En route to Cooperstown, home of baseball’s Hall of Fame, the back country road crosses rolling farmland, rising to wooded hills. Horses patrol the fields, grazed by black and white cattle, and some large white clapboard houses date from the 18th century, a good time for building. But the past is marooned in the throwaway present, and mostly the houses are trailers on cinderblocks. Rusted automobiles, stripped of tires or headlights, settle in the yards. Bold lettering on barns and hoardings promotes smokeless tobacco, and fast-food stops, not the big chains like Burger King but Mom-and-Pop operations, sell cola, Twinkies, and ice cream.
Half an hour below the New York Thruway you reach Cooperstown, a stage set. This historic site inclines to the old ways. Flower baskets brighten the weathered brick store fronts, and the Farmers’ Museum recalls an older America when men and women worked the land. A quarter of a million tourists pass through every year but invisible hands tidy up after them, and the streets, resembling Disney World’s, are swept free of litter. The time I took my son to Disney World, a teenager in the queue before us sported a T-shirt stenciled with cannabis leaves. As he pulled out his wallet, the ticket taker waved him off. “Son,” he said dismissively, “we don’t want your money here.”
Though Abner Doubleday gets credit for inventing baseball in Cooperstown, the village (inc. 1807) is named for the Cooper family. Its most famous son, James Fenimore Cooper, made it the scene of his “Leatherstocking Tales.” Writing about Indians, he saw them from a distance, believing that too much truth destroyed the charm of fiction. A bronze statue of the novelist, oxidized to bluish green, stands in Cooper Park near the big lake, Otsego, and Fenimore House, overlooking the lake, has a collection of relics. On broad streets leafy with elm and maple, Victorian-type houses offer bed and breakfast. Signs on the lawn announce that pets aren’t welcome and ask that you not smoke in the houses.
The Hall of Fame Museum, a colonial building on Main Street, is Cooperstown’s temple, and the Gallery its holy of holies. Along the walls on either side, columns frame lighted alcoves, like chapels off the nave. Mounted within the alcoves, a double row of bronze plaques honors the all-time best who played the game. Prose citations, backed up by statistics and terse as Caesar’s annals, tell their story. Imposed on bats crossed with laurel spray, the bas-relief faces are so true to life that they shake you. I look with astonishment at stoic Arky Vaughan, who starred for Brooklyn when I was a boy. “Ah, did you once see Shelley plain, And did he stop and speak to you / And did you speak to him again?” A well-known poem of Browning’s raises this question, leaving the rest of the day unrecorded.
“Arky” for Arkansas (they all seemed to come from below Mason-Dixon), Vaughan played 14 years, batting .314. .300 is the standard for a good hitter, meaning three hits every ten times at bat, and one year he batted. 385. On the table beside my bunk bed, this Hall of Famer’s autograph dignified the horsehide cover of a baseball. With other prized possessions, it got lost in the shuffle when my parents divorced and left the house on East 26th Street.
Entering the Gallery you take the right-hand wall, moving year-by-year toward the window at the far end, then doubling back along the left. Over the years, more than 13, 000 men have performed in the major leagues, but the Gallery picks and chooses, enshrining only a tiny fraction, 200 plus. Until recent years, all were Caucasian. A few are still with us, disgraced by thinning hair and thickening waistlines, but death has claimed most of them, white, black, or Hispanic. Vaughan, self-effacing on and off the diamond, drowned in a boating accident 40 years ago, saving another man’s life.
Memorabilia fill the cases behind glass—photos of men in motion and headlines from papers long since defunct, old baseball mitts, the oldest not much bigger than a gardener’s glove, faded uniforms, some with dirt and sweat stains conscientiously left in. The photos, sepia-colored, seem brushed with magic, acetone-free paper having yet to be thought of. Babe Ruth in a newsreel, about to take the pitcher “downtown,” points to the spot in left where he will do this. Abbott and Costello, comics of the forties and fifties, clown it up on video, wanting to know “Who’s on first?” The turnstiles admitting you to the exhibits come from Ebbets Field where the Brooklyn Dodgers used to play, and a photographic mockup shows the crowd streaming toward the rotunda. Half expectant, I look for my face in the crowd.
