As we pass the Starrett City high rises, a sign announces the intersection of the Belt Parkway and Erskine Street, named for Carl Erskine, noble right-hander of the Boys of Summer whose name is a touchstone for surviving fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The conjunction of the evocative Erskine Street sign and the destination of our trip opens a treasury of memories. They appear in no particular order, related not by time but by content. What are gravesites for, if not memories?
Somewhere, I've heard that just before Erskine's second no-hitter, against the Giants in May 1956, the newspapers published a comment by someone in the Giants' front office who opined that "Oisk," with his arm trouble, couldn't pitch any longer and was serving up "junk" to opposing batters. As soon as the final out had been recorded, Jackie Robinson walked over to the field box occupied by the Giants' brass, removed the offending clipping from his pocket, tossed it into the box, and inquired, "How do you like that junk?" Ah, Jackie! As Leo Durocher pungently observed, "You want a guy that comes to play. This guy doesn't just come to play. He comes to beat you. He comes to stuff the goddamn bat right up your ass."
My father was an avid baseball fan, instilling in me an early love for the game. He took me to my first baseball game in 1947, riding the Kingston Avenue trolley from our home on St. John's Place, in Brooklyn, to Empire Boulevard, where we got off and joined the crowd walking to Ebbets Field. I was seven years old that summer. We sat behind home plate and watched Ralph Branca pitch; at age twenty-one, he went 21-12. Many years later, my son Dan and I attended an old-timers dinner, and afterward, Branca stood with Dan for a photo. I told Branca that he had pitched the first game I had seen. "It seemed to me that your curve ball broke at least a foot," I said. "More," he replied with a smile. The picture of Ralph Branca with Dan resides in the bookcase in my study.
In 2005, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Brooklyn Dodgers' lone World Series victory, Dan and I attended a Brooklyn Cyclones game in Coney Island. Old Dodgers Carl Erskine, Clem Labine, and George Shuba were there signing autographs. Small replicas of the 1955 championship banner were handed out to attendees, and these were autographed in great numbers. The line of fans moved slowly because each had some memory to share or question to ask when it was their turn. I had one for Clem Labine. I recalled the 1951 playoff against the Giants, ended by Bobby Thomson's third-game, ninth-inning home run off Ralph Branca. In the second playoff game, the Dodgers had defeated the Giants io-o behind a complete-game effort by Labine, evening the series at a game apiece. Why, I asked him, with such a big lead, hadn't manager Dressen taken him out, saving him for relief in Game Three? That way, Labine, not Branca, would have been available when Newcombe faltered. Labine looked up at me with an amused smile. "I could have pitched," he said, not missing a beat. And I believed him, too. Years earlier, the Brooklyn Union Gas Company sponsored a Brooklyn Dodgers old-timers event. Dan (then five years old) and I took our camera and trekked into Brooklyn from New Jersey. Clem Labine was pleased to pose with his arm around my son. Alas, the camera's flash failed. I apologized. "That's okay;' Clem said, "take another one I did. This time the flash worked, and the picture of Labine with his arm around Dan partners the photo of Dan and Branca in my study. The miniature 1955 championship banner, signed by Erskine, Labine, and Shuba, is there too, hanging by the treadmill.
George Shuba was a fourth outfielder and frequent lefty pinch hitter for the Dodgers, and I fondly recall one of those pinch hits. In a 1956 promotion, the Dodgers joined with Brooklyn Savings Bank. If you opened an account of sio, you would receive two grandstand-admission tickets to a Dodgers game (at the time, a grandstand ticket cost $1.25). I borrowed $20 from my mother and opened two accounts, using one set of tickets to take my brother, Jerry, to a Dodgers-Giants game. A rabid Giants fan sat behind us and bellowed, "Willie," each time Willie Mays came to bat. The Dodgers led 5-3 late in the game, when Mays hit the longest home run I ever saw at Ebbets Field. It was a rising line drive to straightaway center field that still seemed to be climbing when it landed deep in the upper deck. Now tied at 5-5, the game went into extra innings. In the bottom of the tenth, Shuba entered the game as a pinch hitter with the winning run on second base. He proceeded to stroke a ground ball that eluded the pitcher, the second baseman, and the shortstop as it bounced over second base and into the outfield, driving in the winning run. What illumines this memory is the contrast between Mays's gigantic homer and Shuba's humble roller. Baseball teaches many lessons.
