Chapter 1: The Kalamazoo Kid
Like all good stories about a prince, this one starts in a castle.
Derek Sanderson Jeter spent his boyhood summers around the Tiedemann castle of Greenwood Lake, a home near the New York/ New Jersey border maintained by the Tiedemann family of Jersey City and defined by its medieval-looking tower and rooftop battlements.
In the 1950s, the Tiedemanns started rebuilding the burned-out castle with the help of their adopted son, William “Sonny” Connors, who did his talking with a hammer the same way Charles “Sonny” Liston did his talking with his fists.
More than a quarter century later, Connors, a maintenance worker at a Catholic church, would preach the virtues of an honest day’s work to his grandson, who was enlisted as Connors’s unpaid assistant when he wasn’t playing with the Tiedemann grandchildren around the lake.
Derek Jeter was forever carrying his baseball glove, forever looking for a game. His grandfather was not an enthusiastic sports fan, but as much as anyone Connors showed the boy the necessity of running out every single one of life’s ground balls.
Connors was a shy and earnest handyman who had lost his parents to illness when he was young, and who had honed his workshop skills under John Tiedemann’s careful watch. Tiedemann and his wife, Julia, raised Sonny along with twelve children of their own, sparing him a teenager’s life as a ward of the state.
Tiedemann was a worthy role model for Sonny. He had left school in the sixth grade to work in a Jersey City foundry and help his widowed mother pay the bills. At thirteen, Tiedemann already was operating a small electrical business of his own.
In the wake of the Great Depression he landed a job inside St. Michael’s Church, where Tiedemann did everything for Monsignor LeRoy McWilliams, even built him a parish gym. When Msgr. McWilliams did not have the money to cover the scaffolding needed to paint St. Michael’s, Tiedemann invented a jeep-mounted boom that could elevate a man to the highest reaches of the ceiling. He ultimately got into the business of painting and decorating church walls.
Around the same time, in the mid-fifties, Tiedemann was overseeing work on a 2.7-acre Greenwood Lake, New York, lot he had purchased for $15,000. His main objective was the restoration of a German-style castle that had been gutted by fire more than a decade earlier.
Tiedemann’s labor force amounted to his eleven sons, including his ace plumber, roofer, carpenter, and electrician from St. Michael’s — Sonny Connors.
“Sonny was a Tiedemann,” said one of the patriarch’s own, George. “We all counted him as one of our brothers.”
And every weekend, year after year after year, this band of Jersey City brothers gathered to breathe new life into the dark slate-tiled castle, an Old World hideaway originally built by a New York City dentist in 1903. The Tiedemann boys started by digging out the ashes and
removing the trees that had grown inside the structure.
They did this for their father, the self-made man the old St. Michael’s pastor liked to call “the Michelangelo of the tool chest.” The castle was John Tiedemann’s dream house, and the boys helped him build additional homes on the property so some of his thirteen children and
fifty-four grandchildren could live there.
“We weren’t a huggy, kissy type of family,” George said. “We weren’t the Waltons. But the love was there, and it didn’t have to manifest itself more than it did.”
John Tiedemann was a tough and simple man who liked to fish, watch boxing, and move the earth with his callused hands. Long before he poured himself into the Greenwood Lake project, Tiedemann was proud of being the first resident on his Jersey City block, 7th Street, to own a television set. He enjoyed having his friends over to take in the Friday night fights.
He finally made some real money with his church improvement business and later bought himself a couple of Rolls-Royces to park outside his renovated castle. But Tiedemann was a laborer at heart, and he had taught his eleven sons all the necessary trades.
As it turned out, none of the boys could match the father as a craftsman. None but Sonny, the one Tiedemann who did not share Tiedemann’s blood.
For years Sonny was John’s most reliable aide, at least when he was not working his full-time job as head of maintenance at Queen of Peace in North Arlington, New Jersey, an hour’s commute from the castle. Sonny would drive through heavy snowstorms in the middle of the night to clean the Queen of Peace parking lots by 4:00 a.m. He would vacuum the rugs around the altar, paint the priests’ living quarters, and repair the parishioners’ sputtering cars for no charge.
Sonny never once called in sick and never once forgot the family that gave him a chance. Every Friday, payday, Sonny would stop at a bakery and buy a large strawberry shortcake so all the Tiedemanns could enjoy dessert.
“Sonny was the spark that kept us going,” George said, “because he never took a break.” Sonny idolized Julia Tiedemann, and he liked to make her husband proud. If John Tiedemann wanted a room painted, Sonny made sure that room got painted while John was away on business so he would be pleasantly surprised on his return.
Sonny married a Tiedemann; of course he did. Dorothy was a niece of John and Julia’s, a devoted Yankees fan who loved hearing the crack of Joe D.’s bat on the radio, and who hated seeing Babe Ruth’s lifeless body when she passed his open casket inside Yankee Stadium in 1948.
