Howie Rose photo by Kevin Ryan

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Only The Dead

That things fall apart is well established. The Second Law of Thermodynamics determined this physical and existential fact the instant there was anything though some time before there was anyone around to conceive much less contend it. Closed systems are doomed to entropy. Live it with it, get over it, deal with it… like it or not…

The closed system of Ebbets Field and, I suppose, anywhere baseball or some variation on the theme is, was or will be played—from the stickball playgrounds of Flatbush and the sandlots of Omaha to the tax payer-funded mega-stadiums of the modern moment’s major leagues to who knows where—was such a place that exhibited the entire universe in a kind of pre-Big Bang-style miniature. Its existence—now more mythic in its evaporating hold on the imaginations of those who are still alive when its last game was played in the early days of 1957’s autumn—truly embodied the heart and soul of a borough now so over branded that it has gone somewhere far exceeding a parody of a parody. Indeed, if it had survived the wrecking ball and big league ball was still contested there, fans would no doubt be filling in their scorecards with pencils sharpened conceived, crafted and sharpened by a local artisan if not on a tablet using an app launched by a angel-funded, Bushwick start-up.

Still Brooklyn, in the two decades that I have lived here, has utterly transformed from the exotic borough of my youth and early middle age into something else but don’t tell me it lacks a thumping heart… ya just gotta poke around.

If I was around my too quickly advancing age (or just about any late teen age forward) in 1950, living in proximity to where I peck at these words and nightly lay may head while hopefully sharing the same sensibilities and tastes of my 2016 self, leaving my crib  on a cool, bright, blue-skied, puffy white cloud day in late April for a jaunt across Prospect Park to just across its northeastern perimeter to take in an early season tilt on a Saturday afternoon would have been as natural as downing a vanilla egg cream at the local pharmacy or candy shop when such customs were still in vogue. (Sidetrack #1: egg creams can still be had for a virtual song at Gem Spa on the corner of Third Avenue an St. Marks whipped together by the fine fellows from Pakistan who now own the vestige of the joint.)

Elongating the fantasy, I like to imagine that, after the game, I would have ventured to Chinatown (the city’s only one at the time), downed some chow and wandered the warren of streets around Mott before eventually moving the one-man party uptown to Birdland on 52nd Street and Broadway to nurse a beer as Charlie Parker leads his quintet with cosmic sounds vowing from his alto deep into the mystic night. (Sidetrack #2: the basement club that was Birdland now survives as a “gentlemen’s club” in the same, if modernized to the point of being virtually unrecognizable spot at 1678 Broadway).

As unimaginative as that may sound, that is what will have to pass for the extent of my time-traveling yearnings. Okay, hanging out in ancient Athens as Homer spun a rap would have been pretty cool too if comprehending ancient Greek were included with the round-trip ducat.

And I like to think that my rooting allegiance would then, as now, be determined  by the nature and make-up of the metropolitan-area squad at the time. Because I grew up and came of age when and how I did, I was never sucker enough to get drawn into the Cold War that can divide New York City sports—rooting for the both the Yankees and the Mets, the Giants and the Jets, the Knicks and (to a lesser extent) the Nets. I only drew and draw the line with ice hockey: the Blueshirts for me thank you very much, New Jersey and Long Island be damned. And that goes for the rink in downtown Brooklyn’s Barclays Center where the Icelanders have joined the Nets in hanging their jocks.

Coincidentally more or less built on the same Barclays site where Walter O’Malley proposed constructing a new Ebbets Field, the reviled Dodger boss of yesteryear moved the beloved Bums to Hell-Eh when—short story—the city brass rejected his, some say, half-hearted plans. Whether Barclays results in restoring Brooklyn sports to its previous glory or the promised economic boon to its neighbors, who can say? Its development remains a divisive subject from Gravesend to Greenpoint (or was that “Greenpernt”?) coming as it did when the heavy Robert Moses-like jackboot of eminent domain came to bear its harsh heel. But even a full-flowering of Brooklyn sports and a rising revenue tide lifting local ships, nothing could ever replace the curio ballpark straddling the petticoats of Crown Heights, Prospect Park and Flatbush.

One can still visit the site at the juncture of Sullivan Place and Bedford Avenue but if looking at a degrading Brutalist housing project sounds like fun, then a swipe of a MetroCard should get you there fast enough if you reside within the five boroughs or the toss of a hard ball away. (Sidetrack #3: for the intrepid urban traveler wanting an even deeper dive into archaic backwater Brooklyn baseball, a visit to the stretch of 3rd Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Streets should be scratched into the itinerary. In this so-called Gowanus warehouse region, a block or so west of the Superfund designated and much-fouled canal where medium-rise condos are beginning to dot its soiled banks, one can touch a wall—the last remains of Washington Park where the earliest renditions of the Brooklyn nine frolicked under the gravitational weight of the dead ball era.)

