Howie Rose photo by Kevin Ryan

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Catch, The Throw & A Day In The Bleachers

It’s not every game or recording of a sixty-two-year-old broadcast that comes with its own classic of baseball journalism. But the first game of the 1954 World Series—famous in its own right for reasons hopefully well-familiar to any even casual historian of the sport—was rather miraculously chronicled in a tome renowned more for its insightful, literary worth than its slender girth: Arnold Hano’s masterpiece in miniature, A Day In The Bleachers.

Hano, at 94 still alive at the present time to paraphrase Casey Stengel, is among the most prolific scribes of American sports and letters of the past century having penned dozens of books and countless articles on a variety of topics with a focus on the younger set with titles like Sandy Koufax: Strikeout King, Roberto Clemente: Batting King, and Muhammad Ali: The Champion. And he seems to have a taste for the Western genre as titles like Bandolero attest. But with A Day in the Bleachers he essentially invented a little visited or attempted micro-genre that defies label but essentially devotes itself to the documentation of a single game. Daniel Okrent’s 9 Innings deconstructs a long-forgotten 1982 Brewers-Orioles game and Ron Darling’s hot-off-the-presses Game 7, 1986: Failure and Triumph in the Biggest Game of My Life are a couple that quickly spring to mind.

But these books, fine as they are, are devoid of the special man-on-the-street charm Hano serves up in his peculiar fan’s notes. Where the latter efforts emphasize the the designated game’s strategic nuances—the thousands of them—that compromise any given sporting contest, Hano plunges us into the maw of the left field bleachers in Upper Manhattan’s Polo Grounds, that mystical ball yard of yore and provides the intrepid reader with the very scent and beating heart of the moment. From his spur-of-the-moment decision to venture to the game on its dawn to its last, fateful pitch in the late afternoon of an early autumn in New York, we feel the arc of the day and the author’s companionship.

Reading along with Hano’s book while listening to the surviving, gnarly recording (Selections 177-182 @ provides something of a revelation. The writer’s attention to detail and power of recall (and, no doubt, a well-annotated scorecard) are acute. I imagine that scorecard filled with tiny, exquisite notations marking both specific ABs and the colorful characters (complete with their quirky quips and salty barbs) of those seated on the splintery green Polo Grounds’ bleacher planks around him.

The longer form medium of a book affords it’s writer a relaxed view and ex post facto consideration of the day’s events (and advents!) that unfolded before him. Observer, participant and celebrant, Hano makes no bones as to his allegiance to the Giants, the team he professes to have and no doubt adored since his youth. Throughout this memoir of a day, he intermittently peppers his reportage with Proustian remembrances of games past recalling the exploits of the sport’s late 1920-‘40s superstars, flashes-in-the-pan and thudding busts. A recollection of the bizarrely and prosodically named Van Lingle Mungo, a temperamental Brooklyn fireballer later immortalized Dave Frishberg’s autumnal novelty song (, is one of a passel of such quick studies Hano offers up throughout his book like so many easy warm-up tosses. Nearly every aspect of the reading experience acts like one of Marcel’s sweet madeleines, setting off torrents of recall as games of old and their players come to life once more. Particularly poignant is Hano’s mini-profile of Bob Feller, the Tribe’s then-aging hurler entering the twilight of his career and his best, great dayswhen his fastball was a marvel that enthralled a nationrapidly becoming an afterthought.

Up in the broadcast booth Al Helfer (a Dodger broadcaster previously encountered on this blog: and the new to me Jimmy Dudley provide solid coverage of the action. Dudley, in particular, is something of a revelation. With his genteel Virginia drawl and easy-going “aw shucks” on-air persona, he comes off as something more than a poor man’s Red Barber who, I suppose due to his national popularity, often (perhaps too often) got the nod from the networks to handle the big, high-profile games. Dudley’s observations scan to the ear quite similarly to Hano’s breezy text causing one to wonder if a bleacher denizen sitting nearby brought his own transistor radio to game within earshot of the writer whose prose coincidentally mimics some of Dudley’s vocabulary—common as it might sometimes be—if not his cadence. For his part, Hano, at one point in his book, raises an eyebrow at those who deign to bring their radios to games as if scolding them for not relying on their own eyes and ears in absorbing the experience of the game in and of itself.