At an old-timers dinner, Dan and I sat with Joe Pignatano, the former Dodgers bullpen catcher. I asked Joe what he did to while away the long hours in the right-field corner at Ebbets Field. "I used to do double acrostics," he replied. Somehow that did not jibe with silly preconceptions about bullpen catchers, but then I should have known from the legend of backup catcher Moe Berg never to underrate the proclivities of receivers. Berg, who had a BA from Princeton and an LLB from Columbia Law School, was fluent in seven languages, although the old joke had it that he couldn't hit in any of them.
On another occasion, Joe Black was seated at our table. Black was the first African American pitcher to win a World Series game, besting the Yankees and Allie Reynolds 4-2 in the opening game in 1952. That year, Black had gone 15-4 with 15 saves, helped Brooklyn win the pennant, and was named NL Rookie of the Year. He had a fastball and a nickel curve that he effectively mixed to baffle batters in 1952; but in 1953, manager Chuck Dressen decided that he needed another pitch. Ultimately, Black told us, his mechanics became so confused that he forgot how to throw his curve, and his effectiveness ebbed. Then he held out his right hand in the shape of a curve ball grip. I can still see the strong black hand that saved a pennant for Brooklyn in one shining year of relief.
The previous June, the Dodgers had sent Bruce Edwards, Joe Hatten, Gene Hermanslci, and Eddie Miksis to the Cubs in return for Andy Paflco, Rube Walker, Johnny Schmitz, and Wayne Terwilliger. Edwards, Hatten, Hermanski, and Miksis had played important roles for the postwar Dodgers as, respectively, catcher, lefty starter, fourth outfielder, and utility infielder. They helped bring pennants to Brooklyn in 1947 and 1949, but a sore arm and the emergence of Roy Campanella as the Dodgers' starting catcher had made Edwards expendable. Hatten's effectiveness had faded after 1949, and Hermanski and Miksis were bench players. In return, the Dodgers received a power-hitting starting left fielder in Paflco and a serviceable backup catcher in Walker. Early on the morning of June 16, I asked my father what he thought of the trade. We agreed that in obtaining Palko, Dodgers president Branch Rickey had engineered another outstanding coup; a power-hitting left fielder was the final piece of their offensive puzzle. Eight hours later, my father was dead from a massive stroke. I was eleven years old, and that was the last baseball conversation we had. It had been only four years from the first game he took me to until his sudden death.
Because my mother thought I was too young to attend the burial after the funeral, neighbors took me for a long drive. To distract me, they had the Dodgers' game on the car radio. We were losing 2-1 to the Chicago Cubs in the ninth when Roy Campanella came to bat with one man on. I prayed the prayer of an eleven-year-old: if my dad is in heaven, God, let Campy hit one. And he did. The Dodgers won that game 3-2, June 17, 1951. My love of baseball and its history has continued for more than sixty years, though that memory never diminishes; and Dan carries on the lineage of the grandfather he never knew.
My mother remarried in September 1955, and Jerry arrived just in time for the World Series, the only time the Brooklyn Dodgers ever beat the Yankees in the autumn rite. Together, we squinted through the last few innings of the seventh game on a fourteen-inch TV screen. When Johnny Podres finished his 2-0 masterpiece, we ran out into the street to celebrate. Autos drove down St. Johns Place with horns blaring; one car, with trash can lids tethered to its rear bumper, made a clattering, clashing racket as it careened down the street. Passersby stopped to congratulate strangers. Years of frustration dissolved in washes of goodwill.
At last, we stand in front of my father's headstone. I recall Rilke's conclusion to the final poem of the Duino Elegies: "And we, who think of happiness ascending, feel the emotion that almost startles, when happiness falls." Like the arc of our lives. Like a high fly ball. We recite the Mourners' Kaddish, which says not a word about the dead but praises God in the most ecstatic of terms, over and over again: "Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, blessed is He, beyond any blessing and song, praise and consolation, that are uttered in the world. And let us say: Amen."
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|Author:||Moss, Robert A.|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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