CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER ONE Clarence at the Bat We are talking of summer evenings ... in the time that I lived so successfully, disguised to myself as a child. --JAMES AGEE, A Death in the Family I saw my first World Series game in 1920, seven years before I was born. The viewing instrument was my father, who relished baseball and had so vivid a memory that friends called him, somewhat laboriously it now seems to me, the Walking Encyclopedia. We were indeed walking, along Prospect Avenue, a quiet Brooklyn street, under sycamore trees with peeling, patchy bark, and fruit clusters abrim with itching powder. Far back from the bluestone sidewalk, large homes sprawled behind shields of hydrangea bushes and spiked, iron fences--immobile vigilantes in a neighborhood without crime. My mother had banished us into the springtime for violating a rule: no ballplaying in the house. All mothers in that generation said no ballplaying in the house. All mothers also said, "Take off those sneakers. Take them off at once! Don't you know that sneakers are bad for your feet?" My father had decided to show me how to spin a breaking ball, and winding up in a long hallway--I wore Buster Brown oxfords, not sneakers--I turned out to have more wrist snap than control. The gray rubber ball slipped off my fingers and slammed into one wall, ricocheted into the other and went crashing along the hardwood floor. All that machine-gun racket summoned my mother from her book, which I believe was Leaves of Grass. A covey of Brooklyn mothers was rediscovering Walt Whitman that season, and homes like ours resounded with the poet's sometimes mournful tread. Grass, I knew, because my mother recited the lines, is the beautiful uncut hair of graves. Outside I was not certain if my father had decided on a destination. (One particular dream seemed too extravagant.) More immediately, I had no idea what conversational paths my father, the walking encyclopedia, would navigate this sunlit afternoon. Ginkgo trees. That was his topic on the previous Saturday. Ginkgo trees grew in Brooklyn, but did not originate there. They were found first in Eastern China. They had vanished from the forests but remained on the grounds of temples. These odd trees, with fan-shaped leaves, right here on Prospect Place, probably had religious significance in old Cathay, during the time of Marco Polo, and what did I think about that? Nothing, really, except that ginkgo was a funny-sounding name. I was seven years old. It was nice to walk with Dad, and I wanted to make an effort to show that I shared his interest in natural wonders. "If you put a grizzly bear and a Bengal tiger in the same cage at the Prospect Park Zoo, and they got into a fight, which one would win, the grizzly bear or the Bengal tiger?" My father was short, green-eyed, bald, mustached, powerful, and he smiled and looked into the distance. "Nature," he said, "is red in tooth and claw." Then he began to tell me about the sycamores. I seem to remember a great deal about the trees of Brooklyn, but I merely tolerated the arboreal lectures, if a seven-year-old can be said to tolerate a parent, in the hope that my father would veer away from botany. He played third base for City College, covering, he said, "a dime, or on a good day a quarter." The coach valued him for his bat, I suppose. Whenever I watched my father play weekend baseball, he walloped long drives over and beyond left center field that thrilled and awed me. At some point, when I was very young, I decided that there was nothing I wanted to do in life as much as I wanted to hit long, high drives over and beyond left center field, like my father. Through six decades--births and deaths, bonanzas and busts, wars, divorce, and even the absurdity of major league labor strikes--that part of me has never changed. Squealing with the steel wheels rolling on steel tracks, the Nostrand Avenue trolley rattled across our path. Unlike the trolleys in Manhattan that rode over submerged electrical lines, Brooklyn trolley cars drew power from an overhead cable. A sort of crane rose from the top of the Brooklyn trolleys, maintaining contact with the high cable unless the trolley swung around a turn too rapidly. Then the crane broke away from the high cable, losing contact in a crackle of sparks. The motorman had to dismount and reposition the crane, a delicate process, often conducted over a background of "godammit," and worse. "Wee Willie Keeler drove a trolley car," my father said. We were crossing Nostrand in the wake of the trolley. "Little bit of a fellow, Keeler, but he almost always hit .300. If you put a gray derby upside down on the green grass in right field, Keeler could slap a line drive into the hat. Quite a batsman, but when he was finished he had to go to work as a trolley motorman." My heart leaped up. This was not going to be another ginkgo tree perambulation. This walk would shine with baseball talk. My father's strides became urgent. Periodically, I had to shift from walk to canter matching his lurching pace. I would happily have sustained a full gallop to talk baseball with my father. That part of me never changed either, for as long as he was on the earth. There was nobody I enjoyed talking baseball with, as much as this