Authors: Roger Kahn
Tags: #SPORTS & RECREATION/Baseball/Essays & Writings
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First Diversion Books edition October 2012.
ISBN: 978-1-938120-48-0 (ebook)
ISTORY, LIKE WAR AND LOVE
, is seldom neat, and I want to set down right here that
is not a story about ten years. Not a nice round number.
covers eleven seasons. These were, I believe, equally the most important and the most exciting years in the history of sport. But the time span remains eleven seasons, rather than ten. That small accuracy invalidates such phrases as “Baseball’s Golden Decade,” an effect that is not entirely unfortunate.
centers on the three great baseball teams that played in New York City from 1947 through 1957, when New York was the capital of the world. I don’t mean that in the conventional, jargonistic way: media capital, financial capital, whatever. New York was those things, but more than that New York was where everyone wanted to come to write or compose or dance or toot the oboe or make a fortune or find a lover or play baseball. The city was affordable and, barring nuclear war, safe for human habitation. It wasn’t a local stop, New York, New York. It was the closest we have seen to a cosmic town. New York, USA; New York, Solar System; New York, Milky Way; New York, Universe. Well, come on in.
Following publication of
The Boys of Summer
, which centers on the years 1952 and 1953 in the borough of Brooklyn, journalists and academics jumped into the Era with a vengeance. The subsequent orgy produced at least twenty-eight books that touch aspects of the Era. Unfortunately, as spruce forests fell in the service of literature, errata mounted. On the most basic level I find myself like the person who has been on the scene of an incident of some kind that makes the newspapers. Perhaps you have been in that situation yourself. Reading the paper the next day, you shake your head and say, “That isn’t quite right. The paper has it wrong. That’s not the way it was. Worst of all, they misspelled cousin Sulinda’s middle name.” I am a graduate of the Era and susceptible to the wrongly-spelled-middle-name syndrome.
Each specific error may appear minor, but each is disquieting. If you set down small details incorrectly, the picture at large appears false, or at least unbelievable. Such is the stuff of the writing seminars that occupy so many summer days on so many summer hills, so far from big-town ballparks. Put more succinctly, if you can’t get the third baseman’s name right, if you lose track of the count, what else have you gotten wrong?
One purpose here is to set down the Era as it was. For that, for accuracy, an author can offer up nine parts research and one intense muttered prayer.
To seek accuracy is not to surrender one’s prejudices. Accordingly, this work reflects some.
I think the Jackie Robinson experience is enormous, both in intensity and in significance, and it earns a great deal of space. The Stengel phenomenon of 1949 — entering the Bronx as a comedian and exiting as a field marshal — is another kind of triumph. Larry MacPhail’s public nervous breakdown in 1947 was a memorable disaster, and Leo Durocher’s ‘47 collision with the commissioner of baseball and the Roman Catholic Church is bruising and extraordinary.
Joe DiMaggio encountering old baseball age and Willie Mays joining us from Olympus are irresistible sagas. Accordingly, I have more to say in these pages about the years from 1947 to 1951, when these things happened, than I do about the seasons from 1952 to 1957.
Do not expect silence about Don Larsen’s perfect game, or his court date that followed. I knew Walter O’Malley for more than fifty years and I don’t look at his uprooting the Dodgers to California with bland acceptance. But in sum, I give the most acreage to those who were Founding Fathers to the Era.
It is regularly written that Jackie Robinson, the first black major leaguer of this century, was a boon to attendance at Ebbets Field. In 1946, the all-white Brooklyn Dodgers drew 1,796,824 at home. With Jackie Robinson in 1947, the integrated Dodgers drew 1,807,526. The difference, about 11,000 spectators, works out to 150 fans a game. That is not a significant number. Good, winning baseball, not integration, put good Brooklyn bottoms onto the green-slatted seats at Ebbets Field. Robinson was a winning ballplayer, a great winning ballplayer, but the impact of his hue on local gate receipts has been wildly exaggerated.
Integration did have a most powerful effect in focusing attention on baseball and, more important, on racism. Would Robinson make it? Who was the Giants’ new kid Mays and did he really call his manager “Mistuh Leo”? Would the Yankees ever allow a black to wear the hallowed pinstripes? How dare the Giants field an all-black outfield? These questions led to challenging talk. I don’t think baseball talk ever again has been quite so passionate, quite so unselfconsciously sociological.
But here is a curious thing. From the start of the Era to the end, attendance declined sharply at all three New York ballparks. In 1947, about 5.5 million tickets were sold for New York baseball. In 1957, the total was 3.2 million. If the talk was as rich as I say, the baseball so compelling, the interest so fervid, where on earth were all the people?
Some were packing for a move to the suburbs. Others, most of the others, were watching television. In a practical sense, television was born during the Era. As people from Brooklyn to Baghdad are forever discovering, television changes the world.
We stood on a Brooklyn street, Washington Avenue, birthplace of Aaron Copland, one warm June night in 1947. The Boston Braves had just swapped pitchers with the Giants, Mort Cooper for Bill Voiselle, plus cash. We massed outside Roy’s Radio Store, staring at a large wooden box, within which glowed a small, round, grayish, snowy screen. Joe Hatten was pitching to Willard Marshall ten blocks away. That was the ballgame. Roy’s snowy screen — baseball
on television — was magic.
Two of the various men who owned significant parts of New York ballclubs during most of the Era can fairly be described as (1) a drunk and (2) a dilettante. But another, Branch Rickey in Brooklyn, may have been a genius, and his successor, Walter O’Malley, was a daring, dazzling businessman. Still, none of these people, from the drunk to the dazzler, knew how to cope with television. (At the end of his life, disappointed with the look of televised baseball, Rickey was seriously suggesting that engineers get to work developing a pyramidal screen.)
