July 7, 1970
In his dream, Nick was standing in the corporation yard, surrounded by the entire Street Department crew, holding a brand-new Mickey Mouse lunchbox. The men doubled over with laughter, pointing, slapping their knees, as Nick turned several shades of red. He woke with a start and looked at the clock on his bedside table. Five fifty. The alarm would sound at six. He closed his eyes and tried to return to sleep—minus the dream—when a familiar aroma drifted into the room. Pancakes!
Nick threw back the covers and headed for the bathroom. From there, he dressed for work and went into the kitchen where his mom stood over the old cast-iron griddle, about to remove four hot cakes to a waiting platter. Nick squeezed her shoulders and kissed her cheek.
“Good morning, gorgeous. Man, that smells good.”
Lucille Shane smiled. “Have a seat, honey. They’re coming off the griddle now.” At sixty, her hair had gone snow white. Her thick wire-rimmed glasses couldn’t hide sparkling blue eyes. At five seven, Lucille was considered tall, that is until her son began to tower over her. She removed the four cakes, poured fresh batter onto the sizzling griddle, then placed the platter on the table. Real butter and warm maple syrup were waiting, along with a steaming mug of coffee. Nick dug in.
“Nick, I packed two chicken sandwiches for you, with some chips, an apple, and a couple of cookies. Is that enough?”
“Yeah, that’s great.” He wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Mom…you’ve been packing Dad’s old lunch pail for me. You sure it’s okay if I use it?”
“It’s fine with me, honey, if you don’t mind that beat-up old thing. We could get you a new one.”
Nick laughed. “No, I don’t mind. Matter of fact, I wanted to say thank you.” He picked up his plate and headed for the sink to rinse it. Thank God for that old black lunch box. The Mickey Mouse theme played in his head and he smiled. He paused to look out the kitchen window as the sky lightened to the east.
How many times had Nick seen his father, Nick Sr., come home from work, that old tin box in hand? And the times his mother had to help his father take off his boots. His dad’s back was so bad, toward the end, that he couldn’t bend to take them off himself. Stay home? Take a sick day? That was out of the question. “I’m a working man,” his father would say. That’s all the explanation required. “I’m a working man.” It’s what he knew, all he knew—how to work hard, harder than the next guy, harder than the next two guys combined.
Nick Sr. was a Boilermaker, a trade he’d learned in the Navy, and he took pride in his craft. “Learn a trade, Nick. Nobody can take that away from you.” Nobody, especially the bosses in their suits and ties, their polished wing-tip shoes, their manicured fingernails that never got dirty. “A working man has two things going for him, Nick. His union and the Democratic Party. Never forget that.” Cross a union picket line? Never. Vote for a Republican? You’ve got to be kidding. And then, not long before he died, “Stay in school, Nick. I don’t want you to end up on that damn shipyard.”
Learn a trade. Stay in school. Nick wasn’t sure how to reconcile the two. What would his father think of Nick’s job, humping a shovel with the Street Department for $433 a month? Would he be proud, now that those new boots were a little dirty, some asphalt ground into the white soles? No, Nick knew he wasn’t there, not yet. He didn’t deserve to carry that lunch pail. There was more to do, more to prove. Nick wanted to make his father proud, and he would know when it happened. He’d look in the mirror one day and his old man would be there, a smile on his tired face, these words on his lips: “You’re a working man, son.”
He picked up the lunch pail and started for the front door, stopping to kiss his mother’s cheek one more time. “I’m going to work, Mom. See you tonight.”
Nick had been on the job three weeks. He was tired of pothole duty. It was time for some real work. He would have a talk with Gus.
July 11, 1970
Nick held the large platter while Gus Cordeiro scooped burgers from the barbeque grill with a long metal spatula. Gus switched to tongs to remove a half-dozen hot dogs. They headed for the picnic table on the patio where Gus’s wife Gerry was placing a large bowl of potato salad. The table was loaded, everything you could want on your burger or dog, plus steaming corn-on-the-cob. Nick’s girlfriend Donna came out of the kitchen with a large pitcher of lemonade and found an open spot for it. Nick smiled. He’d never left the Cordeiros’ table hungry.
