For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites

A Brooklyn Dodger Fan


by Ken Thompson

I

don't know how it was in your neighborhood, up ‘til the Dodgers fled west, but I can make a pretty good guess -- just about everyone rooted for their Brooklyn Dodgers. Some kids may've rooted for the Yankees and even fewer for the Giants but they did this at risk of life and limb. REAL Brooklyn people rooted for their Brooklyn Dodgers.

A true Dodger fan did more than simply root for them. A true Dodger fan was an ardent and enthusiastic devotee of the team; not just of baseball but of the only major league professional baseball team ever to be named after something other than a city or state. To be a Brooklyn Dodger's fan meant you knew up-to-the-minute stats on every player on the team. It also meant you knew what the local sports writers were saying about the first "America's Team". Sure some of these hacks would bad mouth the Dodgers or even write about New York's other baseball teams but that was only because their newspapers had to kowtow to the provinces of the city to sell papers.

My neighborhood had a number of true fans but paramount among all of them was Solly.

We believed he was without equal. He could not be stumped by the little-known-facts on the team. Solly wasn't particularly articulate or analytical but he knew his Brooklyn Dodgers stuff and if you gave him a chance to speak, he would give you the details. The downside to this is that he could also drive you crazy. As an example… a car would drive by; Solly would look at the license and see the last two digits as "05". Solly would announce, out of the blue and to no one in particular, "Number 5 … Wayne Belardi, first base, plays behind Gil Hodges, bats and throws lefty, … 1953 batted .239 with 163 at bats … from California." Sure it seems cute but after awhile it can really get on your nerves. Some of the older boys would "argue" and gang up on Solly with fake stats but Solly, after he caught on, would give a wry smile and say, "Ooh, ooh, ooh, you' kiddin' wid me."

Solly was about six years older than me and already finished with school. He lived with constantly fighting parents in a second floor apartment. He had a small job as a delivery boy for a dry-cleaner. If he wasn't working, he was either doing Brooklyn Dodger fan stuff or waiting for a stickball game. To help his chances of getting picked into a game, he carried around a Spaldeen and always knew where to swipe a mop to turn into a stickball bat.

He wasn't the best stickball player but he was fearless in going for the ball. He would often get picked to simply even out the sides. A by-product of having Solly in or at the game was that you would get a complete play-by-play. Again, something that wears itself out quickly.

We knew that Solly was a little different but we also knew some people were that way. It was okay. Solly didn't get into trouble, didn't hurt anyone, and was, what we would call now, "special".

I knew of Solly but Solly only knew me as one of the younger kids to be picked about eighth into a stickball game and to NEVER get picked into a money game. I may have rooted for the Dodgers but in no way was I a fan at anything approaching the "Solly level".

The other piece of this story involves my Dad.

My Dad was older than most Dads when I was born. Shortly after my arrival, he was drafted into the Army, shipped to France, captured in battle, and made a POW in Stalag 7A. After the war when he returned home he went back to his life but there were after-effects. My Dad worked hard and took care of the family's needs but wasn't at all like the popular image of a warm and caring Dad playing with his children. Maybe it was that he was older, maybe the war, and maybe he missed bonding or, more likely, it was the style of the day in Brooklyn.

My Dad also wasn't a patient man, particularly when shopping for his "slightly stout", twelve year-old son, so if it was time to shop for clothing we would subway to Fulton Street, walk to Albee Square and go to Browning-King & Co. where he had a charge account. On the second floor, they catered to young men of my particular stature. He paid a slight premium for the service but they took care of him and called him by name. He liked the attention.

In the spring of 1954, he got a letter from Browning-King telling him that they were sponsoring a Father-Son game at Ebbets Field on Tuesday, July 27, against Chicago and that he could reserve seats by calling the store and letting them know. When he told me about it I became very excited. I had never been to a Brooklyn Dodger game or any professional baseball game. He said he would arrange for tickets.

About a week before the big event I asked my Dad if he had received the tickets for the Dodger game. At first he just looked at me, searching for the right words. After a long pause, words finally came out, "They came last week, two tickets on the first base side. Good seats. They also sent a Browning-King shirt for you to wear. You'll enjoy the game. I won't be able to get the time off so I've arranged for Solly to take you."

I couldn't believe this… He's not going. He wasn't a super cool Dad but he was my Dad. Instead he wants me to go with Solly. Everyone will think he's my Dad. Oh no, this can't be happening. My first Brooklyn Dodger game and Solly's my Dad?

"I won't go."

"You'll go. All the arrangements are made. I'll give Solly some money to buy you some souvenirs. You'll like the game."

