The Easterwood Park Boys reunion


THEY CAME together again recently in grateful reunion, the aging lads of Easterwood; their ranks are thinner, their steps slower.

Yes, again this year, those who were able reassembled and the embraces lasted a moment longer; the greetings were a bit more fervent. They joined to pay tribute to David "Dutch" Baer, the man most responsible for the formation decades ago of the Easterwood Park Boys, which is now a charitable group that sponsors a lovingly anticipated get-together each fall.

In the early 1930s, Dutch Baer was a director of the Playground Athletic League, the city agency that oversaw games at the park, a seven-acre patch running south and west from the intersection of Bentalou and Baker streets in northwest Baltimore. Much political noise is now heard of "values." This man dedicated his early years to instilling the best of them into the youngsters in his charge. Now in his mid-80s, Dutch Baer earned every kind word spoken.

His rabbi, Mark Loeb, the eloquent leader of Beth El Congregation on Park Heights Avenue, posed the old Talmudic question: "Who are the true guardians of the city?" The answer: Not the administrators or the political authorities, but rather, those who watch over the children, who guide the young. "These," he explained, "are the true guardians." And so the rabbi announced that henceforth his congregation's summer camp would bear the name of David Baer. Perfectly fitting.

But those in attendance didn't come just to honor their group's founder. They wanted a chance to recall their childhood days and the places and people they knew then -- the park, the neighborhood, the friendships. All sorts of sports events took place then at Easterwood, warm weather activities were nearly continuous. Countless fine athletes came out of the park's programs; there were so many that I would be afraid to name some and leave out deserving others.

Though the park was the hub, the area offered other joys. That evening, memories were shared not only of the games but also of some culinary delights of the time. The famed "Easterwood Special," reputed to have been the creation of Levitt's Grocery of Baker Street (a rye bread loaf cut in quarters, loaded with kosher baloney and slathered with mustard); it cost a thin but precious dime. Stop by Siff's at Bentalou and Presbury streets, and grab a penny pickle, and did you have a meal!

dTC A drink? Couldn't beat the nickel milkshake at Lou Hoffman's confectionery, at the corner of Appleton Street and Westwood Avenue, also the home of Lieberman's 2-cent coddie (and where, by the way, you could bet your hunch on a 3-digit numeral of your choice). Dessert? Two pennies for a snowball (chocolate extra) at Luby's on Ridgehill Avenue, just above North Avenue. Going west on North Avenue, between Pulaski and Smallwood streets, was a choice of delicatessens: Bridge's and Ballow's. There was no way you could go wrong.

That best of sportswriters, Red Smith, once remarked: "The older a man gets, the faster he could run as a boy." True, nostalgia often softens the edges. When the old stories were swapped that night, many losses in varied sports were somehow transformed into close wins. Yet none of this gentle embroidering of the truth changed the essential fact that those of us lucky enough to spend our youth there were indeed blessed.

What molded us? In part, the efforts of Dutch Baer and others like him. Even more was the need to cope with the reality of those harsh but happy post-Depression, pre-World War II days. As a result, the qualities of self-reliance, responsibility and family love were learned and retained through adulthood. Was this true of the vast majority? Without qualification, yes. Was the time and place full of virtue, free of sin? No.

Racism and sexism existed, too little understood. As mentioned, a little less-than-legal wagering occurred while understanding men in blue averted their gaze. Jack Pollack, undisputed political boss of Easterwood, was -- shall we say -- "creative" in obtaining votes when a close election required. Civilization, however, failed to totter. That is part of the record, a small part.

Much larger is the story of professional and working-class men and women who built careers and families. They, in the main, gave far more back to the community than they withdrew. Their generation enriched society.

All things change in time; it is the way of the world. In mid-August, major-league baseball ceased. Unprecedented. October saw the World Series canceled. Shameful. Last month, Republicans captured both houses of Congress. Chilling. Ah, but on that gentle autumn evening, the dedicated, philanthropic boys of Easterwood assembled again. No change here, not yet. One comforting thought as this unsettling year winds down.

Milton Bates writes from Baltimore.

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