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Authors: Roger Kahn

The Boys of Summer

BOOK: The Boys of Summer
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The Boys
of Summer

ROGER KAHN

In Memoriam
G.J. K., 1901–1953

I see the boys of summer in their ruin
Lay the gold tithings barren,
Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils.

D
YLAN
T
HOMAS

LINES ON THE TRANSPONTINE MADNESS

At a point in life when one is through with boyhood, but has not yet discovered how to be a man, it was my fortune to travel with the most marvelously appealing of teams. During the early 1950s the Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers were outspoken, opinionated, bigoted, tolerant, black, white, open, passionate: in short, a fascinating mix of vigorous men. They were not, however, the most successful team in baseball.

During four consecutive years they entered autumn full of hope and found catastrophe. Twice they lost pennants in the concluding inning of the concluding game of a season. Twice they won pennants and lost the World Series to the New York Yankees. These narrow setbacks did not proceed, as some suggested, from failings of courage or of character. The Dodgers were simply unfortunate—it is dreamstuff that luck plays everyone the same—and, not to become obsessively technical, they lacked the kind of pitching that makes victory sure. In the next decade, a weaker Dodger team, rallying around Sandy Koufax, won the World Series twice.

But I mean to be less concerned with curve balls than with the lure of the team. Ebbets Field was a narrow cockpit, built of brick and iron and concrete, alongside a steep cobblestone slope of Bedford Avenue. Two tiers of grandstand pressed the playing area from three sides, and in thousands of seats fans could hear a ball player’s chatter, notice details of a ball player’s gait and, at a time when television had not yet assaulted illusion with the Zoomar lens, you could see, you could actually see, the actual expression on the actual face of an actual major leaguer as he played.
You could know what he was like!

“I start in toward the bench, holding the ball now with the five fingers of my bare left hand, and when I get to the infield—having come down hard with one foot on the bag at second base—I shoot it, with just a flick of the wrist, gently at the opposing team’s shortstop as he comes trotting out onto the field, and without breaking stride, go loping in all the way, shoulders shifting, head hanging, a touch pigeon-toed, my knees coming slowly up and down in an altogether brilliant imitation of The Duke.” Philip Roth as Alexander Portnoy as Duke Snider. In the intimacy of Ebbets Field it was a short trip from the grandstand to the fantasy that you were in the game.

My years with the Dodgers were 1952 and 1953, two seasons in which they lost the World Series to the Yankees. You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thought, and who, if he is a hero, does nothing in life as becomingly as leaving it. A whole country was stirred by the high deeds and thwarted longings of The Duke, Preacher, Pee Wee, Skoonj and the rest. The team was awesomely good and yet defeated. Their skills lifted everyman’s spirit and their defeat joined them with everyman’s existence, a national team, with a country in thrall, irresistible and unable to beat the Yankees.

“Baseball writers develop a great attachment for the Brooklyn club if long exposed,” Stanley Woodward, an extraordinary sports editor, complained in 1949.

This was so in the days of Uncle Wilbert Robinson [1920] and it is so now. We found it advisable [on the New York
Herald Tribune]
to shift Brooklyn writers frequently. If we hadn’t, we would have had on our hands a member of the Brooklyn baseball club, rather than a newspaper reporter. The transpontine madness seems to affect all baseball writers, no matter how sensible they outwardly seem. You must watch a Brooklyn writer for symptoms and, before they become virulent, shift him to the Yankees or to tennis or golf.

By the time Woodward was writing, the concept of the Dodgers as appealing incompetents—“Dem Bums” in a persistent poor joke—was dying. Research suggests that when they were incompetent, the Dodgers appealed as a conversation piece, but not as an entertainment. I remember a succession of mots about a shortstop named Lonny Frey,
fl. c.
1935, who made more than fifty errors in one season. People said, “There’s an infielder with only one weakness. Batted balls.” Everyone laughed, but few chose to pay to see Frey fumble. Attendance was so poor that by the late 1930s the Dodgers, “a chronic second division team,” to quote the sportswriters, had passed from family ownership to the Brooklyn Trust Company. It took a succession of winning teams, with dependable shortstops named Durocher and Reese, to rescue the franchise from receivership.