green-eyed, strong-armed, gentle, fierce, mustached, long-ball hitting, walking encyclopedia who was my father. Touches of sad far-off days still linger. Diffident and soft-spoken men approached my father on our walks and offered him boxes of pencils for a dime. His green eyes softened and he found the dime, but he never accepted the pencils. Every Sunday the New York Times published a sepia picture section called the rotogravure, after a particular printing process, and from time to time momentous photographs appeared: Benito Mussolini, the jet-jawed "Sawdust Caesar"; pipe-smoking, avuncular, oddly ominous Joseph Stalin; a sort of landscape--smoke rising from a Chinese village after Japanese soldiers had ravaged the houses and the people. The Depression reigned and the dictators were rising. One day a deferential baldheaded man came to the door selling paper flowers cleverly folded in brightly colored little pots. He told my father that he had been a businessman in Germany and that he had opposed the Nazis and one day the Brownshirts came and broke his shop windows and struck him with clubs and terrorized his wife. My father bought a dozen of the little pots with paper flowers. It was natural to miss your homeland, my father said to the refugee flower salesman, but his decision to leave Nazi Germany might in the end turn out to be a good one. America was the land of opportunity. The salesman said, in a confessional tone, "But I am Jewish." My father blinked. "Even so," he said, "this is the land of opportunity. I mention such matters to suggest aspects of the world in which my father and I lived when I was seven. I listened as hard as I could to geopolitical conversations, but my ability to contribute was nonexistent, except for certain questions. "Why didn't you take the poor man's pencils, Dad?" "Because now he can sell them to someone who really needs them." "What are Brownshirts?" "Hooligans. German hooligans. A bad lot." I wanted to do more than ask questions. I wanted to understand the world around me and to be respected as a person capable of understanding. My father understood everything. That was why people called him The Walking Encyclopedia. I wanted to be like my father. I wanted to enter the world of men. Baseball became my magic portal. A game of catch is a complicated communication. The father has the stronger arm, the surer hands. The child has the enthusiasm, a passionate hope that his ballplaying will improve, and something immediate to find out. The first time a baseball bounces against your shin, or pops out of your glove into your cheekbone, you learn the presiding reality of the sport. The ball is hard. After that, you make a decision. Is the pain the ball inflicts worth the pleasure of playing the game? Pain and pleasure, the stuff of love and life, runs strong in baseball. I don't remember consciously deciding to play ball, but I knew boys who made decisions not to play. "Baseball is boring," one said. I sensed that it was not boredom at all, but fright, dominating hard-ball terror, that led him to choose kick-the-can, or stoop tag, or other city games where pain did not lurk disguised as a one-hop grounder. In childhood I suffered on Ferris wheels, particularly in the jiggling cars that swung on rails high over Coney Island and threatened to launch you into the Atlantic. Large Airedales alarmed me. But I was not afraid of a baseball. The passion to play dominated my spirit, that and the distinct but overlapping passion to win the good opinion of my father. He hit grounders at me in a dozen sandlots, ten thousand grounders in dusty, city fields. The governing discipline was severe. To subdue a grounder you have to watch the ball, watch it from the bat, watch it skim and bounce, watch it right into your glove. But that exposes your face and a baseball can glance off a pebble and zoom into your teeth, like a micro version of one of today's smart bombs. You see it suddenly, mouth-high, and feel the ball at the same instant. The baseball feels like a concrete punch. After a few of these blows, you may want to lift your face as a grounder approaches. Except ... except ... that way you lose sight of the ball. You'll miss it then, sure as the ball is round. You have to keep your glove low and you have to look the zipping baseball into your glove, or else you'll hear the teasing cry: "You played every bounce right except the last one." You need equal measures of concentration and courage. When I stayed with a nasty grounder--and my father saw me stay with its final, hostile hop--I felt I had achieved something worthy of pride. The fly ball was another kind of dragon. A child's first tendency is to run at a ball in the air; the heartless baseball then sails over his head. Although this causes no physical pain, it can raise another cry, "How come you're standing over here, when the ball bounced over there?" The psyche grimaces. My father began fly-ball drills with soft, arcing tosses, gradually increasing height and range. Then he took a bat and tapped gentle fungos, explaining with great formality that "fungo" is one English word whose origin not even Noah Webster knew. When a baseball carries long, you want to turn. You should not run backwards; that is both awkward and slow. You spot the ball and turn and run to the point where it will descend. If