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San Francisco Call

Saturday, October 26, 2002

Series to Series

By John Hutchison (sfflier@well.com)

My first awareness of baseball arrived at age 4, the year Robinson came up. It was sparked by crosstown phone conversations with my grandfather, whose awe at seeing Jackie perform was typical of New Yorkers during that summer of 1947. My recollection of that season consists mainly of my sitting spellbound beside the radio as the country-squire jauntiness of Red Barber evoked the Dodgah environs and personalities. I retain almost nothing about the details of that pennant race, although I dimly remember the World Series heroics of Al Gionfriddo robbing DiMaggio of a homer and Lavagetto breaking up Bill Bevens' no-hitter.

Nor do I have much recall of the next few seasons, though it was clear the game had started stealing its way into my consciousness. When the weather broke, the dirt lot in our Queens veterans' housing project was in constant use; we cleared the ground with rakes, shared our few gloves and sole bat, and taped and re-taped balls until they were finally battered to mush. None of us kids had yet been to a big league game, and none of our families acquired television sets until the early 1950s, so what we knew of the mechanics of baseball was essentially garnered from occasional movie sports newsreels. Our learning curve was aural, and on a nearby windowsill of one of the barracks-like structures that served as our homes, a radio would usually blare the Dodger broadcast as accompaniment to our own efforts. The Redhead introduced us to the nomenclature, and made us imagine the action and the nuances, even as we woefully displayed a lack of the basic fundamentals. One bright afternoon in one of those years my uncle came by for a visit and began roaring with laughter as he watched us play.

We had been running the bases in the wrong direction.

At some point I began to sense what competition was, and what rivalry meant. By then I was paying rapt attention to radio and newspaper accounts of the names and characteristic styles of Brooklyn's opponents, and in 1951 my family's purchase of a TV suddenly provided an unbelievable magic and immediacy to further fuel my budding passion for the sport.

The vantage point of a telecast furnished an unprecedented on-field composite of mannerisms, emotions, and skills. It was an instantaneous brew, a continuum of electronic snapshots, revealing and instructive on many levels, and it prompted my earliest notions of the lessons to be learned from athletics. As it happens, it wasn't baseball but rather a televised boxing match that year with Rocky Marciano kayoing an aged and pathetically bewildered Joe Louis that conveyed to me what it was like to be utterly vanquished. Before I knew anything of the feelings associated with victory, I understood the stark reality of loss. But that was merely apt for diehard Dodger fans of that era. A few months later, with Bobby Thomson's playoff dramatics, I, too, fully understood the Brooklyn mantra of Wait Until Next Year.

Naturally, I hated the Giants. They were, however, my father's team. He was a lifelong fan and often told me about the great Giants squads he had seen as a boy in the 1920s. He was at the Polo Grounds to witness Thomson's blast, and as the 1952 season started I could think of nothing else but his exhilaration as he returned home from that game. In the intervening months I saw the replay over and over in my mind, and experienced the same helplessness I'd felt watching the stadium erupt in crazed jubilation. What would it be like, I wondered, to feel that kind of "hy-steria," as Red Barber was wont to describe such behavior.

That season I went with my father to Ebbetts Field for the first time – appropriately, a game against the Giants. I sent off for Dodger publications and tracked the team daily in the sports sections of three newspapers. And as always I remained glued to the radio and the TV.

With the sweet revenge of a pennant assured, I looked forward to what would legitimately be my first World Series. Nothing in my young life had supplied quite the same anticipation. The Yankees, the other Brooklyn nemesis of the postwar years, brought their reputation and prowess to Flatbush for the opening game, and as I raced home after school I noticed the line score in the window of a butcher shop: Dodgers in the lead in the bottom of the sixth. Looking back after 50 years, the yell I emitted surely signals the moment: Baseball had me firmly in its grasp and wasn't going to let me go.

I was able to catch the telecast of the late innings of all the weekday games, and also managed to hear the first 10 minutes of two games by running down and back to the butcher's during afternoon recess. Who in his right mind, after all, would forego an opportunity to listen to a Barber game intro?

I recently watched the 1952 Series again on film, along with the Game 6 kinescope, the oldest surviving complete-game telecast. I'd forgotten how good the camera work on the latter was, a vérité-like approach that encompassed the activity of the entire stadium. The evocative black-and-white presentation again brought home the distinct aura of baseball in New York from the late 1940s to the late 1950s.

The 1952 Series was the third of Brooklyn's six such appearances during that span, and as Billy Loes took the mound in Game 6 the Dodgers were one victory away from their first world championship, and at home for both remaining games. The previous games had been low-scoring and close, an odd stew of power, bizarre bunting, wild baserunning, atrocious and superb defense, and unorthodox managerial strategy.

I remember the low October sun and the noirish shadows that run halfway to the pitcher's mound. Vic Raschi hits a grounder and as it emerges from the shadows Loes loses sight of the ball in the sun. It caroms off his left knee and into right field and the Yankees score the go-ahead run. "A double-jointed doozy," is how Barber describes Loes' losing effort. And he adds, with his inimitable blend of impishness and solemnity, "Loes is one troubled young man."

Me, too. I realize the Dodgers won't clinch tomorrow either. And maybe not next year. There are no guarantees with these guys, which is why they're referred to as "dem bums." It's said affectionately, I know, and I've learned enough baseball to know things could be much worse. I could, for example, be a Cubs fan.