Accents echo in the phrase “Brooklyn Dodgers.” The words strike each other pleasantly, if not poetically, suggesting a good-humored bumping about. You get an altogether different sense from other nicknames. The Brooklyn Astros would skate in the Roller Derby. The Brooklyn Tigers would play football in a stony sandlot. The Brooklyn Braves would be an all-black schoolyard basketball team in 1945. The Brooklyn Yankees will not penetrate the consciousness. It is an antiphrase, like the Roman Greeks.

As far as anyone knows, the nickname proceeded from benign absurdity. Brooklyn, being flat, extensive and populous, was an early stronghold of the trolley car. Enter absurdity. To survive in Brooklyn one had to be a dodger of trolleys. After several unfortunate experiments in nomenclature, the Brooklyn National League Baseball Team became the Dodgers during the 1920s, and the nickname endured after polluting buses had come and the last Brooklyn trolley had been shipped from Vanderbilt Avenue to Karachi.

Brooklyn is not an inherently funny word, although the old Brooklyn accent, in which one pronounced “oil” as “earl” and “earl” as “oil,” was amusing. The native ground might be enunciated “Bvooklyn” and “thirty” was a phonetist’s Armageddon. It could be “tirdy,” “toidy,” “dirty,” “doity,” “tirty,” “toity,” “dirdy” or “doidy.” But dialect, all dialect, Brooklyn, Boston, German, Jewish, British, Russian, Italian dialect, is the stuff of easy rough humor. Have you ever heard a Georgia belle insert four question marks into a declarative paragraph? “Ah went to Rollins? That’s in Florida? South of heah? An’ real pretty?” When a Georgia girl says
no,
she asks a question.

The lingering sense of Brooklyn as a land of boundless mirth with baseball obbligato was the creation of certain screen writers and comedians. Working for a living, they synthesized
that
Brooklyn. In one old patriotic movie, Bing Crosby defends the American flag against a cynic by asking others “to say what Old Glory stands for.” A Southerner talks of red clay and pine trees. A Westerner describes sunset in the Rocky Mountains. But it is a Brooklynite who carries the back lot at Paramount Pictures. His speech begins with the apothegm, “Hey, Mac. Ever see steam comin’ out a sewer in Flatbush?” As if that were not enough, can anyone forget William Bendix dying happy in a mangrove swamp? Just before a Japanese machine gunner cut him in two, Bendix had heard by shortwave that the Dodgers scored four in the ninth.
Requiescat in pace.
Winning pitcher: Gregg (7 and 5).

The Brooklyn of reality, where one Harold Dana Gregg pitched inconsistently for five seasons, suffered a wartime disaffection from baseball. Selective Service hit the Dodgers particularly hard and the 1944 team finished seventh. At about the time screenwriters were conceiving other, yet more heroic deaths for Baseball Bill Bendix, genuine Dodger fans sang parodies of the soldier’s song, “Bless ‘Em All.” In Brooklyn, the words went, “Lose ‘em all.” That was the darkness before the sunburst of peace and the great Jackie Robinson team.

After World War II, Brooklyn, like most urban settlements, began a struggle to adjust which presently turned and became a struggle to survive. Brooklyn had been a heterogeneous, dominantly middle-class community, with remarkable schools, good libraries and not only major league baseball, but extensive concert series, second-run movie houses, expensive neighborhoods and a lovely rolling stretch of acreage called Prospect Park. For all the outsiders’ jokes, middle-brow Brooklyn was reasonably sure of its cosmic place, and safe.

Then, with postwar prosperity came new highways and the conqueror automobile. Families whose wanderings had not extended beyond the route of the New Lots Avenue subway at last were able to liberate themselves. For $300 down one could buy a Ford, a Studebaker or a Kaiser, after which one could drive anywhere. California. Canada.
Anywhere.
Whole families left their blocks for outings. California was a little far and Canada was said to be cold, but there was Jones Beach on the south shore to the east and Kiamesha Lake in the Catskill Mountains to the northwest. Soon families began to leave their blocks for good. They had been overwhelmed by the appeal of a split-level house (nothing down to qualified Vets) on a treeless sixty-by-ninety foot corner of an old Long Island potato farm. What did it matter about no trees? A tree could always come later, like a television.

Exodus worked on the ethnic patterns and economic structure and so at the very nature of Brooklyn. As old families, mostly white, moved out, new groups, many black and Puerto Rican, moved in. The flux terrified people on both sides. Could Brooklyn continue as a suitable place for the middle class to live? That was what the Irish, Italian and Jewish families asked themselves. Are we doomed? wondered blacks, up from Carolina dirt farms and shacks in the West Indies. Was black life always to be poverty, degradation, rotgut? The answers, like the American urb itself, are still in doubt.

