Summer Reading 2019: Through the Past Darkly for NJ Hall of Famer

In Mark Di Ionno’s second novel, ‘Gods of and Wood and Stone,’ the veteran journalist explores the haunted past of baseball hero and New Jersey native Joe Grudeck

Gods of Wood & Stone
Regular readers of NJ Spotlight know that August is our time for kicking back and taking advantage of the lull in the news cycle. To tide you over during our summer hiatus, we’re posting excerpts from books by New Jersey authors or with Garden State hooks. We’ll be back tanned and ready on September 3.

Mark Di Ionno has been an institution in New Jersey journalism for decades, most notably as an editor and then columnist for the Star-Ledger. His fifth book and second novel, “Gods of Wood and Stone,” takes us into the world of professional baseball through his hero Joe Grudeck. Newly elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Grudeck is a native of Union. Early in the book, he takes a drive through his hometown and childhood memories as he prepares to share news of his induction.

It was thirty-one miles from Grudeck’s condo to his boyhood home on Stuyvesant Avenue, mostly on Route 78. He was on the final leg now, where six lanes were blasted through the traprock of the Watchung Mountains, creating half-pipes of brown outcrops. On the ridge, a panoramic view of urban Jersey opened up, from the Manhattan skyline east to the rise of Staten Island south. Life down there was work. Real work. Rail lines. Port cranes. Power plants. Smokestacks. Planes coming and going, like blinking stars. Middle-class ’burbs, with church steeples and water spheres peeking out over treelines. Grudeck first noticed it the night of his father’s funeral, when he took off from Newark Airport to rejoin the team. As he rose above the Jerseyscape, he thought of all the people down there like Chuck and Sylvia Grudeck; all the people not like him. He escaped their obscurity. He was the most famous person ever to come out of his town, a “baseball icon,” as the sportswriters say. He left, but didn’t. He always came back, but wasn’t invested. Not in Union, not anywhere.

Grudeck came off the highway and onto Morris Avenue, Union’s main street. But the traffic, always the traffic, made him impatient, so he made a couple of turns and ended up on Lehigh Avenue in the industry section where Jenn-Air used to be. Lehigh Avenue was the tax base in the old days — DiGi Automotive Products, Armstrong Binding, Holman Plastics, East Coast Corrugated Boxes, Jenn-Air, and Liberty Dairies, a milk-processing plant. Places his friends’ fathers worked. Sponsors of Pop Warner and Little League. Some of those plants were replaced by clean corporate offices. These names — Schering, Comcast, Bank of America — were part of the new economy: pharmaceuticals, communications, money, run by the kind of guys Grudeck played golf with these days. Jenn-Air, where his father worked forty-five years, and a few others were vacant, with “Available” signs out front, for God knows how long. Lehigh Avenue ended back at Morris, and Grudeck turned toward home, through the downtown.

The Union center was old, built up in the 1920s, and beat up ever since. Some of the old stores, killed by highway big-box stores, now had signs in Español for international phone cards and money orders. But other places, like Lutz Pork Store and Green Pharmacy, were hanging on. His mother was a customer for decades, and some had personalized autographed pictures of Grudeck on their walls. To the guys at Lutz — makers of world’s best Polish sausage, Joey Grudeck.

He drove past the town hall, a Colonial-style complex with a bronzed eagle in a clock tower. As a kid, the clock always said “you’re late” as he ran home for dinner. As he passed it now, he could almost smell the woody air of fall, when dark came too early, or the fresh-dirt scent of spring, when the extended daylight tricked him into thinking he had more time. All those days, and seasons, he ran past that clock, his sneaker treads packed with mud; the days when his body had elastic immortality, no hand pain, no joint inflammation, just the strong, hard rubber muscles of youth.

He drove past Connecticut Farms School, the public grammar school. He remembered thinking it was a dumb name. They weren’t in Connecticut and there weren’t any farms. But it was the first town name, later changed to Union right after the Civil War. Still, the name “Farmers” was stuck on the high school sports teams. Grudeck hated it. It was a mushy name, implying no strength, speed, or bad intent, no animal prowess or heroic quality. Just a name from a forgotten past.

He passed the old brick church, which dated back to George Washington days. Grudeck knew this only because he got caught vandalizing it. He was just in fifth grade when he became the only kid who could hit a ball out of St. Joe’s schoolyard and onto church property. First, it was into the adjacent cemetery. Then the church, on a bounce. It wasn’t long until he could reach it on a fly, and then it wasn’t long before he broke a tall, arched window.

The minister saw the whole thing: a gaggle of boys pointing toward the church, the biggest boy’s long stride and perfect swing, a swing so easy but so muscular, so tuned but so natural, it could only be a gift from God. He saw the launch, and the high, arcing trajectory of the ball. He lost it in the sky, then heard the clatter of broken glass in the sanctuary as the boys jumped on the batter in celebration.
The minister grabbed the ball and went straight to Sister Jacinta, the principal at St. Joe’s. The boys were still buzzing when she came at them like a thundercloud, dark gray, angry, and swirling, with her heavy nun’s dress trailing in the wind she created. Behind her was the minister, hurrying to keep up, white hair rising like a cumulus cloud over his black church suit. The sister had the baseball in hand, and waved Grudeck over with it.