And if photographs and video clips of at least some if not all of the above-referenced sites of arcane urbane archaeology are available on the next-best thing to time-traveling on the apparatus filled with circuits and their zeros and ones, so is a high-quality recording of the April 22, 1950 Dodgers-Giants game via this link which shall deliver you to a singular moment in space and time when Brooklyn was still Brooklyn and polo had yet to be played on the grounds under Coogan’s Bluff.

Before the words of any play-by-play word artiste are heard, before Red Barber’s precise, folksy distinctly southern drawl introduces itself, a muted though clear as day public address announcer intoning the visitors’ line-up with a Brooklyn accent as thick as the mustard on a Nathan’s frank at Coney Island on Independence Day once again floats through he aether. This would be emanating from the lungs of a true neighborhood character you’re hearing—an aging urchin by the name of Tex Rickards never to be confused with Tex Rickard, the fabled boxing promoter of 20th century’s first decades also famous as founder of the New York Rangers hockey squad. The former Tex, he with the “s” appended to his surname, for some many years anyway, had a chair adjacent to the home team dugout where he announced line-ups, batters, pitching and position changes throughout a given contest—initially, it is said, through a megaphone and then, when the 20th century caught up to that patch of Ebbets Field real estate, an actual microphone.

Rickards, who eventually found quarters in the park’s press booth, seemed to receive the largest chunk of his annual income from the delivery of movies to Brooklyn’s theaters—far more numerous back in the day. Along with crazy fans like the cowbell-ringing Hilda Chester and always a little out-of-tune Dodger Sym-phony (the rag-tag musical ensemble) who were, along with so many others, fixtures in the band box ballpark, Rickards’ stature in that pantheon remains legend. Rickards, who lived in Windsor Terrace and, while mostly forgotten, could spill a malaprop or unintended double entendre with any of baseball’s best—Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra included with announcements like, “Will the the fans along the railing in left field remove their clothes.”

Merely hearing Rickards’ thick gravelly, salt water and turpentine no-nonsense voice at the commencement of this surviving reel is an echo of an era quickly receding from anybody’s actual memory.

But if these eccentrics were part of the charm of attending a Dodger home game in 1950, it was Red Barber who gave them an audio stage when he held down his play-by-play job from 1939-1953. “If the Dodgers were a religion,” it was said, “then Red Barber was its preacher.”

It has often struck me as a bit odd that during the ‘50s heyday of New York baseball, the primary voices if all three teams hailed from below the Mason-Dixon Line—Barber from Mississippi, the Yanks’ Mel Allen from Alabama and the Giants’ Russ Hodges from the Volunteer State. Perhaps their more naturally relaxed demeanor served as an attractive counterpoint to the big city’s hustle and bustle or, as especially in the case of Barber, their singular catch phrases lent both a down-home quality and veneer of class to the proceedings. Of the three, Barber remains, at least in the popular imagination, the undisputed master whose reputation is burnished by another, soon-to-be retiring redhead—the silky voiced Vin Scully who, not coincidentally nor incidentally, Barber first tutored in 1950.

This audio artifact is a bit of an anomaly in that it is probably not a totally accurate representation of a typical Dodger broadcast of the time as it comes from the weekly national, coast-to-coast Saturday afternoon feed on the home team’s familiar WMGM, now WHN and still 1050 on the AM dial. Sponsored by Post cereal, the only sponsor plugged and relentlessly wallpapering the proceedings, Barber (smile firmly attached to his unseen face) primarily pushes Toasties, the company’s then as now answer to Kellogg’s Corn Flakes to the point of near nausea.

Barber is in mid-season form the first pitch even if the players are perhaps not quite. The pitchers in particular appear not to have made the transition from Florida’s warmer climes and this affair from the season’s first week (the Dodgers are 2-1 and the Giants winless in three games at this juncture) is distinctly topsy-turvy as a comfortable Giants' lead evaporates like a little puddle on the Mojave floor. And, by 1950 standards anyway, the contest was, officially, a long one clocking in at more than three hours of which only two-and-half sadly comprise this recorded relic—some chunks of the late innings appear to be mysteriously missing though the last outs remain intact.

Listening to the Ol’ Redhead at a remove of nearly seven decades one can hear the enduring allure of his appeal. Nary a detail escapes his wide-angle gaze as he takes a fine brush to his emerald-soaked canvas. Yes, the homespun charm is most in evidence but he is also rather surprisingly edgy and tense, wound up like a tight ball of twine threatening to but never unspooling as if the fate of the galaxy at-large rested on the next pitch. Anyone familiar with the great Jon Miller who called games for the Orioles and now the San Francisco Giants can hear a bit of Barber in his man-on-a-tightrope delivery.

