Howie Rose photo by Kevin Ryan

Monday, March 21, 2016

Helluva Town: A Rhapsody in Red, Tom & Ty

Creeping around the deepest catacombs of the archive, blowing dust off the ancient tomes, flickering candle in hand, one can, with a bit of luck, unearth a previously overlooked entry in the canon.

I’ve had this recording of the third game of the 1936 World Series in my hard drive and on my portable sound device for more than many moons but never given it the deep listen I now hear it deserved long ago. Simply put, this blast from the Depression-era past, is among the richest antique reels one is likely to encounter in the cobweb-thick library of online sound.

The ’36 Series pitted a legendary Yankee squad (one of the game’s most celebrated) against the cross-Harlem River rivals—the Giants of Coogan’s Bluff. Both teams (but especially the Bronx Boys) could boast rosters of veritable who’s whos brimming with future Hall of Famers. Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, Lefty Gomez, and skipper Joe McCarthy are six Yanks I count off the top of my head with Carl Hubbell, Mel Ott and Bill Terry quickly springing to mind when conjuring the Giants’ roster—all then as now marquee names with copper plaques hanging in Cooperstown attesting to the glory of their time. That’s nearly a full line-up if you have McCarthy at the helm and don’t mind sticking one of the pitchers in the outfield and one of the first basemen over to third and… oh well, you get the idea.

This third game of the series—transpiring on the baseball-specific auspices date of October 3rd when so many historically-laden moments in the game’s lore played themselves out the brilliant light of early autumn (think Bobby Thomson for starters)—took place under near optimum climatic conditions and commenced with the teams knotted at a game apiece. The Giants captured the premier tilt in a ragged, rain-soaked affair at the Polo Grounds two days prior and the Yanks took Game Two the day before in a lopsided contest marked by Tony Lazerri’s grand slam, only the second ever to be struck in an October Classic. Somewhat tangentially, Lazerri was the first major leaguer to strike two bases-full blasts in one game just earlier that season and completed his “natural” cycle with a grand salami in ’32 in a game against the Athletics in Philadelphia’s Shibe Park that also saw Gehrig smash four dingers. Game Two of the ’36 series, it should also be noted by any copious note takers, was also attended by President (and New York native and former state governor) Franklin D. Roosevelt and concluded with a memorable catch by DiMaggio who tracked down a long fly ball after which he kept on running to and up the steps to the Yankee clubhouse in deep center field.

Radio had ceased being novel by the mid-1930s but, I imagine, a nationally broadcast World Series that brought the games into the living rooms, candy stores, soda fountains, and gas stations and most remote watering holes of the of the Lower 48 and perhaps beyond, must still have been a kind of minor revelation. Folks in say, Des Moines or even better yet, Walla-Walla, were delivered right to that press box in Yankee Stadium’s middle tier with a pigeon’s-eye view of the action. Even without the sheen of novelty (the first Series games were broadcast in 1921), the literal and figurative power this had on the popular imagination must have been enormous. Really, until television came along anyway, most Americans had never seen a big league ball game.

My wife, though not much of a baseball mystic herself and a Floridian, has a small place in her heart for the Pittsburgh Pirates due only to the fact that her beloved and long-gone uncle Felix fell in love with them, captivated by their late-inning, come-from-behind 1925 seventh game victory over the Washington Senators whilst he sat riveted to the radio somewhere in Chicopee, Mass. That Felix soon went blind—smacked by retinitis pigmentosa—and would live out many decades to come with the radio counted among his best friends, somehow adds to the poignancy of Felix’s loyalty to the Bucs.

