Musing of a Contemporary Pathologist

THE Dodgers, once and forever

 

A sign welcoming visitors to Brooklyn

A sign welcoming visitors to Brooklyn

Many times, in the years after my 1984 move to Los Angeles from New York, colleagues would invite me to go with them to Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine to see the Los Angeles Dodgers play. I always politely declined, usually saying only that I had lost my interest in baseball many years ago. Sometimes I would be rather blunt and say that whoever was now playing baseball had nothing to do with my team, nothing to do with THE Dodgers who, for me, had ceased to exist in 1957 when they left Brooklyn because Robert Moses (1888-1991), then the ‘master builder’ of New York City, refused to support the development of a multiuse sports complex with ample parking in downtown Brooklyn, as conceived and proposed by Walter O’Malley, then owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Moses and O’Malley didn’t like each other.

The O’Malley plan, for which he has never gotten credit, eventually came to pass and is now known as the Barclay Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team. Barclay Center is exactly where O’Malley wanted to put a baseball stadium.

A colleague who grew up in the southwest but had been a devoted Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team fan when he was young sent me a note asking why I gave up on the Dodgers, why I never went to see them and what was so special about Brooklyn. I immediately called him and said, “Sorry, I’m afraid you don’t really understand. I have never given up on the Dodgers. They are as vivid to me as they were more than a half-century ago when I last saw them. I just don’t know who these people in Los Angeles are imagining they might be the Dodgers. No chance! And no chance that I will visit Chavez Ravine where the pretenders pretend – even if the peanuts become five- or ten-cents a bag, the way they once were.” I took a breath. “But no, it has nothing to do with the cost of peanuts. It was more as if I once lived just outside of Camelot, and had watched Arthur ride by and had been temporarily blinded by the sun dancing off the hilt of Excalibur.”

Before ending the conversation he tried again, “I still wish you’d go with me to one game. You might really like it.” After putting the phone down I sat back in my chair and thought about what I just said and realized it may have been a little too hyperbolic but, even with that, didn’t come close to expressing all I wanted to tell him. Then I sent my colleague an email message:

Picture this:

  1. A New York borough that, in that era, is itself the third largest city in the United States, a part of the then second largest city in the world (U.S.: New York, Chicago, Brooklyn, LA then was low on the list; world: London, New York, Tokyo).
  2. A New York borough of 3 million that was and is the metaphor for “melting pot” – with every race, religion, creed represented – within the city of more than 7 million that is also a melting pot.
  3. A predominantly liberal Democratic borough made up of immigrants and their children – meaning always looking forward, always willing to change, always hoping for the better, always trying to be fair, always willing to sacrifice for the common good, always grateful for whatever goodness there is in life – with the boroughs of Brooklyn and (booo) the Bronx being the epitome of this tradition and these virtues.
  4. A baseball team with a history for zaniness (three men on one base, two outfielders running into each other, dropping game-losing balls, etc) and a generally disappointing record (‘wait ‘til next year’), with never ever – never ever – winning a World Series.
  5. A team of modest men of heroic proportions – Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo, Duke Snider (if not modest, a heroic figure with a slightly dark side), and others – good people, heroes who lived in the neighborhoods, heroes who took the bus to work at Ebbets Field.
  6. Add Jackie Robinson – a larger than life hero – and with him the Americanization of the great American game and, perhaps, the Americanization of America (and add the time I shook his hand when he visited Walt Whitman Junior High School #246 and add the picture I still have of him at that time).

