by Scott Kindberg
January 27, 2013
An Amazing Life
Jamestown Native And Former Yankee Had Friendships With Some Of Sports World’s Iconic Figures
The digital clock on the right-hand corner of my laptop computer read 12:58 p.m.
It couldn't be, I thought to myself as my fingers sped across the keyboard last Wednesday in an effort to keep up with yet another fascinating story being told long distance by my interview subject, Irv Noren.
There were still half a dozen questions scribbled on a sheet of paper on the table to the right of my MacBook, but I'd already taken more of Irv's time than I had a right to, so I knew our conversation had to come to an end.
"Well, Irv,'' I recall saying, "I can't thank you enough for the opportunity to talk with you. You've been very generous with your time, so I'll let you go.''
Then, I added, "We've been on the phone for an hour.''
For the first time since our conversation began, the Jamestown native and the proud owner of six World Series rings - three as an outfielder with the New York Yankees (1952, 1953, 1956) and three as a coach with the Oakland Athletics (1972-74) - paused, if only for a second.
I wasn't sure if Irv's ever-so-momentary silence was because I had inconvenienced him and forced him to alter his daily routine, but I was relieved when he offered a two-word response that came through my cell phone in the form of a question.
I took that to mean that Irv, who lived in Jamestown as a preteen, had enjoyed our long-distance conversation as much as I had.
The Oceanside, Calif. resident is 88 now, but his recall of an amazing life - from eating donuts and chocolate eclairs as a little boy at his father's bakery on Newland Avenue in Jamestown to experiencing a professional baseball career that spanned one of the greatest dynasties in the history of sports - was as sharp as the break on a Whitey Ford curveball.
"I call Whitey every once in awhile,'' said Irv, who roomed with Ford when they were Yankee teammates in the 1950s. "We spent the best times of our lives together, so I told him, 'Let's not ignore each other.'''
More than half a century after his baseball career ended - in addition to the Yankees, he also played with Washington, Kansas City, St. Louis (he was a roommate of Stan Musial), the Chicago Cubs and the Dodgers - it's hard to ignore Irv's remarkable athletic achievements and his front-row seat to some of the sports world's most iconic figures.
Following are some snapshots of Irv's life and career gleaned during our conversation last week. As you'll see, the kid who grew up on Jamestown's south side didn't do too badly for himself.
EARLY LIFE IN JAMESTOWN
While Irv left Jamestown before he reached his teenage years, he still remembers Brooklyn Square, the city's brick streets, building forts and having snowball fights at Allen Park and skating on his iced-over backyard on Linwood Avenue.
And, of course, there was the bakery.
Located on the corner of Newland and Forest avenues, Noren's Bakery was where Irv would go for a donut or to help his father clean up after a busy day. His payment? A chocolate eclair.
When Irv was 11 or 12, his parents visited friends in California, found they liked it and relocated to San Diego and, later, to Pasadena. Ironically, Irv's dad found a bakery for sale in Pasadena, eventually looked it over and, according to Irv, "bought the dog-gone thing."
"He took a Greyhound (bus) back to Jamestown, sold the house and the bakery and came back out (to California).
"On a handshake.''
Jamestown's loss turned out to be Pasadena's gain.
SUCCESS ON THE HARDWOOD
At Pasadena High School, Irv, by all accounts, was quite an athlete, starring in baseball, football and basketball.
"I was a better basketball player than baseball player in school,'' he said.
So good, in fact, that he was once the California Interscholastic Federation Player of the Year. Irv eventually parlayed his excellence on the hardwood into success at Pasadena City College and, later, with the racially integrated professional basketball team called the Los Angeles Red Devils. One of Irv's teammates was a man, also from Pasadena, by the name of Jackie Robinson.
Yes, that Jackie Robinson.
"We were good friends. He's probably the best athlete I've ever seen,'' Irv said.
Irv wasn't too bad himself.
A forward, he played well enough in a game against the Chicago Gears of the National Basketball League - he said he scored 18 or 19 points - that he was hired away from the Red Devils by the Gears. One of Noren's new teammates was George Mikan, the Hall-of-Fame big man. All of this is confirmed in Michael Schumacher's book, "Mr. Basketball: George Mikan, the Minneapolis Lakers, and the Birth of the NBA.''
"He was a good fella,'' Irv said of Mikan. "He didn't want anybody to shoot but him.''
Irv didn't stay in the NBL very long, though. Instead, after a stint in the Army in 1946, he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers for $5,000.
"My dad was with me (when the offer was made) and he said, 'Where is the pen?''' Irv recalled. "Five-thousand dollars in 1946 was a pretty good deal.''
Irv's decision to pursue a baseball career turned out to be the right one - for many reasons.
JOINING THE YANKEES
Noren had quite a minor league debut for Santa Barbara of the California League in 1946, leading the league in hits (188), doubles (33), triples (14) and RBIs (129) while hitting .363.
His climb up the minor-league ladder continued in a timely fashion until Brooklyn sold him to the Washington Senators for $80,000 in September 1949. On opening day in 1950, Irv was the club's starting center fielder.
"We didn't draw many people, but it was great (in Washington),'' Irv said. "There wasn't a lot of pressure. You could go 0-for-4 and you knew you were going to play the next day."