This particular game’s official attendance didn’t even top 20,000 but, true to legend and form, those who are there very much make their presence known. Or, as Barber suggests, “They don’t stay quiet in Brooklyn long.” And, surveying Ebbets’ peculiar geometry and intimacy, Red points out “its series of angles” and how sharply the fans can see and hear the players too.

Yes, the game’s nuances are reflected in Barber’s wonderful metaphors that Dante—had he lived on a different continent and hassled by the Jets or the Sharks instead of the Black Guelphs in a different time—might well have praised. The foul tip  Dodger catcher Roy Campanella can’t hold buzzes around his roundish hunk of stitched leather “like a mad bumble bee.” When Hank Thompson lashes a long single off the short right field wall and extends a rally, shades of the Bard’s Scottish Play are perhaps slyly invoked with reference to a “bubbling pot.” Jackie Robinson “took the toenails off that one” on an early inning double. Giant manager Leo Durocher stalking the dugout is “scratching away with his spikes.” A trade in which one of the players shipped away comes back to wreak vengeance strikes like “a boomerang coming back to hit you right between the eyes.” And there, somewhat less prosaically, is Ralph Branca warming up in the bullpen as the Bums struggle is “the loosest guy on the mound you ever saw” just about two seasons shy of his ignominy.

Through Barber we see it all. There’s hardcore Giants’ fan, the mobbed-up restaurateur Toots Shor sitting with Giants owner Horace Stoneham in the reserved box seats next to the visitors’ dugout. There’s third base ump Augie Donatelli possessed of one of the great baseball names sharing the jury duties with but two (not three) cohorts and and who could still be seen on a major league diamond when the writer of these words considered planetary and other matters through less-jaundiced peepers. There’s sallow-faced Gil Hodges coming to the dish “hotter than a two dollar pistol” who promptly smashes one over the left field wall. And there’s now-forgotten Dan Bankhead taking the mound for the Brooklyns—he, the first African American pitcher in the Bigs who debuted the same year as Robinson but now relegated to mere footnote status though Barber does point out his historical significance but a few years after that civil rights milestone.

And there are all the others luminaries of the era’s Big Apple baseball enacting their archetypal roles on the echoing green. Bobby Thomson, Eddie Stanky, Don Mueller, George Shuba, Alvin Dark, Carl Furillo, Pee Wee Reece, Whitey Lockman, Wes Westrum, managers Burt Shotton and Durocher and more all foreshadowing the tumultuous finale that boiled down to a heart-stopping crescendo in its dwindling regular season innings and, further down the pike, the epic epiphany a season and a Bobby Thomson swing of the bat hence at the Polo Grounds. They’re all there as real as any game to be heard in real time on any AM bandwidth or web stream next summer.

And, as if one cue, Barber casually reminds us that “anybody connected with baseball whines if you call it merely a game.”

But even the casual observer of the game can’t help but notice some of the changes in the way it was played. This may be most obvious in the way pitchers and relief pitchers are utilized. Here, but a few days into a new season, pitchers who started on Opening Day are warming up in the bullpens down the foul lines for spot relief duty in this ragged, high scoring tussle. That would never—repeat, NEVER—happen today.

Connie Desmond—Barber’s colleague in the booth for a long spell between 1943 and 1953 and who remained as a fixture there until 1956 when the juice got the better of him—takes the mic and solos through the eventful middle innings with more than a little flair as the Dodgers mount a frenzied rally in the fifth and knot the game at 5. I assume the game was also televised and that Red’s was the voice emanating from Ebbets via cathode to the then lucky few with an RCA, Sylvania or Magnavox in their living rooms or, just as likely, downing some suds in the tavern around the corner.

But for these interim frames at least, Desmond proves to be no slouch. Along with his scoreboard monitoring (always welcome but now brought to you by somebody trying to sell you something but then just a friendly courtesy), the Toledo, Ohio, native, who got his foot in the broadcasting door calling games for the wonderfully named Mud Hens, more than holds his own as a deft word portrait artist of high order.

Indulge me a few words on scoreboards and the watching of them if you will. Research indicates that long distance game monitoring and recreations date back to the very late 19th century. Scoreboards and their out-of-town tallies began taking on the form we now it in the 1920s when a huge one was was installed in Yankee Stadium for its 1923 opening. The earliest surviving audio recordings of baseball radio broadcasts seem mostly to include some mention of the doings on the diamonds in other burghs. Barber and, to a greater degree, Desmond notes the numbers coming in from points north, south and wast but I get a particular kick out of hearing that Warren Spahn is on the mound for the Braves (then still playing in Boston).