My own dad was never, as I think I have occasionally alluded to on “Painting The Word Picture,” much of a sports guy either in the playing or consumption of. Sure, he, somewhat grudgingly, shepherded me to any number of sporting affairs in my youth. A “Bat Day” at the Stadium, a few Columbia-Harvard football games at Baker Field when it was not much more than a splintery green wooden grandstand, an outing to Belmont Park to soak in its grandeur while passing on a lesson in finance and speculation to his progeny, and bizarrely but rather fitting to his odd nature, a polo match at the old armory on Madison Avenue between 94th and 95th streets, the vestiges of which still stand as part of Hunter College High School. We were at the ballpark in the Bronx, somewhat astoundingly, when Mantle hit his 500th homer of Baltimore’s Stu Miller in May ‘67. And we went to the the fifth and deciding game of the 1973 NLCS when the Mets made us all believers for a few, fleeting October moments as I pranced with the throngs after the final out on the Shea infield sending brown dust clouds to the heavens in thanks to our improbable victors and Spiro Agnew’s resignation as vice president that same afternoon.

Always, though, he seemed way more interested in completing the Times crossword puzzle—a daily ritual no ball game was ever going to interrupt—than in the consequences of a home team pitching change.

He kept a casual eye on sports and certain games did seem to bring out the rare, inner boy in him. Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary that propelled BU to a big win in ’84 seemed to catch his fancy and he almost eschewed atheism when Harvard “beat” Yale 29-29 in ’68… if ya know what I’m saying…

When querying him on the baseball days of yore in his youth, the one and virtually only name that invariably spilled from his lips was Bill Terry, the New York Giants player-manager first baseman. My dad would have been eleven when the game highlighted here was played and while I like to conjure an image of him hunkered down by one of those oversized radios in his family’s Westchester parlor bowing in humble supplication of Terry, I more imagine him in his bedroom practicing his knot-tying in preparing for a Boy Scout test, oblivious to the fabulous frames of a great game being contested twenty-some miles to his south.

Too bad if not because this was the sort of baseball game that well could turned even the most casual observer into a believer, especially if that casual observer had a weak spot for the well-spun pitcher’s duel. But why not say we shelve the nitty-gritty finger nail chewing for just a bit.

The first thing one might notice upon first encountering this nearly 80-year-old recording is its sketchy fidelity. But once the ears become accustomed to its hiss and scratch, the intrepid listener will come to embrace its baroque ornamentation. Blow the dust off this Old Master and behold the extraordinary detail of the brushstrokes on the aural canvas. Prick up the ears just a little and the slap of a hardball smacking a catcher’s mitt or the crack of a bat off that same ball can be easily discerned. And, along with the shouts of the fans (all 64,842 of them) rising and falling throughout, specific voices and even the occasional ump’s “stee-rike” bark or a vendor’s carney cry spring from the din. Really, it sounds (and feels) as if one is right there at 161st Street and River Ave.

This recording of the game (download here: is sourced from the NBC broadcast but that two other national feeds (CBS and the now defunct Mutual) also sent signals from the ballpark attest to the keen popularity of the sport when it truly was the National Pastime. NBC tapped a trio of the top guys to handle the play-by-play chores, covering three innings apiece: Tom Manning, Red Barber and Ty Tyson. Each, in their own way, is quite superb and the three inning appropriation give ample samples to savor their individual stylings.

One of the elucidating joys of delving into these old-time reels is the sense of discovery that can be had from uncovering a ballplayer of forgotten renown that had heretofore escaped the lay historian’s previous notice or hindsight appreciation. I had heard the name Freddie Fitzsimmons before but always as a second fiddle to his more famous pitching teammate, the screwball maestro Carl Hubbell. Take a peek at Fitzsimmons’ 217-146 won/lost record, though, and you will find a pitcher whose numbers stack up well against his more celebrated teammate and who made quite the mark in his 19-year career. Oh yeah, he threw junk.

In listening to Manning, Barber and Tyson call this taut affair, the magnificence of “Fat Freddie,” as he was affectionately dubbed, shines brighter than any of the Hall of Famers on display this particular afternoon. As he paints corners, challenges hitters and otherwise stymies a Yankee squad of some great repute, the listening experience is not unlike happening upon a less well-known side player in, say, the Ellington or Basie bands of the same era. Sure, along with Duke and the Count, the names and sounds of Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Sonny Greer, Lester Young and Jo Jones are, of course, well known and obvious. But the seasoned jazz maven, with some dedicated, take-no-prisoners hardcore listening will, eventually, come to cherish and relish in the genius and individually-nuanced voices of Herschel Evans, Cootie Williams, Dickie Welles, or Barney Bigard to name just a few.

