Keeping True

On Father’s Day 2019, I performed an act my own late father might’ve considered sacrilegious. I attended a Dodgers game in Chavez Ravine.

To mitigate my baseball transgression I cheered for the visitors not the home nine.

Father was a Brooklyn Dodgers man through and through. The Los Angeles Dodgers could never have engaged his rooting interest.

Growing up in the Jim Crow South as father did, the American Pastime did not lure him in his boyhood. After all, the Major Leagues remained segregated well into his manhood. If he ever managed to develop a rooting interest, the Washington Senators were closest club to his boyhood home. Not only were the Senators woeful (“Washington. First in war. First in peace. Last in the American League.”), but their ownership practiced a malignant racism.

Back then, though, what professional baseball organization didn’t adhere to the gentlemen’s agreement that excluded blacks from the diamond?

Father played baseball as a boy. Maybe he also might’ve followed Negro League teams. Like millions of ignored non-whites, major league baseball did not draw him as it did his Anglo fellow Americans until Jackie Robinson’s arrival.

Enough cannot be said about what Robinson’s wizardry between the first- and third-baselines meant to all of America, not just its suppressed populaces. During World War II, blacks contributed mightily to defeating fascism abroad yet remained second-class citizens at home. The freedom they fought for did not return with them.

Perhaps this disparity would’ve lingered deeper into our history had Robinson not been that one individual Americans needed and anticipated. His eloquence was his ability to play baseball as few others had before. His putting up shut up legions of doubters. More importantly, it emboldened other black Americans to start demanding payments on the checks the country promised all its citizens.

Not directly, certainly. Jackie Robinson stealing home did not ignite the civil rights movement. His boldness on the base paths aside, it was a B stitched on his cap, not an S on his chest.

However, well aware of what the Dodger endured while excelling, undergoing travails which would’ve hobbled the nerviest Anglo major-leaguers, undoubtedly further encouraged all within the nation’s aborning civil rights crusade.

Here’s when father became a diehard, gush Dodger blue follower of “Dem Bums.”

If father venerated idols beyond his own sire, then Jackie Robinson was one. Along with Roy Campanella, Don Newcomb, and, not surprisingly, Sandy Amoros.

Listening to him speak of Amoros, one might’ve believed father occupied a seat at the Seventh Game of the 1955 World Series. Unlikely. It took place at Yankee Stadium.

Nineteen fifty-five is the pinnacle year in Brooklyn Dodger lore. The Bums finally beat the Yankees. It is the year they won the borough’s sole World Series Championship.

Through radio or still nascent TV sports coverage, father’s description of baseball Kismet sounded of eyewitness certitude.

Brooklyn ahead 2-0, Amoros had been a late-inning left field replacement. Amoros fielded with his right. The man he replaced gloved with his left hand. Pure prescience? Or just a managerial hunch? In either case, a hit ball running away from a right-handed Dodger fielder would’ve allowed New York to tie the game. No way a left-handed gloveman could’ve stretched far enough across his body to have caught the screamer. Amoros, though, merely needed extending himself, his arm to deny New York and secure the elusive prize for Brooklyn.

When he first spoke of the above men, father’s memories assumed even what my uninformed ears heard as reverence. Looking back decades on, knowing what black men of his generation tolerated, I understand unquestioningly. Only later did the importance of hearing his recollections truly connect us.

At my birth, father was 41. Outside of his Dodger loyalties, I never saw or imagined him as a young man. What I heard of his maturation in the rural South came during conversations with his brothers or contemporaries who’d also been reared there and had migrated above the Mason-Dixon Line too.

By 27, he’d been inducted into the army before Pearl Harbor, learned the nation demanded his service throughout the duration, and would’ve been part of the first European Allied forces to be deployed in the Pacific had Truman not dropped those a-bombs. About the slaughter and carnage which filled nearly five years of his 20s, next to nothing. Dances and craps games, a chance meeting with Eisenhower filled his Second World War, and no more.

About the interregnum between demobilization and an appreciation of life he never fully enjoyed prewar, and before responsibilities, plenty. Father spoke plainly. Poetry and elegance stumbled across his lips. Nonetheless listening to his revivals of the late 40s/mid-50s Harlem and Brooklyn incited envy.

He made this son regret never having been one of his then running buddies. His talking about those times, many of which started on weekend afternoons at Ebbets Field, narrowed some of the decades between us.

Too bad Turgenev wasn’t a baseball fan. He might’ve simplified and resolved American fathers’ and sons’ puzzles.

The Brooklyn Dodgers put Robinson on the roster for purely practical reasons. He was stellar. He could help them win. Good and decent a man as general manager Branch Rickey was, winning was paramount. If the move improved race relations, well, what a wonderful secondary result.

Jackie Robinson never played a professional ballgame in Los Angeles. A UCLA grad, it was fated the hometown folks never saw the legendary ex-Bruin perform as a big-leaguer in their backyard. Jackie Robinson will forever remain a hero who starred in Brooklyn.

On a Dodger Stadium plaza the team has erected a statue of the second-baseman entering a slide. Maybe it’s a representation of his steal of home committed against Yankees catcher Yogi Berra during the 1955 World Series. While Yogi argued that call all his life – and beyond – every Brooklyn fan knows Robinson evaded the catcher’s tag. The opinion of any Angeleno in this regard is immaterial.