Even more his reference to “Greenberg Gardens,” Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field’s left field fence that had been moved in some thirty feet to accommodate the gargantuan slugger (and Jewish-American hero) Hank Greenberg after the Pirates acquired him from the Tigers for his final season in 1947. That swath in left field would be re-dubbed “Kiner’s Korner" in deference to Ralph Kiner (a Pirate and Greenberg accolyte) who smacked one over that same wall the very day of this broadcast. Kiner, of course, went on to become a beloved figure in New York City baseball as famous for his self-deprecating manner and own malapropos as his partners Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson in the Mets television and radio booths were for their eccentricities. And his one-of-a-kind postgame show was titled, appropriately enough, after that Forbes Field nook he once took such advantage of.

Early season scoreboard watching is a kind of reflex, a duty, something that needs to be done, an i that needs a dot and a t that needs a cross, a pale indicator. Something that is part of the job. But just wait a month or so as things heat up and actual pennants become tangible stakes. Technology, with its instantaneous ability to deliver not only scores but pitches as they are thrown, has, I suppose, taken much out of the fun of waiting for the announcers to share the latest tally of meaning. But turn off the iThing for a moment, get under the covers and listen to a game of import—hopes and dreams in the balance—and relish the excruciation of waiting to hear that out-of-town score on which those hopes and dreams (and so much more!) often also rest.

Barber’s backstory is the stuff of pure Americana and his longevity in the public eye remarkable. Set aside the fact that the first major league game he broadcast was also the first one he ever saw, his calls on some of the more memorable moments in baseball can still stop the heart. Cookie Lavagetto’s hit in the bottom of the ninth against the Yanks that broke up Bill Bevens’ no-no and won a game for the Dodgers in the ’47 series (“here comes the tying run and here comes the winning run!), Al Gionfriddo’s “back back back” circus catch off DiMaggio that same year, Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” in the ’51 playoffs, Roger Maris’ record-breaking 61st homer with asterisk or not… Red called ‘em all. And when he was resuscitated by National Public Radio for weekly spots in the 1980s, new generations of fans reveled in his easy-going charm and stories that always sounded a little tall just by the very nature his telling them.

Back in Flatbush and after some back-and-forth, the Dodgers prevail late in the cruelest month’s waning days and would continue to be a major force in game through the balance of their days in Brooklyn, winning four pennants and one glorious World Series until they left after the end of the ’57 season, the only one I was fortunate enough to share with them and Giants whilst they still danced within the city limits. By then, Red and Connie would be gone from the Brooklyn booth and a few years later, the ball yard too.

As I walk around the city these days, I’m continually reminded that it ceased being the one I grew up in a long time ago. Neighborhoods, with their fungi-like developments and increasingly ubiquitous chainstores, are becoming nearly indistinguishable from one another. In less morose moments I think of my mother’s mother Charlotte and her sister, my great aunt Mabel, daughters of East New York (and, to my fading recollection, Dodger fans) who were about my age now when I was born and had no doubt seen the city transform utterly before their very eyes as I have before mine. Mabel, the more bohemian among the two, after her nightly glass of vodka on the rocks (or two), would often quip, “Oh, the Village got fucked up in the ‘20s.” Cold comfort on a frigid Valentines Day.

And so, as Vonnegut wrote, it goes. Empires and their cities rise and fall as the shards of the past eventually disintegrate into rubble. That egg cream I mentioned is still there to be savored at Gem Spa, a deal can be had on a hot dog with sauerkraut and a piƱa colada at Papaya King on 72nd Street and Broadway, Carnegie Deli reopened the other day, Sammy’s Romanian is serving an oversized plate of brisket right now, and Wo-Hop survives another visit from the food inspector. Gold-plated railings still aid the descent onto the platforms of Pennsylvania Station as they did a half-century ago when all those columns around them fell and a ride on the Staten Island Ferry remains a cherished and very affordable nautical and scenic voyage.

The old Yankee Stadium is gone (now a field for the needy South Bronx) and Shea too (now a parking lot). Grandma Charlotte has long gone to dust and Mabel’s ashes settled in an urn on my mom’s Hudson Valley property under a slab of marble we seem unable to find under years of decaying autumn leaves, a grave we, contrary to Blind Lemon Jefferson’s blues plea, failed to keep clean.

Charlie Ebbets? He rests just up the hill in Green-Wood along with baseball’s father and box score inventor Henry Chadwick. James Creighton, the crafty Brooklyn Excelsiors’ pitcher and arguably baseball’s first superstar, slumbers under those Green-Wood slopes too. So does “Casey at the Bat” author DeWolf Hopper.

Red, also, no doubt wanders Valhalla’s starry dynamo. But, if only for a couple of hours and not moored in Brooklyn, his voice still lingers, not yet fallen away… or apart…

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