CUMBERLAND – “Of course, we had a Christmas party every year at the Boys Club,” Mike Pappas was saying earlier this week. “There would be presents for all the kids. And we made sure to hand out a Christmas basket to a needy family. That was important to us.”
The Christmas Party tradition still exists at the Pawtucket Boys & Girls Club, an organization Pappas first became aware of as a Depression-era youngster living up the street in a three-story tenement. As an adult, Pappas would spend 41 years working at the club, the last 26 as its Executive Director.
“My mother and father had eight children and they raised us in a three-story tenement house at 355 East Avenue,” Mike said. “We lived on the third floor. We would walk out of the house and head to the old Boys Club building downtown. It cost 50 cents to join and if you didn’t have the money, they let you fold towels to become a member. No kid was ever turned away.
“My father was out of work during the Depression, until President Roosevelt started the WPA program. I think that stood for Work Projects Administration. Dad got a job with the WPA and from that day on, nobody could say anything bad about President Roosevelt. My dad would sit down at the dinner table and say this food is on the table thanks to President Roosevelt.”
Like anyone who grew up in the 1930s, Pappas never forgot how much people struggled during the Great Depression.
“I would say one of the differences between the Depression and today’s world is that my parents never wanted to be on welfare,” Pappas admitted. “Everyone out of work was always looking to get back working.”
Pappas could always tell a story. The “Golden Greek” has been retired for 20 years now, and he just went through a tough year health-wise, but when prompted, the memories still flow free and easy.
The recent death of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller served as a starting point for Pappas.
“Time marches on,” he said earlier this week from his Mendon Road condominium. “I don’t remember things as well as I once did. But if you are asking me what I remember about Bob Feller, I can tell you that he came to McCoy Stadium a long time ago when I was the public address announcer for the PawSox. Feller threw a couple of innings on the mound against some hitters, and then he came up to the press box.
“Feller introduced himself this way,” Pappas recalled. “He would say ‘Hi. I’m Bob Feller, the greatest right-handed pitcher of all time.' He never let anyone forget it. I would say Bob Feller was the greatest pitcher of my generation. It’s tough to compare players from one era to the next.”
Pappas, who was born in 1925, never saw Feller pitch in person.
“We listened to games on the radio and read about them in the newspaper,” he recalled. “That was all we had before television. I never saw Feller pitch but you have to wonder, who was better? Bob Feller came straight out of high school and was winning games in the big leagues at the age of 17. He went into World War II, missed four seasons, and no-hit the Yankees on Opening Day of 1946.”
Pappas became friends with athletes from almost every major pro sport.
“Hank Soar grew up in Pawtucket and played both ways for the New York (football) Giants in the late 1930s,” Pappas recalled. “Hank and Ernie Calverley were the two best athletes I remember coming out of Pawtucket.”
Pappas struck up a friendship with Ted Williams in the 1960s that spanned the better part of four decades.
“Ted was a little bit like Bob Feller,” Mike remembered. “He wanted people to think of him as the greatest hitter who ever played the game. And I think he was. I remember Ted more as a regular human being. That’s how he wanted to be treated. He came to Pawtucket in 1977 for a baseball clinic at McCoy and stopped in at the Boys Club. I set up a date for us to play golf the next day at Pawtucket Country Club. Ted, Lee Stange, Ed Kenney and myself.
“I think I’ve told you this story before,” Pappas said, leaning forward in his chair and smiling. “Ted had a habit of moving the ball in the rough before he hit it. I watched him do this a few times and then I told Lee that I was going to call him on it. Lee wasn’t so sure I should do it but I had a feeling Ted liked people who stood up to him.
“We finished playing the 10th hole and Ted said he made 5 for 4 with his handicap stroke. I said ‘No, you didn’t. You moved the ball!’ And I was smiling when I said it, believe me.
“Ted just looked at me, laughed, and said ‘Mike, I never hit anything that wasn’t moving.’”
Pappas headed to Florida almost every spring to attend the Red Sox’ spring training camp and sneak in a few golf rounds along the way.
“My good friend Jim Murphy, who worked at the Pawtucket Times, asked if he could come along one year,” Pappas recalled. “Jim hated flying and wanted to know if our plane would be flying at night. I said it would. Jim asked me ‘How can the pilots see where they are going?’ We laughed about that all the way down to Florida.”