    Jackie Robinson visits Walt Whitman Junior High School 246, Brooklyn - taken with my Kodak Brownie camera

    Jackie Robinson visits Walt Whitman Junior High School 246, Brooklyn – taken with my Kodak Brownie camera

  7. Add Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Clem Labine (a farm boy name for an intellect and a scholar), Carl Erskine (a softspoken but mighty Indiana boy, a writer of poetry), and others.
  8. Add the cosmic grimmer-than-Shakespeare tragedy of 1951, when the team of decades of incredible losses surpasses all the losses of all time – 13.5 games ahead at summer’s end and then losing game after game until spiraling down into a playoff against the New York Giants, the dreaded and despised enemy from the very same city in which you live (don’t forget, New York had three incredible major league teams in those years: the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees) – and then picture that horrible nightmare 9th inning, two outs, two strikes. Ralph Branca, the boss’s son-in-law (a good pitcher and a good man) on the mound in relief, rested, and that “shot heard ‘round the world” with Bobby Thomson slowly, majestically trotting out his game/season/pennant winning home run. And the awful ‘wait ‘til next year’ once again.
  9. Add being able to take your bike or an electric trolley car and, a few years later, a bus, to see this team anytime they were in town, with an admission price of 25 cents.
  10. Add one of the best designed (albeit much too small and doomed because of that) baseball stadiums ever – and yes, you can even add those five- (or was it ten-?) cent bags of warm, roasted peanuts.
  11. In the last years, add one Sanford Koufax, the beautiful, young, enormously talented, blazingly fast Jewish boy from BROOKLYN – think about that for a while – a star baseball player for the BROOKLYN Dodgers who is not only Jewish but also from Brooklyn!
  12. In the very last years, add ‘the barber,’ Sal Maglie (booo), the enemy pitcher from Coogan’s Bluff (where the Giants played in the Polo Grounds) – and watch him forgiven for his past transgressions and embraced as a true Brooklyn Dodger.
  13. And then, in the glorious year of 1955, add winning the 7-game World Series against the mighty Yankees.

            This is not baseball – this is mythology.

            Now, tell me again, who are these clowns in Chavez Ravine you think I should even consider seeing? And do you understand why that will never, ever happen?

            I do appreciate the many tries, though.

The immediate response: “I’m beginning to understand.”

The next day, I again met my colleague and came back to the topic. “I guess you had to be there to comprehend what it meant to live in, grow up in, the Brooklyn of the 1950’s. Although the post-war years were not easy for my family, with my father never making very much, I am so grateful that we never had enough money to move from Brooklyn to Long Island or to New Jersey or away from Brooklyn. It was a magic place.”

One day, walking through the lobby of my hospital, I saw Don Newcombe sitting in one of the sofas, attaché case open, working on some papers. Newcombe, another titan in stature and bearing, a baseball Hall of Famer from THE Dodgers, long retired from playing, worked for the Los Angeles Dodger organization for almost three decades. He would often come to the medical center to coordinate various events and I had met him a few times.

Don Newcombe, Hall of Fame pitcher and first winner of the Cy Young award

Don Newcombe, Hall of Fame pitcher and first winner of the Cy Young award

I walked over, re-introduced myself, and was invited by “Newk,” as he was known in Brooklyn, to sit. A welcoming wave of his big hand and “why don’t we chat a little?” I told Newk how my friends and I would ride our bicycles to Ebbets Field to see the Dodgers play, never worrying about locking them in those carefree years. Newk, who played with Jackie Robinson, PeeWee Reese, Roy Campanella and all the other heroes of my childhood, was the first great African-American pitcher in major league baseball, winner of the first Cy Young award –  given to the best pitcher in baseball. The many baseball statistics I once knew so well almost came within reach. Actually I was strugging to overcome speechlessness because of the sense of awe and history I had. Newcombe’s quiet strength and grace, characteristics he had always displayed on the ball field, were still obvious. Now in his early eighties, Newk was still fit, the picture of strength. I told him about the 1955 World Series winning team portrait hanging proudly in my office.

When I started to get up to leave Newcombe re-opened the attaché case and pulled out two tickets. “Would you like to see Sunday’s double-header?”

“Thank you so much,” I hesitantly replied, “but, please forgive me for saying no. I have never seen these Dodgers and I don’t think I ever will.”

“You know,” Newk rubbed his chin, quickly slipping the tickets into his pocket as if they were illegal, dangerous, a half-smile on his face and a definite twinkle in his eyes. He stuck out his big hand for me to shake, “there are a lot of folks like you out there.”