“Nick, there’s beer in the cooler. Bring me one while you’re at it.” Gus motioned toward a large Coleman ice chest as he took his seat at the head of the table. Nick brought two ice-cold cans of Budweiser and handed one to Gus. “So, young man, you’ve been on the job three weeks. Whataya think so far?”
“It’s been great, Gus. Wally is good guy. Really interesting life, with the Seabees and all.”
“Yeah, he’s a real artist with that damn grader, the best I’ve ever seen. I hope he doesn’t decide to retire on me. He’ll be a hard one to replace.” Gus shook his head. He looked at Nick. “How are you getting along with the rest of the guys? I hear they’ve named you ‘Boots.’” He laughed.
“Hey, I don’t mind. They’re a good bunch.”
“I tell what, Nick, if they’re jokin’ with you, givin’ you a hard time, it means they like you. It’s when they stop that you gotta worry.”
Nick smiled. “Yeah. I just want to show ’em I can carry my weight. Know what I mean?”
“Don’t worry, Nick, you’ll get plenty of chances for that.”
Gerry and Donna ignored the men, deep into their own conversation. They’d hit it off from the beginning, despite the age difference, when Nick introduced Donna to the Cordeiros. Donna was polite, well-mannered, and it didn’t take long to recognize her intellect and confidence. And she was as pretty as she was smart. No question, Donna Foxworth was special.
The Cordeiros’ sons, Gordon and Gus Jr, ages nine and twelve, joined them at the table, bringing their unique world of chaos and sibling rivalry. Gus and Gerry took turns attempting to enforce order, to little or no effect. Nick adored the boys, like two little brothers he wished he had.
It was July, and in Vallejo that meant cool, breezy evenings once the sun dipped low. They would take dessert and coffee inside, the lively conversations continuing. Nick had a favor to ask. He waited until Gus poured a second cup of coffee.
“I’ve been doing potholes for three weeks now, Gus. How about moving me to the paving crew? I’d like to do some real work, break a sweat, get my hands dirty.”
Gus rubbed his forehead and glanced at Nick. “My paving teams are set right now, Nick. But I tell you what, I’m shorthanded on the painting crew. How ’bout that?”
Nick wasn’t crazy about the idea, but he was bored with pothole detail. Anything would be a step up. And so, it was set: Mike would go back to Wally and Nick would learn about painting. It wouldn’t hurt to splash some paint on those new boots.
Nick and Donna said goodbye to the Cordeiros around 7:30. They drove west along Georgia Street, heading toward downtown, no destination in mind.
“It’s still early. How about a movie?” Nick glanced at Donna, snuggled close to him on the front seat. “I think True Grit is playing at the El Rey.”
“I’ve got a better idea.” She smiled at him. “Morgan is out of town with her boyfriend. I have the key to her apartment.”
“Really? Do you think she’d mind?”
“No…not if we change the bedding afterward.” She looked at him and smiled again.
“Geez, does she think we’re funky or something? Like we’re gonna stink up the bed?” He was laughing now.
Donna rested her head on his shoulder. “We’re all funky, sweetie. No big deal. We’ll change the sheets.”
Nick sped up a little, heading for the old converted four-plex up on Napa Street.
Nick stared at the ceiling, stroking Donna’s short brown hair. Her head rested on his chest, her body half over his. Nick’s heart was full. He waited for the lump in his throat to clear.
“Donna, what’s going to happen?”
“What do mean, sweetie?”
“I mean to us. You and me.”
“Well…I hope what just happened happens again…soon. That was wonderful.” She laughed softly.
“Be serious. You know what I mean.”
“I thought we agreed. It’s settled. We’re not gonna talk about it again.”
“I can’t help it, Donna. I love you. I want to be with you. I’d marry you tomorrow—”
She scooted up onto the pillow and turned to face him. “Come on, Nick. We’ve talked about this. I’ve been accepted at UCLA, I leave in August for my junior year. When I get my undergrad, I’m going to apply to medical schools. I’m going to be a doctor, Nick, no matter what it takes. That’s a lot of years…and marriage doesn’t figure in the plan right now.”