Pappas had one more story about Murphy, a Whitinsville, Ma. native.
“I was working ‘The Longest Game’ at McCoy Stadium in April of 1981. The game was played on the night before Easter. Being a good Greek Orthodox Church member, I had to leave the game for Midnight Mass. Jim had given me a ride to the game so he had to take me to church. He went home and woke up the next day to find out the game had gone 32 innings. Jim loved baseball so much that he wanted to kill me for taking him away from that game.”
Pappas and his wife Enid have been married for 61 years.
“I first spotted Enid when she was a cheerleader at Slater Junior High in eighth grade,” Mike said. “I told a friend of mine I was going to walk her home. I thought she was just beautiful.”
Pappas, who would marry Enid in 1949, spent nearly three years in the U.S. Army during World War II, finding his career path while serving for Uncle Sam.
“I enlisted in 1943 when I turned 18,” he said. “Being a Greek, they signed me up for cooking and baking school. I was playing basketball one day and a General came up to me and said he wanted me to take over as the head of physical education at our camp. I was stationed in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. The Japanese had invaded the Aleutians in 1942 and held them for awhile before our guys forced them out with flamethrowers. When I got there, we held the islands but there were many times when we were forced on to alert status because of a possible attack by the Japanese.”
Pappas got out of the Army and returned to Pawtucket, taking a job with Collyer Wire and resuming his basketball career with the Pawtucket Hobos, where he played with old pal George Patrick Duffy.
“One day, I got a call from Phil Geiger, who was Executive Director of the Boys Club,” Pappas recalled. “He knew the kind of work I had done in the Army and hired me as a physical education instructor. I took the job and never left the Boys Club. I retired 20 years ago when I was 65. I enjoyed my work, seeing the kids at the club grow up into men over the years. I also enjoyed working with the people on our Board of Directors, great men like Ned Barlow who gave back so much to the community. In those days, there was a lot of money around town. People were very generous to the Boys Club.”
In the early 1970s, Pappas took a job as public address announcer for the old Pawtucket Indians under owner Joe Buzas. He arrived just in time to see Jim Rice and Freddy Lynn pass through Pawtucket on their way to Boston.
“I always thought Jim Rice was the greatest hitter I ever saw in Pawtucket,” Pappas said. “Mainly because of his power. He could hit homers to any part of the ballpark.”
Pappas picked up two large rings from a nearby table.
“This one is from the Junior World Series championship team of 1973,” he said, “and this one is from the 1977 Pawtucket team owned by Ben Mondor that won the Governor’s Cup championship.”
Mike Pappas put the rings down and sat back in his chair.
“I thank God I am still here, ready to spend Christmas with my family,” he said. “Enid and I have two children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. This year, we lost Ben Mondor, Ned Barlow and Walter Dropo. It is tough to lose your old friends. But I have a lot to live for.”
Pappas, who still owns two box seats near the visitor’s dugout at Fenway, said he always knows when baseball season is coming. His phone begins to ring off the hook.
“I still get a lot of calls from my friends, looking to buy those seats,” he said. “It’s funny. They always want the tickets for the Yankee games.”
“The proudest moment of my life,” Pappas said, “is when my son Gregg followed me into the family business. He succeeded me as Executive Director and stayed on the job for 13 years. Gregg lives with his family in Houston. My granddaughter Kara is the best baseball fan I ever met! She knows all the batting averages.
“And there’s one other thing you should put in this story,” Mike Pappas added, cleaning up all the loose ends. “I was fortunate enough to be friends with Bobby Orr. I met him at a golf tournament at Wannamoisett Country Club. We hit it off and I invited him to our annual Boys Club banquet. Bobby was so impressed with the kids that he went out to his car and brought back in a bunch of pictures. He autographed them on the spot and then gave them out to the kids as he met them individually after the dinner was over.
“Bobby told me we could invite him back every year.”
Pappas leaned back in his chair, smiling at the memory of Bobby Orr and the other friends he brought to the Boys Club since those first visits as a kid in the early 1930s. The man who made so many friends over the years can still look back to his childhood and place a value on one of the first people he ever met.
“I’ll tell you about friendship,” he said. “Larry Calabro, who lived on the floor below our family on East Avenue, would still do anything in the world for me. You can’t beat that.”