From time out of mind, eight teams made up the National League (Senior Circuit), eight more the American, a different world with its own flags and customs. Brooklyn, battling its rivals in the National League, played each of them 22 times. Coming round like clockwork, these encounters escalated to blood feuds, and old Guelfs and Ghibillenes had nothing on the Dodgers and Cards. Angry partisans trashed the field, crying “kill the umpire!” or climbing over the railing, came down in person. Cops, “men in blue,” led them off. Baserunners, spikes flashing, took out the shortstop, aiming for his legs, but “headhunters” retaliated. Throwing “beanballs,” they aimed at the head. Etched deep in memory, Brooklyn’s Ducky Medwick still lies in the dust, skulled by hardthrowing Bob Bowman.
One hundred fifty-four games added up to a season, peaking in the waning summer, “dog days.” The team that won the most games took the pennant or gonfalon (baseball writers liking synonyms from Roget’s Thesaurus). Then came the World Series, sans divisional playoffs. But a sharp-eyed accountant with his eye on the bottom line saw how a diluted product meant more money in the till. Today the frost is on the pumpkin before the last batter makes out.
Deferring to the market place, the structure of the major leagues is no longer graven in stone. Teams in the East, following the country have moved West since the War, like the Washington Senators, New York Giants, and Philadelphia Athletics, pronounced “Atha-letics.” Their uniforms, on display, prompt questions from young tourists, acolytes in need of instruction. When the Browns, always last in the American League, wore the colors of St. Louis, that city was the farthest point west on baseball’s map. L. A., off the map, was unknown country.
Most of the old parks have succumbed to the wrecker’s ball, including Ebbets Field. Bounded by McKeever Place, Sullivan Street, Montgomery Street, and Bedford Avenue, it looked away from the city where America’s business is business. Railway Express trucks rumbled through the neighborhood, and one summer I worked the loading docks, man’s work for a boy of 14. Soot from the L. I. R. R. filmed the streets, leaving off at the ballpark. Above this green enclave, green by day, dark at night, rose the Williamsburg Savings Bank, Brooklyn’s tallest building.
A brown brick housing project, Ebbets Field Apartments occupies the site, and on Bedford Avenue, a block north, Medgar Evers College offers open admission to young men and women of the ghetto. At 46 McKeever Place, behind the old third-base stands, is Jackie Robinson Intermediate School 320. Students attending this school look puzzled if you bring up the old days. Their game is basketball. Outside the principal’s office, a plaque bore Jackie’s name but vandals tore it from the concrete, and the ash tree planted in his memory is gone.
Garl Erskine, once a Dodger, watched outside the park the day the walls came down. Known in Brooklyn as “Oiskine,” abbreviated to “Oisk,” he owned a house in the borough on the Narrows separating Bay Ridge from “Staten’s” Island. His neighbors, longtime fans, lived and died with the ball-club, and he remembered one of them, a tugboat skipper who took his boat through the Narrows. Captain Dowd, near retirement, geared his life to the time when he could go to Ebbets Field every day. Then the Dodgers departed, never asking his leave. Other witnesses said, however, that you couldn’t stop progress. Yellowed newsprint in my scrapbook records the occasion, a wintry Tuesday in February 1960.
Haifa century before this, Charlie Ebbets opened his new park in north Flatbush. Buying up the property, split 30 ways among as many owners, he didn’t say why he wanted it, and none of the owners knew that he wanted it all. That way, he got the land for a song. Brooklyn fans, “the best on earth,” deserved every nicety, and white glazed brick sidewalls framed his rotunda. Mosaic tile adorned the floor, while seats in the grandstand, said the Times, were “roomy and armless.” Getting rid of the arm rests, Ebbets got in more seats. “The question is purely one of business,” he said. “I am not in baseball for my health.”
In the 1950’s seven papers in New York City and two more on the Island covered the Dodgers. The Times, defying change, still looks like itself, and the Daily News, a bone worried by mastiffs, management, and labor, still hangs in there, who knows for how long. But the Mirror no longer exists, and the World-Telegram and Journal-American, each combining two earlier papers, have folded. The next day’s editions of the News and Mirror, costing 2 cents, were offloaded from trucks by 8: 30 each night, and boys in my neighborhood, like young poets in the twenties waiting on The Dial, lined up outside the candy store on Avenue M. The Dial, avant-garde, featured Eliot, Yeats, and Pound, but Dan Parker and Dick Young wrote for the tabloids, converting base metal to gold. In touch with a heroic world beyond this everyday one, we had something in common with would-be poets, only our heroes were different.