To extend the general metaphor to a deeper, arguably more consequential historical dive, appreciation of FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins—her nuanced work in congealing American labor with the New Deal might be seen as resonant with players in the line-up and/or on the bandstand whose contributions to the body politic or team or sound still echo.

Even before the first pitch, the raucous crowd is in high enthusiastic attendance. These were the days before season ticket plans ensured large swaths if seats would be accounted for much less the corporate swells paying their luxury box tribute. No, I imagine most of these ducats were snared by hearty general admission souls waiting in long pre-dawn lines—every man for himself. And given the proximity of both teams’ home grounds in plain view of one another just across the broiling Harlem River, this game seems equally populated by partisans of each team if these ears are an accurate gauge. Further, if the scant photographic evidence on the www is reliable, I’d wager that few fannies attached to women or children (or, for that matter, African-Americans) were squirming in Yankee Stadium seats on this particular day.

Gehrig’s 2nd inning blast may be the highlight of the recording if only for reasons pertaining to sentimentality. Running the count to 2-2 after burying a foul homer on the previous pitch (just a strike on a scorecard), Lou raked a monster four-hundred-plus foot blast over the high right field wall and, according to Manning, doffs his cap upon crossing the plate—the era’s version of today’s curtain call I suppose, as the Yanks take a 1-0 lead.

Noting Manning’s “it’s going going going gone” call on Lou’s shot may be the earliest evidence of this well-worn but still very much deployed phrase and begs for, at least, a little insight into Manning himself. Turns out this guy was one of the first of the first. Even before radio became a thing, teams of all levels typically hired a fellow with a big, booming voice, handed him a megaphone and had him announce line-ups, roster changes and, naturally, balls and strikes throughout the game standing behind home plate and proclaiming the information to the assembled masses. Really, these were the public address announcers of their day before ball yards were wired with microphones and speakers. Manning, a Cleveland, Ohio, native who enjoyed a long broadcasting career as the voice of the Indians, had won a yelling contest—a folksy competition still practiced in some rural backwaters—which won him local notice and a ring announcer gig at local boxing matches. When he took over the chores as plate announcer at League Park, then the Indians’ home field in 1918, he was poised to work the mic when the new fangled wireless technology established itself in homes and ballparks across the land.

His style is, as expected, loud and breathy, but he is a solid and descriptive if not particularly florid journalist whose contribution to the evolution of the peculiar genre of spoken word with which this blog is concerned.

I like the way he provides a good lay of the Stadium’s land and dimensions and his description of the team’s uniforms—a tradition that continues at least with the Mets’ current radio guys—much relished. FYI, the Giants’ unis of the late 1930s were highlighted with accents of blue and red, not (to my eyes the more visually striking and familiar) orange and black.

Manning’s note of Lazerri’s grand slam—as mentioned, only the second in Series play up that point—the day before is appreciated, especially as he points out a new-to-me historical oddity. It seems that the first Series grand slam (Cleveland’s Elmer Smith’s first inning four-bagger) and still it’s only triple play (the Tribe’s Bill Wambsganss’ unfathomable unassisted advent) both occurred in the same 5th game in 1920 that propelled the hometown team to victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers. That Manning, an Indian employee at the time, was undoubtedly at the game, its highlights must have forever seared themselves into his memory and I would safely wager that his witness of Lazerri’s bases-clearing blast made him perhaps the only man walking Planet Earth at the time to have seen both its Series’ grand slams in person which, then, was the only way one could have done so.

Lazerri, his better days behind him, strikes out in this AB but, crafty veteran that he was, would find a way to leave his mark on matters when all was said and done.

