For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites
The Throw and Other Things: An Ebbets Field Experience
ew at a First Communion Mass in New Jersey, I watched as the communicantstook their solemn walk up the aisle and I noticed something that struck me as peculiar, one of those feelings you get when you see something out of the ordinary but you don't quite know why. So I paid a bit more attention and then it became apparent; the children were not alone as they moved towards the altar; they were accompanied by their parents who, with an arm on each communicant's shoulder, walked respectfully by their side. The aisle itself looked almost crowded as the line inched forward each taking the wafer and moving on.
I think for most part that those in attendance had a positive reaction; "Isn't that nice, the parents are part of it too." One could almost hear the assembly sigh with a warm bask of approval.
I guess there is some merit to that attitude, and I certainly won't fight it, but my immediate thought was, "whose communion is this?" And that thought took me far away from this moment of inclusion, back to Brooklyn in the early nineteen-fifties and to the clash of culture that this event represented.
By the age of ten at the latest, children at that time and place interacted with a group on the streets in active play that was all-consuming without any parent intervention of any kind whatsoever. The two worlds were clearly separate, with parents recognizing that life was a process and one should experience it independently of their inclusion. Maybe they did not know how to participate, but certainly they knew they were not wanted and for the most part they were not needed. That is not to say they did not watch in their own way. In fact, it is safe to say that they knew the world of the street and simply let it happen.
It was not that our parents didn't love us or that we did not know they loved us, but it is more that the relationship did not need to be manifested by their presence in our undertakings. What may have been lost in terms of family bonding was gained in terms of independent growth. During the fifties one could go to any crowded high school game and see few adults.
There was one place where, with the exception of the first visit, kids would always go as a group without adult supervision, and that was to Ebbets Field. Like so many others, my first game was with my father. Someone must have given him box seat tickets and when we first entered I was pleasantly surprised to see him casually walk up to a vendor and buy a scorecard. That was an extra and marked the day as special. I moved off for a moment and looked up the small ramp that led to the area directly behind home plate and then as I crept forward I became as transported as Dorothy when she first landed in Oz as I, unprepared in my idle curiosity, suddenly beheld a technicolor field of pristine green against the sheer white of the Dodger uniform. Then, the contrast of the Dodger script in that deep blue swirl, unchanged even now, merged to evoke a strong memory that will never leave me. That I had already pictured those players and that field in my mind as I listened with rapt attention to the games on the radio only served to heighten the potency of the drama of that initial moment's pure rapture. It was one of the few times in life that the experience of the moment was greater than my imagination's anticipation of it.
After that inoculation I was hooked, and going to Ebbets Field became a more routine event. Even at an early age we rarely sat in the bleachers except on Saturday when we were marched up from P.S. 9 on Sterling Place and joined a huge line in a seemingly endless trek up the winding ramps to the far recesses beyond centerfield. But that was for free, the Dodger organization figuring - no doubt correctly - that they would induce us now and get us to pay later. The fact remained that to get in and see a game as a group - and there were a lot of us - we had to see the non-contenders. Often we went to see the lowly Pirates and Cubs. I did get to see Ralph Kiner hit a lot of homers.
All of my friends had a favorite player. That ardor legitimized one to imitate a player's stance when playing stickball, becoming a kind of license. With very few exceptions, not one of that starting team was ever traded to another team, so we were confident in our affiliations. Until this one particular night game, I was just a fan of the Dodgers collectively, but that would change in a flash with an experience that could only have occurred in the context of the group dynamics of a kid's world in an enclosed place like Ebbets Field, simmering within the sudden immediacy provided by the game of baseball itself.
Generally, we moved along the upper level deck ramps like an ambling herd, scanning the upper decks for that right spot. On this night the Phillies were in town just when the sheen of the Whiz Kids glow had mellowed with time, and they were not the champions of 1950 any more. We were moving by third base and I was behind the pack as I was not one of the leaders who would select "the spot," and so, when a roar came up from the crowd, I was next to the short ramp that led to the upper grandstand and those coveted box seats that directly overlooked Billy Cox at third base.
Here was opportunity; the kind of opening that I had been trained to instinctively recognize. The guards, whose job we thought was to keep us away from the good seats, were always posted at the head of these ramps and were alert to intrusion and wandering kids like ourselves, and only some dynamic action as only baseball can provide in a sudden moment out of the ordinary would distract them. They were fans too.
Such an action, one of irresistible grace, was occurring, and with that distraction I sensed a vacuum and fortunately darted up and stared with them. Suddenly, I was amid a scene of intense vitality whose movement was quick and almost orchestrated. Richie Ashburn, still the swift and cunning base runner, had lined a shot past the lunging Gil Hodges down the rightfield line. Quick to sense opportunity, Ashburn was rarely denied in his quest for an extra base. I imagined him to be impressed with his own graceful speed as he gave a quick look back to right field and decided to extend his double into a triple. I could feel the excitement of the fans in the box seats just below me, as they watched the play that was unfolding, with the ball approaching Carl Furillo, known to those fans as the "Reading Rifle," who lived for such moments, and the fans knew it and were already on their feet. There would be a play at third.
As one who thought as a kid that I had everything and who also felt that those things
I did want could not be bought; I was, until that moment, free of envy. But here in this one glance, I wanted to be where that fan with his hot dog and beer was, standing right above the play, screaming with the rest. The quick light of ambition lit as I realized for perhaps for the first time that there were things of great value that money could buy. That fan in his checkered shirt and the noise of the crowd are etched in my memory as Billy Cox stood with deceptive casualness, waiting for Carl Furillo's throw.
There were many debates about who were the best at their positions, and even now grown men still argue over who was the best among the three great ones who played centerfield in that era for the New York teams, but there is no such argument about third base. Everyone knew that Billy Cox was the best of his trade. With his flint-jawed face and bristling, feline grace, he was the consummate third baseman. If Norman Rockwell wanted to picture a third baseman, he would draw Billy Cox.
The throw came from the very far corner of the stadium and I was for a brief moment disappointed in the crowd's roar. I had developed the sophistication of the discerning fan in not getting up in excitement for a long fly ball and we all practiced our cool demeanor by appearing nonchalant when others leapt up for a simple play. Surely I thought Ashburn would make it; nothing seemed swifter than Ashburn as he rounded second without a wide turn, keen to every advantage.
But these fans had seen Furillo before and they knew his range as no doubt did Ashburn as he began his slide.
I never really saw the throw, so fast and so low was its trajectory. Cox waited until the very last moment that the ball could be caught, and then he brought his glove-hand down hard and quick and Richie Ashburn was out at third base.
I was stunned and breathless at the drama of the scene as was the crowd around me.
"Did ya see that," everyone looking around at each other, and for the moment I was one of them, savoring an event that would last a lifetime. For once the guard did not push me along so I stood there taking it in as the players shuffled back to their positions, ready for the next play. It was over and yet it was not, for I was not alone in being moved by the intensity of the play, and now I was a Furillo fan, a player who could live up to reputation, and I was there to see it.
"Hey, what happened back there," the guys asked as they were still moving along.
"Nothin, just a play at third base," I said