Later, one or two of the poets made it into the pantheon, and, as Casey Stengel says, you could look up their names. Most, rejecting boyhood fantasies, became businessmen, doctors, and lawyers. Somebody has to do the world’s work. The boys I grew up with, nourished on books and movies, fantasized, too. I meant to earn a black belt, ski the Mont Blanc, command a fighting ship at sea. “Damn the torpedoes!” I told them. “Full speed ahead!” Boyhood dreams and unregretted, they faded in the light of day, though classical Greek, a persistent chimera, still beckons. Cato the elder learned it at 80. But as I approach senior citizen status, I know I will never take the mound in October, facing down the hated Yankees. This loss is harder to live with. He could bring the ball, opponents said grudgingly, respect that had to be paid.
Best for sports was the Herald-Tribune, where Red Smith phoned in dispatches from the windy plains of Troy, a. k. a. the Polo Grounds, home turf of New York’s Giants. Against its white and green and earth-brown geometry, he arranged his mythic heroes, Mel Ott, a boy wonder, versus Van Lingle Mungo, Bobby Thomson and Ralphie Branca, Big No. 13. Horseracing, the sport of kings, took too much of his time, mystifying to me and friends in our hand-me-down knickers. Baseball and poetry were peas in a pod, though, games but played for mortal stakes. Smith understood this. When Thomson, besting Branca, fired his infamous “Shot Heard Round the World,” he wrote how reality had strangled invention. The gods, partial to melodrama, reserved this epic face-off to the last at-bat of the season’s last day. “Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic,” could ever be plausible again.
A bar in midtown Manhattan, “Artists & Writers,” catered to the Trib and its baseball reporters, called by themselves “inkstained wretches.” Once I rubbed elbows there with Red Smith and his fellow scribe, Stanley Woodward. According to Smith, they consoled one another the day Woodward’s daughter got married. “Easy come, easy go,” this father said ruefully, as the car pulled away from the church. Smith and Woodward are gone and their favorite watering hole closed its doors a long time ago. Real estate in Manhattan is off the charts these days, and the Polo Grounds disappeared when the Giants left New York for the Coast.
The Hall of Fame freezes great moments in time, Hartnett’s homer in the gloaming (1938), Fred Merkle’s Boner (1908), Bill Mazeroski blighting Yankee hopes in game seven of the 1960 Series. It isn’t often, however, that these storied events coincide with my moment, the forties. This was prime time, before it “childish things” enveloped in shadows, afterward a falling away. I venerate the ancestors, Cy Young, the Big Train, the Flying Dutchman, etc., but like George Washington and other founders they seem a little dim. Pictures in an exhibition, the Hall of Fame has it pious side, appropriate to a museum.
But baseball can’t bear too much reality, and looks best when seen from a distance. Partly this explains the unreasoning love affair between young boys and our National Pastime. Folklore tells how one of them confronted Shoeless Joe Jackson, star of the Black Sox when they threw the Series in 1919. “Say it ain’t so,” this youngster begged his idol. It makes a good story. But dyed-in-the-wool believers believe what they want to, and likely the scales never fell from his eyes.
Baseball is coarse, not the game, the men who play it. Often vivid, their lingua franca isn’t meant for tender ears. Umpires (“men in black”) get their ears burned. Blind by convention, they aren’t deaf, and Casey Stengel liked to instruct them. He didn’t mind being buggered, said this “Old Perfessor,” but objected when an amateur held the Vaseline.
Oldtime reporters, bluepenciling the expletives, wore rose-colored glasses when they went to the game. Ruth’s drinking and womanizing stayed at the level of hearsay, and though Cobb, the Georgia Peach, looked daggers at the world, in particular the colored world, this side of him got edited out. A giant before the Flood, Shoeless Joe spoke when spoken to, but modern athletes like to talk and new-style reporters take down every word, banking on a high threshold of boredom. “If you open up a ballplayer’s head,” said Mayo Smith—managing Detroit’s Tigers, he spoke with feeling—”you find a jazz band and a lot of little broads.”
