Honoring our veterans: Playing for pride

Nov. 6—Jake Griego's time serving his country in the U.S. Navy was coming to an end in October 1952.

With less than one month before the "farm boy" from Los Ranchos was set to be discharged and return home to New Mexico, he decided he better check one more rather big bucket list item off his list.

So, he hit the road.

"It just happened that I was so lucky," recalls Griego, a 92-year-old Korean War veteran who still lives in Los Ranchos. "You see, when I had my 72 hours (leave from the ship), it was when the World Series was going on. So I hitchhiked from northern Virginia to New York."

Not only did the sailor from New Mexico navigate his way to the Bronx, he managed to get his hands on one of the hottest tickets in town: Game 5 of the 1952 World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees.

Ten future Hall of Famers played in what some consider one of the best World Series of all time. From Jackie Robinson to Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra to Duke Snider, that farm boy from New Mexico was right where he wanted to be.

The problem for Griego on that Oct. 5, 1952, night in Yankees Stadium was that the ship he was supposed to return to the next day sat docked a good 350 miles away.

"I remember I was supposed to leave (the game) and go get back to the ship," Griego recalls. "... The thing I remember is Johnny Mize hit a home run, and (the game) went into extra innings. So, I said the heck with it. I never messed up before. I don't remember how many more innings it went, but I got to the ship late and had to go before the captain."

The Dodgers won the game, 6-5 in 11 innings — the only one of seven World Series games that year that reached the three-hour mark.

Griego prepared himself for what he knew was the sure discipline awaiting him back on the ship.

"I told them I was from a small village in New Mexico and was a big baseball fan and wouldn't really get a chance like that again," Griego said. "I guess the captain felt sorry for me, because he was mean, but I didn't get in trouble."

The Yankees won that World Series in seven games and, a few weeks later, Griego's scheduled discharge on Oct. 31, 1952, came through.

Building a life

Griego served as a Gunner's Mate in the Navy from 1948 to 1952 — three total years of service in three stints — before returning to his roots where he was one of seven children who grew up on a farm in Los Ranchos.

The following year, he began a career as a carpenter, married his sweetheart, Jessie, and they began a family of their own — one daughter (Marie) and three sons (Jacob, James and Steven).

Nearly 70 years later, though he retired in 1991, Griego still puts his carpentry skills to use, building things for his family, which includes six grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and plenty of nieces and nephews.

And while Griego has been well known in his community for a variety of reasons — a fixture through the years at the Los Ranchos Market, a former baseball umpire and even one of the founders of the North Valley Little League in 1965 — some around the state might know him best now for a unique hobby that's been with him since he was a teenager.

Griego is a master harmonica player and has become a regular on the National Anthem performing circuit for large events around Albuquerque and beyond.

He's performed at numerous University of New Mexico Lobo sporting events through the years, multiple times ahead of Albuquerque Isotopes games, at the New Mexico State Fair rodeo and even before an NBA Denver Nuggets game.

"It's meant a lot to me," Griego said of playing the harmonica.

Love and pride

He's played through the years all around the Albuquerque area and for family and friends in backyard gatherings, but the National Anthem performances are what have allowed him to tie in his harmonica with his love of country and the pride he still very much has from his military service.

"Getting to play the National Anthem is a big thing for me," Griego said. "It really is."

In addition to playing at Navy reunions all over the country every year, he was one of a couple of dozen veterans flown in June by the Honor Flight of Northern New Mexico to Washington, D.C., to be recognized for their service.

While there, and again recently at a rodeo at the New Mexico State Fair, Griego added to his performances a medley of all four songs representing the four branches of military. And each time he played the four-song medley, the reaction was emotional as veterans in the crowd would each stand, pridefully saluting while their branch's song was played. Some people, his daughter said, have even been brought to tears at some of his performances.

"You should have seen us trying to get out of the rodeo (at the State Fair)," joked Marie Lopez, Griego's daughter, who accompanies him to pretty much all of his performances. "Families were coming up to us and telling us how it affected them and how they loved it. And they wanted photos with him. And at the Denver Nuggets game, we could not leave.

"It was like walking out with a celebrity."

Hardly, says Griego.

"I don't feel that way," he said. "I always feel like somebody else is doing it (when I'm playing in front of large crowds or stadiums). I'm just a farm boy from Los Ranchos."