Part II: New York Baseball, Dad, and Me
By Joe Rini
But Jackie Robinson arrived in 1947 and his Dodgers were perennial winners even if they didn’t beat the Yankees in the World Series until 1955 and lost a couple of heart-breaking pennants on the last day of the season in 1950 and 1951. In fact, Dad was at the season finale at Ebbets Field in 1950 when the winner of the Dodgers – Phillies game went to the World Series. I can almost feel like I’m standing up with my Dad in the stands cheering Carl Abrams as he turns for home in the ninth inning only to be thrown out at home plate, an eventual 4-1 loss in extra innings.
Perhaps it’s because Dad was in his mid-40s when I became a baseball fan as a 7-year old, I never saw him take the game too seriously where it soured his mood or cost him any sleep. To be honest, as the years went on, I think I was more upset at the Dodgers losing the World Series in seven games to the Yankees in 1952 and 1956 and I wasn’t born until the 1960s. If he didn’t root for the Yankees of that era, he admired them. He was a DiMaggio fan and steady players like Tommy Henrich and Joe Gordon who were the prototypical Yankees to him; he said the Dodgers would be doing well in a game but if you gave the Yankees a break, they would take advantage of it.
I remember him telling me the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn for Los Angeles after the 1957 season “ripped my heart out.” Although I don’t remember him ever having any particular animus for the Los Angeles Dodgers, for those four years without a New York National League team, he didn’t follow baseball much. However, when Casey Stengel’s Mets debuted in 1962 with the orange and blue colors of the departed Giants and Dodgers, he happily rooted for the Mets despite their 120 losses in season number one.
If there was a moment where I realized how special the Brooklyn Dodgers were to my Dad and his peers, it occurred about 40 years after the Dodgers left Brooklyn. He and I were visiting my grandmother in her apartment in Brooklyn early on a Summer Sunday afternoon and we were watching the Mets play the Padres. Grandma was nearly 90, her health was declining, and she may have been nodding off when she perked up at the sound of “Padres.” She asked, “Padres? Is that the pitcher?” obviously recalling Johnny Podres, the hero and Game 7 winner of the 1955 World Series. I was amazed that Grandma, who casually followed the Mets on TV would recall Johnny Podres but as she said of the Brooklyn Dodgers, “That was our team.”
I can remember about thirty years ago watching a documentary about the Brooklyn Dodgers with him and as we watched the youthful images of Hodges, Campanella, Snider, Furillo, Erskine, Robinson, and the rest of the Boys of Summer flash across the screen, I recall his face furrowing, perhaps suppressing a tear; he never said so, but I think Hodges and Campanella were his favorite players. Thirty years later, when I was standing behind home plate at Citi Field covering the festivities honoring the team of my younger days, the 1986 Mets, I understood what my father felt as I tried (less successfully than my Dad) at choking back my emotions.
Yet, there were other baseball moments, moments not in the Baseball Encyclopedia, that also made the baseball of his younger days real to me. I can see him and his friends standing along the railing on the first base side at Ebbets Field in the late 1940s as they chat with Gil Hodges because one of his groomsmen served in the Marines with Hodges. I love the image of him chatting with Dodger Hall of Famer, Duke Snider, at of all places, Aqueduct Racetrack, in 1963 after the Mets acquired Snider when the Mets were in their infancy and Snider’s career was near its end. His high school gym teacher, Mr. Robert Berman, was a real-life Moonlight Graham, who as a 19-year old in 1918, caught the great Walter Johnson for one inning without getting an at bat. Away from the major leagues, on a visit to his cousins in Norristown, Pennsylvania in the 1940s, he saw their neighbor from down the street, a young lefthander named Tom Lasorda pitch in a game.
Dad also said you might spot some of the Dodgers frequenting a pizza parlor In East New York named “Tex’s” (if I recall the name and location correctly). He even had a friend in the old neighborhood who became a Brooklyn Dodgers groundskeeper who then followed the team to Los Angeles; this friend came from a family with so many children that the seventh born was named “Septimo” which means “seventh” in Italian. Because of that story, the “Seinfeld” episode where George wanted to name his first born “Seven” after Mickey Mantle’s uniform number didn’t seem so crazy.
A baseball story my Grandmother loved to tell about my Dad was how my Grandfather wouldn’t let my Dad go to the park to play baseball one day until he was done working in his family’s bread bakery (my Grandfather had a personality worthy of a character in a novel but he wasn’t a baseball fan). The story had a Hollywood ending with my Dad racing to the park to join the game and then being carried back to the bakery as the game’s hero. While no Dodgers were customers of Rini’s Bakery, the Lombardi family was a customer, and their daughter Joan later married Gil Hodges.