Before the electronic age, radio, a selective medium, brought us up-to-date. Walter Winchell reported gossip and Lowell Thomas the news, spiced with tales of Red atrocities in faraway Spain. (Franco, on the march, was restoring law and order to that bedeviled country, though.) Sunday afternoons my family reserved an hour for Detroit’s radio priest, Father Coughlin. He said that Jews worked from an agenda, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Sunday nights we tuned in Jack Benny, whose colored straightman, Rochester, was always good for a laugh. Baseball, aired almost daily, mingled tears with the laughter. The ancient Philco in our living room often swallowed its words, lost in dim recesses behind the wooden rick rack, but 50 years later memory irons out the static and the game comes through clear as a bell.
Red Barber was its voice. Known for homey metaphors, he evoked the friendly Southland where he came from. Though not always friendly, it lay beyond our sight line, hung with Spanish moss. Air conditioning was for the future, and summer days windows stayed open. Walking down Brooklyn’s streets, you could follow the game from one house to the next. When the Dodgers took the lead, they were “in the catbird seat.” Sometimes, however, opponents “tore up the pea patch,” responding with a tattoo of hits.
Away games, played in distant Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, or Chicago, came to us via the telegraph ticker. Filling up the silences, it ticked out its cryptic message, but the announcer in his studio embroidered what he heard. If Peewee Reese, our rookie shortstop, hit one out of the park, he said how the leftfielder backpedaled toward the fence. Back, back he went, but that ball was “out of here!” Wheaties, Breakfast of Champions, sponsored these re-creations, a jingle inquiring if we had tried it, “best breakfast food in the land.” Madison Avenue, not yet a way of life, was only a place name, and Red Barber didn’t shill for his product. Laconically, he told us that Jack Armstrong, the Ail-American Boy, liked his Wheaties.
Radio kept the players on the other side of the footlights but the camera’s eye fills this badly needed gap. Scratching his armpits, the batter on the screen claws at his crotch, or leaning forward spits a stream of tobacco. Some shift a chaw the size of a golf ball. Most, according to The Sporting News, favor Red Man.
Cooperstown, relegating this detail to the archives, stands its heroes on pedestals, roped off from the crowd. The bird’seye view carries a price tag, however, and clay feet, encased in bronze, go unnoticed. The skinflint who owned the Black Sox, Charles Comiskey, is in (but Shoeless Joe is out), also K. M. Landis, elected for “meritorious service.” Baseball’s first Commissioner, he barred the door to men of color. Posthumous memorials honor a handful who played in the Negro Leagues, but Cooperstown’s custodians, while making amends, wish you would let the matter drop.
The twenties, golden years for American sports, come in for a lot of attention, not all of it focused on baseball. Bobby Jones swings his sand wedge and Big Bill Tilden a wooden racquet, Red Grange is the Galloping Ghost. Calvin Coolidge presides. Looking down from the wall, he looks presidential but took a nap while the country went to the dogs. In the red-letter year 1927, the Bambino hit his 60 homers and Lucky Lindy flew the Atlantic. Grainy photos summon both, Ruth, his pouter-pigeon body on those spindly legs, Lindbergh, a gangly presence, posing awkwardly beside “The Spirit of St. Louis.” The same summer they wrote themselves into the history books, Sacco and Vanzetti, “a good shoemaker and a fish-peddler,” died in the electric chair. The Hall leaves their story alone.
Though statistics don’t lie, they conspire against my particular heroes, lesser lights not carded with the right credentials. Joe Gallagher, for instance, known to teammates as “Muscles,” and if I don’t recall him, who will? After the game we waited for the players by the locker-room exit, hoping to touch the hem of greatness. Most, in a hurry, looked the other way, not Muscles Gallagher, though. A bona fide major leaguer, he seemed to dwarf us, myrmidons to his Achilles, but looking back I realize that he wasn’t much older than we were. Once, nursing some private grievance, he said you did your best every time you went out there, adding, but you always fail. “Bats right, throws right, lifetime batting average .273,” this part-time performer disappears from the record when I was just into my teens.
A swarthy third baseman with so-so statistics, Cookie Lavagetto didn’t make it to the Hall but has his securer niche in youthful memory. The first World Series no-hitter was one out away when he drove Bill Bevens’ fast ball off the fence in right field. This boosted Brooklyn past the Yankees, cause for elation, but Bevens never pitched in the majors again. Going out in style the way few of us do, Lavagetto never got another hit. Much later I met the two of them in Rome’s Villa Giulia where a pair of Etruscan warriors, dead ages ago, still cling together in combat.