I saw my Mom in the small kitchen, listening, holding tight to a bunch of her apron, not speaking, but knowing in her heart what I was feeling. Not what words were coming out of my mouth but what my soul and mind were saying.

"Don't embarrass me.", he said. "You'll go and that's final." He went back to his paper.

I ran to my room crying. I didn't have the words to say what I felt. I couldn't come back at him with logic or emotion. I couldn't see how he could do this to me. It wasn't fair. I could hear my Mom and Dad arguing; her soft and low, but pointed, he, louder and more brusque. In a few minutes she came in to ease me but I wouldn't let her. She tried and tried, and then she left.

The Saturday before the game, Solly came over as I sat alone on the stoop and tried to start a conversation in about the only way he knew how, "I think the Dodgers are gonna win." I just glanced at him and gave him a quick smile and a nod. As we sat there, I knew he was uncomfortable. He was in a difficult situation and he didn't have the skills and experience to handle it. One piece of me wanted to hurt him to get back at my father but I couldn't do it.

"Who do you think will pitch?" I asked.

"Probably Newk. He's in the rotation and he's been pitching good. He always does good against Chicago."

I had no idea that what he was saying was true or not.

Again, after a long pause, Solly spoke, trying to get a simple dialogue going, "When's your Birthday?"

"December thirteenth".

"You kiddin' me?" he said excitedly. "Three players on the Dodgers have that birthday… Carl Erskine, Billy Loes, and George Shuber. And two of the other Dodgers have the last name Thompson. Wow, we should get all their autographs. We gotta get to Ebbets Field early."

"Three Dodgers have the same birthday as me?"

"Yeah, but they're older."

What were the chances? 365 days a year, maybe thirty-five players, and three of the good players have the same birthday as me.

"Solly, are you sure about this?"

"Yeah, I'm positive. You should've been a player for the Dodger but you can't hit or catch good."

All of a sudden I became excited about the game again. I ignored his last remarks.

"It's gonna be a good game, I'm glad we're going.", I said excitedly.

"Me too, I love the Dodgers. I'll call for you ‘bout ten."

The time up to Tuesday sped by. I got up just as my father was about to leave for work. He told me to have a good time, not to get into trouble, not to embarrass him. He handed me the tickets in a small envelope, slipped me five dollars, and told me he wished he was going. I kissed him and he shook my hand, and he left. I washed, got dressed, put on the stupid Browning-King shirt, and had breakfast.

When Solly said he'd call for you it meant he'd call for you. At 9:30 I could hear Solly bellowing from down in the street, "Ken-nnnneeee" "Ken-nnnneeee."

My Mom stuck her head out the window and spoke in a loud whisper, "Be quiet. He'll be down in a few minutes."

My Mom had me set and ready to go: hanky, two dollars for my sock, a piece of paper with my name, address and phone number for my back pocket, and two quarters and three dimes in case I had to call. She also gave me a brown paper bag with two sandwiches, an apple, an orange and three cookies. Planning ahead on my part, I had her put in a change of shirts just in case I "accidentally" got mustard on the Browning-King one. Oh, and of course, my blue Dodger baseball cap.

She also gave me the "Mom" instructions: "… don't go with strangers, be careful in the bathrooms, don't sit on the potty, don't eat too much, don't get in any fights, don't get in trouble, don't do anything embarrassing, and have a good time."

As Solly and I walked up East Fourth Street to Church Avenue, I could see his bag was much bigger than mine. I asked him what all he had in it. He said, "I got a jacket, my baseball glove, my Spaldeen, an autograph book, two pencils, last night's Daily News, four sandwiches, and a container of jello. I also got ten dollars your Dad gave me. You got the tickets?"

"I got ‘em."

"Can I hold ‘em?

"No, I got ‘em.

"It's gonna be a beautiful day."

As we walked, Solly ate two of his sandwiches. At Beverly Road, he flipped the container of jello into the sewer. He asked me what I had in my bag and I told him. He ate my cookies.

On the trolley and bus ride to Ebbets Field, he told me the history of the Dodgers and how they were doing that year. He again told me about the three Dodgers with the same birthday as me. He told me what The News had to say about the day's game. I asked him to not do anything funny or weird at the game.

We got to the stadium early and walked around it twice. He pointed out some of the Dodgers going into their entrance but we didn't speak to them. When the gates finally did open we gave the ticket-taker our tickets and went through the turnstiles. He showed me the rotunda with the baseball stitches in the marble floor and the chandelier with baseball bats serving as arms for baseball shaped lights.

Solly bought a program for each of us and told me he'd teach me how to keep score. He waited outside and held my bag while I went to the men's room. After I came out we had drinks and ate the rest of our lunches near the rotunda.