That first season, Irv batted .295, and had 27 doubles, 10 triples, 14 home runs and 98 RBIs. In 1951, he had another stellar season, hitting .279 with 33 doubles, five triples, eight home runs and 86 RBIs. After 12 games of the 1952 season, Irv received a Saturday morning phone call directing him to meet with Washington owner Clark Griffith.
"I thought, 'Wow, maybe I'll get a raise or something,''' Irv recalled. "I never thought about a trade.'' But Griffith told him he was headed to New York and the Bronx Bombers.
The next day, Irv walked into Yankee Stadium to begin his career in pinstripes. One of the first guys he met, he said, was Hall- of-Famer Joe DiMaggio, who had retired after the 1951 season, but was still a regular presence in the Bronx.
"He came up to me and talked to me about playing center field,'' Irv said.
At that time, a young man by the name of Mickey Mantle, the acknowledged successor to Joe D. in center field, had been temporarily sent down to the Yankees' minor league affiliate in Kansas City.
"I did the best I could,'' Irv said. "They moved Mickey back up and I went over to left field. No one was going to take Mantle's place.''
But a friendship was quickly forged between the Jamestown native and the hot-shot phenom from Commerce, Okla. For the next several seasons, they shared a room at the Edison Hotel in Times Square; made regular trips to the Stage Deli in Midtown Manhattan where, Irv said, they routinely held court with entertainer Jackie Gleason and actor Danny Kaye; and enjoyed many late-night post-game "celebrations" with Yankees teammates Ford and Billy Martin.
A teetotaler, Irv - whose beverage of choice was a 7-Up with a "hunk of lime'' - said he knew Mantle "as well as anybody" and counseled the slugger about his well-documented battle with the bottle.
"I told Mickey, 'You're hurting yourself,''' Irv said. " He was just that way.''
Long after they retired - Irv called it quits after the 1960 season and Mantle following the 1968 campaign - they remained fast friends.
"He'd call me from Vegas and I'd fly up and spend time with him and talk about the old days,'' Irv said. "Too bad I didn't get a lot of his autographs."
The Mantle memories, on and off the field, would have to suffice.
MICKEY'S TAPE-MEASURE BLAST
On April 17, 1953, Irv stood in the outfield at Griffith Stadium during batting practice and looked around the old ballpark. He saw the American flag was blowing in the direction of left field and, recalled, presumably, the home run his buddy Mantle had a hit a little more than a week before. That was when, according to author Jane Leavy in her Mantle biography, "The Last Boy" (HarperCollins, 2010), that "The Mick" hit a ball over the roof in an exhibition at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. The estimated distance was 450 feet.
"Geez, Mickey,'' Irv said prior to the game with the Senators eight days later, "I bet you can hit one farther than the one the other day.''
"It just kept going,'' Irv said of the tape-measure blast off left-hander Chuck Stobbs.
After the game, the switch-hitting Mantle, who delivered the homer batting from the right side of the plate, approached Irv:
"You said I could hit one out, and I did."
The exact distance has been the subject of much debate since - some say the ball traveled 565 feet - but one thing is undeniable: It was a bomb.
"And he did it without steroids,'' Irv said.
POSTSEASON ROAD TRIP
The Yankees didn't win a pennant in 1954 (Cleveland played the New York Giants in the World Series that year), so after the Bronx Bombers' last game, Irv said he planned to drive home to California. This time, though, he had company: Mantle, who was from Commerce, Okla., wanted to hitch a ride.
Along the way, Irv, at Mantle's urging, pulled off the road when they encountered a group of boys playing baseball in a sandlot. Irv retrieved a few baseballs and a bat from the trunk of his new Chevy and then told one of the kids that he could strike out his traveling companion.
After the youngsters made their way to the far reaches of the outfield, Irv began to pitch to Mantle. One of the offerings Mantle ripped high over the nearby school. That prompted a little by-play between Irv and the kid he'd talked to earlier. According to Irv, it went something like this:
Youngster: "You can't strike out that guy out.''
Irv: "You know why? That's Mickey Mantle.''
Youngster: "Then who are you? Yogi Berra?"
With that, Irv said, Mantle pulled out his driver's license to prove that he was indeed the Yankees superstar.
Irv still laughed at the memory 60 years later.
"The kid probably went home and said, 'Dad, you won't believe it. Mickey Mantle hit a ball over the schoolhouse.' And then the dad said, 'Kid, I told you never to lie to me. Go to your room.'''
LARSEN'S PERFECT GAME
Irv was part of three World Series championship teams with the Yankees, although he could only watch from the dugout in 1956 because he was not on the postseason roster because of bad knees. In fact, he played in only 29 games that season.
But the view in Game 5 in the Bronx against the Dodgers was especially spectacular for that was the day that Yankees' starter Don Larsen hurled the only perfect game in World Series history.
Irv, who would later earn a World Series share and a ring despite being sidelined with injury, remembers how quiet the dugout was as Larsen mowed down one Brooklyn hitter after another.
About the sixth inning, Irv said, Larsen returned to the dugout after retiring the side in order yet again and asked, to no one in particular: "How am I doing?"
No one, Irv recalled, said a word.
"Nobody wanted to talk to him,'' he said. "It was the most quiet dugout you've ever seen."
MORE STORIES TO COME?
As our interview was about to end, I asked Irv for his mailing address so I could send him a copy of this column. Then he asked if I would also send along my phone number so that if he thought of any more stories, he could give me a call.
I believe I have a new friend. After all, we Jamestown natives have to stick together.