“I know, but—”
“And what about you? You’re going to be off playing baseball…somewhere. We’re likely to be thousands of miles apart.”
Nick was quiet, searching her eyes. God, why did he have to fall for a girl with a ten-year plan—and the brains and guts to make it happen.
“Look, Nickie. You’ve told me how you feel when you’re on a ballfield, how you come alive inside.”
“Well…that’s how I feel about school, about learning, about becoming a doctor. Understand?”
Nick had no arguments, at least none that made sense. She was right about his love of the game. If she felt that way about her goals, how could he get in the way? He pulled her to him and held her close. It was July and she wouldn’t be leaving until August. He was not ready to let her go.
July 13, 1970
Ralph Berger managed the painting crew. As of this Monday morning in July, that crew numbered just two: Ralph and Nick. “Ralphie,” as everyone called him, was in his late fifties and stood about five six with his boots on. His florid complexion gave away his love of good whiskey, which he carried in a silver flask in the back pocket of his white coveralls. Drinking on the job never seemed to impair his skill with the tools of the trade. Whether painting posts, crosswalks, curbs, or warning signs, Ralphie kept a steady hand.
Nick liked him right away. For one thing, the conversation never lagged, because Ralphie never shut up. An endless stream of anecdotes filled the day, ranging from Ralph’s childhood on the Near West Side of Chicago, to his service in the Army during World War II, and on to his current life in Vallejo. All Nick had to do was ask a leading question and Ralphie was on.
“What’s Chicago like, Ralph?”
“Oh, great town, Boots. You’d love it. You got the great museums, the aquarium, the zoos, the Art Institute. You’re a baseball guy, you’ve got the Sox and the Cubs. And there’s the Bears, the Bulls, the Blackhawks. Great sports town, Boots.”
A converted ammunition carrier, dating from the forties, served as the paint truck. A large tank mounted in the bed fed a fifty-foot length of hose for spraying crosswalks and traffic warnings. Brushes, rollers, paint buckets, thinners and rags filled the rest of the bed. Ralphie ran a tight ship: a place for everything and everything in its place, including a fifth of Old Kessler to refill his flask. The “crew” set out early with a long list of jobs to be completed. Ralph continued his narrative.
“Ever hear of Maxwell Street? My old man had a stall on Maxwell, sold clothing, whatever he could get his hands on, bought from some of the best stores in The Loop when they were clearing out for a new season. He’d pick up good stuff for pennies on the dollar, mark it up, make a nice profit. Of course, a lot of his stuff ‘fell off the truck,’ know what I mean? ‘Fell off the truck.’ Ha! But hell, if you went up and down Maxwell, half the goods you’d see were off somebody’s truck. And there were food carts all along Maxwell, Boots. The smells were amazing, but the best was this cart that sold hot dogs. Ever had a Chicago hot dog, kid?”
“No, can’t say I have.” No question: Nick was going to hear all about Chicago hot dogs.
They stopped to paint a crosswalk, laying out the stencils, painting one lane at a time, waiting for the paint to dry before moving on. From there, a couple of stop signs with posts in need of paint, then more crosswalks. The list of jobs seemed endless.
“…You’ve got to start with a good all-beef frank, Boots. Vienna is the best. Gotta be Vienna. You boil it for ten minutes or so, nothing fancy, then you gotta have a steamed poppy-seed bun, without doubt the best, gotta be poppy-seed. So, you got your dog, your bun, now you gotta have good yellow mustard, and don’t even think about catsup. No self-respecting Chicagoan would put catsup on a hot dog. So, yellow mustard, and then the relish, and it’s gotta be the bright green relish that you see in the Midwest, not this pale lookin’ stuff they have out here…”
At the base of the Georgia Street hill, the intersection with Amador, they prepared to paint STOP followed by AHEAD in the eastbound lane approaching the corner. Ralph put down the stencils while Nick set out barricades and traffic cones to divert traffic. Ralph returned to the tale of the Chicago hot dog.
