Sports

Grandpa Embodied Family and Baseball

A young Jim Mancari with his grandfather “Corky” DeBernardo in spring 2000 before a Little League baseball game in Massapequa, L.I.

Every time I eat a Snickers bar, I point to the heavens.

Sure I still consider myself a baseball player, and we all know baseball players can be extremely superstitious.

In fact, I can remember my exact pre-at-bat ritual for every single one of my plate appearances from as far back as my high school years.

However, my Snickers routine really has nothing to do with superstition. Instead, it’s done as a sign of respect.

The reason I point skyward is simple: my grandfather, Snickers-lover Vincent Joseph DeBernardo.

Sept. 10 marks the annual celebration of National Grandparents Day. Though all of my grandparents have now passed away, I of course have great memories and lessons that I carry on from each.

But it was my grandpa on my mother’s side – affectionately known as “Jimmy,” or better yet “Corky” – who will forever have a lasting impact on my life.

I developed my love of baseball from both my grandpa and my father, Anthony Mancari. While my dad was my coach all throughout Little League, it was my grandfather who once suited up in the professional ranks.

Despite my digging, records from the low-level minor leagues in the early 1940s are nonexistent. So I turned to my grandfather’s eight children – Louise, Margaret (my mom), Laraine, Frankie, twins Anna and Louis, Mary and Diane – to piece together his baseball career and early life.

Early Life and Baseball

Born as the middle child to Immacolata and Franco DeBernardo on April 1, 1926, my grandpa grew up on Washington Street near the Brooklyn Bridge. He attended grade school at P.S. 8 and then a trade high school in Manhattan – walking across the bridge each day.

The timeline of events from there is a bit unclear, but the general consensus among his children is that the Philadelphia Phillies signed my grandpa to play catcher for a minor-league team based in Delaware.

He only played one season, however, since he was not making enough money to send home to his mother. After leaving pro ball, he got a job in a machine shop back in Brooklyn.

While working there, he was a member of a union that published a newsletter with a section called “On the Basepaths,” which recapped baseball games in the union league. He was the catcher for the Quaker Maid-A&P Coffee team, whose mascot was the Cobras.

In several clippings saved by my Aunts Mary and Diane, “Corky” DeBernardo was described as a potent hitter. In one instance, he led his team to victory, with “Corky’s first swat being a prodigious clout over the left field fence for a home run.”

According to photos, the Cobras were City Park champions in 1942. My grandpa was just 16 at the time, and, of course, his photo was inscribed “Corky.”

So the “Corky” nickname: You must be wondering how that came about. Well, my grandpa had an old, steel bike, and one day he was riding along with his feet up on the handlebars, probably going way too fast. He rounded a corner, lost his balance, fell off the bike and broke his leg.

Back in those days, prosthetic legs were made of wood – more specifically cork – so the neighborhood kids began calling my grandpa “Corky.” It certainly stuck.

At age 17, Corky joined the U.S. Navy, though, at first, his parents did not want him to enlist. He served in Okinawa, Japan, toward the end of World War II as a member of the Navy Seabees, who built airstrips for American planes to land in war zones.

Upon returning to the states, he lived on 53rd Street in Borough Park, and on Oct. 7, 1951, he married Anna Grillo. The newlyweds moved to 12th Avenue in Windsor Terrace and joined Immaculate Heart of Mary parish.

Throughout his life, my grandpa held a number of different jobs, including delivering ice cream, parking cars on Court Street and making food deliveries for a catering company. In 1952, he got a job for the New York City Department of Sanitation – a position he held for 34 years until he retired in 1986.

But most importantly, his job was as a father to his children. Sadly, his wife Anna passed away shortly after giving birth to twins in 1962. A year later, he married Anna’s sister Celia, who had helped raise the children after Anna’s death.

Baseball in His Blood

My grandpa enjoyed telling old baseball stories, and he was especially fond of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He loved going to Ebbets Field to watch ’Dem Bums and would bring his children to the Ebbets Field housing complex after the team moved out west to Los Angeles.

“I think I was in my twenties when I found out that the Dodgers had left Brooklyn…that they had left the year I was born,” said my Aunt Laraine Grimaldi. “The way he talked about the Dodgers was like they were still a current team right near us.”

When the New York Mets became a National League franchise, my grandpa got right on board and loved watching the team’s games on television.

“He never gave up on the Mets even though he’d say, ‘I’m tired of this. I’m not doing this anymore,’” said my Aunt Louise Potterton. “But he really never gave up on them. He had it in his blood. He had baseball in his blood.”

Call me biased, but Corky really was an amazing grandfather to his 10 grandchildren: Laura Potterton, Joseph Mancari (my brother), myself, Maria Colapietro, Virginia DeBernardo, Nancy Grimaldi, Grace Grimaldi, Diana Colapietro, Vincent “Vinny D” DeBernardo and Victoria DeBernardo.

From secret clubhouse meetings, to building anything and everything, to teaching us songs, to, of course, telling war and baseball stories, he always had an audience and loved being the center of attention.

However, one thing he did not like was getting older. He was a big kid at heart his whole life – the same kid who went flying off his bike to earn the nickname Corky.

We found out in January 2001 that my grandpa had pancreatic cancer. With time running out, there was only one way to properly celebrate his life.

That March, our family threw a surprise, baseball-themed 75th birthday party for my grandpa. Every detail was baseball-related, even our family jerseys – with numbers based on the order in which we entered the family, either by birth or through marriage. I was No. 14.

Corky thoroughly enjoyed himself that night. One of my lasting memories of him will be the expression on his face, a mix of surprise and joyful tears, when he walked through the door.

I lost my best pal on May 28, 2001.

While my entire family was overcome with sadness, we felt like my grandpa sent us a message the day of his funeral. According to my Aunt Anna, our funeral procession was delayed near the cemetery on Staten Island because a Department of Sanitation vehicle happened to make its way into the lineup of cars.

For that one moment, nobody seemed to mind being stuck behind a garbage truck. Instead, we took it as a sign that Corky would continue to guide us in our lives.

That’s been true ever since! For me at least, any day can be Grandparents Day, especially since I often pray to my grandpa to watch over me.

And most times when I do, I find myself with a Snickers bar in one hand and my other hand pointing to the sky, saying:

“Thanks for setting a great example for me Grandpa and passing along your love of baseball. Though you’re sorely missed by your children and grandchildren, we know you’re always there for us!”

One thing is certain about this Sunday’s National Grandparents Day: I’ll be eating a Snickers for sure! Probably two.


Contact Jim Mancari via email at jmmanc@gmail.com.

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