Monday, November 25, 2013

I Saw Jackie Robinson Play in Ebbets Field

When I was ten, I saw Jackie Robinson in the flesh play Second Base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in Ebbets Field. Now in my 70s, I saw Jackie in the movie, “42,” referring to the number on his baseball jersey. No comparison. On the wall I face when writing on my computer is a blown-up black-and-white photo in a cheap frame. Jackie’s in it alongside his brother 1950s Dodgers in uniform: ‘Pee Wee’ Reese, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, ‘Duke' Snider, Roy Campanella and ‘Preacher’ Roe. Like they just stepped out of the Dugout, exactly as I remember them.

On weekday mornings in summer, we would gather at the corner of Nassau and Bedford Avenues in Greenpoint, to take the Streetcar (a/k/a the Trolley), running direct to Ebbets Field and beyond, all the way to Sheepshead Bay and the Ocean along a pair of iron tracks hammered into the pavement up Bedford Avenue, the longest street in Brooklyn (10.2 miles). Took awhile to get there because the trolley ran through three sprawling neighborhoods, I remember—Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Flatbush. There were always four, five, or more of us. Most had money from home to buy a couple of ‘franks’ (with everything on it, please), a coke, and the price of admission (75 cents). Bleacher seats. Good as any because the stadium was among the smallest in the National League. The right field fence was only 275 feet away. What saved us was the fact that most home-run hitters hit from the right side of the Plate. The only thing that stood between a strong lefty hitting the ball over the fence into Bedford Avenue was Brooklyn pitching and Carl Furillo, roaming right field with his rifle right arm. We never stayed put in the Bleacher seats, anyhow. After a few innings, we’d sneak down one level to the Grandstand’s reserved seats in sections so empty that the ushers (old guys with Irish faces) would let us stay.

From those seats it felt like I could say something to Andy Pafko in Left Field and he’d hear me, but I’d have to yell to be heard by Duke Snider in Center. Of course, we knew all our Dodgers: Big Gil Hodges at First Base, Harold (Pee Wee) Reese at Shortstop, Jackie Robinson on Second, Billy Cox on Third, Roy Campanella (Campy) behind the Plate, Elwin (Preacher) Roe on the Mound, and Carl Furillo (‘the Reading Rifle’) in Right. We were nine or ten years old, from the same block, McGuinness Boulevard, named for the long-dead Alderman, Pete McGuinness (who incidentally had lived in the tenement next to mine). It was rare for a neighborhood boy to be anything but a Dodger fan, but two of our number were disloyal. Alan Cebulski was a Giant fan, who played chess on his stoop and, most galling of all, Peter McAllister, a Yankee Fan, whom we all razzed: Go live in Manhattan! but tolerated because his dad was a New York City Police Sergeant, so what could you do?

It was one of the greatest pleasures of the game to see Jackie run the bases: so quick, so smart , taking longer leads off the base than anyone once he got on. He gave the opposing pitchers fits, having to watch him constantly to thwart his running on a pitch to steal a base. I remember the way he ran: quick, almost mincing steps, then quick as a scared cat. He had a unique stance at the plate. Feet close together, bat held high, knees bent, corkscrewed. The movie never got that right. It was mostly about his troubles from being the first black man to play Major League baseball when he was signed by the Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey in 1947. I have to take off my hat to Harrison Ford for a fine gravelly performance as Rickey; he even looked like him. It hardly registered on us that Jackie was black; back then he was the heart and soul of ‘The Bums’ as we—in fact, all of Brooklyn—referred to our team.

The best thing about being in Ebbets Field on a summer’s afternoon in a bleacher seat was the lazy feeling of being suspended in time and space, as only a ten-year-old could know. Sounds came to me from Home Plate and the First Base line across the field in waves of soft murmurings. You could just about make out the announcer over the PA system but Ms. Gladys Gooding belting out the Star Spangled Banner at the start of the game was not to be shushed. The Seventh Inning Stretch loosed all that pent-up feeling in whoops and roughhousing on your friends. Game over, we’d descend to the ground on the winding cement exit ramps that girded the Stadium and always made me think, unaccountably, of the Great Wall of China.

I had the misfortune to go to a New York Mets game at the old Shea Stadium some years ago and also a Yankee game at the old Stadium (both times to shepherd out-of-town friends, baseball fans). The electronic din was unrelenting; lazy, murmuring summer afternoons were long gone. By 1954, I had left Brooklyn behind for a boarding school on the North Shore of Long Island. By 1955, I was still on Long Island and in the grip of a slow-growing amnesia, so that when the Brooklyn Dodgers, my once-upon-a-time native team, won their first ever World Series by beating their nemesis, the New York Yankees, I was indifferent. And when Walter O’Malley took the Dodgers to L.A., it was over: the romance of Brooklyn baseball and my childhood.

© 2013 Robert Knightly


  1. Mr. Knightly, I'd like to say I always enjoy your blogs - but, in this case, I never had any contact with baseball, growing up, or as an adult, so it wd be be dishonest for me to pretend to give you praise here! But, I think you are a gifted writer, and if I did know from baseball, I'm sure I'd be able to give you a good report! tjstraw

    1. That's kind of you, Thelma. the only sport I'll watch now is tennis. Bob

  2. This is gorgeous, Robert. Absolutely gorgeous! I remember all those player though I never saw a game in person as a kid, only heard them on the radio. I know you know I am a Yankees fan, but right now I am a fan of da Bums, Ebbits Field, Jackie, of course, and as ever Robert Knightly!