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September with dem Bums

Sunday, September 24, 2006

"Could I please have your autograph, Mr. Impellitteri?" "Sure, kid!" the swarthy and impeccably dressed man in the seat in front of mine, turned around and croaked pleasantly, as he smilingly accepted my new, blank red-and -black autograph book and dark green Waterman fountain pen. "What's your name, kid?"

After I told him it was simply "Chuck," he asked me a question I'd never been asked before, in my exclusively Anglo-Saxon Westchester home -- How'd ya spell that, Chuck?"

As he labored over my autograph book, I looked around me at the stands, packed to capacity with hot but happy and noisy baseball fans, most men dressed in suits, or at least in wool pants and white shirts; most females in dresses, as was the custom back in 1955, even in 102-degree weather. They were of all ages and colors, although to me, at the innocent age of nine, there seemed to be a disproportionate number of black people.

"Mom," I poked my mother softly in the ribs, because there was nothing else to occupy my time until the game began. With an enquiring look on my face, I pointed to the man, sitting in front of me, who was now smoking a fresh cigar he'd just plucked from his jacket pocket and lighted with a shiny silver Zippo lighter, before resuming his conversation with a lovely young blond woman seated beside him. I assumed a puzzled expression.

"Mayor Impellitteri, Son, Mayor of New York City."

Since the name meant nothing to me, I began counting the pennants being waved or just held by the fans here in Ebbets Field, in Brooklyn. A few said "NY Yankees," but a lot more, including my own mother's, said "Brooklyn Dodgers."

Thanks to my mother's roommate Diane Moulton, and her uncle Branch Rickey, we had third-row seats right over the Dodger dugout. Shortly after I thought of it, I borrowed her pennant and began waving it vigorously, spastically, as if the outcome of the game might depend on it.

The dapper and profusely sweating old man, dressed in a light blue seersucker suit, on the seat to my right tapped me on the right wrist and said politely, but firmly, "Would you please wave that pennant a little less wildly, son, so it won't hit me in the glasses?"

I pardoned myself with genuine conviction. Holy cow, I might have blinded him! And then would my mother be in deep trouble! And there would go my dollar-a-week allowance!

Suddenly, as if on cue, the crowd noise hushed. After the usual World Series opening ceremonies, the game began, amid a great roar of delirious human voices which brought a bewildering lump to my throat. It was 1:30 p.m., the opening game of the 1955 World Series, between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first game of another baseball "Subway Series," between these two larger-than-life clubs: the one the very embodiment of professional sport, the symbol of New York's place as the power capital of the world, the tall and pin-striped gods of the diamond; the other the scrappy but never triumphant heart-breakers of Brooklyn. The cartoonist Willard Mullins, of the New York World Telegram, pictured the Dodger as an unwashed, unshaved, and generally hapless, cigar-chomping bum carrying his tawdry extra clothes in a bundle over his shoulder. And that picture, I was afraid, had emblazoned itself on the minds of countless New Yorkers, of which, I'm afraid, I was one.

But here, at 1:30 p.m., of a weekday, in Ebbets Field, I felt I was in an enchanted place. The Flatbush section of Brooklyn was not among the most prosperous of places. It seemed to me, in fact, hopelessly noisy, congested with braying traffic, and infernally dirty, as if you wouldn't dare wear anything white there, even if you didn't touch or rub up against anything. I could understand why, late in the 19th century, the term "dodgers" had come from what Brooklyn baseball fans had to be to avoid being run over by the trains and trolley cars that sped by the front of the stadium on their way elsewhere. Some time in the last hundred years, all Brooklyn turned from a pastoral New York suburb into the very caricature of a modern city that might have been put on luminous black-and-white film by Chaplin.

Curious and with plenty of time to spare, I asked my mother if I could explore the stadium. With no fear of what might happen to her son on his exploratory expedition, she agreed, knowing that I'd changed my underwear before I arrived, in case a doctor should need to be called in; and that I knew our home address and telephone number by heart. And so I embarked on an exciting trip around the insides of Ebbets Field, hoping I'd somehow run into Whitey Ford or Don Newcome, today's starting pitchers, maybe standing at a hotdog stand or sitting in a men's room. I had my red-and-black autograph book and dark green Waterman fountain pen in my pocket.

But here, I thought, was the amazing thing: once you passed through the front gate of Ebbets Field, you ceased to notice the grime and goo on the rails, the crumpled newspapers and grease-stained paper bags blowing along the concrete floor, the stench from the bathrooms, the raucous and discordant yelling of the hot dog, popcorn and cold beer sellers calling shrilly and indefatigably from their stalls, or parading the rows between the seated patrons. No, once you reached the top of the enclosed concrete hallway and emerged into the flashing sunlight to look out and down, you were suddenly surrounded by an impossibly bright and meticulously cared-for green field of uncertain dimensions, that took your breath away, all under a temperate, cloudless dome of blue sky. Out in the field, a few brightly uniformed players were languidly tossing baseballs to each other, while, at home plate, another player was batting a series of balls, in turn, to each of the players spread out in the field, producing, in the distance, a gentle, delicate sound of tick, click, tick.

Once again, the same lump rose in my throat. I decided I'd better get back to my seat over the Dodger dugout. I'd wanted to be there in case a player fouled a catchable ball my way.

(End of Part 1)