you can determine where it will descend. That is a tricky business, and one of the wonders of major league ball is the way outfielders run down 350-foot drives and make the play seem easy. I possessed no native gift for judging fly balls, but when I did succeed in running down a long one and taking it over my shoulder, my father beamed and said, "Good catch." The praise spoke banners, I worked harder to win those words, "Good catch," than I ever worked at homework or piano lessons. My mother noticed and she never forgot nor, until almost the end of a long life, did she ever entirely forgive my father, myself, or baseball. We crossed Franklin Avenue and my father abruptly turned left, stirring in me a thrill of hope. "The records say that Keeler batted .432 in the 1890s," he said, "but the game was played differently then. The ball was dead. Batters poked instead of swinging from the heels. Just about the only way you hit a home run was when one of the outfielders fell down." "Running backwards," I said, "instead of turning and taking the ball over your shoulder can make you fall down in the outfield." "Conceivably," my father said. He pressed his lips together to suppress a grin, and I could see that he was pleased. "The most solid Brooklyn hitter in the modern game was Zack Wheat, who came from Missouri. He's a motorcycle cop in the Midwest these days. He was a terrific lefthand-hitting outfielder who had a singular trait. Waiting for the pitch, Buck--we called Zack Wheat `Buck'--waggled his back leg. Then he'd wallop a line drive off the right-field wall." Zack Wheat was Buck Wheat. How bountiful is the trove of baseball nicknames. "There were two pretty fair first basemen with French backgrounds," my father said. "Jake Daubert came first, around 1910. He scooped bad throws and ran down long, foul pops. A joy to watch. Jacques Fournier arrived in the 19205. Only an average fielder, but just about the best power hitter Brooklyn ever had." We passed St. John's Place and Lincoln Place, walking alongside four-story apartments, tenements really, with street-level shops selling fish and stationery and toys. At length we reached Eastern Parkway, a broad avenue with six lanes of traffic and two access roads, set behind pedestrian pathways and green benches and rows of newly pruned sycamores. This distinctive boulevard was patterned after the Champs-Elysees, including at its font, Grand Army Plaza, an imposing monument for the Union war dead, modeled on the Arc de Triomphe. "Brooklyn had a pitcher once," my father said, "a lefthander named Nap Rucker. Nap stood for Napoleon. He threw the slowest slowball in the world." "If his pitches were so slow, why didn't everybody hit them? If he threw that slowly, I could have hit him, right?" "Wrong. Nap Rucker had a deceptive windup. He made the batters think he was rearing back for a fastball. Then, after all that motion, he threw the slow one. Everybody missed the slowball because they had been completely and utterly fooled. Missed the slowball or popped it up." I needed half an Eastern Parkway block to assimilate that. Pitching was more than throwing fast and accurately. You were also trying to confuse the hitters. You made it look as though you were going to throw fast and then you threw a slowball. You could make it look as though you were going to throw slow and fire the fastball. I got the idea. I didn't actually have a fastball when I was seven years old, but I believed one would appear in time through an unusual mix--practice and spontaneous generation. Then I'd like to try that deception stuff, fooling the hitters with crafty slow ones, and blowing them out of town with my unborn fastball. "Dazzy Vance in his prime had a different trick," my father said. "For seven years he was the best strikeout pitcher in the league. Vance wore a long undershirt and he took a scissors and cut slits in the right sleeve. It ran clear down to the wrist. When Vance pitched, the long sleeve flapped. It was a white sleeve and the hitters had one heck of a time seeing that white baseball coming out of that white sleeve. Before they knew it, the fastball was in the catcher's mitt. Strike three." "He's out," I said. We reached the busy intersection of Eastern Parkway and Bedford Avenue, a street that ran almost the entire length of Brooklyn, from the cramped treeless blocks of Williamsburg into affluent Flatbush, before coming to its end near the fishing boats that docked at Sheepshead Bay. "If the Dodgers had all these good players," I said. I paused to savor the ballplayers' names: Wee Willie Keeler. Zack Wheat. Buckwheat. Nap Rucker. Dazzy Vance. "If the Dodgers had all these good players, why is it that Brooklyn never wins the World Series, like the Giants and the Yankees?" My father slowed his stride. "That's quite a long story," he said. I had asked a defining question about an era. Cartago delenda est. Carthage must be destroyed. As I would later learn in a tower classroom at Erasmus Hall, Cato's repeated declaration defined an era in Rome. Why can't the Dodgers win the World Series? That question spoke to the core of early- and mid-twentieth-century life in Brooklyn. Brooklyn was settled in 1636 by adventurous Dutch farmers, whose descendants named their academy after the reformation scholar, Desiderius