by Chris Olsen
August 4, 2019
An Ode To 40: A Son Remembers His Late Father
Forty years ago this very weekend — Aug. 2, 1979 to be precise — I received a telephone call that shook my world.
“Thurman Munson just died!” spoken almost as a single word. Then repeated again — louder and faster — as if saying it fast enough could somehow make it not true. I was stunned. Thurman Munson was my favorite player. Heck, Thurman Munson in 1979 was everyone’s favorite player. I simply couldn’t process the information that was being provided. All I could muster after someone else famous had also passed earlier that week was, “Man, everyone’s dying this week.”
The next night, Aug. 3, 1979, the New York Yankees reluctantly took the field at Yankee Stadium without Number 15. At 7:27 p.m., a moment of silence was observed. There they stood, the entire New York Yankees ballclub, eight players in their positions on the field, and the rest of the team lined up single file in front of the home dugout.
At precisely that time, 7:27 pm, some 400 miles away, at the other end of the state, the upstart St. Luke Saints in their red, white and blue regaled brand-new uniforms were taking on the perennial Church League powerhouse softball team of St. James.
Ted Olsen, a 47-year-old husband and father of three from Jamestown, slid into second base at Jones & Gifford field and never got up.
At Yankee Stadium, everyone in the park removed their caps and wept following a memorial prayer honoring Thurman and a somber rendition of God Bless America.
At Jones & Gifford, the play of Ted sliding into second base and staying on the ground was met with some initial laughter, as most, if not all, thought that Ted, himself a three sport college athlete, was joking, nothing more than a prank really to lighten the mood and break the tension of the highly contested game. Laughter turned to concern, then turned to panic as Ted remained on the ground motionless. Greg Cordosi, who Ted had coined the nickname, “Lucky Penny,” for his uncanny ability to come up with the big play when the team needed it most was first to arrive. His heart sank as he realized, maybe for all involved, that Ted was not going to get up.
Joe DiMaio, St. James standout pitcher and power hitter (and Chris’ football Coach at Lincoln Junior High School), and others rushed to second to see if anything could be done to save Ted. Pete Dimas, Lou Deppas and countless others came, too, wanting to help, to do anything they could. Ted’s wife Janice and daughter Cindy were in the bleachers. They tried to get to Ted, too, but were held back as panic was now starting to set in.
The rest is just a blur. … Someone call an ambulance. … Tick, tick, tick. … Someone running 10 minutes to “The Swamp” to the nearest pay phone. … Insert a quarter. … Tick, tick, tick. … “Yes, yes, please hurry, it looks serious.”… Tick, tick, tick. … Someone running back. … Start CPR. … Now! … Tick, tick, tick. … Breathe, Ted, come on and breathe. … Tick, tick, tick. … His jaw is closed shut. …Have to pry it open. … Tick, tick, tick. … Try harder. … Back away. … Ten minutes later the ambulance arrives. … Tick, tick, tick. … Speeding to the emergency room. … Try everything. … Tick, tick, tick… He is only 47! … Tick, tick, tick. … But he just had a complete physical two weeks ago. … Try everything!
Back at Yankee Stadium, heads bowed, alone with their thoughts, and tears, 51,000 people are silent. Then there is rapturous applause. A bring-the-house-down standing ovation — all for their Captain — for what he meant to them and for what they knew they would never see again.
At Jones & Gifford there is SILENCE, too, and at WCA, and in houses and churches across town. At the WCA Hospital parking lot there are people in softball jerseys with their heads down. Back in the ER there are screams of disbelief and enough tears to flood the city. “We’re sorry but he didn’t make it.” Full stop.
SILENCE, then MORE SILENCE. Screen fades to black. Mutual disbelief in both ballparks. The next day the flags fly at half mast in both the 10451 and 14701. There is a guttural, palpable disbelief in both places. How could someone so full of life and energy?
There are funerals, and visiting hours, and eulogies, and flowers, and tributes, and tears, and more tears. Grown men, the toughest of the tough, crying, weeping really — some for the first time — as all try to process. There is a sense that it is over. It is done. For people, many people, things will never be the same again. Ever.
Did I mention the Yankees played a game that night to honor their friend, and to do something, ANYTHING, to make the grief subside, if only for a few fleeting moments.