Like a fine short story writer, Hano subtly builds the dramatic conflict that suffuses this game’s edgy narrative which Helfer and Dudley only nominally recognize: the brawny thick lumber-wielding and truly terrifying Indian batsman Vic Wertz and the mercurial artist of the game, Willie Mays. Though Mays had made his major league debut in 1951, a stint in the service had him mostly sidelined until ’54 which came to be his real coming out soiree and of which he made the most of in leading the Senior Circuit in hitting while dazzling the country with his myriad, exemplary tools. The “Say Hey Kid” could, seemingly do it all, be it at the dish, on the base paths and, perhaps most theatrically, in centerfield where he flashed leather like very, very few, if any, had before of have since, tracking down loops, bloops, blasts and drives usually with his black cap twirling off his round head as if snatched by Zephyr himself.

Wertz—he of the big bat and plodding feet—embodied much of what characterized the Tribe’s record-setting 111-win rampage to the AL flag. Hano, however, parses the illusion of Cleveland’s dominance with the tutored eye of a future SABR-stician worthy of a gig with Nate Silver’s by pointing out how the team was a kind of mistake by the lake in grabbing the pennant the old-fashioned way: beating up on the second division teams (the Philly A’s, newly-minted Baltimore Orioles, Senators, Tigers, etc.) who, on a clear day, could glimpse fourth place while essentially playing to a draw with the Yanks and Chisox. The Bronx Bombers, for instance, won a more than very impressive 103 games that year but were still eight games off the pace when the  curtain fell on the regular season. Thus, in drawing the Giants, who stormed into the Series as a scalding squad, they were set to meet their match and, as it transpired, looming doom and Maker.

For those unfamiliar with the legend of “The Catch,” allow me the briefest of dissertations. In the top of the eighth inning with the teams knotted at two, the Indians mounted a rally. And, with one out and two men aboard, Cleveland slugger Vic Wertz walloped a drive into the depths of the Polo Grounds’ immense centerfield. Taking off with he crack of the bat, Mays turned his back to the field, raced to the wall and pulled down the drive over is shoulder. What is often lost in the play’s recounting is the throw Mays executed on the cusp of his catch, twirling and hurling the ball back to the infield and blunting any possibility of the runners advancing. Surviving footage and photos of the play only hint at it and the surviving broadcast, ironically, seems to have lost the play to its technical flaws. Only Hano’s reportage has preserved the scene in its entirety.

As a boy and even then a budding student of the game and its associated lore, I was always fascinated by just how handily the Jints disposed of the Indians in their fabled and ferocious four-game sweep. But Hano’s breakdown provides a nice, cursory study of the truth of the aphorism “there are lies, damn lies and statistics” underlying the fallacy of the Indians’ underwhelming—when you look it at closely with a jaundiced, scrutinizing eye—win total.

And, natch, I was also always fascinated, nay, enthralled by Willie Mays, second only in my youthful idolatry to Mickey Mantle. This was due, in no small part to the mythos and images connected with “The Catch,” but also because, quite simply, he was baseball’s most dynamic (and probably still its best-ever) player as I came to baseball consciousness. Even merely saying the words “Willie Mays” continue to bring a certain excitement and magic. After the Yankees and Mets, the San Francisco Giants were and remain my favorite baseball team outside the five boroughs, inspired no doubt from my readings of “The Catch,” seeing the old newsreel clip Bobby Thomson’s 1951 “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” complete with Russ Hodges’ frothy call and, I like to think, an intuitive knowledge that San Francisco was then, anyway, a cool place. Plus, I liked the mythological ring to the name “Giants” and uniform aesthetics. Something about that orange and black…

Central to my worship of Mays was the iconic image of Willie—his back to the camera, arms and mitt outstretched to the the Polo Grounds deep centerfield limits, the ball a nanosecond away from striking it… and eternity…

The photo—rather a cropped version of it—quite appropriately adorns my later edition of A Day in the Bleachers. I have gazed at the photo and other versions of it literally hundreds, if not thousands, of times yet have been often struck by its oddness. One’s eye is immediately drawn to Mays but the large “batter’s eye” tarp that blocked off the edge of the right field bleachers and a staple in ballparks so as to give the hitter a neutral (and safe) backdrop on which to better see the ball being served up by a pitcher, looms behind and over Mays as if it were a barrier separating mortal life from a void of non-moving things.