“…So, you got the dog, the bun, mustard, relish, now you gotta have a nice ripe tomato and you put two or three slices, stuff ’em right in the bun. And a yellow onion, you can either slice some crescents or dice ’em up. Then a sprinkle of celery salt, and finally you top it with a Kosher dill pickle spear. I’m tellin’ you, Boots, that’s a meal on a bun, and this cart down on Maxwell was the best in Chicago. And don’t even get me started on the Polish sausage.”
Ralph unrolled the hose and sprayed white paint into the stencil. He’d completed STOP and was starting on AHEAD when Joe Jacoby, the department foreman, pulled to the curb in his pickup truck. Joe was Gus’s right-hand man and they complemented each other so well that Joe could finish Gus’s sentences, and often did. Joe was a tall, lean man with a perpetual smile and a new joke to tell every time you met him. Ralph and Nick paused to greet him.
“Ralphie, Boots. How’s it going? Hey, did you guys hear the one about the traveling salesman who ran over the farmer’s cat?” Joe was off and running while he inspected their progress. They all laughed at the punchline, but Joe wasn’t finished. “Holy moly! Ralph, look what you’re doin’ here.”
“What? What’s the problem?” Ralph reached for his flask, but stopped short.
“Damn, Ralph! You’re painting it upside down.” Joe’s smile revealed tobacco stained teeth. “A driver has to read it traveling eastbound. Eastbound, Ralphie!” He pointed east, like a referee signaling a first down.
“Ah shit!” Ralph’s face turned bright red.
“And you, Joe College…” Jacoby turned to Nick. “Where were you? You just let him go ahead and do it?” The foreman threw back his head and howled with laughter. “Okay, look. Get your black paint, paint out what you’ve got, and start over. And for chrissakes get it right this time.” He turned and headed for his truck, laughing all the way.
Ralph went to the paint truck and sat down on the running board. He pulled his flask and took a long swig.
“Damn, Boots! It’s gonna be hard livin’ this one down.”
“You don’t think Joe will say anything, do you?”
Ralph shook his head. “Kid, we are about to be famous.”
Nick couldn’t hold it any longer. He started to laugh and it was a long time before he could stop.
The sun was low in the west as they turned into the corporation yard, drove to the paint shed, and started the process of cleaning brushes, rollers, and nozzles. Ralph was right: the word had spread through the crew like a prairie fire. Trucks began to roll into the yard, guys hanging out of windows yelling, “Hey, Ralph! Eastbound, Ralphie, eastbound!”
And Nick learned he had a new nickname: he was Joe College.
August 8, 1970
Coaches and scouts referred to Nick Shane as a “late bloomer.” In high school, he’d been something of a runt, five nine with his spikes on, a hundred and sixty-five pounds with a pocketful of pennies. He’d performed well, carrying a .400 average during his senior season. And yet the scouts looked at his small stature, his obvious lack of power, and went off to seek other prospects. Nick could run, field, and hit, but his throwing arm was unimpressive and he had little power with the bat. He was a “three tool guy” when the gold standard required five tools—run, throw, field, hit, and hit with power. No college recruiters or pro scouts came calling at the Shane residence.
That began to change during his two years at Vallejo Jr. College. Nick experienced a growth spurt. He reached six feet, then six two. His weight climbed to one hundred and eighty pounds and it was solid muscle. The hours he spent in the weight room made sure of that. Fly balls that barely reached the warning track began to leave the yard. Scouts took notice, and yet old opinions persisted. Nick remained a maybe, a guy to watch-and-see, a possible roster filler.
Stan McWilliams, his coach at Vallejo J.C., had promised to set Nick up with a scholarship offer. Nick tried to keep his hopes alive as the summer of ’70 wore on. To hone his skills, he played weekend games with the Vallejo Builders, a semipro team, part of the North Bay League, a loose affiliation of teams from cities around the Bay Area—Napa, Vacaville, San Rafael, San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland. The players ranged from young hopefuls like Nick, to middle-aged veterans and former professionals, the kids hoping to be noticed, the older guys clinging to the game they loved.
