By Paula Ganzi Licata
On a field on South Oyster Bay Road in Bethpage, near the Northrop Grumman Corp.’s remaining buildings, company employees play softball. Decades ago, before and after it was bought by Northrop Corp. in 1994, Grumman had its own baseball fields in Bethpage. And soccer field. And picnic grounds.
For 60 years, Grumman — the defense contractor that began in an auto garage in Baldwin in 1930 and later built the module that landed Apollo astronauts on the moon — was Long Island’s largest employer, with more than 23,000 employees in 1987. Now Northrop Grumman plans to send 850 of its remaining 1,400 local jobs to other plants in Florida and California.
The softball teams help tell the story. As recently as the 1990s, there were 50 teams playing five nights a week. This summer saw only four teams. With playoffs ending on Thursday, the league may be seeing its last softball season on Long Island.
On Aug. 22, I went to Bethpage to watch my boyfriend, a longtime Northrop Grumman employee, play. The men on the field, more salt than pepper in their hair, displayed the casual ease of decades-long relationships. Amid the testosterone, good-natured jokes about their families, and some mild cursing, the camaraderie of the co-workers was heartwarming. Between plays, they shared stories.
The third baseman spoke about taking his daughter, now a sophomore, back to college. “The first year both of them were crying,” referring to his daughter and wife. “This year? We all can’t wait! No one’s crying!”
Some of the 20- and 30-something players with dark hair and flat abs hit harder and ran faster. But their fellowship paled in comparison to that of the veteran players — the gray elite, the engineers, technicians and others who are the last links to the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp., the great company that helped win World War II with Wildcat, Hellcat and Avenger planes, and years later built hundreds of Tomcat fighters.
While making out the weekly lineup, the manager smiled. “I’ve been doing this for over 30 years,” he said.
From the side, players poked fun at teammates’ paunches and abilities:
“He’s like a gazelle . . . with a big fat belly!”
“Remember when he used to be able to run?”
And shouts of concern:
“Take it easy, Mike!”
The short strides of the older players spoke volumes about hamstring injuries, bad knees and aching backs. In a high-scoring game, 22-11, fist bumps greeted out-of-breath players, regardless of performance.
As the teams in blue or white T-shirts packed up, teams in red and black — including at least one female player — began the next game.
The sky blushed a golden pink as the sun set. A cool breeze carried a hint of fall. The end of an era played out on the field.
“It’s not easy,” a player said. “I’m gonna miss this.”
The thwack of a ball hitting a bat brought cheers from the red team. The third base coach called out to a 50-something player circling the bases: “You’re home! You’re home!”