Al Gionfriddo, a spear carrier, five-feet-six-inches tall, stood taller than others in that ‘47 Series. When DiMaggio (“Joltin’ Joe”) sent a scorcher toward the bullpen, this defensive replacement put his head down and ran. Timing his jump for the last possible moment, he crashed the fence but held the ball in the webbing of his glove. Next year, though, they returned him to the minors, just 60 days short of a pension. Brooklyn’s tight-fisted owner, Hall-of-Famer Branch Rickey, promised to bring him back. But they didn’t bring him back, and in old age he still groused about his pension.
An island in time, not far from Main Street, Doubleday Field votes against Astroturf, exploding scoreboards, and rock-around-the-clock. Uncovered brick grandstands flank the playing surface, encircled by a pebbled track, and the American flag hangs limply from its pole in deep center. Each year on Induction Weekend two major league teams take the field for an exhibition game, and in the spring and summer months the local high-school team and a semi-pro team share it between them. As I watch from the stands, young hopefuls are hitting fungoes. They get a lot of loft from their aluminum bats, but I miss the sweet sound of hickory wood meeting horsehide.
The boy sitting beside me wears a baseball cap emblazoned with the orange and blue logo of the New York Mets, successors to Brooklyn in the National League. This fan of Charlie Hustle’s has rug burns on knees and elbows. Sliding headfirst on our living-room rug, he reaches for home plate, i. e. the credenza, and getting up flashes the “Safe” sign. The path, if you believe him, runs up all the way, and though Jack Armstrong, once my hero, means nothing to him, he swears by happy endings when the home team pulls it out in the ninth. Unaware how the legs go and the hand loses its cunning but cherishing the has-beens and callow rookies who play for the Mets (one of them, aged 20, has a chance to be 30, Stengel tells the press), he assures me in spring training that “we” could win it all. April will do that to you. In this ambiguous time when the year looks both ways at once, sore-armed pitchers rear back hopefully and punchless hitters surprise themselves, only later reverting to form.
Earl Averill, a legend in his time but overtaken by it, had more punch in his bat than most. Listening to the radio outside the Kosher deli on Avenue M, I caught his last hurrah. That seven-game Series, my first taste of woe but later I drank often from the same cup, came down to this oncemighty Casey at the bat. Clapping my hands, I whistled encouragement, but he grounded weakly to short.
Broken hearts heal with time, though, and the present, always urgent, takes the shine and misery off the past. Life and death to my son, baseball means less to me than it used to. I was on the Queen Mary, bound for England and a year in the British Museum, when Leo Durocher’s Giants caught lightning in a bottle. This miracle finish rated a sentence in the ship’s log. The year Carl Erskine blew away the Yankees, whiffing 14, 1 sat in a tavern adjacent to campus, one ear to the radio, eyes scanning student prose. Not as much fun as baseball, it put bread on the table. After the game I went home to wife and kids, and next morning taught my class as per usual.
In the adult world where mouths-to-feed nag at you, baseball takes a back seat. But its well-worn cliches still offer instruction, and this is what makes them cliches. “The game isn’t over until the last out,” a reason to pull up your socks. Cast off by Detroit, after that by Chicago, Whitlow Wyatt might have gone home to Georgia, saving his arm to clip coupons. Instead he thought up a new pitch, his ticket back to the big leagues, and his slider won a pennant for Brooklyn.
Four years later, though, Wyatt was gone for good. You can’t beat “the percentages,” and in the end the game always defeats you. Having climbed the mountain, you take the road down through low-wattage towns in the minors. Along the way, you learn about the clubhouse in Rock Hill, S. C., bus rides in the Sally League, meal money in the Tar Heel League, $10 per diem.
The “game of inches” penalizes mistakes, and “those bases on balls will kill you.” My son wasn’t born yet when Rex Barney came to Brooklyn, at 18 the youngest pitcher in the majors. Stan “The Man” Musial said nobody ever threw harder. He threw a no-hitter, other times coming close, and coaches today still speak of a “Rex Barney fastball.” You’re long gone, however, if you can’t put the pitch where you want it. Not able to do that, Barney faded from the scene. But the thrill of walking up the mound never left him. Out of baseball for years, he lived in a time warp, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, “every afternoon of every summer,” nothing like it. “Maybe,” he said, “if I came back today I’d throw strikes.”