What makes the complete image on the cropped version splayed on the book’s cover so strange are the fans who, in some fashion, resemble those Hano describes seated around him in left field. Because of the batter’s eye and the warning track depth at which Mays made or was about to make his snare, these spectators rising from the top of the tarp, appear blocked or momentarily blinded from the miraculous unfolding below them due to a steep and impossible angle. There are five or six  rows of men—all, it appears, men—white and black in the photo. Some are youngish in their later teens and twenties, some older and some quite a bit older. A number—mostly the African-Americans—wear Fedoras and like chapeaus favored at the time. Except the fellows in the front row above the tarp, nearly all stand as if searching for something, for Mays. But their eyes appear not to be fixed below them but rather out toward space or some sort of unnameable vacuum.

Gazes seemingly set someplace else, these men—now all or nearly gone from our jumping blue/green sphere—juxtaposed with Mays’ immaculate reception, this cropped version of “The Catch” somehow and for whatever reason for me invoke the monumental mid-16th century oil painting, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” attributed to Pieter Bruegel, The Elder. This masterwork of the late Western European Renaissance displays a landscape where ordinary folk go about their daily toils at once humdrum yet vital to sustaining life in many socio-economic forms. In the foreground, a plough man drives his horse churning up soil in oblong rows. A shepherd behind him roams with his wayward flock by the shore’s edge. Ships both near and distant are anchored or sail through a kind of mist to a lively port of a jewel of a city rising in the distance, nestled amidst a craggy shoreline around a murky, turquoise Aegean. Behind it stark mountains rise to some sort of luminous heaven. Barely noticeable amidst the action are two legs, a hand and what may be the wispy remnant of melted wax wings making barely a splash into the dusky waters in the painting’s bottom right corner. An angler, just feet from the incident, seems to have any chance of glimpsing Icarus but even he seems to have missed it—his head tilted too far downward. And a sailor climbing the rigging of the merchant ship nearby seems too involved with his dangerous task to take notice. Only the pheasant above a tree near the angler seems to have any chance of seeing, if not perceiving, the mythic moment. Even if any of them might have seen the tragic fall as Icarus’ faux wings ignited and he plummeted back to Earth, none of them could have saved him. But here they don’t even have a tale to tell.

But that, as any Art History 101 student knows, is not the point of the painting at least in the eyes of scholars who obsess on such matters. No, they suggest (as do W.C. Williams and W.H. Auden both of whom penned poems in homage of the oil) that the meaning to be derived is that while tremendous feats—be they brave or foolhardy—are attempted all around us all the time, few, if any of us, take or appear to take notice. Whether it is Man’s indifference to human suffering, the species’ distraction with itself or an inability to grasp and appreciate the miraculous even when it is served up right before them, we just go on plodding along, tilling that land as the planet makes yet another meaningless spin.

Mays soars like Icarus to touch the sun. But unlike that Greek freak who wound up just a mass mess on the bright, blue Aegean, he breaks through to the Heavens, far beyond the center of the solar system to a sacred space wear angels never fear to tread.

The image of Mays on the cover of Hano’s book is, itself, an illusion or white lie as it is, in fact and as previously alluded, a cropped version of a much wider shot that clearly show that the balance of those 50K-plus packed into the Polo Grounds, saw the play unfold in real time apparently just luckier to have secured a ducat that afforded them an unobstructed vista.