I continued on to the library, where I had been heading, now hoping to find someone who would understand that I had just spent twenty minutes with Don Newcombe, looking for someone who could appreciate my excitement.

My wife and I went to see the movie “42,” a wonderful retelling of the Jackie Robinson story, on the first day it was open. I proudly wore my Brooklyn Dodgers jersey and my Brooklyn Dodgers cap, which I’ve had a long time but never wore before. My wife, a native of the upstate village of Nyack, New York, suggested I was slightly deranged but she was warmly supportive.

Getting ready to see the movie "42"

Getting ready to see the movie “42” on April 12, 2013

At the end of “42,” we came out to the lobby of that Los Angeles theater and happened to meet three other similarly garbed grown men; they also did not go to Chavez Ravine.

Additional reading:

Golenbock P. Bums – An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Goodwin DK. Wait Till Next Year – A Memoir. [Doris Kearns Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian]

Kahn R. The Boys of Summer. [If you are going to read only one book to capture THE Dodgers, this is it]

Kahn R. The Era, 1947-1957: When the Yankees, the Giants and the Dodgers Ruled the World.

McGee B. The Greatest Ball Park Ever: Ebbets Field and the Story of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Oliphant T. Praying for Gil Hodges: A Memoir of the 1955 World Series and One Family’s Love of the Brooklyn Dodgers. [When millions of people prayed and churches had services to try and end the long slump of a beloved first baseman – a warm and loving read]

Shapiro M. The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers and Their Final Pennant Season. [About how and why THE Dodgers left Brooklyn]

Willensky E. When Brooklyn Was the World, 1920-1957. [A wonderful telling of Brooklyn in the first half of the 20th century]

11 Responses to “THE Dodgers, once and forever”

  1. Debby Troy Barcan says:

    Hi Stephen!
    The Brooklyn Dodgers are never far from my thoughts. I even wrote an article about them for the Bergen Record our regional newspaper. Since I could walk to Ebbets field, I was often there to see the players leave the clubhouse and get autographs , instead of doing homework. They all walked to the BMT station on Lincoln Road. Only Junior (Jim) Gilliam had a car which he parked in a small lot opposite the ballpark. I have loads of other memories, but have never followed the L.A Dodgers to this day.
    All the best,
    Debby

  2. Harriett Ferziger says:

    And I thought I was the only one. Except for Barbara Kopp Berman.

  3. Venancio says:

    Fantastic, Stephen !

    Soul, soul, soul . That is what we are made of, what worths in life.

    Best regards

    Venancio

  4. john craig says:

    fantastic story. love the photo of the Brooklyn kid. thanks.

  5. Barbara Kopp Berman says:

    Steve,
    Thanks for your wonderful description of the Brooklyn Bums. I attended as many games as I could afford on my 50 cents-a-week allowance. Bleacher seats were fine, but on Ladies Day, my girlfriends and I got to sit in the grandstand. Being so near the field was exciting and we always hoped that we would catch (or grab) a foul ball………never happened!!
    We always brought a brown-bag lunch since all our money had been spent on admission!! I kept score religiously and saved those old score sheets for many years, till they almost disintegrated.
    After the game, we waited for the players to leave, our pencils and scraps of paper ready for prized autographs. Someone suggested giving the players self-addressed postcards so they could sign the cards later, at leisure and mail them back. I did ttat and one of the most exciting days of my young life occurred when I returned from Junior High on a winter day in 1952 and found a postcard from California waiting for me….. signed by Duke Snider!! I still have it, along with two Jackie Robinsons, a Don Newcombe, Johnny Podres and many of the other Boys of Summer.
    When the Dodgers left Brooklyn, after the incredible Series win in ’55, I truly cried. The disillusionment and sense of loss that followed really marked the end of my childhood,
    By then I had started Brooklyn College and was on my way to adulthood……but I never again felt the visceral connection with any outside group/organization/team that had existed between the young girl I was and the no-longer-Brooklyn Dodgers.