Nonetheless Robinson is honored in Los Angeles.

For the longest, the Metropolitans, a k a the Mets, the team which cobbled together Dodgers’ and Giants’ heritage (the Giants, the city’s other National League squad, that also abandoned Gotham for the Left Coast) did as little as possible to acknowledge what once occurred in Flatbush and Coogan’s Bluff. The orange interlocking NY on the royal blue cap pretty much sufficed recognizing those teams that once played in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Say this for current Mets ownership, it hasn’t shied from summoning echoes of New York baseball past. Admittedly initial team management leaned somewhat towards the old Giants. The subsequent rulers make no bones about having been diehard Brooklyn fans in their youths.

Or is it “yoots”?

Aspects of Citi Field, the park which replaced the rotting pile that had been Shea Stadium, intentionally harkens back to the Dodgers’ old cathedral, Ebbets Field. Unfortunately, father died years before the Mets took up their new residence. How might he have appreciated the Citi Field touches meant to replicate a favorable spot for ghosts to gather in an urban environment a la the movie Field of Dreams?

How might have he reacted entering Dodger Stadium? Walking from a parking lot, not a subway platform? To my eyes, the greensward then owner Walter O’Malley, the forever villain in every true Brooklyn fan’s heart, erected in Chavez Ravine looked perfect there. It was hard imagining those dimensions, that construction, the vision being realized anywhere in Brooklyn.

In Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, long razed Ebbets Field was part of the cityscape. Little imagination was needed seeing how the demolished structure aligned with the bustling blocks it once sat amid. Dodger Stadium, though, that’s nestled in a sylvan gorge.

One must’ve seen Ebbets Field from a distance. Eagerness of that day’s or night’s tilt must’ve built while approaching. Hidden as Dodger Stadium seems finally breaching the crest permits sight and leads to entering an almost revelatory apparition. And even then foliage reveals the exterior in bits and pieces akin to a fan dancer’s labors.

Yeah. There was chatter of a Dodgers Stadium in the same space which Shea, now Citi, occupies. But then in that Flushing acreage wouldn’t those have been the Queens Dodgers? “Brooklyn” was and remains a powerful prideful appellation.

Funny enough, after the Dodgers decamped to California, father’s baseball fanaticism waned. A trait he shared with millions of New Yorkers. Somehow despite the Yankees being Gotham’s only game from 1958-61, lifetime allegiances remained implacable.

Old Dodgers and Giants fans never lost their hate for the lordly Bronx Bombers.

For the longest, early Mets home games against Los Angeles and San Francisco were unusually well attended. Was this from heartbroken fans still pining for “their” teams? Or wishing to witness the new National League entry exact some kind of revenge on the turncoat squads by beating them?

And those first two seasons before the Mets started playing in Shea, wasn’t it kind of dislocating watching and rooting against the now visiting Dodgers and Giants in the Polo Grounds, former home of the latter? What previous Brooklyn fan didn’t recall the northern Manhattan field as having once been a particularly hostile environment?

The Mets sure did turn a lot of ingrained habits inside out.

How did Brooklyn devotees contend being seated as home fans in one-time “enemy” stands? Did they reminisce with the “other side”? Did they make peace? Also, seeing how both teams further prospered after leaving New York, did O’Malley benefit from any grudging admiration?

From what I’ve heard and read about the last – nope!

Horace Stoneham, then Giants owner, never received anywhere near the vitriol heaped on O’Malley. Somehow the move bestowed grace upon Stoneham. Then again, Giants fans were never as rabid as Brooklyn fans. Even after Walter O’Malley died, brigades of old Dodger fans expressed the desire to “dig him up and kill him again!”

Today, the transplanted California teams are no longer major Mets rivals. The Cardinals, Phillies, Nationals, and, thanks to interleague scheduling, the Yankees, regularly draw Met fans’ ire. Time has winnowed boosters from the era when New York boasted three baseball teams.

Worse yet, daily there are fewer Dodgers fans alive to hurl loud, sustained, profane, Brooklynese fury upon the mere mention of Walter O’Malley’s accursed name.

Now, the number of former Brooklyn Dodgers as well as New York Giants players alive might together consist of a wizened single number.

When the Dodgers swung through the East Coast teams, and good seats could be bought, I occasionally treated father to those games at Shea. While we both cheered the Mets, did perhaps some past favoritism hamper his enthusiasm? Who knew? With him these were tough calls. Unless asked direct questions, he rarely bothered giving me straight answers. And what son doesn’t habitually defer to his father?

Of course by our years together all “the Boys of Summer” had been long retired. The nickname bestowed upon Dodgers worshipped between 1947-57 also did double-duty as title for an evocative sports memoir. Published years before Don Henley appropriated it for a haunting Southern California song, The Boys of Summer tome detailed an era that defined Brooklyn, the borough’s idols, and its residents.

The Dodgers father and I watched, surely the ones I saw playing this recent Father’s Day, were not real Dodgers. Those bums were Los Angeles Dodgers.

Los Angeles is unreal to New Yorkers.

Impossible to imagine father as an Angeleno, it’s just as impossible to envision him as an L.A. Dodgers fan.