This wider shot portraying its own landscape in its fuller glory, with dozens more fans and, by extension, the entire ballpark (and, to me, implicitly, the very breadth of humanity), recalls an even more revered Renaissance masterpiece, perhaps Western Civilization’s most awe-inspiring artwork: the hand of God reaching out to bring life to Adam in Michelangelo’s centerpiece fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In the wider, unedited shot of Mays and in Michelangelo’s fresco, others are witness to the act (or, at least, an act) of Creation.

The captured moment is a kind of visual anointment much like Michelangelo’s holy vision—the ball guided into Mays’ mitt as if, itself, was touched by the hand of God. And if not God, then Michelangelo could have carved out Mays’ very features as he, in his fleeting prime, remains the very physical embodiment of the classic baseball player. Hano, himself, describes Mays as a objet d’art or , at least, an artist into and of himself in the early pages of A Day in the Bleachers when describing the centerfielder take fielding practice, and lacing throws from the depths of the outfield on a dime to third base hundreds of feet away: “On this early afternoon, Mays did not seem to be Mays either. He appeared superhuman…only a man like Mays makes it a work of art.”

I saw Willie Mays play baseball primarily on the tube when the Giants played the Mets but also with these two eyes surprisingly precious few times live and in person at Shea. I think the only time I saw him in his late prime would have been on a weekend afternoon in the summer of 1965 or thereabouts, a game I have virtually no recollection save the crisp $5 bill I found blowing around my feet as I sat with my father and a friend along the third base line. Memories of the game aside, the Mays I witnessed in the mid-1960s was still a phenom, a veritable force of nature. Even more than Mantle, who by then had eroded considerably, the skills and accompanying charisma of Willie Mays was a near intoxicant. Every gesture, step, swing, throw or catch carried with it a keen sense of rhythm, expectation and execution. I wore a San Francisco Giant cap to the game that day and if I had a corresponding jersey, you can bet that it would have had a #24 on its back.

By the time he came back to New York to play for the Mets in ’72, Willie was on his last legs. Sure, his game-winning blast to beat the Giants in his first game as a Metropolitan was pure poetry and irony rolled into one. But his whole visage during those last two seasons was as of a hollow man or maybe, to invoke Hemingway’s ghost, an “Old Man of the Sea,” that luckless Cuban fisherman who mused upon the great DiMaggio as an ocean’s monster, hook firmly entrapped in its mouth, dragged the dying man’s dingy ‘cross the choppy Caribbean… an old soul fading into wispy ash…

My final, lasting memories of Mays the ballplayer unfold like a triptych over the course of his last season a year hence.

On Bloomsday 1973 and on the same afternoon Secretariat stormed to thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, I was at Shea with a couple of high school friends to see Mays hit one of his last home runs, #656 off San Diego Padre Randy Jones making his Big League debut in relief  (“Welcome to the majors, kid”). As he pigeon-toed his way around the bases, shoulders hunched, arms close to his chest, my friends and I rejoiced amidst the Flushing throng, well-knowing that this was, indeed, a moment to cherish. Willie Mays—mortal man or immortal deity, who could say?

Some months later, after one of the more wild-and-wooly division races in the modern era, I was sitting in the left field upper deck of the third game of the ’73 NLCS series when, after Pete Rose assaulted Buddy Harrelson in their infamous dust-up at second base, the partisans in the stands around me grew way more than a little rabid, hurling objects—half-filled beer cans and the like—down on Rose (already a known asshole at that point) who had taken his position below us. It was, legitimately, frightening to the sixteen-year-old version of myself what with passions percolating to near-riot proportions. Truly, I have never been in a crowd that was so close to crossing the line from unruly civility to mayhem and that includes any one of a number of protests from Viet Nam to Occupy. The expression of vitriol prompted Reds’ skipper Sparky Anderson to pull his entire squad off the field until emotions quelled lest the Mets—gulp!—forfeit the game. And as those half-consumed cans of Rheingold whizzed past my skull, I could feel the stirrings of panic.

But, as if on cue, Mays, Tom Seaver, manager Yogi Berra, and (bat in-hand) Rusty Staub trepidatiously stepped  towards the lion’s den motioning with their hands as a teacher might to a chaotic classroom for everyone to cool it. The fans eventually did and the Mets went on to romp.

