he wanted to get us started on what he termed the sport of a lifetime. He and my mom did not ski but they made sure we did. The father and son swim competitions where I would see that big smiling face swim to the wall watching me take off in relay fashion.

Gus Brickner, the great Roberto were all heroes to me. But the main hero was the guy who took the time to take me to see them. For you young fathers out there, take a page out of R.J McCloskey’s book. Spend time with your son and daughter. You will never get that time back and they will remember it forever. I did. I saw Gus jump in the river when it was snowing in 1962. Thanks for reading.

The Great One

I always loved this time of the year when I was a kid. My dad would sign me up for baseball at the Berkeley Hills Fire Hall and I would wait for the notice to see what team I was on and when we started practice. The field was right across the street from where I grew up. As it turned out, I played catcher in minor league, little league, and pony league, and loved every minute. I even loved it when Mike Malone crashed into me on a crucial play in pony league. I tagged him, and I went ass over tin cups into the backstop and held on the the ball for the out. That happened to me a lot. Guys would love to come steaming into home plate and try to take out the catcher. The trick was to tag them and hang on to the ball. I couldn’t get enough baseball. A funny sideline was a number of years ago,I was helping coach my son’s baseball team and as I was telling my mom about my experience, she said,” What do you know about baseball? You never played baseball?” Just goes to show you she liked swimming meets better than baseball games. I made the all star teams and she never saw me play once with the ” tools of ignorance” behind the plate. We all got a good laugh out of that one. But playing catcher was wonderful and I tried to emulate Smokey Burgess behind the Pirates plate. He was stocky like me and could throw out a runner stealing second with little effort.
But the real hero in Pittsburgh was Roberto Clemente who played right field for the Bucs. My dad would take me to the games at Forbes Field and a special time was the Father and Son Baseball Nights at the University Club. I had to wear a sport coat and tie but got to meet all the players at the dinner before the game. They were all there signing autographs and I was in awe when I met the great Roberto. He was genuinely a nice guy and seemed to like meeting all the young kids and asking us about our baseball. My dad was not really a fan because Roberto had this habit of making basket catches below his belt instead of the standard method of catching a fly ball over your head and cupping the ball with your other hand. My dad called Roberto a hot dog but I knew better. He was……the Great One!!!

Roberto was more than a great player. He was a generous and extremely philanthropic person, and as I learned in later years, he made numerous trips to aid his fellow citizens of Puerto Rico who were victims of disasters or just plain poverty, and tragically died in a plane crash while getting supplies and food to Nicaragua after an earth quake in 1972. All of Pittsburgh was devastated and something died in me that day too as a senior in high school. As a young kid, Roberto was a hero to me and his life ended way too soon. I always held him close in my heart. Hockey may call Gretzky the Great One, but in Pittsburgh, Roberto will always be…….The Great One. I can still see him running down a sharply hit ball in right field, spinning around and throwing out a runner sliding into home plate. Smokey would field the rocket ball from right field and tag the runner and the crowd went wild. I can see it in my mind to this day.
So as the spring flowers start to bloom, the grass gets green, the temps moderate and the sun shines in Pittsburgh( yes it does happen), I think about baseball. Our PNC Park is one of the nicest fields in the country with our Pittsburgh skyline as the backdrop. There is nothing like sitting at the park on a nice summer evening and watching the Bucs play. Our Andrew McCutchen was not happy this year when he was moved to right field. My immediate reaction was that he should be proud to play the same position as Roberto Clemente did for the Pirates. When I see him now in right field, my mind drifts back to #21 playing that same position. Just recently Cutch was moved again due to an unfortunate incident with Starling Marte, but that is another story. But whoever fills that right field position, will be standing in some pretty big shoes. Some advice to the young players out there, only Roberto could get away with the basket catch. Get that glove up over you head, watch the ball, catch it and cup it in the glove with your other hand. Play Ball!!! Thanks for reading.