“Mr. Grudeck … you lose something?” she asked.

Grudeck looked at her, mustering all the innocence he could in his face.

“This look familiar?” she asked, holding the ball up to his face.

“Umm … I think. That might be the ball I just hit over into the churchyard.”

“The churchyard?”

“Yeah, I mean, yes, Sister. The church over there, ’cross the street.”

“I know where the church is. Did you see it land in the churchyard?”

“No, I was running … you’re never supposed to watch the ball after you hit it,” Grudeck said. Maybe this bit of Little League wisdom would be convincing.

“Well, as a matter of fact, Mr. Grudeck,” Sister said, “the ball didn’t land in the churchyard, it broke a church window. And Reverend Angus here says it looked to him like you did it on purpose.”

Angus. Grudeck heard his buddies stifle giggles as soon as they heard the name, which caused Grudeck to smirk, which caused Sister to say, “Oh, so you think this is funny? I’m not sure your father will think it’s funny when he has to pay for the window. And I don’t think Reverend Angus here thinks it’s funny.”

There it was again. More giggles, this time louder. Grudeck bit the inside of his mouth, enough to taste blood. He didn’t want to answer, afraid he might bust out.

“So, you do think this is funny?” Sister asked, now tossing the ball up and catching it in one hand, over and over, like a cop tapping his nightstick.

Nosister,” Grudeck finally managed.

“And did you do it on purpose?”

“No, Sister, I didn’t think I could hit it that far.”

“But you were aiming for the church?” she asked.

Grudeck was trying to think how to answer that when, after a few long beats of silence, Angus rescued him.

“I think the point here is, you boys should be more careful, lest we grown-ups take you for vandals,” he said. “Now, I saw the whole thing, and it looked to me like you boys were delighted the window was broken. So, what I would like is for you boys to come down to the church after school and clean up the mess, and then do some yard work in our cemetery this weekend to earn the money to pay for that window. Maybe along the way, you’ll learn something about the history of our church — and our town — so you’ll think twice next time.”

The boys went after school to sweep up the glass, and on Saturday, with rakes, work gloves, and leaf bags. Angus asked the boys to clean the graveyard of leaves and twigs, dead flowers, and Christmas grave blankets.

“While you’re at it, study some of the gravestones. Look at the names and dates. Understand that all these people once walked where you walk today, and that someday, you will seem as lifeless and distant to a future generation as they do to you,” Angus said. “What lives on are ideals and traditions and the places we form those things. Like churches. The church is evidence of our existence. It gives us immortality.”
Reverend Angus, having made his point, then departed.

“Reverend Anus,” Eddie Spallone said. “Reverend Ang-hole.”

After a few hours, the minister brought them some lemonade. The boys sat on the grass as he rambled on about the church’s history and its patriot pastor, Reverend James Caldwell, whom the British tried to kill during the Revolution. Instead, it was his wife who was gunned down on the steps of the parsonage before they burned the church down.

“Her murder, and the burning of our first church, didn’t dissuade the Fighting Parson,” Angus said, going into sermon mode. “Instead, with his wife not yet buried, he rallied the Americans at the Battle of Springfield a few days later, and they drove the British out of New Jersey once and for all. He was a true American hero; a leader of mythic proportions in his time, who remains the most famous person ever to come from our town.”

Grudeck remembered how bored he was with the whole thing. He just wanted to get the work done and get out of there. He had a Little League double-header that day.

Now Joe Grudeck drove past the triangular park on the south end of town, where there used to be a big “Welcome to Union” sign sponsored by Liberty Dairies. The sign was above a 3-D billboard, a kitschy Jersey landmark with two protruding plastic cow heads coming out of it, even though there were no dairy farms within fifty miles of Union. It advertised Liberty’s milk and ice cream products, and was a bulletin board for town news, especially high school sports, spelled out in headline style. Grudeck’s father took pictures of some.

Farmers beat Linden, 4–0. J. Grudeck, 2 HR.

Grudeck repeats hvywgt win.

Grudeck 3 TD in T-day game.

Later, the Liberty Dairies bosses added another banner below “Welcome to Union.” It said, “Home of Red Sox star Joe Grudeck,” later amended to “Home of Baseball All-Star Joe Grudeck.”

The cow-head sign came down when Liberty Dairies closed in the ’90s, replaced in the triangular park with a tasteful and upscale “Welcome to Historic Union” sign, this one with a cannon and a picture of the old church and a Stars and Stripes in the background. It was all very clean and Colonial; no high school results, no mention of Grudeck.

But as Grudeck drove by on this day, he saw a wide plank of wood nailed to the bottom of the sign, with hurried, hand-painted black letters that said, “Home of Joe Grudeck, new Hall of Famer.”

He wondered if Reverend Angus was still around. So much for your Reverend Caldwell, Grudeck would tell him. I’m the most famous person who ever came from this town.

Author photograph courtesy of Patti Sapone

Excerpt from Gods of Wood and Stone: A Novel by Mark Di Ionno. Copyright © 2019 by Mark Di Ionno. Reprinted by permission of Atria, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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