Erasmus. The English seized Brooklyn in 1664 and Brooklyn was the site, in August 1776, of the Battle of Long Island, a vital defensive action in one of George Washington's strategic retreats. By 1890, the population exceeded 835,000 and Brooklyn had become a boomtown, storing grain, milling coffee, and manufacturing barrels, shoes, machine tools, chemicals, and paints. Then on January 1, 1898, a date of limited infamy, the leaders of Brooklyn forgot the legacy of Washington and surrendered their independence. Brooklyn became a borough, nothing more, in New York City. Ridicule followed. Brooklynites were said to talk funny, or in the patois tawk funny. They pronounced "earl" as "oil." They pronounced "oil" as "earl." And how, down by the Gowanus Canal, did people say, "The Earl just changed his oil?" The humor was relentlessly denigrating, and largely unfair. You heard the so-called Brooklyn accent in spades, strident spades, mouthed in Hell's Kitchen, on the west side of Manhattan. The real Brooklyn was a place of wooded parks and white sand beaches, neighborhoods, libraries, and decidedly preppy schools. The perceived Brooklyn was a group of stumpy characters, tawkin' funny and trowin' nickel cigars into an open manhole. At best, some said, Brooklyn was Manhattan's bedroom. Brooklynites were born, lived, slept, made love, and died in the figurative shadow cast by the towers of Manhattan. The denigration nurtured paranoia in the Brooklyn psyche. Presently, the focus for a grand assortment of paranoid anxieties became a baseball team peopled by athletes as splendid as Zack Wheat and Dazzy Vance, that still, somehow, how long, oh, Lord, how long, could never win the World Series. My father turned left at Bedford Avenue. Anticipation gave me a clutch in the throat. "Could we?" "If you don't tell your mother." "I promise. Why can't I tell her?" "She doesn't want you being spoiled." "Who's pitching?" "Mungo." I knew a bit about the mighty righthander with the name from an ancient Mongol court. Mungo. Van Lingle Mungo. I loved to roll that name along my tongue. With his huge kick and his mighty fast ball, Mungo could strike out anybody, anybody at all, Mel Ott or "Ducky-Wucky" Medwick. Strike out anybody at all, if he didn't walk him. "Boston is starting Fred Frankhouse. His specialty is the old roundhouse curve. We have an interesting matchup--a big strong fastball pitcher against a man with a sweeping roundhouse curve." We were walking downhill. The street was paved with cobblestones. I could see, from my walking trot, the roof of Ebbets Field and, atop the roof, the flags, the many-colored flags, the flapping flags that meant Ball Game Today. Mungo was a glowering six-foot two-inch righthander. We sat close to the field alongside first base and I truly saw Van Mungo glower. When he wound up, he reared back so far that his left toe pointed toward the sky. Then he came over, a mighty pinwheel, throwing the finest fastball in the league. Ray Berres warmed up Mungo. When Mungo's fastball hit Ray Berres's glove, sound exploded through the ballpark. Smoke and thunder lurked in Mungo's arm. Sadly, this day, Mungo was wild. He walked two in the first inning, another two in the third. Hits by Buck Jordan and Wally Berger put the Braves ahead by five and Casey Stengel, who was managing Brooklyn, replaced Mungo with Les Munns in the sixth. "No more runs. We got Munns," said a man in a tweed cap who was sitting next to my father. "How come they knocked out Mungo, Dad?" "Speed alone is not enough," my father said. "You gotta throw strikes, son," said the man in the tweed cap. "Tough strikes," my father said. "Nothing belt-high down the middle." "Yer right," said the tweed cap. "Ya musta played some ball." I had not before heard my father conversing with a stranger, let alone with a tough-looking fellow in a cap, whose pronunciation was shaky. They fell into easy, informed conversation and at length the stranger said, "Shame they don't draw more." My father's customary reserve vanished. "If they had a decent team," he said, "they'd draw a million." "You sure that?" the tweed cap said. "Absolutely. With a decent team the Dodgers would draw a million at the very least." Les Munns shut down the Braves, but Freddy Frankhouse's roundhouse, the Frankhouse Roundhouse, silenced the good Dodger bats--Sam Leslie, Len Koenecke, Jersey Joe Stripp. The roundhouse curve is not usually effective in the major leagues because the slow break is easy to follow. But this afternoon, my father and the fellow in the tweed cap agreed, if you put a matchbook on the outside corner of the plate, Frankhouse would break his curve over it. "How about a match?" I said. "If you put just one match on the outside corner, could Frankhouse break his roundhouse over that?" The men looked at each other and nodded. Yes, he could. "Ya gotta smart one," said the man. "Thank you," my father said. "And, son," the stranger said, "I hope you kin hit." In the eighth inning, after Hack Wilson played a fly ball into a double, the man in the tweed cap rose to leave. "Buncha bums," he said. "That's all they are. A buncha bums." We stayed until the final out. My father always bought me a Stahl-Meyer all-beef frankfurter, which cost ten cents, in the fifth inning. He always bought me a good hot dog, and