Growing up with the Dodgers
There must have been a time, somewhere in remote infancy, when I was unaware of score cards, ninth-inning rallies, and the Brooklyn Dodgers; but I can't remember that far back. And if we credit prenatal influence, even that premise of early insulation becomes questionable. My mother was an ardent baseball buff who relished an afternoon in the bleachers almost as much as a night at the opera.
I was born in Brooklyn, within a strong-armed rightfielder's throw from Prospect Park (which was hardly more than a bunt and a steal from the Dodger playing grounds at Ebbets Field). This was in a period of such antiquity that the local heroes of the diamond were still being referred to as the Robins, presumably in tribute to their rotund manager, Uncle Wilbert Robinson. The team was also known in some quarters as the Superbas, a wish-fulfillment fantasy that requires no explanation. The sobriquet of Dodgers, which ultimately struck, was a truncation of Trolley Dodgers; the ballpark was the last, best stop on the Tompkins Avenue line.
My first visit to the stadium came soon after my first pocket watch, probably at the age of eight. I was instantly captivated, not only by the pyrotechnics on the field but by the whole ambiance: the trim diamond surrounded by lush green turf, the pungent smells of peanuts, hot dogs, and mustard, the restless exhortations and explosive roar of the crowd, the colorful league flags fluttering above distant fences. The game was nice, too. I liked the whiplash grace of a third baseman's throw from the ''hot corner,'' the sharp crack of a line drive rifled into the outfield. And late arrival for dinner would be forgiven, especially during a series against the New York Giants.
The 1930s were an era of fewer teams and fiercer rivalries. The deadliest feud, warmly cherished by all parties, was between our gallant Dodgers and the detested Giants, denizens of the Polo Grounds across the Harlem River. A drubbing of the Giants, by anyone, was hailed with the same fervor as a Dodger victory.
These were not as frequent as could be desired. The Dodgers of the period were, to put it politely, an unusual ball club. Pitchers got lost on the way to the ballpark. Uncle Wilbert was known to doze off in the dugout while his charges performed. Nor could he always be blamed. One of his batting stars, gangling red-haired Babe Herman, was famous for catching fly balls on the top of his head. Lesser hitters, on the few occasions when they reached the base paths, were wont to have traffic problems; once a third of the team wound up in clustered confusion standing on the same base. Sportswriters chortled over the ''Daffiness Boys.''
None of which bothered us faithful. The Dodgers, in our eyes, brought an endearing incompetence to a monotonously efficient world. They made a fine art of bumbling. We jeered at them and cheered them with equal enthusiasm.
I enjoyed the special boon of a politician uncle who had ''contacts'' at Ebbets Field. I landed in his season's box often enough to store up some imperishable memories: the savage exhibition-game foul from the bat of Babe Ruth which, had it sailed a foot higher, might have given me a treasured souvenir (or a colossal bonk); the afternoon when strikeout king ''Dazzy'' Vance, a glowering Achilles of fearsome mien, warmed up within ten feet of where I sat; and - sweetest of boyhood triumphs - the sunny day when I met Charlie Ebbets himself! Uncle Jack, striding up the spectator ramp beside me, was greeted by a burly passer-by; within seconds I was personally shaking the hand of the man whose name was emblazoned across the entrance to the stadium. Greater love hath no uncle.
At long last I departed for ''out-of-town'' college, where for four years I was wrapped up in sports activities of my own. Upon graduation I toiled briefly for a New York newspaper, then packed my bags again for film-writing stints elsewhere.
I returned to find many things changed - but not the Dodgers. More bedraggled and ineffectual than ever, they were known fondly as ''Dem Bums,'' and cartooned by Willard Mullin as a woebegone tramp with holes in his shoes.
Then the miracle happened. In 1942 the Dodgers inexplicably won not only the National League pennant but the world championship. Back in journalism, I chronicled the ensuing celebration in Flatbush and soon after, carried away by native emotion, joined Dan Parker and Bud Green to honor the historicity of the occasion in song. Our Brooklynese ballad - ''Leave Us Go Root for the Dodgers, Rodgers'' - was performed by Leo Durocher over the NBC radio network.
Wartime duty put eight thousand miles between me and Ebbets Field. I came home to another welcome surprise from the Dodgers. They signed UCLA sports idol Jackie Robinson, who in a single glittering season broke the color line and the hearts of a dozen opposition pitchers.
In 1957 I was in Hollywood, writing a film about, of all things, the emotional crises of Boston outfielder Jim Piersall, when the Brooklyn baseball franchise was transferred west to plant the Dodgers once again on my doorstep. Today, making my home in California, I find the Los Angeles Dodgers solidly entrenched here, as much a part of the Southland scene as barbecues and bikinis.
But they are not, alas, the Dodgers of yesteryear. Gone are the tobacco-bulging jaws and picturesque peccadilloes. The modern gladiators of Chavez Ravine are neatly barbered members of the upper middle class who travel in a private plane, subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, and collect more for one TV commercial than old-time sluggers earned in an entire season. Having swapped poker for press agents, they submit graciously to interviews where they deliver polysyllabic observations in well-tailored phrases. There is an ugly rumor that next year's rookies will be obliged to wear jackets and ties at the Florida training table.
Even that, I am prepared to forgive. Because underneath the shiny facade of the 1980s Dodgers I shall always see the grubby outlines of my boyhood heroes, those lovable misfits whose standard they bear. And who could get mad at the Daffiness Boys?