Sonny and Dorothy, or Dot, would raise fourteen children, including another Dorothy, or Dot. The Connors family spent some time in the castle before moving to nearby West Milford, New Jersey, where Sonny served as the same working-class hero for his kids that John
Tiedemann was for him.
Sonny and his wife took in troubled or orphaned children and made them their own, and it never mattered that money was tight. “Sonny went back to his own experience as a boy,” said Monsignor Thomas Madden, the pastor at Queen of Peace. “The Tiedemanns took care of Sonny, so it was in his nature to take care of others. . . . And Dorothy had just as big a heart as he did.”
One of their flesh-and-blood daughters, Dot, ended up in the army and was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, where in 1972 she met a black soldier named Sanderson Charles Jeter, raised by a single mother in Montgomery, Alabama. They married the following year, at a time in America when the notion of a biracial president was more absurd than that of a human colony on Mars.
Naturally, Sonny did not approve of the marriage. He worried over the way the children would be treated, worried they would be teased and taunted by black and white. “Sonny was very concerned about that,” Msgr. Madden said. “He would ask, ‘Will they be accepted? Will they have to fight battles?’ ”
His questions would start to be answered on June 26, 1974, when Derek Sanderson Jeter was born at Chilton Memorial Hospital in the Pompton Plains section of Pequannock, New Jersey.
If Sonny initially did not have a relationship with his daughter’s husband, that did not stop him from pursuing one with his daughter’s son.
Derek was four when his parents moved with him from Jersey to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Charles enrolled in Western Michigan University to pursue a master’s and doctorate in social work. But every summer, Derek stayed with the Connors clan in West Milford and made almost daily visits to the castle in Greenwood Lake.
The Tiedemanns put down sand near the water to give the boys and girls the feel of a beachfront, and Derek’s grandmother brought him over to play with the Tiedemann grandchildren and escape the heat. Derek was not looking for a chance to swim as much as he was looking for a partner in a game of catch.
“He was always talking about baseball,” said Michael Tiedemann, one of John’s grandchildren. They played Wiffle ball games and threw footballs and tennis balls around the lake. “And no matter what we played,” Michael said, “Derek was by leaps and bounds the best athlete. He kept his eye on the ball and moved a lot faster than the rest of us
Despite the fact he was reed thin, Derek surely claimed some of his physicality from Sonny, a roundish but powerfully built man who stood five foot eleven and projected the body language of a dockworker — in other words, someone to be avoided in a bar fight. But it was Derek’s father, Charles, who passed down the genetic coding of a ballplayer.
Charles Jeter was a shortstop in the late sixties when he arrived at Fisk University, a small, historically black school in Nashville. He was a shortstop until the coach, James Smith, told him he was a second baseman.
Smith had a pro prospect with a throwing arm to die for, name of Victor Lesley. Lesley was the reason the tall and rangy Jeter was moved to a less taxing infield spot.
Jeter was hardly thrilled with the demotion and yet never mentioned it to his coach. Though he did not have a male figure in his household while growing up — Jeter never met his father — he knew how to conduct himself as a perfect gentleman, a credit to the mother and housecleaner named Lugenia who raised him.
“Cordial, nice, carried himself the right way,” Smith said. “I never heard Jeter use a curse word. Ever.”
On a strong team composed of African Americans from the South and a small circle of Caribbean recruits from St. Thomas, Jeter was an excellent fielder and base runner, a decent hitter who liked to punch the ball to right field, and a selfless teammate who knew how to advance a runner from one base to the next.
Jeter was as reliable a sacrifice bunter as Smith had ever seen. “You could ask him to bunt with three strikes on him if the rules had allowed it,” Smith said.
The head coach was the son of one of Nashville’s first black police officers. Smith was only a few years older than his players, but he was a strict disciplinarian all the same, a man unafraid of leaving behind a couple of important players if they were late for the bus.
The Fisk team, he said, “used to be the laughingstock of the league,” the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He recruited better talent from American high schools, stumbled upon a pipeline to the U.S. Virgin Islands, and made sure his players were dressed in shirts and ties on road trips.
“They needed to know that when you go to Fisk,” Smith said, “you represent something besides yourself.”
Though Fisk had its share of white professors and white exchange students, Jeter and his teammates forever understood they were members of a predominantly black institution surrounded by a culture often hostile to African-American aims. So Smith took no chances. His
student athletes were expected to be ambassadors of the school, the sport, and the cause of racial equity.
Charles Jeter fit the serious-minded mold. Only once did Smith have to reprimand him, and that was after Jeter was thrown out trying to steal second. Smith had never given him the steal sign, and when a teammate committed the same mortal baserunning sin the next inning, Smith went ballistic. “Gentlemen,” he shouted at his players, “this is a team sport. Let’s not put individual statistics ahead of the team.”
