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!


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS:Children's Craniofacial Association

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas Toys, Circa 1950s

If you look at the toys that were popular back in the 1950s, they bore little resemblance to kids' toys today. Nothing was computerized, most toys did not need to be plugged in, and I-Pods were still a dream of little Stevie Wozniak (who later founded Apple). Toys were not only simpler and less expensive, but required imagination and physical dexterity to play with. If we could time travel back to the nifty fifties, *here are the items that might pop up on a kid's Santa list:

Mr. Potato Head—Did you know that the Mr. Potato Head toy originally only came with the face pieces? Children were actually supposed to use a real potato! Even so, the toy enjoyed incredible success. Released in 1952, Mr. Potato Head was the first toy ever advertised on television, which lead to profits topping $4 million—that’s $30 billion by today’s standards!

The Hula Hoop—Though it’s one of the defining objects of the 1950’s, the exact origins of the Hula Hoop are unknown. They were used in various forms in ancient Greece, Egypt, and Australia, but were reinvented by the toy company Wham-o in 1957. The design was switched to plastic, and the company sold over 100 million within a year.

Frisbee—The very next year, Wham-O Toys hit it big again with the Frisbee, although this toy’s history is better documented. The Frisbee flying disc started in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where the Frisbie Pie Company delivered pies to several college campuses nearby. The students started tossing the empty pie tins around, and the Frisbee was born!

Silly Putty—Like a lot of great toys, Silly Putty was invented entirely by accident. The fortuitous mistake happened during WWII, as scientists developed a bouncing substance that would go on to become Silly Putty. Some got into the hands of toy store owner Ruth Fallgater, who marketed it in plastic eggs. The inexpensive toy became enormously popular worldwide and remains a toy classic.

Barbie Dolls—Of course, at the end of the fifties, the Barbie Doll came out, revolutionizing girls’ play time forever. Barbies became the highest selling fashion dolls in history within a year, and the dolls now sell more than two per second across the world.

—Board games were also quite popular in the fifties. The game’s big break happened when the president of Macy’s, Jack Strauss, played the game on vacation. When he returned and found that the game was not sold in his stores, he placed a large order, and Scrabble quickly received national attention.

View Master-- In this modern age of DVD players and the Internet, it is hard to believe that the View Master is still bedazzling youth. Small images on film circled a disc that was inserted into the binocular-like viewer, where they came to three-dimensional life.

Play-Doh—This squishy toy was actually invented as a wallpaper cleaner. The inventor’s sister, however, started letting her kindergarten students use it in crafts as an alternative to harder and messier clay. Play-Doh, now owned by Hasbro, has sold over 900 million pounds, and the exact formula remains a secret to this day.

Pick-Up sticks -- Even more low-tech than View Master, Pick-up sticks (or pick-a-stick) is a game of physical and mental skill in which sticks have to be removed from a pile without disturbing the remaining ones.

Slinky -- In 1943, a naval engineer named Richard James was trying to develop a meter designed to monitor horsepower on naval battleships. He was working with tension springs when one of them fell to the ground. It kept moving after it hit the ground and the concept for Slinky toys was conceived.

Cap Gun -- Cap guns were originally made of cast iron, and used rolls of caps that contained tiny gunpowder charges that fired when the hammer struck the charge, automatically advancing the roll of caps to the next shot. The popularity of Western heroes like the Lone Ranger helped boost the popularity of cap guns.

Match Box Cars -- In 1954, Jack Odell created the first Matchbox car of a Road Roller and put in it a matchbox so his daughter could bring it to school. Today, 100 million Matchbox cars are sold each year.

The toys that stick out in my mind as the favorites of my childhood include my Schwinn bike, my A.C. Gilbert Erector Set, and maybe my favorite of all, my Marx electric trains. If I could add up all the hours spent playing with just these three things, and tack them on to the end of my life, I'd live to be 100!

*Most information taken from an article in "Toy Reviews and News, July 2008


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS:Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

You'll Shoot Your Eye Out

Most of us will never see our life stories on the big screen, but any kid who grew up during the forties and fifties can strongly identify with Ralphie Parker, the nine-year old boy from the holiday film, "A Christmas Story", based on the novel by radio personality and author Jean Sheppard. There is no better characterization anywhere of what it was like to be a boy that age growing up in that time. Sheppard's story is loosely based on his own childhood growing up in the mid-western steel town of Hammond, Indiana, but it is so much more; for those of us from that time, Jean Sheppard could have been telling our story. Ralphie's dreams and fears were our own, as told by Sheppard in a voice that was unerringly honest and heartfelt

Ralphie's parents, played beautifully by the talented Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon were our parents. Hard working, loving and a little eccentric, they were the traditional family unit in those days. The scenes when the family went downtown to visit the department store Santa brought smiles to my face. It was a little like stepping out of my body and peeking through a window at my own life, as I recalled visiting downtown Brooklyn where great stores like A&S, Martins and Mays always put up beautiful decorations for Christmas (when it was still OK to call it Christmas) and before the notion of Black Friday and trampled shoppers became a reality.

We can all identify with the scene where Ralphie snaps and overcomes his fear of a neighborhood bully before giving him the profanity-laced beating he deserves. Ralphie's mother breaks up the fight and drags poor Ralphie home. Ralphie is worried about the swearing and fighting, and is sure he will be in big trouble when his father gets home from work. Instead, Ralphie's mother tells his father about the fight casually at the dinner table. She then changes the subject of the conversation to an upcoming football game, distracting his father and getting Ralphie off the hook in the process. This reminded me so much of how my mother managed my father and saved my bacon more than once.

Then there was the scene where Ralphie, having waited anxiously at the mail box for his Little Orphan Annie secret decoder pin to arrive in the mail, finally receives it and is now able to decode the daily "secret message" broadcast on the radio show. Ralphie learns a sad lesson in being ripped off when he finds out that the secret message turned out to be a commercial for the show's sponsor, chocolate-flavored Ovaltine. Most of the stuff I ever sent away for turned out to be junk too, so I completely empathized with Ralphie.

"I triple-dog dare you" is the challenge one of Ralphie's friends issues to another over whether a person's tongue will stick to a frozen metal flagpole. Not being able to refuse the challenge in accord with the nine-year old boy's book of street protocol, the kid takes up the dare and of course his tongue gets stuck to the pole, much to his terror. I can't tell you how many dumb stunts on my block were proceeded directly by the words "I dare you". We didn't even wait for the triple-dog dare, a simple "I dare you" was enough to get kids doing everything from stealing milk out of milk boxes to scaling roof tops for lost Spaldeens costing all of 15 cents. The dare was a tool of great power.

The scenes in the movie that I identified with most concerned Ralphie's obsession with getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. His mother's response every time the subject came was right out of the mother's handbook: "You'll shoot your eye out". On Christmas morning, Ralphie looks frantically under the tree for a box that would hold the BB gun, but to no avail. He and his brother have quite a few presents, but he is disappointed because he did not get the gun. His disappointment turns to joy as his father points out one last half-hidden present, ostensibly from Santa. As Ralphie unwraps the BB gun, his father explains the purchase to his none-too-thrilled wife, stating that he had one himself when he was 8 years old.

We didn't have video cameras when I was growing up, so I want to thank Jean Sheppard for this little gem of a movie. I was Ralphie and this was my life captured on film. If you're a child of the forties or fifties and your Christmas spirit is lagging, do yourself a favor and watch this movie. It's like looking under the tree and finding that toy you obsessed over as a nine-year old.


Children's Craniofacial Association