Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Brooklyn Bums

As a New York Yankee fan, I had little use for their arch rival, the Brooklyn Dodgers, but being a Brooklyn resident surrounded by Dodger fans, I had to blend in. Every once in a while a bunch of us would take the subway to Ebbets Field where the Dodgers played. Ebbets Field was on the block bound by Bedford Avenue. Sullivan Place, McKeever Place, and Montgomery Street. Club owner Charles Ebbets acquired the property over several years, starting in 1908, by buying parcels of land until he owned the entire block. This land included the site of a garbage dump called Pigtown because of the pigs that once ate their fill there. Despite its humble beginnings, Ebbets Field would be the scene of some of the greatest baseball drama in the history of the game.

At the time I was growing up, New York City was lucky enough to have three major league baseball teams, the powerhouse Yankees, the Giants who played in the Polo Grounds where Willie Mays patrolled center field, and Brooklyn's favorite, the Dodgers. It was very frustrating for Dodger fans back then because despite having great players like Robinson, Snyder, Hodges, Campanella and Furillo, and playing good baseball, they always lost in the World Series to the Yankees. In 1941, '47, '49, '52, '53, '55 and 1956 they played the Yankees in the World Series and lost every time except in 1955, the year Brooklyn had it's sweet revenge.

I tried my best not to gloat when the Yankees won title after title, not because I didn't want to, but most of my friends were Dodger fans and I valued my front teeth. Maybe the Dodger's most heartbreaking loss came, not at the hands of the New York Yankees, but by the New York Giants. In 1951 the two teams were in a three-game playoff for the National League Pennant after the Dodgers had squandered a 13-game lead they held in August. Each team having won a game, the pennant came down to game three. The Dodgers looked solid as they led 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning when their pitching ace, Don Newcombe, began to tire and gave up a run, making the score 4-2.

Newcombe tried to take himself out of the game, but was convinced to continue on the mound by second baseman Jackie Robinson, a fateful error in judgement. The Giants touched Newcombe for a couple of more hits, and Dodger manager Charlie Dressen pulled Newcombe and replaced him with Ralph Branca. With men on second and third, the Giants' Bobby Thompson came to the plate. On Branca's third pitch, he yanked a fastball down the left-field line and over the invitingly close outfield fence. The ball disappeared into the stands for a game-ending three-run homer, just above the 315 marker.

With one swing of Thomson's bat, the Giants had turned near-certain defeat into sudden victory and a pennant. Seeing the ball disappear over the fence, Thomson hopped crazily around the bases, then disappeared into the mob of jubilant teammates who had gathered at home plate. The stunned Dodger players trudged off the field. As has often been pointed out, waiting on deck to bat behind Thomson was a young man who would hit many home runs of his own: 20-year-old rookie Willie Mays. Every die-hard Dodger fan has nightmares about "the game" and cannot bear to re-live that electric moment captured so memorably by Giant broadcaster Russ Hodges: The Shot Heard 'Round The World

In 1955, the Yankees and Dodgers tangled in the World Series. The Yankees won the first two games, and every Dodger fan began rehearsing their "wait 'till next year" speech again. But Brooklyn won games 3 and 4 to even things up. The Dodgers took game 5 and the Yankees game 6. The series would be decided by game 7. Johnny Podres, who had already won game 3, took the mound for Brooklyn and pitched the Bums to a brilliant 2-0 win. I remember that my neighborhood went absolutely crazy the day the Dodgers finally beat the hated Yankees. People were on the streets banging pots and pans like they did on New Year's Eve! I lay low, feeling for the first time what Dodger fans felt their whole lives, the agony of defeat!


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joe del broccolo said...

My Dear Friend,
Why must you pound on such painful memories? Is it not enough that the Dodger fans suffered, you have to reminds us again, years later?
One thing, the Dodgers never squandered that lead to the Giants, the Giants just played incredible ball!
As usual, another great blog!
Your fellow (sobbing again) blogger,

Jim Pantaleno said...

I know it's painful, hell, I'm not even a Dodger fan and I felt for them. Russ Hodges call of Thompson's homer is one of the greatest ever sports calls.