we always stayed until the last man made out. "That fellow who called the team `bums' was way off base," my father said, as we walked down a cement runway, tramping over crushed green packs of Lucky Strikes. "You'll see mistakes once in a while. Hack Wilson was never a great fielder. But none of these fellows is a bum. Everybody in the major leagues is at the least a very good ballplayer. If you aren't very good, you don't make the major leagues. `Bums' is a crude word. I never cared for the sound of it. Worse than that, when you call a major leaguer a bum, you aren't accurate." A wind sprang up and whipped across the sidewalk beside the empty ball park. The April afternoon stung suddenly with cold. "We'll take the Tompkins Avenue trolley home," my father said. "You were going to tell me," I said after a bit, "why the Dodgers haven't ever won the Series." The trolley, running east on Empire Boulevard, started with a cacophony of grunts and squeals. The motorman worked two levers, and watching him I began to imagine that he was Wee Willie Keeler, who could hit a line drive into your hat. It would be great fun, I thought, to drive a trolley car, working the big levers, clanging around curves as fast as you could go, then braking so hard the wheels threw sparks up from the rails. That would be wonderful, I knew, but not nearly so wonderful as it would be to be a ballplayer. A major league ballplayer. A Brooklyn Dodger. * * * My father was born in 1901, the year Queen Victoria died and when, closer to home, the Brooklyn ballclub finished third in the National League. From 1903 through 1914, the years that surely shaped my father as a baseball person, Brooklyn finished in the second division every time. Even with Daubert and Stengel, Rucker and Wheat, Brooklyn could not become a contending club. My father's approach to the Dodgers seemed scholarly and restrained. I suppose he learned how to bury his emotions during those early years when his team played mediocre ball, day after day, month after month, season after sorrowful season. "The Dodgers won the pennant in 1916" my father said, "but they were no match for the Boston Red Sox. They had a lot of trouble with a young fastball pitcher named Babe Ruth. Then they won again in 1920." A few sitting near us on the cane trolley benches stopped chattering. My father's deep voice and assured manner commanded attention. "They split the first four games in that Series with the Cleveland Indians. We thought the fifth game would be very important and it was. The Dodgers fell behind, but they started a nice rally in the fifth inning. Pete Kilduff, the second baseman, and Otto Miller, the catcher, both got on with nobody out. Clarence Mitchell, the pitcher, was up next, and Mitchell was one pitcher who could hit." "Babe Ruth," I said, "was another pitcher who could hit." "Right," my father said. "Don't interrupt. Mitchell walloped a terrific line drive up the middle and the Cleveland second baseman, Bill Wambsganss, ran and jumped and caught that terrific smash backhand. One out. When he came down, he was just a step from second base. He put his spikes on the bag and doubled up Pete Kilduff, who thought the line drive would be a base hit. Two out. Otto Miller thought the same thing and he ran right into Bill Wambsganss's tag. Three out. That was the only unassisted triple play in the history of the World Series." I tried to imagine the busy scene. Wambsganss jumping. Kilduff stumbling. Miller running with his head down. Why hadn't Miller turned around or at least ducked? Why did it have to be a Dodger who hit into an unassisted triple play? "Next time Mitchell came to bat," my father said, "he grounded into a double play. Two swings. Five outs. Hard to do. "In the last two games--this Series was best five out of nine--the Dodgers didn't score a run. But what can you expect after a good hitter like Clarence Mitchell makes five outs with two swings? "I was starting to play college ball and Big Bill Hyman was doing some pitching. When we talked about Wambsganss and the Cleveland Series, we said, like other young people in Brooklyn, `Wait till next year."' "What happened next year, Dad?" "In 1921 the Dodgers finished fourth." I looked around the trolley. A placard advertising shaving cream proclaimed: In this Vail Of toil and sin, Your head grows bald, But not your chin. My father followed my eyes and touched his bald head briefly. "As you grow up," he said, "you learn to live with disappointments." There had been no disappointment for me this April day. I had seen Van Mungo's windup and Freddy Frankhouse's roundhouse curve. I had watched a major league ballgame with my father and now, on the Tompkins Avenue trolley, I had heard him describe a most amazing World Series. Still, I would have to be careful when we reached home. "Let's tell Mom we went to the library," I said. "She'd really like it if we told her that." "The Botanic Gardens," my father said, speaking quietly. "We took a long, healthy walk through the Botanic Gardens. We walked a long way beside a babbling brook." "Right," I said, "and we saw an unassisted triple play." My father and I smiled together. We would indeed walk through the Botanic Gardens, beside a babbling brook, but on another day. Copyright © 1997 Roger Kahn. All rights reserved.