Jeter was known for his hustle, for his willingness to run out ground balls, so he was the perfect apostle of this all-for-one, one-for-all approach. (Smith only heard of his dismay over being moved to second base through a relative years later.) Jeter did not play to inflate his numbers on the bases or at the plate. He burned to be part of a winner, so the demoted shortstop focused on being the best second baseman in the league.
Smith shifted the incumbent to right field to clear room for Jeter, whose quickness and hand speed made him a natural at turning the double play. Jeter had a glove as flat as a pancake, “and we teased him about it all the time,” said Ulric Smalls, one of his teammates from St. Thomas. “When Jeter put it on the ground it had no shape, but he was flawless in the field.”
Jeter got his chance to return to shortstop after Lesley left Fisk, and Smalls remembered him outplaying a Vanderbilt star who had all the big league scouts abuzz. Smith had left his coaching position before Jeter finished his collegiate career, but he had scheduled the likes of Vanderbilt so the scouts fussing over the white boys in the SEC would be forced to watch his players, too.
Buck O’Neil, the Negro League star working for the Cubs, was the only scout who made regular trips to Fisk, leaving Jeter without the stage he needed to display his command of the game’s fundamentals.
Smith believed Charles had all the tools and talent to make it to the big leagues. “If he was playing at a different time and a different school,” the coach said, “he might’ve made it. But Jeter just didn’t have the opportunity.”
Charles Jeter made sure his son had the opportunity by providing the strong and nurturing paternal presence he had missed as a child, and by embracing the same code of honor, decency, and hard work that had shaped the Tiedemann and Connors homes.
Starting when Derek was in kindergarten, Charles competed against him in checkers and in card games and challenged him to guess the value of an appliance on the television show The Price Is Right. Charles tried to beat Derek at everything, and he told his wife their son “needs
to learn how to lose and how to play the game the right way.”
Charles coached Derek when the boy was a Kalamazoo Little Leaguer, when Derek loved nothing more than throwing on his uniform, standing proudly before a mirror, and marching in the opening day parade with his chin high and his shoulders thrown back, so proud to be part of a team.
Only one day Derek decided he was too proud to finish on the wrong end of a Little League score. He refused to join the handshake line to congratulate the winning team, and Charles got in his son’s face and made a tough-love stand.
“It’s time to grab a tennis racket,” he barked at Derek, “since you obviously don’t know how to play a team sport.”
In fact, Derek knew how to play a team sport, baseball, better than any other kid in Kalamazoo. He could hit, field, run, and throw the ball from shortstop with more power and accuracy than any pitcher could throw it from the mound.
Derek would play all day, any day, for as many weeks and months as the Kalamazoo climate would allow. Of course, those summer days in West Milford and Greenwood Lake were best spent throwing around the ball, too, at least when Derek was not busy swimming in the lake
with his younger sister, Sharlee.
The alternative? No, Derek did not take to the alternative work with his grandfather at Queen of Peace, especially when the chores involved a lawn mower and a wide-open field of unruly grass.
Over time Sonny Connors had grown close to Charles Jeter; the church handyman had gotten past his concerns for his biracial grandkids. But Sonny had a special bond with Derek, who lived to please Sonny as much as he lived to please Charles.
Sonny got a kick out of bringing his grandson to work. One day he asked Derek to mow a Queen of Peace football field that had the overgrown look of a Brazilian rain forest. All elbows and knees and ankles, young Derek was no match for the job.
“The poor kid was going crazy with it,” said Madden, the Queen of Peace pastor. Derek was pushing the mower, emptying the bag, and pushing it again, and it was so hot the nuns felt sorry for him. They brought him inside, gave him a cold soda, told him to relax.
As soon as Sonny found out his grandson was cooling offand catching his breath, he ordered Derek to get back to work.
Sonny did not believe in fifteen-minute breaks, weekends, vacations, or holidays. “We used to open presents on Christmas Eve,” Sharlee would say, “because our grandfather worked every Christmas Day.”
Sonny did not want his children using the word can’t in his home, and his daughter imposed the same ordinance on Derek and Sharlee. So when children laughed at Derek’s claim that he would be a Yankee, and when teachers advised Charles and Dot to steer their son toward a
more realistic goal, the Jeters did not budge.
No, the black social worker from Alabama and the white accountant from New Jersey would not listen to people tell them Derek could not be a big league ballplayer any more than they would listen to those who told them they should not marry for the sake of their children-to-be.
Derek refused to acknowledge those who thought he was banking on a fairy tale. “People laughed at it, and I just shrugged it off,” he would say. “It just made me work harder.”