And I get a special kick out of hearing Frank Crosetti’s name being called here for, as the Yanks’ third base coach of my earliest baseball consciousness, he was the embodiment and connection to the team’s exalted mid-century grandeur—a link to not just the ’36 team, but to Ruth and all that came before him . . . the Highlanders and all that. And I can’t help but think that the presence of three Italian-Americans on the ’36 team must have endeared the Bombers to its denizens who could boast of their Mediterranean heritage. When the “Old Crow” as he was known when he was waving runners around third when I was a kid, strikes out to end the bottom of the third, Fitzsimmons, despite Gehrig’s heroics, is clearly hitting his dominant stride.

Further extending the temporal line forward, DiMaggio’s presence on the field somehow brings to mind Derek Jeter. ’36 was DiMaggio’s rookie season and, magically, his grace and leadership somehow shine even through an ancient audio record and conjure Jeter’s emergence sixty years hence. We know that DiMag, he, like Lazerri and Crosetti, sons of northern California, will go onto achieve greatness and create a classy (if phony as it turns out) veneer that Jeter would, on the face of things, embrace with sincerity. And his double in the 4th shines here—a sign of things to come in a mythic career.

The Yanks’ starting pitcher—Irving Darius “Bump” Hadley, another name new to these ears—proves to be equally deft in keeping the Giants off the board even as he scatters hits until centerfielder Jimmy Ripple rifles one into the deep right field grandstands leading off the top of the fifth.

As the game proceeds and one broadcaster takes over from the other every three innings, it is striking how quickly the game flows. Some of this is, of course, due to the general nature of the unfolding pitchers’ duel. Batters appear to be staying in the box (no stepping out after every pitch to adjust batting gloves or knock dirt off spikes with a bat) and visits to the mound are few and very far between if there are any at all. The pitchers work very fast and batters (who, remember, wore no protective head gear at the time) are up there swinging. The rapid turnaround time between innings is also impressive as are the complete lack of sponsors or commercial plugs. Really, it’s as if consumerism—if not capitalism—took a breather.

Barber works the middle innings but even at this early career juncture, his sound is the sound of someone going places. No, this short, three frame cameo does not really give him space to spread his wings, but Red exhibits the eye of poet when describing the sky’s “egg blue” shade, first base ump “rope skipping” to evade a hard hit foul or a fan catching a ball in his hat.

Coincidentally, each broadcaster calls a run apiece and Ty Tyson was lucky enough to draw the short straw and take the helm for the final three innings and its near breathless finale as both teams threaten but only one breaking through when it counted. It is Lazerri and Crosetti who provide key contributions and leave Fitzsimmons the hard luck loser, neither the sport’s first or last.

It occurs to me that world of Uncle Felix and my dad eighty years ago was not too much different than the one we inhabit today. The country was still very much in the grip of extreme economic stress and dark clouds and their violent winds of uncertainty blew across large oceans from distant lands. A presidential election loomed and while the country was not exactly divided in the surreal freak show fashion of this particularly alarming campaign season, company goons were busting automobile workers over the head in Flint, soup kitchen lines stretched for blocks, a controversial Olympics was staged in Berlin, refugees of the Tom Joad Dust Bowl variety were not exactly met with open arms in California’s Garden of Eden, nobody except the 1% had any do-re-mi, and strange fruit swung from Jim Crow’s poplar trees south of the line surveyed by Mason and Dixon.

Mark Twain observation that “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes” is more chilling than assuring. And a mentor of mine often reminded all who would listen that, “You don’t have to keep kosher, just continuity.”

From the Highlanders to Ruth to DiMaggio to Crosetti to Mantle to Munson to Randolph to Mattingly to Jeter to whoever is coming next, baseball keeps its continuity while rhyming with all that came before it. And from the old voices of the game, the word artists and keen observers who established the template for what we hear in a baseball game on the radio and “how” we hear it—from Manning to Barber to Rizzuto to Howie Rose, the patterns and customs, the catch phrases and cornpone, the theatrics, minutiae and opera of it all seem only slightly changed when listening to old games like this. Comfort—and one not taken for granted—in a colder and darkening world.

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