Solly insisted we walk to our seats using the ramp behind home plate. It was a smart move. As I came through the dark of the tunnel and first saw the field I was awestruck. It was absolutely and incredibly beautiful, perfect, and huge. The grass was a lush vivid green, the lines on the field were white-white, the sky was cloudless and bright blue, the stadium had a grand hush about it, and the crack of the bats was sharp and pure. All I could say was "WOW!"

Solly marched me on all the levels of the stadium and through all the ramped tunnels. He had a story just about from every view and about every landmark. It was great.

Solly tried to get autographs of Erskine, Loes, and Shuber, and of the two Thompson players but had no luck. He did get a Gil Hodges and a Ben Wade signature so the time wasn't wasted. Whenever a vendor went by we ate or drank. The area where the Browning-King group gathered looked to be out of a magazine, the fathers with their sons in their Browning-King shirts, looked like they weren't from my part of Brooklyn but from the Heights or Poly Prep; wherever they were.

In the first two innings two foul balls came in our direction with Solly having his glove on. Even though Solly called for them, they came down pretty far away from us. He said he could have gotten them if he didn't have to stay near the seats.

We stayed in our Browning-King seats till the third inning when Solly had me to take my stuff and follow him to the ramp behind home plate. He spoke to one of the ushers and gave him two bucks. The usher led us in to some empty box seats but told us we would have to move if the people who had the tickets showed up. These were the best seats but there was no chance of getting a foul ball. I went to the men's room to change shirts even though I hadn't gotten anything on the Browning-King one. Solly took off his glove.

We cheered the Dodgers, heckled the Chicago players and the umpires, did the seventh-inning-stretch, laughed with the Sym-Phony, sang along with the organ music, and ate lotsa peanuts, making sure to throw the shells on the floor and at each other.

I don't remember the details of the game but I know there was a lot of action with the Dodgers winning, 7 – 6. Billy Loes came on in relief of Don Newcomb and got the win.

At the end of the game, on the way out, an usher gave me a genuine major league baseball. It wasn't from the game exactly, it was from batting practice, but it was a genuine major league baseball. Solly gave him a dollar. Solly told me the rule was to always tip the ushers good and they would take care of you.

We didn't try to get autographs after the game feeling that we had such a good time that we didn't want anything to spoil it.

We had just about gone through all of our money although I still had the two dollars in my socks. Solly suggested that we walk home. Since he had been right about everything else, I decided to go along with his idea. I called my Mom to tell her about the game and about walking home. She wasn't keen on me walking but went along with it since it was such a beautiful, wonderful day for me…and I begged.

As we walked along the outside of Prospect Park and through the Parade Grounds, Solly talked as I had never heard him before. He knew he was the butt of some jokes and that some people were mean to him but he didn't know what to do about it other than to simply avoid them. He was generally "okay" with his life though he wanted it to be different in ways he couldn't explain. He wanted, most of all, to be "included".

When we got back to our neighborhood I was tired from a day that would stay with me forever. When I came in the apartment my Mom, Dad and sister greeted me and listened to my "slightly" embellished stories of the day. I told them all of the three Dodgers with the same birthday as me but no one seemed to believe it. My Dad said he would look into it.

I had a late dinner and went to bed early. I went to sleep holding the baseball and I slept good.

In the couple of years that followed, nothing seemed to change for Solly. He did more of the same though some of the older stickball players moved on with their lives and new players came up.

Solly's best year was 1955, when the Dodgers won the World Series. The worst was 1957 when Walter O'Malley finally pulled out the Dodgers after a clash of egos with Robert Moses and other politicians, and for the smell of big money in California.

Solly trusted and was let down, he believed and was deceived, he had faith and it was shattered. Most Brooklyn rooters and fans thought it could never happen, couldn't understand it, and have forever justifiably despised O'Malley.

In the fall of 1960, I saw Solly sitting on the stoop and stopped to talk with him. "How are the Dodgers doing?"

"I don't care." he said, looking down at his sneakers.

"You followin' the Yankees?"

"I can't. I don't want to."

"You playing much ball?"

"Nah, … I gotta go."

Solly got up and just seemed to amble away, still gazing down at his sneakers. He didn't have anywhere to go or anything to do but he didn't want to have this conversation either.

The Dodgers' move to L.A. didn't just take the Dodgers out of Brooklyn, and maybe the heart from Brooklyn, but it also took the essence out of Solly. We should have rooted for Solly and been his fan, his friend; he was our Brooklyn.

In the mid-60's, Solly died in a stickball game. He was going for a long fly ball into an intersection and was hit by a car. He went his way. May he Rest in Peace.

He was finally fully included.




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