Over the summer, I had a chance to chat with former Yankee Ron Blomberg, who spent Hall of Fame Weekend here in Cooperstown. Talking to Ron is always a good experience. One of the most affable players I’ve ever met, he is full of positive vibes and ceaseless energy. He seems to have the same level of vigor as he did in his twenties, when he was trying to establish himself as the next great left-handed hitter in Yankee history.
At the time, Blomberg’s smooth right-field swing seemed perfectly tailored for the old Yankee Stadium. In particular, “Boomer” tormented right-handed pitchers, especially those who dared to throw him fastballs. During the 1973 season, he flirted with a .400 batting average in early summer before eventually tailing off. If only Blomberg had been able to avoid the knee problems that eventually shortened his career, he might have become the Jewish superstar that Yankee management had been anticipating since drafting him with the first overall pick in 1967.
While injuries and defensive foibles at first base prevented him from achieving such fame, he did gain special notoriety on Opening Day in 1973. That’s when he came to bat as the first designated hitter in major league history. Facing Luis Tiant of the Red Sox, Blomberg walked in his first plate appearance–and walked right into a permanent place in baseball reference books.
While his status as the game’s first DH has become common knowledge to most fans, it was Blomberg’s off-the-field ability that became well known to baseball insiders and members of the media. Boomer could eat enormously large quantities of food, above and beyond any other major league player of his era. Here’s one example. After one road game, Blomberg sat down and consumed ten steak sandwiches, assisted by a quart of lemonade. By the time that Blomberg made his first road trip into Boston, a local Beantown newspaper featured the delightful headline, “Close Up The Delicatessens, Blomberg’s In Town.”
Especially devoted to fast food, Blomberg regularly consumed four to five large hamburgers during visits to Burger King and did similar damage on sojourns to Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. “We would go out and eat an entire bucket of KFC,” Blomberg once said proudly. A 3000-calorie meal was an ordinary accomplishment for the insatiable Blomberg. As part of one particularly memorable meal, Blomberg downed 28 (yes, 28!) hamburgers, establishing some sort of unofficial record.
With Blomberg’s reputation as a voracious eater established early in his career, Yankee left-hander Fritz Peterson (another summer visitor to Cooperstown) issued his teammate a challenge. He dared Blomberg to eat five exceedingly spicy jalapeno peppers at one time. Peterson himself feared eating even one of the zesty peppers; he considered the prospects of anyone eating five a downright impossibility. Confident that no one could pull off such a feat, Peterson offered Blomberg a small sum of money if he could successfully handle the fire-breathing snack. Peterson then watched in amazement as Blomberg consumed all five peppers within a matter of seconds. For his efforts, Blomberg won $10 from a disbelieving Peterson.
In spite of his eating habits, Blomberg maintained a trim physique throughout his major league career, with his weight rarely exceeding 185 pounds on a lean but powerful six-foot, one-inch frame. So how did Boomer do it? “We didn’t have personal trainers standing over us,” Blomberg said. “We had no rowing machines. We did construction in the off season. Put in sod. I ran the stairs at Columbia and Fordham University, since I was living in Riverdale at that time. I would run around the block with those ankle bracelets on.”
Blomberg liked to run by himself, but usually found company at the lunch and dinner tables. His list of fellow diners included voluminous eaters like Yankee teammate Walt “No Neck” Williams. Williams and two other Yankees regularly accompanied Blomberg on trips to well-known hamburger chains, where they gladly consumed hamburgers at the bargain basement prices of the early 1970s. “We had Burger King, when the burgers were 39 cents,” Blomberg explained. “We would have four of ‘em for under two bucks. Gene Michael, Jerry Kenney, No-Neck Williams—we would go out and eat together.”
While Blomberg, Kenney, and Michael were all relatively tall and lean—Michael was appropriately nicknamed “Stick”—Williams provided a contrasting view. At five feet, six inches and 190 pounds, Williams featured the physique of a fireplug. Known as a hustling pepper-pot player on the field, Williams treated the art of eating with as much gusto off the field. But he could not match Blomberg in terms of the sheer amount of food consumption.
Later in his Yankee career, Blomberg came into contact with another legendary eater, a man better known for his larger-than-life Afro. Oscar Gamble, who joined the Yankees in 1976, routinely downed eggs, pancakes, and sausage for breakfast. Gamble also developed a special appreciation for the clubhouse spreads offered at various American League ballparks. His stadium lunches included ham sandwiches, hamburgers, ribs, soups, and a variety of cheeses.
After games, Gamble liked to sample local restaurants around the American League for their various dinner fares. He particularly enjoyed trips to Milwaukee, which featured soul food. Gamble loved collard greens, candied yams, and peach cobblers.
With men like Gamble and Williams providing an appropriate level of companionship and encouragement on the food line, Blomberg cemented his standing as a champion eater. That ability, along with a growing reputation, carried over after his retirement from the game. Not so surprisingly, Blomberg became the first major league player to have a sandwich named after him at the famed Stage Delicatessen in New York City. Known simply as the “Ron Blomberg,” the large triple-decker sandwich consists of a combination of corned beef, pastrami, and chopped liver with a Bermuda onion thrown in for good measure.
I could do without the chopped liver, but the rest of the sandwich sounds pretty good to me. Perhaps one day the “Ron Blomberg” will qualify for an episode of “Taster’s Cherce.”
Bruce Markusen likes to dine at Cooperstown area restaurants like Nicoletta’s and the Hawkeye Grill.