The Jeters built their social lives around the ball field, particularly the Kalamazoo Central High School field just beyond the perimeter of their backyard. When Dot was not throwing Wiffle balls for Derek to hit in that yard, mother, son, father, and daughter were scaling the
fence to take infield and batting practice. Derek hit his baseballs, and Sharlee hit her softballs.
“Some people go to the movies for fun,” said Sharlee, who was Derek’s athletic equal. “We went to the field. It was all part of being very close.”
They lived something of a Rockwellian existence in their modest home on 2415 Cumberland Street, where Charles and Dorothy enjoyed watching The Cosby Show with their son and daughter, and where they maintained order by signing their children to binding behavioral pacts.
Derek signed his just before going offto high school, and the provisions covered phone calls, television hours, homework, grade-point averages, curfews, drugs and alcohol, and respect for others.
Even back then Derek was one to live up to the terms of his deals. His teachers described him as industrious, self-motivated, and willing to lend a hand to a student in need.
“He epitomized what every mom wants in a son,” said Shirley Garzelloni, Derek’s fourth-grade teacher at St. Augustine.
Discipline and accountability were the laws of the Jeters’ land. Charles was a full-time student by day, a drug and alcohol abuse counselor by night, and even with Dot drawing her accounting paycheck, money had to be spent judiciously.
One day Derek announced he wanted a pair of $125 basketball shoes he thought would improve his modest (at the time) leaping ability. His mother agreed on one condition: Derek had better wear those shoes and work on his jumping 24/7.
Sure enough, Derek would run and hop all over the family’s small living room. “He knew it was important for us,” Dot would say, “that if we were going to sacrifice $125, then he was going to give us his all.”
On the field and in the classroom. By the eighth grade Jeter was a straight-A student who maintained his popularity with students of both genders. The boys were in awe of his athleticism, “and the girls were in awe of his personality and looks,” said Chris Oosterbaan, his
creative writing and history teacher. “There were many crushes on Derek Jeter.”
The attention did not swell Jeter’s head beyond the margins of his signed conduct clauses. Truth was, Derek would have signed anything as long as he was allowed to play baseball for the teams that would have him. And there was not an amateur team within a fifty-mile radius of
Kalamazoo that did not want Charles Jeter’s boy as its shortstop.
Derek was not anyone’s idea of a braggart, but he had been telling classmates and teachers he would grow into a big leaguer as far back as fourth grade, inside Garzelloni’s class in the basement of St. Augustine. Garzelloni asked her twenty students to declare their future
intentions, and she heard the typical answers from most — doctor, firefighter, teacher, professional athlete.
Only Derek was not planning on being just a professional athlete; he had something far more specific in mind, a vision he shared with his parents as a child. He told Garzelloni’s class he was going to be a New York Yankee, and the teacher told the student her husband — a devoted
Yankee fan — would be happy to hear it.
Derek did not make this some grand proclamation; he just said it as if he were announcing his plans for lunch. “And if he said he was going to do something,” Garzelloni said, “Derek was the kind of kid who did it.”
Derek told anyone who would listen that he would someday play shortstop for the Yankees, the team his father had hated in his youth. Before Charles started rooting for the local Tigers, he was a National League fan from the South who did not celebrate Yankee dominance; the Yanks were among baseball’s last all-white teams before promoting Elston Howard eight years after Jackie Robinson’s debut at Ebbets Field.
Grandma Dot converted Derek on those summer trips to the castle and lake. She took her grandson to his first Yankee Stadium game when he was six, and years later Derek could not remember the opponent or the final score. “All I can tell you,” he would say, “is everything
was so big.”
As big as the boy’s ambition. Derek would stir his grandmother at dawn, throw on his Yankee jersey, and beg her to play catch in the yard. She always agreed, even if she knew Derek’s throws would nearly knock her to the ground.
Soon enough Derek entered Kalamazoo Central High on a mission — to honor his own prophecy, the one laid out for him by his St. Augustine classmates in a 1988 graduation booklet that included forecasts of what the students would be doing ten years later.
“Derek Jeter, professional ball player for the Yankees is coming around,” one entry read. “You’ve seen him in grocery stores — on the Wheaties boxes, of course.”
As it turned out, Jeter made his ninth-grade mark with a basketball before he made one with a baseball. Around Halloween in ’88, Derek was dribbling a ball up and down and around a Kalamazoo Central service road just when Clarence Gardner was starting a road trip with the Central girls basketball team (Michigan girls used to play their basketball season in the fall).
The players pressed their noses against the bus windows and expressed wonderment over the freshman’s commitment in the face of a late October chill. “They were all saying, ‘You know he’s going to be great,’ ” Gardner recalled. “Of course, some of them were talking about how cute he was, too.”
It was the first time Derek Sanderson Jeter was known to have impressed a busload of schoolgirls.
It would not be the last.