Ed Charles played only 279 games for the Mets but he touched New Yorkers – really, everybody who met him – with his humanity.
This was apparent on Monday at a farewell celebration of Charles in Queens, his adopted home borough. People told stories about him, and I kept thinking of all the ways, Zelig-like, he popped back into my life.
His 1969 Miracle Mets teammate Art Shamsky told how he and Charles and Catfish Hunter and Jack Aker were making an appearance at a boy’s camp “up near Canada somewhere” and how Ed Charles drove – “one mile below the speed limit, always. Ed never went fast. That’s why they called him The Glider.” When they finally got there, the players elected Ed to speak first to the campers. After 45 poignant minutes, Shamsky said they had learned never to let that charismatic man speak first.
Everybody smiled when they talked about Charles, who died last Thursday at 84. His long-time companion, Lavonnie Brinkley, and Ed’s daughter-in-law, Tomika Charles, gave gracious talks, and his son, Edwin Douglas Charles, Jr., made us smile with his tale of playing pool with his dad, and how the old third baseman never let up, in any game.
A retired city police officer alluded to Ed’s decade as a city social worker with PINS – People in Need of Supervision – and how Ed reached them. People talked about barbecues and ball games and fantasy camps with Ed, how it was always fun.
As sports friends and real-life friends at the funeral home talked about Ed’s long and accomplished life, I thought about how we connected over the years, in the tricky dance between reporter and subject.
---The first time was between games of a day-nighter in Kansas City, on my first long road trip covering the Yankees for Newsday, August of 1962. Old New York reporters were schmoozing in the office of Hank Bauer, the jut-jawed ex-Yankee and ex-Marine with two Purple Hearts from Okinawa.
Ed Charles, a 29-year-old rookie – kept in the minors because of race and bad luck – came to consult the manager, maybe about whether he was good to go in the second game. I watched Bauer’s face, once described as resembling a clenched fist, softening into a smile. “Bauer likes this guy,” I thought to myself. “He respects him.” (I looked it up: Ed went 7-for-12 with a homer in that four-game series.)
--- We met in 1967 when the Mets brought him in to replace Ken Boyer at third base. During batting practice in the Houston Astrodome, the first indoor ball park, Ed summoned me onto the field, behind third base, shielding me with his glove and his athletic reflexes.
“Look at this,” he said, pointing at the erratic hops on the rock-hard "turf" -- one low, one high, a torment for anybody guarding the hot corner. I must have stayed beside him for 15 minutes and nobody ran me off. I have never been on a field during practice since. That was Ed Charles. Easy does it.
--- We had a reporter-athlete friendship, but there are always gradations. During a weekend series in glorious mid-summer Montreal in 1969, somehow there were three VIP tickets for a Joan Baez concert. I went to a brasserie with Joe Gergen of Newsday and Ed Charles and then we saw the concert, with Baez singing about love, and the Vietnam War.
--- The Mets won the World Series and Ed went into orbit near the mound, but then he was released, his career over, with a promotions job with the Mets gone over a $5,000 dispute in moving expenses. But I was walking near Tin Pan Alley in midtown in 1970 and there was Ed, working for Buddah (correct spelling for that company) Records. He was destined for Big Town. He later had some ups and downs in business but patched things up with the Mets and settled into his groove as poet/Met icon.
---When Tommie Agee died suddenly, Ed was working at the Mets’ fantasy camp, and he took calls from reporters to talk about his friend. Ed Charles, as this New Yorker would put it, was a mensch.
--- In 2012, the 50th anniversary of the Mets, Hofstra University recruited Ed to give a keynote talk on his poetry and his deep bond with the Mets. I was asked by my alma mater to introduce him, and I suggested to Ed that I could help him segue into his poems. He smiled at me the same way he had calmed down Rocky Swoboda and all the other twitchy Mets kids back in the day. “I got this, big guy,” he told me – and he did.
--- Last time I saw him, a few months ago, I visited his apartment in East Elmhurst, Queens. Lavonnie was there, and I brought some of that good deli from Mama’s in nearby Corona, plus enough cannoli to last a few days. Ed was inhaling oxygen confined to quarters. I saw sadness and acceptance, He let me know: he knew the deal.
On Monday, The Glider had his last New York moment. There will be a funeral in Kansas City on Saturday and he will be buried, as a military veteran, at the national cemetery in Leavenworth, Kans.
The funeral home Monday was a few blocks from the first home owned by Jackie and Rachel Robinson in 1949. The first Robinson home, on 177 St. in the upscale black neighborhood of Addisleigh Park, has been declared a New York landmark, as written up on the StreetEasy real-estate site (by none other than Laura Vecsey, a sports and political columnist.)
Ed Charles often talked about taking inspiration from sighting Jackie Robinson as a boy in Florida; the proximity of the funeral home and Robinson home was a sweet coincidence, the family said.
The karma was unmistakable. Like Rachel and Jackie Robinson, Ed Charles encountered Jim Crow prejudice, but came to New York and won a World Series, and left a great legacy of talent and character.
(The Charles family has requested that any donations go to worthy causes like: The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City or the Jackie Robinson Foundation in New York)
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.