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Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016

September With dem Bums (Part Two)

Sunday, October 1, 2006

One of the main reasons my father, a naturally bookish man who hated the prospect of a TV wrecking conversation in our house, allowed his family to buy a TV set in the early1950s was so my mother and I, in the baseball season, could watch Uncle Branch Rickey's Dodgers play in Ebbets Field.

True, the televised games were pretty primitive stuff. The only picture you got was from the single camera set up behind and above home plate.

So, when he was up, you could study the backside of first baseman Gil Hodges twitching his derriere, and adjusting his blue cap, with its capital B, as he stood at home plate, judging the ball being thrown to him by the indomitable Whitey Ford. But that was about all. None of the multiple, intricate camera shots you get today. But that was enough for me. It sure beat listening to the game while I was hunched over the little purple portable radio on the kitchen counter.

So, here we were, three rows back, over the Dodger dugout, and the 1955 Brooklyn team, their physiques and faces, as they individually emerged from the dugout to take their place at the plate, looked more familiar to me than those of my next door neighbors. How well I knew their faces from their color photographs on Topps baseball cards, which I collected; and from their physical movement --or at least the movement of their back sides -- as they appeared on our small black-and-white Dumont TV. There was Duke Snider, power hitter and center fielder; Elwin Roe, nicknamed "Preacher," who hid a wicked spit ball and won most of the games he pitched in relief; and Billy Cox, a nimble third baseman.

In the stands that first day of the 1955 series, I'd noticed a lot more Brooklyn pennants than Yankee pennants, and that, I later learned, was because the novelty of a black player in the major leagues hadn't yet worn off, even after eight years. In Ken Burns's nine-part TV history of the national game (one part for each inning), Burns made the integration of baseball, in the seventh part, the moral core of his whole epic. At the game my mother and I were attending, there were a few black players -- Don Newcome, Roy Campanella., and Joe Black.

But for the blacks in the Ebbets field stands, there was really only one. The one they'd all come to see and cheer for -- Jack Roosevelt Robinson -- was not only a great hitter and fielder; he was, in his prime, a lightning base runner. And, as Uncle Branch had taught him, he was also a top-notch diplomat, practiced in defusing any incipient ruckus that might have broken out when Jackie slid into second base or, less frequently but more dramatically, into home plate, or when he himself tagged a base runner out. The roar that went up from the crowd when Jackie performed some nifty feat made our wood seats vibrate. In his early days with Brooklyn, his wife Rachel later told writers, opposing hitters sliding into second with cleats held high to take out her husband, tested her husband's promise to Rickey to keep his temper under strict control. He kept his promise, but in doing so he probably ruined his health.

Robinson had broken into major league baseball as a Dodger in 1947. He was the first black, but, while Rickey could control the words and behavior of his own Brooklyn Dodgers, he couldn't control the words and behavior of the other national league teams. Or of the fans in the seats of the other national league stadiums. In the Sept. 26 Nevada paper, Kelly Bradham, shown wearing what looks to be a Brooklyn Dodger cap, writes very memorably of "one of [his] favorite people," Rocky Colavito, "he of the howitzer arm." Each of my friends also had a particular player he identified with. Neddy Bellamy, for example, worshipped Eddie Matthews of the Milwaukee Braves. Kevin Hunt, a lukewarm Yankee fan, followed Phil Rizzuto, their crackerjack shortstop. There was no rhyme nor reason behind these loyalties, but kids need heroes. So, for some reason, I chose to root for Carl Furillo, the Dodger right fielder. Only after I read the World Series booklet that my mother bought me for 50 cents did I learn that Furillo was brought up in Reading, Pa. As a Dodger, he had learned to play Brooklyn's intricate, not to say cockeyed, right field wall and send the ball, like a veritable howitzer, whistling back into the infield, thereby becoming known as the "Reading Rifle." (I insisted on pronouncing this "Reeding Rifle," until my mother corrected my pronunciation. To me, it made no sense; how could a rifle be taught to read, anyway? Isn't it funny what silly mistakes you make as a 9-year-old child , then remember for the rest of your life?) Harold ("Pee Wee") Reese, the Dodgers‚ great shortstop, was the Brooklyn captain at the time Robinson came up, and therefore it was up to him, whose upbringing was very firmly southern, to smooth things out between the black man and his all-white team, and between the black man and the Dodger fans, who weren't accustomed at the time to seeing black professional baseball players. By the 1955 World Series, the acrimony against Jackie had pretty well died away, but the stories of the man's staunch behavior, his refusal to buckle under the repeated verbal assaults, his promise to Rickey to "turn the other cheek," thrilled me and repeatedly brought tears to my young but already firmly liberal eyes.

When, thanks in part to the ultimate acceptance of Jackie Robinson and the coming up of other black players, not only on the Dodgers, but on other major league teams as well (there was a black guy named Mays, if I'm not mistaken), baseball finally became "the national game," I felt as if the whole racial episode had taught me something about racism and about the ultimate fairness of my country.

My mother, who didn't ordinarily talk with me about moral issues, and who had been brought up in the modestly racist atmosphere of southern Ohio, made an exception for Jackie Robinson. Maybe that was because Uncle Branch, a devout Methodist. (There's now a Branch Rickey athletic center on the campus of Ohio Wesleyan University, which both Branch and both my parents attended) and almost a member of our family, had made a firm stand on the issue of race, and that was good enough for her.

When the complete history of 20th-century American baseball is written, I'm sure the Brooklyn Dodgers will be ranked first -- not because they won the most individual games, national league pennants, or World Series. They did none of these. No, it had nothing to do with statistics. It will be because, in the late 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s, they played baseball as the exciting and glorious game dreamers had visualized it, and in the process changed for the better the way Americans saw their country.