As Ted’s son, I never wanted to drive on Jones and Gifford Avenue after that day. Kind of like when you hold your breath as a kid whenever you drive by the hospital or go through a tunnel. Somehow it helps protect you from harm. I know, it’s against all logic.
A couple summers ago on the anniversary, Aug. 3, as my wife Trish and I were vacationing with the kids we went. We went back to that place. As we pulled in through the gate, my heart sank. Tears welled up in my eyes. It hits me for the first time that since I wasn’t there (thankfully) I don’t know which of the three fields it actually was. Yet that day I know. The rental car heads directly to the field, almost as if it is driving itself.
All six of us step out to the field. It is a pristine Western New York summer day. The kind of day that makes the winters bearable. I see the bleachers where Mom and Cindy sat. I see second base and the sky above. It’s the bluest sky you ever saw, with rolling, white, puffy clouds just overhead. There is no one playing on any of the fields. Just quiet. I pictured the commotion of that day. I instinctively run to second base and stand there balling behind the Ray Bans. Maddie, McKenzie, Ted and Tyler all run to second, and surround their dad with a hug I will never forget. (Unbeknownst to me, Tricia takes a picture of that very moment, and my friend, Marlene Ognibene Sandberg, had it forever memorialized with an artist’s sketch that hangs in our living room).
Madisen encourages me to “finish running the bases because Grandpa Ted never got to.” This immediately draws resistance and then, “What a great idea,” followed by my rounding third and finally, after 40 years, having an Olsen make it home at Jones & Gifford 2. As we got back in the rental van, I noticed something that stopped me in my tracks. Hanging high atop the backstop, beaten and worn by more than 30 Jamestown winters and every weather imaginable, was a hand-carved, wooden sign that read: “OLSON FIELD.” The fact that someone had made that sign, climbed that fence more than 15 feet high and hung that sign, and that it had stayed all those years reminded me of all the wonderful things about sport, about life, and especially about the town where I grew up and still call home. Jamestown, New York is one special place.
So the lessons of that day remind us all to hug your kids, call your parents and tell them how much they mean to you; do what you most love doing, whether that is sports, art, gardening and everything in between; make the most of every moment for it can all change with the next take-off or landing, or with the single crack of a bat. Tomorrow is never promised, not for a famous World Series champion catcher nor a local softball pitcher from a friendly church game in his hometown.
So, with a nod of a hat to Dad and to Thurman, and with a thank you and tremendous gratitude to all the friends and family who helped us all through, Mom, Cindy and I thank you and leave you with the following thoughts:
Forty years is hard to believe.
Especially for you.
You have always been about life.
How to move the immovable rock.
Double time. OK, make that triple time.
So, 40 seems so hard to believe in so many ways.
First, you are forever young in my mind’s eye.
Larger than life.
Able to beat me in any sport.
Able to beat anyone in any sport.
If it’s been 40 years, then I am over 50.
Older than you were on that day.
It was just yesterday morning that you taught me how to ride my bike.
You pushed me down Chautauqua Avenue towards the Bensons, and you let go.
I peddled as fast as I could so I wouldn’t fall.
You said that you knew that I wouldn’t.
Yesterday afternoon you, Cindy and I were playing frisbee on Westwood Drive.
I ran into the telephone pole diving for a catch.
We all laughed until we cried… but I hung on.
Just last night you were getting ready for the big game.
The other team was undefeated.
You said you hadn’t been that nervous since high school.
You let me win at cribbage. The first time you ever let me win at anything.
We didn’t do our patented good-luck Olsen handshake before you left.
You never said good-bye.
You were winning.
You were running to second base.
You never came back.
I still feel your presence.
I feel the pride that you felt being born on Veteran’s Day.
We got your birthday off from school you used to tell us.
I can’t think of a more appropriate day for your birth.
For you loved God, country and family, and shared that passion with all that you met.
So, on this 40th anniversary of that day I want to say thanks.
I still learn from you every day.
How to be a better Dad.
A better person.
A better Christian.
Thank you and Godspeed.
We miss you and Sharyn every day.
Chris, Jan and Cindy
Chris Olsen, a 1982 Jamestown High School graduate, is an attorney/producer in Los Angeles and is author of the book, “Lucy Comes Home.”