Against this uncertain backdrop, the dominant truth of the Jackie Robinson Dodgers was integration. They were the first integrated major league baseball team and so the most consciously integrated team and, perhaps, the most intensely integrated team. All of them, black and white, became targets for the intolerance in which baseball has been rich.

As many ball players, officials, umpires and journalists envisioned it, the entity of baseball rose in alabaster, a temple of white supremacy. To them, the Robinson presence was a defilement and the whites who consented to play at his side were whores. Opposing pitchers forever threw fast balls at Dodger heads. Opposing bench jockeys forever shouted “black bastard,” “nigger lover” and “monkey-fucker.” Hate was always threatening the team. But the Dodgers, the dozen or so athletes who were at the core of the team, and are at the core of this book, stood together in purpose and for the most part in camaraderie. They respected one another as competitors and they knew that they were set apart. No one prattled about team spirit. No one made speeches on the Rights of Man. No one sang “Let My People Go.” But without pretense or visible fear these men marched unevenly against the sin of bigotry.

That spirit leaped from the field into the surrounding two-tiered grandstand. A man felt it; it became part of him, quite painlessly. You rooted for the team, didn’t you? You’d rooted for the team all your life. All right. They got this black guy now, and he can run and he can bunt, but can he hit?

Below, Robinson lines a double into the left-field corner. He steals third. He scores on a short passed ball, sliding clear around the catcher, Del Rice.

The stands erupt. The Dodgers win. We beat the
Cardinals.
That colored guy’s got
balls,
I tell you that.

By applauding Robinson, a man did not feel that he was taking a stand on school integration, or on open housing. But for an instant he had accepted Robinson simply as a hometown ball player. To disregard color, even for an instant, is to step away from the old prejudices, the old hatred. That is not a path on which many double back.

The struggle seems modest now. What, after all, did Robinson ask? At first, a chance to play. Then the right to sleep in a good hotel and to eat in a clean dining room. Later to fight with umpires and dispute the press. But each step drew great whoops of protest. The Robinson experience developed as an epic and now, not only a national team, the Dodgers were a national issue. Everywhere, in New England drawing rooms and on porches in the South, in California, which had no major league baseball teams and in New York City, which had three, men and women talked about the Jackie Robinson Dodgers, and as they talked they confronted themselves and American racism. That confrontation was, I believe, as important as
Brown
vs.
Board of Education of Topeka,
in creating the racially troubled hopeful present.

One did not go to Ebbets Field for sociology. Exciting baseball was the attraction, and a wonder of the sociological Dodgers was the excitement of their play. It is not simply that they won frequently, brawled with umpires, got into bean-ball fights and endlessly thrashed in the headwaters of a pennant race. The team possessed an astonishing variety of eclectic skills.

One never knew when a powerful visiting batter, “one o’ them big, hairy-assed bastards” in manager Charlie Dressen’s fond phrase, would drive a terrific smash up the third-base line. There, squinting in a crouch, Billy Cox, a wiry, horse-faced man with little blacksmith’s arms, waited to spring. He subdued hard grounders by slapping his glove downward and imprisoning the ball between glove and earth. The glove was small and black and ancient. Someone accused Cox of having purchased it during a drugstore closeout. With the Whelan glove, Cox was a phenomenon.

Drives to right field activated stolid Carl Furillo. A powerful monolithic man, Furillo possessed an astonishing throwing arm and a prescient sense of how a ball would carom off the barrier. The grandstands did not extend behind right field. Between the outfield and the sidewalk of Bedford Avenue, a cement wall rose sloping outward. It straightened at about ten feet and then fifteen feet higher gave way to a stiff screen of wire-mesh. In straightaway right a scoreboard jutted, offering another surface and describing new angles. Furillo reigned here with an arm that, in Bugs Baer’s phrase, could have thrown a lamb chop past a wolf.

Center field belonged to Snider, rangy and gifted and supple. Duke could get his glove thirteen feet into the air. The centerfield wall was cushioned with foam rubber, and Snider, in pursuit of high drives, ran at the wall, dug a spiked shoe into the rubber and hurled his body upward. Pictures of him in low orbit survive.

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