    /

  6. Joel Bernstein says:

    My memory is of those wonderful Brooklyn athletes of long ago who were not so full of themselves that they wouldn’t stop and sign autographs for the boys who got to Ebbets Field early and greeted them as they showed up for the game. Those times are sadly gone forever save in the memories of us old timers.

  7. Joan Stevens says:

    The 1st poem I ever wrote was to Gil Hodges. I was about 14 and I left it in his convertible
    Who’s on First
    Who’s on first is an old line
    But I know the one on first
    just happens to be my favorite batter.
    Etc., etc., etc.

  8. Robert "Bobby" Geller says:

    Stephen,I love you and your blog is most wonderful, it does bring back great memories from our youth in Brooklyn!
    BUT, my dear cousin the best thing that ever happened to me, your Aunt and Uncle, and Lynn-Anne was the day we moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in ’52, sadly leaving most of our family and the Dodgers behind. If you remember or maybe not, in ’58 when I was in the Army stationed in the Philippine Islands, I received a most satisfying letter from your Aunt that simply began “Bobby, you better get home safely because our new next door neighbors are Walt and Lela Alston”, yes the same Walt Alston, manager of the DODGERS.
    When I did return in ’60 my Mom and Dad were two of their closest friends(Mom was his Bridge partner, and they even were in a tournament in Las Vegas one year) and you know what else? Never had to buy a ticket to a Dodger game for the next 12 years!! I saw 2 of Sandy Koufax’s no hitter’s, was there the night Tommy Davis broke his ankle sliding into second base, plus multitudes of Playoff and World Series games. All I had to do was go next door or call Lela and she would call the clubhouse and 2 tix were waiting in will call under the name of Geller (Bobby that is), but don’t worry I always thought of you as I bit into one of those scrumptious and juicy grilled “Dodger Dogs” I don’t think they had Dodger Dogs in Brooklyn, of course not, you could only get them in L A, where the Dodgers were..
    Now I understand your pain and commiserate with your outrage at their leaving the frozen tundra of Brooklyn but truth be told this is one Geller who understands the true meaning of being “One of God’s Chosen People”, cause He made me one happy ex-Brooklynite bringing the Dodgers to L A for my pleasure and a decade of great memories. However, He does move in mysterious ways, I had to wait 46 years for a Stanley Cup, guess that’ll teach me not to be so arrogant, but then again it’s too late now, so I’ll just put on my Jackie Robinson shirt and watch the Kings Thursday!
    PS
    Next time I see you remind me to bring a container of dirt that Walt Alston gave me that contains dirt from the in-field of Dodger Stadium when he retired in ’72. I’ll even let you rub a little of the dirt on your Dodger uniform if you like, you might feel some of that L A Dodger energy.
    Don’t be angry with me but I couldn’t help rubbing a little dirt (an intended pun here) in your wound.
    Besides you should be happy for me I’m your older cousin! Remember the Magna Carta 0f 1215, “The King Can Do No Wrong”
    Love you!!!!

    • I can fully appreciate the push-me,pullya aspects of having to mentally retire (forgive split infinitive) my allegiances. Living close to Ebbets field I used to sneak into games frequently (it was sort of safe after the fourth inning) and when I could not be at the game itself, kept careful box scores via radio that I would compare with my friends afterwards.

      I still have my autograph album. Remember giving players self-addressed postcards that ehy would sign and send back to you? But the best, of course, was the real signature on the real page. And the bestest of the best was Jackie Robinson’d when he came to visit us at JHS246. (I also have Eleanor Roosevelt and other miscellaneous folks, but my Dodgers were my joy!)
      I was heartbroken when my Dodgers left Brooklyn for the great beyond (were there Indians? Did life exist west of the Hudson?)

      And then…

      I moved to the west coast! Yikes! My soon-to-be husband was Stanford’s youngest assistant professor and the hated Giants had moved to San Francisco. I think it actually took about 20 years for me to accept them and claim them as my own. Conditionally.

      Is this called “growing up.?”

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