Students of the game will tell you that in baseball the breaks make the difference, “God sits up there in the sky and says to you and you, “Go get tuxedos. “” Mickey McDermott, a left-handed philosopher who threw for the Bosox, imagines this scenario and might have quoted gloomy St. Paul. “As for the rest of us, we just slog along.” The brightest star in my firmament many summers ago, Pete Reiser played the game for keeps, and it cost him. Before the days of warning tracks and padding on the walls, he ran his head against the concrete in Sportsman’s Park, St. Louis, and after that was never the same. Cocky like Roy Hobbs in Malamud’s novel, he said, “I can hit any pitcher who ever threw a baseball.” This wasn’t boasting. “He might have been the best ballplayer I ever saw,” said Leo “The Lip” Durocher. “You think Willie Mays could run in his hey-day? Willie had everything. Peter Reiser had everything but luck.”
Mickey Owen’s was bad, though no one in his time handled “the tools of ignorance” more expertly. In ‘41, however, his passed ball, maybe the last image to flash across my dying brain, lost a Series for Brooklyn. “We were running the Yankees right out of the park,” said Billy Herman, who showed the world how you played second base. Then the gods intervened, and can such malice dwell in Heaven? Crouched behind home plate, Owen holds up two fingers, calling for the curve. Henrich misses by a mile, and this game is history. But the ball squirts away toward the dugout. Desperately, the catcher pulls off his mask while the batter, looking over his shoulder, heads for first. The umpire’s arm, still extended, gives the sign that says, “Yer out!” He should have been out but he wasn’t.
Fall comes early to Cooperstown, but the late August day has warmed up at twilight. Overcast hides the sun, and the air, drained of harsh color, is soft. Two ballplayers in white flannels jog slowly around the perimeter of the park, their uniforms uncanny against the green grass. In the souvenir shop outside the main gate, a phonograph plays Sousa marches. Gladys Gooding, long a favorite with Brooklyn’s fans, played marches on the organ, also pop tunes and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” When they ran up the flag, she played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” her clear soprano floating over the crowd.
Even today when I go to the game at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, I take pride in the flag and do what I can with our national anthem. But the tempora and the mores aren’t what they used to be. Leaving my seat for a beer between innings, I brush against a woman whose feet block the aisle. “Hey, shithead!” she says. “Why don’t you watch where you’re going.” Mumbling an apology, I remember when women took their cue from nice Donna Reed in the movies.
Outside the decaying ballpark on Trumbull and Michigan, broken bottles, cheap Muscatel, wink in the sun. Locals queue up for food stamps or want your money or your life. In New York for a visit, I see ragged men bedded down for the night on grates in the street where the steam comes up from the subway. Things go from bad to worse in this land where my fathers died, and any day now I mean to write a letter to the papers.
Entering from shadows, grown men pick through the garbage cans in front of our first apartment on East 17th Street. Bing Crosby on the Philco had a song about them, “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” The Brooklyn Bum, woebegone but amiable, dates from these Depression years. Created by a cartoonist for the World-Telegram, he made the once-inept Dodgers a comic byword in America. But he touched its dark underside, like the humor that helps us deal with our pain.
A world to itself, Brooklyn south of Kings Highway kept the rest of the world at a distance. Outsiders weren’t welcome, and some old folks in our neighborhood, waiting for death in the houses they were born in, had never crossed the river to Manhattan. Living in Manhattan and in Brooklyn’s darker corners were Hebes, spies, and Polacks, also hard-drinking Irish, called micks. A few micks lived among us but ours were “lace curtain.” Negroes, called coons—a term deplored by my mother whose best friend was her maid, colored Virginia—came down from Harlem for housework. Taking the subway, they went back at the end of the day.
Looking out the window at the strangers in our midst, my father thought about calling the cops. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he seldom ventured beyond it. Later in life, though, the company, Ma Bell, sent him out on the road. Once they sent him to Pittsburgh, a nice little town, not for him. Time, “marching on,” exacted its toll on Brooklyn, however, and the borough of homes and churches wasn’t what it used to be. When down in the dumps, he went on about this, a cross his family had to bear.
Colored Virginia, not old when she died, still looks young to me. However, I get older, like the world I grew up in. The Waterworks just down the street, wooded land where we dragged our sleds in winter, turned into tract housing after the war. Each house in this subdivision has two cars in the garage. Not owning a car, we took the subway, safe, cheap, and efficient. We went to Times Square for the afternoon show at the Paramount Theater, some days to Coney Island where Brooklyn meets the sea. Baking on the sandy beach, we cooled off with a dip in the water. I tell my son it was clean then.
Four express lines, Brighton, Sea Beach, West End, and Culver, ran to Coney Island. Nathan’s Famous, beside the boardwalk, sold the best franks in town, and Luna Park featured dodge ‘ems, electrified cars. Pedestrians in Brooklyn, dodging the new trolley cars, gave the ballclub its name. In the Half Moon Hotel, overlooking Luna Park, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles hid from the syndicate, Murder, Inc. He meant to turn state’s evidence but the cops, on the take, they say, pushed him out the window.
The Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit took us out to the ball game. Riding the Brighton Line, fans rode a magic carpet. Dan Parker in the Mirror had a poem about one of them, a belle of Canarsie. “Leave us go root for the Dodgers,” she sang to her beau, “That’s the team for me. Leave us make noise for the boisterous boys on the B. M. T.” This belle outdid all others “at dancing the rhumba or jitterbug number.” Fashions changed, however, and the big bands fell from favor. Crowds dwindled at the Paramount, replaced by a glitzy hotel. Midtown Manhattan has come down in the world, and today, if I have to go there, I call a taxi.
Baseball, though timebound, lives by rules and conventions, almost persuading you that time doesn’t run but stands still. On-field heroics get their meaning from the rules, and mighty hearts beat more fiercely, “held in slender chains.” Anyway, old poets believed this. Most of the game is white space, not suitable to coliseums in Rome or L. A. Nothing happens and we wait. But ghosts crowd the margins, merging today and yesterday when the umpire cries “Play ball!” Braves Field, a ghostly presence, still stands beside the Charles in Boston, and coal-burning locomotives send up plumes of smoke between the outfield wall and the river. Peerless Whit Wyatt—he lost a tough one on this field 50 summers ago—still toes the rubber, matching goose eggs with Abba Dabba Jim Tobin.
Compared to Braves Field or cavernous Shibe Park, once home of the Phillies, Wrigley Field where the Cubs still play looks like a bandbox. But the same 90 feet separate base from base, just 60 feet, 6 inches separating home plate from the mound. Three outs still make an inning, nine innings a game. Chalked foul lines, running to the stands, mark off the playing field, and batted balls, if in play, must land inside them. Stationed left and right, Lavagetto and Dolph Camilli guard the foul lines in Brooklyn, where the time is still late summer the year we went to war.
Scrolled like a sand garden, Japanese style, raked dirt defined the infield. Shadows on the infield, growing longer as the day wore on, signaled the end of the game. Games were day games, played on grass in the afternoon sun. On Bedford Avenue outside the park, boys of the “knothole gang”—they watched through holes in the wall—waited for Camilli to crush one. All that late summer, he carried the club on his back.
Billboards on the outfield wall touted local beers—at home we drank Rheingold’s—also Lifebuoy soap. (Using it, you smelled sweeter.) One, at the bottom of the scoreboard in right, challenged hitters to “Hit Sign, Win Suit.” Abe Stark’s Tailor Shop, 1514 Pitkin Avenue, furnished the sign. But Dixie Walker, the “Peepul’s cheerce,” roamed the right-field pastures, and the tailor rarely made good on his promise.
The hot dog and peanut vied for attention with the crack of the bat. Underneath the seats, peanut shells and buttered popcorn matted the concrete flooring. From my seat in the bleachers, deepest left field, I had the game before me, except for a blind spot in center. Covent Garden Opera House, the year I lived in London, was like that. Seats were cheapest near the ceiling but the top of the stage bisected the sight line, and when they hanged Billy Budd all I saw were his boots, dangling from the proscenium arch.
A nickel bought a bottle of Pepsi or a score card. But the Brooklyn Eagle, for 3 cents, came complete with the lineup, including a pencil to score with. Fifty-five cents bought a ticket to the bleachers. Later, Larry MacPhail, taking over the ball club, renamed the bleachers the “pavilion” and doubled the price of admission.
Though Ebbets Field survived the War, sappers were at the foundation. TV tunneled deep, run a close second by the internal combustion machine. Too true to be good, the game on TV is to baseball as everyday life to the theater, and where the jet engine brings the world to our doorstep, the automobile takes us places we don’t want to go. Robert Moses, New York’s transport czar, put us in the driver’s seat. Bypassing the city, he built his parkways to Long Island, and the flight to the suburbs began.
Nobody was looking when Walter O’Malley got control of the ball club. Coining money in Brooklyn, this lawyer wanted more. Like Charlie Ebbets, he worked in secret, getting his ducks in a row. Then, engineering the move to L. A., he tore down the church we worshiped in. How could a Brooklyn boy do this? someone asked. But he wasn’t from Brooklyn. He came from the suburbs, Amityville on the Island.
As new as Disney World, this ersatz place is as old as the hills. It gleamed in the eye of Dutch Peter Minuit, who got Manhattan for a song, and descendants of his are still promoting its headier air. When Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, 19thcentury spoilsmen, picked our cupboard clean, they meant to issue a prospectus. Admission wasn’t open to the hoi polloi, however. This “other half,” always with us, lived in tenements, like worms in a can. Someone was to blame, and mostly the blame fell on “outsiders.” About the time Abner Doubleday perfected his diamond-shaped playing field in Cooperstown, race riots killed two thousand New Yorkers. A century later, LA’s riots killed fewer than 50.
The beer commercial on the tube doesn’t know this, and appealing to the good old days sees them through an amber glass darkly. There go the gallant Clydesdales, pulling merry gentlemen though the snows of yesteryear. Candles light their way, gleaming from the white clapboard house in the distance. But the house, a plywood facade, is backed by cinderblocks, and the better past, leaving off beyond the sight line, opens on a continuous present.
Getting out of the Navy, I said goodbye to New York and don’t often go back. The year the Mets won the pennant, I made a promise, however. Betting against those perennial losers, I promised my son a trip to the Series if they came in first. Retribution followed. Confounding me and the experts, the Mets showed their heels to the rest of the league, and in October we made the journey to Shea. You can lie to your wife in the interest of peace and quiet but mustn’t ever break your word to the young.
A late arrival on baseball’s scene, Shea Stadium is washed in pale pastels. It looks like a kindergarten, the progressive variety where preschoolers go to kill time. Inside the park, vendors sell the team’s colors, stuffed mascots, some electrified, bronzed catcher’s mitts with an inkwell set into the pocket, pencils shaped like a baseball bat, genuine simulated gold. Muffling the crowd noise, planes from LaGuardia crisscross the field. The PA system plays music from Motown, and the bat boy is a pretty girl in short shorts. But the players on both sides look like they used to, maybe a little bit younger.
Baltimore’s Orioles, representing the Junior Circuit, come in with too much fire power for the lowly Mets, so the line says in Vegas. I hope for the best, expecting the worst. My son expects the best, and his team, not called Amazin’ for nothing, holds the opposition at bay. The seventh-inning stretch is behind us, and still the Orioles haven’t solved Tommy Seaver. But these “grizzled veterans” keep pecking away, and New York’s manager, taking no chances, has a pair of arms warming up in the bullpen. Ever the pessimist, I think he knows something that we don’t.
Throwing smoke in the bullpen, Nolan Ryan, the latest phenom, looks like another Rex Barney. The same exploding fastball with a mind of its own, and this scatter-gun right-hander is all over the plate. Or he comes straight across it, everybody’s wheelhouse. Though this game is knotted, the outcome, a bleak one, seems foreordained. “You don’t have a prayer,” I mutter to all and sundry, “if you can’t put the ball on the corners.”
But nobody is paying attention. On the field the home team, ignoring the percentages, imitates Murderers’ Row. Often denied but not today, the crowd roars approval. Al Weis, who never hits, hits the cover off the ball, Rocky Swoboda makes the catch of his life, and Seaver wins the game in extra innings. As we file out of the stadium past the vendors’ stalls, my son’s face lets me know that this is once in a lifetime. I tell him he can have what he wants. All he wants is a pennant, though, orange and blue, to hang on the wall in his bedroom.