A few days later in the second game of the ’73 World Series against the formidable Oakland A’s, there was Mays on his knees, arms raised, his face contorted as he argued an extra innings out at home call with the fantastically named umpire Augie Donatelli. Here is Mays as a man—just a man—karma and luck and skills faded, beseeching a dark specter for a sign of life nowhere in sight. Earlier in that game, Mays (now nineteen years removed from the state of grace that enveloped him on the Polo Grounds’ sylvan plains in ‘54) had flubbed two very catchable fly balls under a blinding Bay Area sun that appeared to melt his mortal wings. Mays was forty-two years old that day—an age my son and I are nearly equidistance to but Willie looked older than the two of us put together. Sluggish and in a sort of demented haze, here was the very image and definition of a man who had continued to play a boy’s game for too long even if he did Baltimore Chop the game’s winning hit. Mays announced his retirement after that game effective after the Series finale.

Mays is, of course, mortal. And like The Mick, now twenty years gone, and my own mom, still extending her AB, all of whom were born within days of one another in 1931’s mid-spring, he, too, will be remembered only for as long as memory, in its fickleness, might allow.

We are all living myths. We all wear at least a few of God’s thousand masks and all possess a bit of Icarus within us. And Mays, who danced among the deities longer than any of us could ever wish or hope for ourselves, endured a final Icarusian flight and fall of a sort. Nearly thirty years after his final game, there he sat on the Giants’ bench in the 7th inning of Game Six, wearing civvies, sporting a black Giants cap with its interlocking S &F, sipping champagne in Anaheim, comfortable (too comfortable) with San Francisco’s seeming insurmountable five-zip lead as the visitors poised to win their first crown since the hallowed October of ’54. This optic had bad juju written all over it and, sure enough and fast as you can say “Barry Bonds did steroids,” the Baseball Gods took notice, the Angels’ rally monkeys did their voodoo, the hometown mounted a stirring comeback, and surged to win the game and next one as the jinxed Jints let another season crumble in ignominy. Never S on or, especially, F with the Baseball Gods…

Hano's book is better than nearly any baseball film and, here, it tops the word pictures stroked in the squeally, extant audio of the broadcast. But the photo of “The Catch”—an actual picture that has spawned thousands of words—might top them both.

Mays’ exploits on that mid-afternoon under Coogan’s Bluff in ’54 marked a kind of baptism for the burgeoning superstar Hall-of-Famer. And if momentum in baseball is real, “The Catch” and less-heralded “Throw” that kept the baserunners moored to their stations, were a turning point in the game and, probably, the series. The game’s final swing was off the bat of pinch-hitter Dusty Rhodes—no colossus he if but for these autumn days in ’54—whose cheapo Polo Grounds special and big blasts and bloops in the coming days wold herald him as one of those fleeting heroes of October.

Rhodes’ walk-off, really a pop-fly that landed in the first row of the Polo Grounds right field seats, might have been caught in a ball yard with more forgiving real estate. And how fitting that Cleveland's right fielder, a late game defensive sub, carried a surname with one that matched that of the only one could commission a fresco on a Vatican chapel ceiling so long ago: Dave Pope.

Be it true or apocryphal, there is a wonderful, quite humorous anecdote accompanying the aftermath of Mays’ fielding epiphany. Tracking the game through the recording, book and box score, one can see the gears inside Giants’ manager Leo Durocher’s head awhirl. Before Wertz took his fateful swing, Leo summoned lefty reliever Don Liddle to spell Sal Maglie who had pitched a gutty game but now left men on first and second with just one out. Liddle tossed but one pitch and though Wertz’s drive, Mays catch and subsequent throw are the stuff of legend, it appears as a mere out in the box score. Durocher, either having seen enough or just wanting to play the righty-lefty match-up game, sent his pitching coach, Freddie Fitzsimmons, to give Liddle the hook. Upon arriving on top of the hill, the reliever is said to have looked the coach in the eye and, handing him the ball, said, “I got my guy.”

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
By W.C. Williams

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was

Icarus drowning

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.

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…