HOLLYWOOD, CA – This year’s Uniondale New York Brooklyn Islanders of Nassau County had a magical run. But it came to an end last week and, as they say in sports, it’s time to hit the links. If they want to build towards a new dynasty, however, they’d be wiser to look to their own glorious past… I say, it’s time to hit the softball diamonds.
My Uncle Glenn grew up on Long Island, blue collar through and through. A telephone lineman for Ma Bell, hustling his giant frame – he’s built like a towering Viking – up and down those poles all day long, and then crushing towering home runs for the company’s Industrial League softball team at night. This was no jokey beer league, they traveled to tournaments across the country, finishing second in a field of fifty-five in a National Men’s Class A tourney in Virginia (in which he earned the home run trophy). Then they won a Labor Day tourney in St. Louis (beating an incongruously named “Vermont Auto of North Carolina” in the semis, and the more-optimistic-sounding-than-it-probably-was “Sunny Sears of Minneapolis” in the finals). He made the all-tournament team each time and was named All-American.
If this was Glenn’s fifteen minutes, he was about to go to extra time. New York Tel got invited to play a charity game with a team made up of New York Islanders. “We played two games, the first was an arc pitch game in which I had two homeruns and we beat them pretty soundly. Before the second game Clark Gillies said that they wanted to play fast pitch or windmill. We agreed, but said we didn’t have a windmill style pitcher. Clarkie said we’ll let you have Garry Howatt to pitch as a trade, but we want the” big guy” to play for us. I was able to hit that pitching as well and after the game I was asked if I would be willing to play benefit games during their off season. I ended up playing with them for the next eight years.”
This was 1978, a time when men wore feathered hair, mustaches, striped tube socks and tight shorts. The Isles had been around less than a decade, and though they’d built a perennial contender, they hadn’t broken through to the Stanley Cup Finals. Obviously they hadn’t learned the complete team concept until they set down their sticks and picked up their bats and gloves, and even then they needed a little extra glue. Enter Glenn, and the Islanders’ softball team took off. Squaring off against an all-star team assembled by former Rangers Rod Gilbert, they hammered the “erratic” CBS anchor Jim Jensen to win a thriller. The next year team captain Lorne Henning invited him back, wondering where he’d been all winter (Glenn didn’t want to be a bother, and never considered asking for tickets or anything), and soon he was helping them rout the Flyers’ softball team at the old Vet, in front of thousands, including a local cable audience! After that, Glenn wouldn’t have to ask for tickets, the guys would call him up and offer them to him.
Needless to say, the next year the Islanders broke through and Glenn was there for the clinching Game Six against those same Flyers, courtesy of Karen Howatt (“she told me she would rather watch it in the lounge downstairs because she was so nervous…I have a feeling she just said that so I could attend. After Bob Nystrom scored the winning goal I was able to be in the locker room afterwards to join in the celebration. I got to hold and drink from the Cup.”) That summer they’d face the Flyers again, this time at Shea. Before the game there was some panicked word coming down about “new rules,” in which only employees of the team could play. Clark Gillies winked at Glenn and said “I got this.” When they were introduced to run out to the first base line, the loudspeakers echoed “From the front office, batting fourth, Glenn Ecklund!” “Afterwards they had a barbecue with filet mignon, lobster tails, etc. At the barbecue Clark called me over to meet Jim Pickett, the owner of the team. He said he wanted to meet the new front office man. After shaking his hand I said ‘I just want to know when I start and how much will I be paid.’”
Of course Glenn would never take an ounce of credit for any of it, his recollections are full of humble awe and gratefulness at everything he was lucky enough to experience (though, the big lug, he says he’d trade it all to have met my Aunt Marie earlier). How hot was he back then? After the Isles squared off against the legendary King and his Court—for you millennials, they toured the continent creaming local teams, with just four guys! – they tried to poach him to fill in for the King’s son while he finished up school. Unfortunately, the short-sighted New York Telephone wouldn’t give him the time off (and now where are they?).
Those Islanders, of course, won four Stanley Cups while Glenn played with them. When today’s Islanders look into the mirror, wondering if they’ve got what it takes, they may do well to find their own Glenn Ecklund… in fact, I think he may even be available!
That’s it for now, please comment below and come back tomorrow for Big Al Sternberg/Fake Sandy Alderson. And you can find me/us on Twitter at @WestCoastCraig and @MeetTheMatts, respectively.
Oh, and here’s another lineman named Glen: