Extra Chapter 1
The Love of the Brooklyn Dodgers
Extra Chapter 1 The Love of the Brooklyn Dodgers Donald Hall
Though life was difficult for Brooklyn's ethnic core, it was mostly the best of times. Money may have been hard to come by, but it was an era when the people next door were neighbors and not strangers, when the neighborhoods reverberated with the sounds of youngsters playing games in the street. It was also a time when most Brooklynites shared a common denominator: their beloved Dodgers. This was not a state team or a regional team. It wasn’t even a city team like the Detroit Tigers or the Chicago Cubs. Rather, the Dodgers came from the Borough of Brooklyn. The provincialism was built into the name.
Brooklyn fans were a breed apart. They were loud and raucous and devoted. Ebbets Field had been built in 1912 on Bedford Avenue, right in the heart of the borough, and all it took to go was a nickel for a subway or trolley ride and fifty cents to get into the bleachers. If a kid didn’t have the money to get in, he followed the Dodgers in one of twelve newspapers that covered the team. And he would play ball in the streets, pretending he was one of his ball playing heroes.
By the 1930s Brooklyn had become a hotbed for ball sports. This was before professional basketball or football meant anyhing. The only game was baseball, and in the afternoons after school and on weekends the second-generation youngsters made the neighborhoods in Brooklyn reverberate with the sounds of playing the varied ball games in the streets: stickball, stoopball, ringalevio, or Catch a Fly and You're Up. The streets had not yet been taken over by the automobile, because of the speedy and safe subway system that for five cents could take an explorer anywhere he wished to go in the borough and beyond. And it was a time when the radio was a Godsend for everyone, especially for the poor. Once you got past the initial purchase price, you didn't have to spend money on entertainment. The radio was all you needed. And when the Dodgers played, the games were broadcast throughout the city. Before night baseball began in 1939, shopkeepers all over Brooklyn would turn up their radio so they and their customers could listen to the Dodgers. Jews, Protestants, Italians, Irish, black or Latino, everyone listened to Dem Bums whenever they could.
In addition to those who lived in Brooklyn proper, there were fans living outside the borough who were hooked into a lifelong love affair with the Dodgers because of radio announcer Walter “Red” Barber. If you started at Borough Hall's epicenter and drew a hundred mile radius outward -- the distance that Red Barber's velvety voice could carry on the Dodger radio network -- you could find legions of Barber and Brooklyn Dodger devotees. Barber, one of the very earliest baseball broadcasters, captivated his listeners, both male and female, with his soft, dulcet tones.
Donald Hall, the great American poet, grew up in Hamden, Connecticut, within earshot of Barber. Hall loved the Redhead. His love affair with the Dodgers began in the late 1930s and was an important part of his life and that of his father as well. The memories Hall cherishes most are those of the Dodgers of the early 1940s, the Leo Durocher-led team featuring Pee Wee Reese and Pete Reiser, Dixie Walker and Dolf Camilli. Hall especially reveled in the coming of Jackie Robinson and in the Dodgers finally beating the Yankees in the 1955 World Series. The love affair ended for him, as it did for so many others, with sadness.
Donald Hall: "I remember the beginning of it all. I was ten years old, driving in a Studebaker automobile on a Sunday afternoon. Everyone in America who had a car in 1938 went on rides on Sunday afternoons.
"My father knew every road because he had delivered milk when he was a boy. I thought he had Magellan's instinct for geography. He could get anywhere. And we'd arrive at a place where we'd have an ice cream sundae, and we'd always come at it from a different angle, and I'd never know how we were going to get there, but we got there.
"And when April came, he would turn on the radio, and we would listen to Red Barber broadcasting. Red came in the 1930s. It was dad’s hand who turned WOR and later WHN rather than turning to the Giants or the Yankees. That's what started me on the Dodgers.
"We lived in Hamden, Connecticut, seventy miles from Brooklyn. We could get the New York stations perfectly well. I don't know how my father got to be a Dodger fan, but it may have been Red Barber. We all loved him, and I still love him in memory, that wonderful soft voice coming down, the wonderful gentleness and calm, yet managing to rise to the pitch.
"We loved his cliches, his individual expressions, `the bases are COD,' chock full of Dodgers, and when we were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates, the enemy was `FOB,' full of Buccaneers. The Catbird Seat was something he popularized. Later James Thurber would use it as the title of a story. I can't believe it didn't come from Red Barber. Ever since then no baseball announcer ever seems quite the authority if he did not have the gentleman Southern tongue. Vince Scully, who prepped with Red Barber, is the best one going. I liked Ernie Harwell in Detroit, who spent time with Red Barber.
"So baseball for me began with the radio. Radio was a lot better than television because there was not the selective vision, and Red Barber was such a colorful talker. He would talk about the crowds and the fans at Ebbets Field, so this was something we went there expecting, and when I arrived at the park I found this totally loose, expressive, gathering of people.
"I was at Oxford just a few years later going out to a cricket match and seeing the visiting Australian team play the Oxford team, which is like the Yankees, and when the Australians were bowling, suddenly an Oxford player lifted a ball out to the outfield, and an Australian settled right under it, and it popped out of his hand. There were several thousand people there, and they all went, `Oh, too bad. Pity.' Except for one person. I yelled up, `YYEEEEAAAAAAHHHHHHH.' And that was pure Ebbets Field. I sat down again, blushing like crazy. They knew what nation I came from.
"Every once in a while we went on vacation to see the minor league team in West Haven. I remember one time the big attraction was that Ralph Branca's brother was pitching. We didn't go very often, but we did drive every Sunday, and we'd listen. My mother, who at first was totally disinterested in baseball, began to listen more and more. The three of us would sit in the front seat.
"I remember that sleepy voice, the Southern tones coming off the radio. And the great pleasure would seem to be characters on the team, all exaggerated, names that carried captions with them, or slogans. Barber would say, `Luke "Hot Potato" Hamlin is coming in from the bullpen.' I'd think to myself, Uh oh, watch out. The home runs are going to start popping out of the park.' I remember Hamlin threw a straight fastball that would rise if he was lucky. When it didn't, the ball left the field. You know why `Hot Potato?' He had a nervous habit: he couldn't hold the ball. He would throw it up in the air and catch it. I suppose I learned that from Red Barber.
"One of the first things I remember -- I didn't hear it on the radio, I heard it when I got home from school -- this was when there were afternoon games -- Tex Carlton pitched a nohitter for the Dodgers. That was my first Dodger no hitter. A lot of the early Dodgers, like Carlton, were castoffs of other teams, acquired by trade, players who weren't supposed to be so good like Dixie Walker. Joe Medwick was not quite a cast- off, but somebody from elsewhere who had come to the Dodgers and put it together and played well.
"Whitlow Wyatt, another discard, was a great pitcher, and there was Kirby Higbe, a fastballer who everyone knew the Yankees would plaster out of the place [in the 1941 World Series], and they did. I never trusted him as a pitcher. My sense of him was that he threw one pitch, and he threw pretty hard. But if he got in trouble, if he lost something off his fastball, he didn't have anything else to go to. He was a strong back, but you couldn't trust him. Curt Davis, another old one, was a wily sidearmer. Freddie Fitzsimmons, who pitched about once a week, was wonderful. You could count on him to win Sunday.
"I remember when Ralph Branca came up the first time. I remember when we were playing St. Louis, and St. Louis was pitching one of their good fellows, like Howie Pollett, against us. Wyatt did well against St. Louis, but we couldn't pitch him every night. Joe Hatten, a left hander, was pretty good, and he was supposed to start, but very mysteriously we started Ralph Branca. Durocher -- My Dodgers, when I began, were the Dodgers of Leo Durocher -- had Hatten warming up under the stands. Ralph Branca -- a kid who wasn't very well known -- came in to start the game. Melton was then supposed to come in to pitch against the platooned left-handed hitting lineup of the St. Louis Cardinals, and then, by God, Branca went out there and was throwing aspirin tablets, throwing heat, and they couldn't touch him. He went on to finish the game and pitched a hell of a game. But people only remember Ralph Branca for one pitch. I remember him as a hell of a pitcher. He was terrific, a marvelous pitcher day in and day out. It's like Snodgrass' muff in the World Series. One thing gets recollected forever. One pitch to Bobby Thomson.
"Pee Wee Reese was a rookie shortstop coming up right from the Louisville Colonels, a young kid who you'd think didn't have to shave yet. Billy Herman played second base before Eddie Stanky. He also came in a trade. I remember watching him, an incredibly big man, not lithe and skinny. He was playing second base, but he was light and quick and he could pick it, as they say, with wonderful delicacy, that delicacy you always find so strange in someone who looks stationary, cumbersome.
"The young Reese looked like he could gallop over and get the ball deep in the hole and fire him out, which indeed he could. But Herman didn't look as if he could. But I remember being at Ebbets Field with my father -- man on first base and a ground ball hit to Billy Herman's left -- he twirls around with a beautiful balletic move, and flips it underhand to Reese coming over the bag, double play. It was absolutely gorgeous. I was also hungry. Right after I finished seeing the end of the move, I turned my head and ordered a hot dog, which my father said was all right to order. He turned and said, `You didn't see it. You were ordering your hot dog.' I said, `No, I saw it. I saw it.' I was putting things in their proper place. I saw the play, and the moment it was over, I turned to the hot dog man, but my father was disappointed in me. He thought in my greed and gourmandism I had missed the play. The way he was with me was just the way I have been with my son, finding fault. It's true. I can remember that move, I can see it, it was wonderful, that elephantine delicacy, of the stubby ballet dancer on second base.
"They were still my Dodgers when Jackie Robinson came in, but I'm thinking about my first time, which is perhaps your most intense one, the one you take to your grave, the first team you knew and loved -- I can go around the infield -- Dolf Camilli at first, Billy Herman at second, Pee Wee Reese took over at short, and Cookie Lavaghetto and Lew Riggs at third, and later there was Billy Cox, who Roger Kahn wrote about in The Boys of Summer tending bar in Pennsylvania with the big gut -- he was terrific.
"Dixie Walker, Joe Medwick, and Pete Reiser were in the outfield, and Mickey Owen behind the plate. I remember Mickey Owen terribly well. He was quick around the plate. He could move. That's why the dropped third strike in the fourth game of the 1941 World Series was so stunning. I presume he called for a fastball and got a curve. It just went right by him. And that was the Series.
"Fitzsimmons pitched seven innings beautifully. Casey, the great fireman, came in and pitched very well. He was indestructable -- until the dropped third strike. I believe I was listening to it when it happened. No television, of course. Radio time.
"It was going to be the third out. It was all wrapped up. And then he couldn't get anyone out after that. It was a typical nightmare where everything comes apart, and you can't stop it.
"After Owen, Bruce Edwards caught briefly -- he looked good and then hurt his arm, and then the great Campanella came in later on.
"Durocher was a wild man. He was a calculating kind of wild man, a shrewd manager who was fiery and difficult, combative, reminded me of Billy Martin. Leo seemed appropriate to the Dodgers and their improvised bunch of eccentrics like Joe Medwick and Dixie Walker. Of course, it was an incredible disappointment to root for Dixie Walker, The People's Choice, only to discover he left the team because he wouldn't play with a black man in 1948.
"What I loved about Walker was the manner he seemed to have. There was a nonchalance and apparent modesty, a gentleness toward the fans, a deference, and at the same time the ability to hit line drives and hit them often when they count. He was a singles hitter mostly. Camilli was the home run kind, but he struck out usually. He hit the most on the team, but it was Walker who ould go up there and hit .300. He was very reliable, very steady.
"Pete Reiser and Pee Wee Reese, the rookies, were the most exciting players. If you remember, when they both came up, Reese and Reiser worked on the Baltimore chop. They were young and fast, and they did this all the time. They would get a ball they could pound right in front of them, that would bounce high in the air, and they'd cross first base before the other team could throw them out. Reiser was a lot faster than Reese. Reiser was incredibly fast. He could steal home. Reiser was one of the most exciting players ever to come up. He was a magnificent center fielder who could run anywhere and catch the ball and throw, a fastastic gun, and of course, he could hit like all hell. He could do it all. He was Willie Mays who injured himself out of the game. The story of Reiser is well known. Reiser would not hesitate to run into a wall. He had many concussions on the baseball field. He played when he was seeing double. He'd get out there and try to hit the ball, and he was foolish, I suppose. My, he was foolish in a way, that, aw, he was Homeric. Ajax was stupid, and I don't want to call Pete Reiser stupid. He just had an incredible ferocity of intensity of desire to let nothing stand in his way.
"He did that, and other things that injured him, even more than Mickey Mantle. He was hobbled by injuries and held down and had a short career. But heavens, what an incredibly powerful and exciting ballplayer he was. "Pee Wee Reese was something else again. He seemed very talented, but he was more of a personality, more of a character. Perhaps because he was around longer, and I saw him getting older.
"I think I learned about aging from baseball. Because it eems such a brief time when Pee Wee Reese was the kid with fuzz on his face, when Pee Wee Reese is the seasoned veteran, then the grizzled old man. All this happens between the time you first follow baseball and when you're out of high school, an accelerated idea of aging that in a way has a whole curve to itself. The whole riddle of the Sphinx: what is four-footed at dawn and two-footed at noon and three-footed at twilight -- in baseball that happens in the space of ten years, sometimes more with other players, of course, depending on how late they come into the game.
"But another thing that I recall, which has to do with aging -- fathers and sons. The male lineage and the aging of the male seems to me deeply wound into the story of baseball.
"Carl Hubbell was the great Giant pitcher. He was the great old man with the screwball, the left arm that hung oddly at his side. One time the Dodgers and the Giants were playing, and we were listening to this on the radio, and late in the game, a tied game, Carl Hubbell came out of the bullpen to pitch, which was not done. It was late in the season, and the Giants were doing well. And Durocher sent up Reese, the kid up from Louisville, to hit against him. My father was a Dodger fan, but my father was also very fond of Carl Hubbell, and Pee Wee Reese hit a double off the wall to win the game, and I cheered and shouted for the Dodgers, and I looked over at my father, and he wept that the old great King Carl should be beaten by a punk kid coming up.
"My father was not much older than Carl Hubbell at that point, if at all.
"Oh, the wartime years were wonderful! We had a sixteen-year-old shortstop, Tommy Brown. Eddie Miksis played second base. We had a 44-year-old playing, and I can't remember who else, but I remember Red Barber trying to whip up interest, saying how Miksis had a unique way of tagging second base and making a double play. `Come out and see it. It's really interesting.' A bunch of Triple A ballplayers, very old and the very young coming in. But we did good, and it was terribly exciting. And here we were in Connecticut, seventy miles away, a big trip, during a time when it was hard to get gasoline. You had to save up your coupons if you wanted to get to New York, and every now and then my father would be able to get tickets, and we'd down down in the morning and see a doubleheader at the Polo Grounds between the Dodgers and the Giants, and come back at night.
"I remember seeing Mel Ott win a game, picking his foot up and slamming the ball into the close foul line at the Polo Grounds to beat the Dodgers. For us, in Connecticut, there was nothing magic about the notion of Brooklyn. We had no emotion about the borough of Brooklyn.
"But what I remember about Ebbets Field was a tremendous warmth and friendliness and the eccentricities. We didn't have a San Diego Chicken on the field, but we had a million feathers flying in the stands: the people in their getups, with their cowbells and whatever else they had.
"From the age of 12 or so, I came up to New Hampshire in July and August. My grandfather was a great Red Sox fan. My grandfather in the 1890s went down to Boston, and he saw a game between the Boston Red Stockings and somebody. And he went down again in 1949. My father took him down, and he saw Ted Williams play. For fifty years he was a total Red Sox fan, totally in love with the team. People will find it hard to imagine now that you could love a team and follow it closely without having seen it play. Which he did. That's what most people did. They knew their baseball from playing it and watching the town teams play, and then they read about their favorite pro team in the newspapers. And this was true all over the country. We were a rural country for a long time.
"My grandfather agreed to be for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the National League, and I would be for the Red Sox in the American League. I used to read the Boston Post every morning to find out about the Dodgers. I'd work on poems every morning. I took care of the chickens, but mostly I worked trying to be a writer, and then in the afternoon we'd go haying. And in between loads we'd come in and have some well water, spent about five minutes cooling off, turn on the radio, and we would hear three or four pitches of the Red Sox game, possibly get a score, and go back and hay again.
"Of course, you worked Saturday all day as much as you did every day, so my grandfather never got to listen to a game, because on Sundays you did not turn on the radio to listen to baseball. No way! That was breaking the Sabbath. Once or twice, when things got serious in late August, my grandmother, who was running the Sabbatherian roost, would allow us to turn it on long enough to get the score.
"My father and I would go up to the car, and we'd take rides and listen to the radio in the afternoon. My father and I put two gloves and the ball in the truck, go out, and park the car in the road and play catch on Sunday afternoons. I speak of fathers and sons, as Roger Kahn does and many others as well: we had a tremendous thing between us. And we had lots of bad things between us. We didn't agree about everything, but this was always something solid between us. I never did go through a latency period when I decided baseball was beneath me. Some people do that and come back. I wasn't one of those.
"And when he was dying -- he died of lung cancer at 52 in December of 1955 -- he got to see the Dodgers win. I knew he was dying, of course, and he knew he was dying.
"And when they won the Seventh Game -- Johnny Podres pitched incredibly -- I was way up in New York State, going to join my relatives of my first wife's, who were up on the St. Lawrence River. I stopped at a bar somewhere where there was a television set about four inches square, and lots of snow, and I waited until they won the game until I went on to join them. I called up my father. He had been following them all those years. When he was dying, I had wanted to arrange the world so everything would turn out the way he wanted it. I couldn't really arrange that World Series. I would have if I could. I wanted the Dodgers to win because I wanted him to have some pleasure. And he did take pleasure in that. And then for them to win didn't quite compensate for such things as dying, I won't say that, but it was something between us.
"I had borrowed a neighbor's set, which was as big as a chest of drawers, with a tiny little picture in the middle, and moved it into the room where he was. And he could see the games and see them win. It was something we had together for sixteen wonderful years.”