the National pastime

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Item: I have just finished my Zoom presentation about Mississippi and the Civil Rights Movement to the LA classroom I visit weekly. Alex, their teacher, has opened the chat for any additional questions or comments. “Do you root for the Dodgers?” inquires one student. For the many of you who are not baseball fans, The LA Dodgers were last year’s World Series champions. They operate with one of the highest budgets of any major league team, enabling them to vacuum up an impressive collection of baseball talent.

This young questioner has no idea of the depth of the psychic wound he has re-opened. Before they moved to LA in 1957-8, the Brooklyn Dodgers were the epicenter of my life. Beginning when I was about 7 in 1946, my happiness at any given moment was largely determined by the Dodgers’ success on the field that day. My parents were concerned, and rightly so, that I spent all my summer days inside, glued to the radio, mesmerized by the voice of the team’s long-time announcer, Red Barber and his exotically non-Brooklyn accent. All games were day games then, not just in Chicago which held out the longest against lights, but across all the teams in both leagues. My mother’s repeated exhortation to go out and “mingle with people” failed to move me, driving my parents’ all-time wisest decision. They bought me a portable radio, a big brown affair on a scale approaching today’s boom boxes, or at least so it seemed to this young boy.

So there I sat on the bench in front of our house, shaded by the large trees that lined the block – I think they were sycamores – following the pursuits of my beloved Dodgers, which grew more and more exciting with the arrival of Jackie Robinson in 1947. More on that shortly. There were several World Series years, repeatedly thwarted by their perennial enemies the Yankees who had won so many World Series that I wished they could have the decency to leave one small crumb of victory for my guys.

That didn’t happen till the joyous year of 1955. I’ve written elsewhere of viewing a documentary re-creation of that World Series year long after my obsession with the Dodgers had faded. As I watched the final pitch and the surge of players onto the field to celebrate in the traditional pig pile, I burst into tears, releasing all the years of frustration and failure that had marked my childhood.

That happiness was short-lived. In 1957 Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers’ owner, finally gave up on his appeals to the city to allow him to build a new ballpark in Queens where an increasingly car-oriented fan base could drive and park, rather than ride the subway to the space-impacted Ebbets Field. There were later reports suggesting that O’Malley was not entirely at fault because his plans to keep the team in New York were blocked by Robert Moses, the all-powerful city planning czar. Nonetheless, he was now the most hated man in Brooklyn, which gave rise to the following joke:

               If you had Hitler, Stalin and O’Malley imprisoned in a dungeon and you had a gun with only two bullets, who would you shoot?

               Answer: Walter O’Malley TWICE!

So, this young middle schooler in LA had inherited my passion for the Dodgers, completely innocent of the fact that his joy was built on the ruins of my devastating loss.

Item: A second student follows with a second question that is at least a teeny bit closer to the ostensible reason for my visit to his classroom to discuss the history of the Civil Rights movement. Did you ever, he asks, see Jackie Robinson play?

A resounding yes to that question. I would have loved to tell him the full story behind that yes. Even before television, my friends and I would board the train for the relatively short ride to the Franklin Avenue station. It was a time when parents thought nothing of allowing their young children to ride the subway unaccompanied. From there it was a long walk down the hill to the ballpark we thought would be there forever, but which was destined to disappear a little more than a decade later to be replaced by a complex of nondescript apartment buildings which shamelessly bore the name of Ebbets Field in their title. After climbing the dark and chilly ramps that wound their way up from ground level to the cheap seats, you suddenly broke out into the dazzling sunlight illuminating the intense green of the playing field and impossibly pure white of the Dodgers’ home uniforms.

When the visitors batted to open the game, Jackie would be patrolling his territory around second base, and when the Dodgers batted in the bottom half he would be running the bases with a fearless abandon that energized the entire batting order and set the crowd to shrieking in adulation. He had an unmistakable pigeon-toed walk that somehow managed to enhance his speed. We longed for him to make it to third base where he could position himself for one of his trademarked attempts to steal home, a feat few runners dared and even fewer succeeded as often as Jackie. Many have seen these exploits on film but witnessing them live in the ballpark was a religious experience.

Before long Robinson was joined by two other all-star caliber Black teammates who also captured the fans’ respect – Don Newcombe, an imposing fastball pitcher whom batters feared to face, and Roy Campanella, his battery mate behind the plate, whose round body looked distinctly unathletic. That girth provided the leverage for driving the ball great distances. I especially looked forward to seeing them and their teammates at the occasional Sunday doubleheader where an insatiable fan like me got to see 18 innings of baseball for the price of 9. Rapacious owners put an end to that tradition when they invented the day/night doubleheader for which they could charge twice.

And it was all over so quickly. Robinson’s career lasted only 9 years. He retired in 1956 before the move to LA, so in my mind he remained the exclusive property of his Brooklyn fans. We didn’t have to share him with those upstart LA followers.

[Note: Every year on April 15th all major league teams celebrate Jackie Robinson Day to commemorate the anniversary of his debut with the Dodgers. On that day every player wears a uniform with his #42 on the back.]

Item: My visiting daughter is observing my newspaper reading habits. Do you always read the sports section first? she asks.  Yes, that’s been my practice ever since those early Dodger days. And I can provide you with a list of poets, novelists and public intellectuals who do the same. The rivalries and competition add drama to lives that are typically undramatic. Being on top of the sports news provides a bridge to people of other classes and colors, something to talk about in those awkward moments waiting in line at the supermarket or other public space. I am very aware that in the grand scheme of things, these interests are trivial and inconsequential, particularly to those distinctly uninterested in entering the magic circle. But these days in particular, starting off with a look at the box scores and the standings fortifies me before I turn back to the front page to confront the latest atrocities of the “real” world.

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Marv Hoffman

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