The owners first regarded television simply as a new revenue source and grabbed. Business 101. Greed without foresight. By 1950 or so, every home game played by every New York ballclub was televised, without fee to the viewer. Cable television was not yet practicable. The first thing that changed was the skyline of New York. Scrawny forests of antennas sprang up on rooftops from Canarsie by the sea to Woodlawn Cemetery in the trackless north Bronx. Beneath these iron branches, patterns were redone.
Watch Milton Berle. He’s dressed up like a
. Uncle Miltie. Too much. He’s wearing a dress!
Hey, Jackie Gleason. Hah! His upper lip is twitching! He’s clenched his fist. He’s gonna punch that pretty wife of his to the moon!
Screens grew. It stopped snowing in July. Jewish grandmothers noticed that Pee Wee Reese was a fine-looking boy. (Too bad he’s married already.) Italian housewives saw the scooting speed of Phil Rizzuto. But he’s so little.
. Not the least of the changes that modified baseball during the Era was this. As second base moved into everybody’s parlor, rooting went coed.
Coincidentally and independently, baseball flowered. As starters, we had integration. Then the loudest, crudest, and one of the best managers since the dawn of time was booted from the game. The somewhat blurry charges against him included loose living, easy gambling, offending the Roman Catholic Church, and fornication. Thus beset, the manager grabbed the pretty movie actress he had just married, probably illegally, and told the sporting press he was taking her straight to bed. The game brimmed with satyrs and artists and rogues and emperors and clowns.
Robinson and Durocher, of course, and Casey Stengel and Jolting Joe DiMaggio, who would not speak to one another, and Willie, Mickey, and the Duke, who never felt the rivalry that legend lately has created. Mantle was playing out from under DiMaggio’s shadow. Snider was upset mostly when compared to matchless Stan Musial. Willie played wholly in his own space, at the crest of Mount Olympus.
We watched the Barber, Big Newk, and the Superchief; Yogi and Campy and Nappy Westrum, stout catchers three; Hoss, Preach, Oisk, and Skoonj; Mandrake and Ol’ Reliable and the Royal Scots Express. Those rapscallion owners were variously the Roarin’ Redhead, Mahatma, the Big Oom. We did not lack for nicknames in the Era.
Broadcasters then were professional announcers, schooled first in the glorious gabbiness of radio. These were Mel Allen, Red Barber, kind Ernie Harwell, Russ Hodges, and Vin Scully, boy baritone. When Scully spoke in conversation, his voice sounded a pleasing tenor. Turn on a microphone and the Scully pitch dropped several registers down to light operatic baritone. Egos flowered among the tonsils of the broadcast booths. Nor were egos alien to press boxes.
The Power Columnists, Red Smith of the elegant
and Jimmy Cannon of the passionate
, expressed discreet disdain for one another. Cannon conceded that Smith wrote well-formed sentences but felt him too clinical, too arch. “You get the feeling,” Cannon said, “that the guy is writing for a restricted audience. Three English teachers up at Columbia.” Smith insisted that he liked Cannon’s stuff, “except that when Jimmy sits down to write a column, he feels he has to leave the English language there for dead.” Cannon and Smith did hold hands in horror when the first Pulitzer Prize for sportswriting went to neither. Arthur Daley, a soul of geniality, won it for a few quite ordinary pieces, “conversations around the batting cage,” published in the
New York Times
I moved through the Era on several levels. At the beginning I was a collegian, enthralled by baseball, like my father before me, rooting for the Dodgers, again like my father, and most especially for Jackie Robinson to succeed in the major leagues. That issue was said to be in doubt, even though Robinson had batted .349 in the International League the season before. “He hit a
.349,” insisted one old scout.
My next persona was as a newspaperman, a sportswriter employed by the
when it was famous as the best-written paper in the country. My salary advanced from $48 a week as a cub reporter to $10,000 a year as a baseball writer, a flattering newspaper wage for the time. I covered the Dodgers for two seasons and the Giants and Yankees after that. Jackie Robinson hired me to help him compose a monthly column. Leo Durocher promised scoop after scoop if I would meet certain conditions. Whitey Ford pounded on my hotel room door and roared: “This is the house detective. Get that woman out of there!”
For four years I covered a ballgame pretty much every day from spring training through the World Series, about 750 major league games in all. Since the
published a variety of editions, each requiring fresh material, I wrote 2,000 baseball stories for the paper. I moved on after a squabble with Durocher. The daily baseball beat was grinding down my fingers and my nerves. I was ready to proceed to something else.
That turned out to be a $14,000 position as sports editor of
. There one went to story conferences, composed interoffice memoranda, and bought martinis for pretty research assistants who Wanted to Write. The job was no better than a mixed bag, but it had the salubrious effect of giving me distance from the fervid New York baseball scene. When the Dodgers and the Giants abandoned ship, I was saddened, but not devastated. I continued to cover Carl Furillo and Willie Mays in their new California locales.
Things end. Dramas, wars, reigns, lives, loves. I know two reasons why the Era remains magnificent in our memories. The first is simple. The Era was magnificent. The second is more complex. The Era came to a dramatically proper finale.
It ended when the time was right; its end was sad but suitable. The drama was played out. By the time the ballclubs moved West, the great Dodger team was waning. Pee Wee Reese, the immortal shortstop, had moved to third base. Jackie Robinson was working for a chain of lunch counters. The Giants had fired Leo Durocher. The Yankee decline took longer, but eventually even the Yankees collapsed. Along that route, someone finally fired Casey Stengel.
The Era possesses an inevitability and a rightness. It begins with Jackie Robinson arriving and ends with Walter O’Malley departing. Hero and brigand, who despised each other.
As actors say, you have to know when to get off the stage. But it was the most exciting time for baseball.
You should have been there.
I mean to take you.