GORDON WHITE: DEM BUMS: Visit to Ebbets Field Was a Short Walk from Home
In the summer of 1942, between my sophomore and junior years in high school, I lived in Brooklyn, less than a mile from Ebbets Field. That home of the borough's beloved Dodgers was as permanent a fixture as an inscription in stone -- or so we thought back then. How wrong can one be?
That team, once known as "Dem Bums," opens its 50th season as the Los Angeles Dodgers tomorrow by playing at another post-World War II expansion city, Milwaukee.
But 65 years ago was a time when we needed traditional and memorable pieces of Americana as the United States struggled through its first year of fighting in World War II. The three famous major league baseball parks in New York City -- Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium -- were surely symbols of our life. Recognizing "the national pastime," President Franklin Delano Roosevelt directed that organized baseball continue to play during the war as a morale boost on the home front.
Back then, the entire nation felt involved in WW II. In one way or another most everyone was a participant. And, oh how I wished I was older just so I could get into the fight. It was not until 1944 that I was able to join the Navy.
In the meantime, I could walk down Flatbush Avenue along the east side of Prospect Park. Then it was two blocks north to Ebbets Field at Sullivan Place and McKeever Place. There the Dodgers were licking their wounds after a difficult loss to the New York Yankees in the 1941 World Series.
I also took a nickel ride on the subway to go to either Yankee Stadium in the Bronx or the Polo Grounds under Coogans Bluff in Manhattan, just across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium. New York City offered any baseball fan the chance to see all 16 major league teams in action at some time during the 1942 season, which was not "those good old days."
We at home were fast learning about such distant and hard-fought battles as Bataan, the Coral Sea, Corregidor, Midway, Guadalcanal, Savo Island, El-Alamein, Sevastopol and other bloody sites that made the front pages during the spring and summer of 1942.
There was the horrible war, and there was the life we wanted back again. It was as if we were consumed by a split personality. We wanted our fun and games, movies and big band music but knew nothing really mattered until we won WW II. Yet baseball was still a passion for some, me included.
A year earlier and months before Pearl Harbor, I had the pleasure of watching Joe DiMaggio get a double off Cleveland's Bobby Feller to extend his hitting streak to 27 consecutive games. That was on Saturday, June 14, 1941, at Yankee Stadium when the Yanks beat the Indians' mighty right-hander, 4-1. DiMaggio drove in one run with that double. Charlie Keller singled in two other runs and Tommy Heinrich drove in the initial Yankee run with a first inning home run.
DiMaggio's hitting streak went on for 29 more games and ended in Cleveland, July 17, 1941, at a record mark of 56 straight games.
What more could a baseball fan ask for than the opportunity to see such action?
Ebbets Field, a band box of a ballpark with a high right field concrete wall similar to Fenway Park's left field Green Monster, opened in 1913.
I saw Dixie Walker, the Dodgers' right fielder, play that wall like he owned it. He would play short right field to a left-handed line drive hitter. When such a batter drove the ball against the right field wall, Walker would take the carom quickly. If the batter eased up going down to first he was a dead duck as Walker would turn and throw a shot to Dolph Camilli at first base. Instead of a single, the lazy batter was shocked to realize he hit into a 9-3 out.
Up in the Polo Grounds, the oblong arena with very short right and left field foul lines but more than 500 feet in center field, the Giants met all comers in the National League and many a World Series opponent such as the Yankees. There the Yankees also played as No. 2 tenants from 1913 until Yankee Stadium opened in 1922.
I remember sitting in the Polo Grounds left field bleachers during those WW II years watching Duke's Eric Tipton playing left field for the Cincinnati Reds. I later got to know Tipton very well when he coached the Army baseball team for more than 35 years at West Point.
Ebbets Field was the only one of the three New York City baseball parks with lights for night games. But following the attack at Pearl Harbor, which drew us into WW II, we went into blackout status. Shades were drawn or blinds shut and curtains pulled across windows after sunset. And there were no more night games for the duration.
But all major league teams staged what was known as "twilight" games. These games would start around 4:30 or 5 p.m. in June, July and early August. Such games were usually completed in daylight. Some times it was nearly dark as the last out was made.
Friends of mine and I would often walk down Flatbush Avenue for a "twilight" game at Ebbets Field.
That was years before Grady Little was even born. The current manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who is one of Pinehurst's most famous residents, turned 57 just two days ago. The Dodgers were, however, still in Brooklyn when Little was born, March 30, 1950, in Abilene, Texas. And those Dodgers and Ebbets Field were even then considered to be forever part of Brooklyn.
But then along came Walter O'Malley as prime owner of the Dodgers and no longer were things set in stone as we believed.
O'Malley and the longtime Giants' owner, Horace Stoneham, knew that their crumbling Ebbets Field and Polo Grounds needed replacements. O'Malley wanted to build a covered stadium at Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues over the Long Island Railroad Station in the Borough Hall Section of Brooklyn. He was not even asking for taxpayer money as the Dodgers would borrow the necessary funds.
But Robert Moses, the power behind much park and road development in and around New York City at that time, opposed the idea. So did many politicians.
As a result, O'Malley and Stoneham, picked up stakes and moved to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, in 1958.
There are Brooklynites who still believe a team called the Dodgers belongs in Brooklyn and only Brooklyn. But to his credit, O'Malley tried and was rebuffed.
Baseball's big expansion during the last half of the 20th century was undoubtedly good for the major leagues. After all, the nation's population also expanded westward and southward after WW II, so why not baseball?
Less than four years after the Dodgers and Giants departed New York City, the New York Mets replaced them as the National League representation in the nation's largest city. This time the taxpayers of New York City did foot the bill for the first Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows, Queens.
That is where Robert Moses, the man behind the 1939 New York World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, wanted O'Malley to build his Dodger stadium. O'Malley wanted to stay in Brooklyn or else leave the city.
Now a new Yankee Stadium and a new Shea Stadium are under construction right next to the original arenas of those names. Maybe if O'Malley had waited a while longer the Dodgers would still be in Brooklyn. After all, a developer is currently planning to build a big indoor arena over that same Long Island Railroad Station in Brooklyn as a home for the New York Nets of the NBA.
But no matter, the Dodgers and Giants are gone. A half century has elapsed since that biggest move in major league relocation and the Los Angeles Dodgers will start the 2007 season without many Brooklyn folks giving a damn.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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