The sun was high in the Northern California sky, temperatures in the low eighties, a light breeze out of the west pushing puffy white clouds over Wilson Park in Vallejo. The Builders were set to play the San Francisco Seals on this Saturday afternoon in August, the first game of a home-and-home match-up that would conclude on Sunday in San Francisco.
Nick sprinted from the dugout to his position in centerfield. He never got over the charge he felt at the start of every game. His legs were coiled steel springs, his glove a vacuum to suck up any ball hit his way, his arm a cannon to gun down baserunners. The umpire shouted, “Play Ball,” precisely at 1:05 p.m., and a simple thought raced through Nick’s mind: Hit it to me. I dare you. Hit it to me.
It happened in the top of the sixth inning with the score tied, two to two. Sal Barboni, first baseman for the Seals—all six four, two hundred and sixty pounds of him—connected with a fastball and sent it soaring toward left-center field. Would it clear the chain-link fence more than four hundred feet away? The answer to the hundred-or-so fans in attendance was Tell it goodbye.
Nick had another answer in mind. With the crack of the bat, he made a neat drop-step and raced back and to his right, every ounce of strength and energy poured into the effort. The spectators sat, mouths open, holding their collective breath with the realization that Nick was gaining on the ball. He actually had a chance. His left arm extended with one final lunge and the ball stuck in his glove as he slammed into the fence. The thick wire fabric caught his body like a trampoline and sent him bouncing back onto the field, the ball in his glove held high for the umpire to see.
For Sal Barboni, a long, loud out.
The Builders went on to defeat the Seals in the first game of the weekend series. A handful of scouts were in attendance, there to see other players. They jotted notes about Nick’s performance on three-by-five cards and scraps of paper.
Doesn’t look like the N. Shane we scouted in high school. Could deserve another look.
Plays the game with a perpetual smile. Great attitude!
Maybe we missed this guy. (Wouldn’t be the first.)
Don Gleason, a reporter for the Vallejo Times Herald filed this story for the Sunday morning sports page:
Builders defeat Seals 5 – 3 at Wilson Park
“…In more than twenty years of covering local baseball teams, this reporter has never witnessed a play like the one turned in yesterday by Nick Shane. A real game-changer!”
The box score accompanying the article showed that Nick had four at-bats, scored two runs, had two hits, and was credited with three RBI. An all-around good day down at the ballyard. But the report didn’t mention the visitor Nick received in the dugout after the game.
Nick was busy packing his equipment bag when the man came down the steps into the dugout. Large, heavy-set, a friendly smile on his face, he reached out to Nick with a hand the size of a catcher’s mitt.
“Nick Shane? Hi, I’m Dante Benedetti. I sponsor the team you just beat.” Nick stood to shake hands. Benedetti continued. “Nice game today. That was some catch!”
“Thank you, sir. Got a little lucky, I guess.” Nick recognized the name. Dante Benedetti was known as “Mr. Baseball” in San Francisco, owner of a well-known North Beach restaurant, a man who loved the game and sponsored teams from Little League through semi-pro. He was reported to be a friend of the DiMaggio brothers.
“Will you be coming to The City for tomorrow’s game?”
“Yes, sir. I wouldn’t miss it.” Nick smiled, warming to this friendly celebrity.
“Tell me, son, what are your plans? What comes after the Vallejo Builders?”
Nick paused, surprised by the question. “Well…my J.C. coach is trying to line up a scholarship for me. I want to finish my degree, major in Education, become a teacher.” He looked at the older man for a reaction. “That’s about it…right now.”
“That’s a good goal. Good for you, Nick.”
“Why do you ask, sir?” Nick felt his cheeks flush. Was he being too direct?
“Let’s just say I know a guy who knows a guy.” Benedetti laughed. “Let’s talk again tomorrow. Okay?”
“Sure.” Nick took the large hand that was offered and shook it firmly.
I know a guy who knows a guy? Sunday would be an interesting day.