Did I Hear That Right?

by

01/13/2024

Neighborhood: Crown Heights

President Truman with Charles Luckman, right, head of the Citizen’s Food Committee.

_____

On October 5, 1947, two years after the end of the War, President Truman was to address the nation on the world food crisis. It was to be the first televised address by a President in history. People were going to see the President of the United States LIVE, as he was speaking. Magical. Unprecedented. Amazing. At the time, I couldn’t care less.

My father had bought a DuMont TV set only a few weeks before. The first on the block! The screen was 10 inches wide. That TV changed our neighborhood. Wide eyed from seeing “moving” pictures on a screen, my family, friends and neighbors watched test patterns for hours. My entire Cub Scout group dissolved en masse to gather in my living room for the Friday Night fights. Neighbors who’d barely greeted us before, became intimate friends. We should have charged admission.

That afternoon Truman was definitely not on my thirteen-year-old mind. Our beloved Dodgers were in the World Series and, mirabile dictu, were playing the despicable New York Yankees, a so-called “subway series.” It was the first World Series to be televised, and that Sunday afternoon our living room was packed an hour before game time. Five games of the Series had already been played and the Yankees were leading three games to two.  So, a Yankee victory that day would win the entire enchilada. It was do or die time.

Skunk, Bruce, Roger, Fogelson, Walinski, they were all there. So was Richie and Abramowitz, and a lot of others. The piano in the TV room took up so much space we were practically sitting on top of one another.

My mother didn’t entertain much and was flummoxed with 20 guests in her Crown Heights parlor. Tentatively, she asked if anyone wanted a glass of water. Nobody heard her. The buzz about Vic Lombardi, who’d been announced as the Dodger’s starting pitcher, was too loud. Decibels of worry filled the room. The “southpaw” had won 12 games during the regular season but had also lost 11. Uneven. Untrustworthy. Lombardi made everyone nervous.

My father, on the other hand, stayed entirely aloof. He was a Galician man, reared in Jewish orthodoxy, who spent his youth in a Yeshiva, not a schoolyard. When he got to the United States he had to put himself through school while working. There was never room for sports. So, baseball was entirely foreign to him, and my fetish-like worship of the Dodgers likely shocking to him. Father’s lack of baseball savvy was a big disappointment to me. 

I wished he was more like so many other dads who would join my friends in dissecting players, games and stats. In short, American fathers! My dad wasn’t one of those. On that October Sunday, he paid little attention to the crowd in front of the TV, preferring to spend his weekend afternoon with Beethoven in the library.

We were elated with three straight singles to open the Dodger’s first inning, one by Jackie Robinson. 1947 was Jackie’s rookie year with the Dodgers. The first black man in major league history, he was as exciting a player as any I’d seen. But in cities near the Mason-Dixon line, like Cincinnati and St. Louis, the racist crowds booed Jackie incessantly. After one such episode, Pee Wee Reese, the Dodger’s captain, went over to Jackie on the field and put his arm around him. That quieted the crowd immediately on that day and largely for the rest of the season.

After those three singles, the bases were loaded with no outs, and our leading slugger, “Dixie” Walker was at bat. Walker, arrrrgggh, hit into a double play, but the Brooks wound up scoring 2 runs that inning. Then, in the top of the third, Reese, Robinson and Walker hit three doubles in a row, and we were 4 runs up.

Skunk thought it was over. “We got ‘em” he grinned. Abramovitz easily agreed. That led to a chorus of “don’t jinx us” from the rest of the crowd. I told Skunk he was a real jerk for saying that. Most of us agreed. “Shut up Skunk” we yelled. But too late. Right on time, the Yankees scored 4 runs in the bottom of the third, and another in the fourth, and we were suddenly losing. 

“From now on Skunk, just don’t open your mouth,” I whined. And Hal the Gal wondered what Abramowitz was doing in the room in the first place because he was really a Giant fan and should keep his trap shut. Roger glared at Abramowitz who shrunk in his chair trying to make himself even smaller than he already was.

But the gods were smiling that day. In the top of the sixth the Dodgers scored 4 runs and suddenly we were ahead 8-to-5. Abramowitz breathed a big sigh. Hal the Gal told him “You’re a lucky bastard Abramowitz, you almost blew it for us”.

In the bottom of the sixth Brooklyn replaced Eddie Miksis in left field with Al Gionfriddo, a nobody for whom they’d traded that year. No one paid much attention. Then the Yankees get two runners on base and, with two out, who’s up, but the great DiMaggio. We hated the Yankees like we hated Heinrich Himmler. But DiMaggio was a different thing. One of the all-time greats, you had to respect this guy. Great fielder, hitter, slugger. And now, if he smacked one into the stands, it would tie the game. The room went silent. Bruce couldn’t take it and left for the bathroom. 

Sure enough, Dimaggio lit into the second pitch with that majestic stride of his. The ball rocketed into deep left-center field. Gionfriddo, a tiny man, began to run at the crack of the bat, instantly covering maybe 25 yards to the fence 415 feet from the plate. The whole room hid its eyes, afraid to look. 

The ball cleared the low bullpen fence; a home run damn it, the game was tied. But wait! Gionfriddo had somehow thrust his glove high over the fence and the ball fell into it. Out! DiMaggio was out. One of the great catches in baseball history. Everyone screaming. 

DiMaggio, typically imperturbable, kicked at the dirt on the base path, bitterly robbed of the sort of fame he was used to.

The game settled down after that, with us ahead by three runs, until the Yankee half of the ninth inning, their last chance. Of course, the Fates wouldn’t let us off easy. The first two Yankees got on base. Now the tying run is at the plate again, and the Brooks bring in Hugh Casey, their top relief pitcher, to get us out of this jam. Everyone was on the edge of his seat, knowing Yankee karma was hard to beat; that they usually found a way to win. Phil Rizzuto came up for the Yanks. Casey threw him a strike. Suddenly, there was a stirring in the back of the room. My father had slipped in among the chairs and was now looking at the game. The presence of the paterfamilias, the guy who had bought this incredible TV set, instantly became known and alerted the whole audience. 

Casey continued to pitch to Rizzuto. You could hear a pin drop. Then, my father asked, loud enough for the entire room to hear, “Why is that man (Casey) throwing the ball at the other man (Rizzuto)? Silence. Real, tactile, pregnant, silence, descended on the room. Dad’s question hung in the air; dangled there, unpardonable in its naïveté. No one said a word. I sank my head in humiliation. I could hear Skunk next to me breathe “Wha’d he say”? I looked across at Fogelson who was rolling his eyes at Roger, who was shrugging his shoulders. Walinski, that bastard, was grinning sheepishly. Had they heard right? Why was Casey throwing the ball at Rizzuto? Hal the Gal shot me a pitying look. I froze in my seat, embarrassed beyond hope. Finally, after a mortifying pause, Abe, Hal the Gal’s father, and the only other adult in the room, answered respectfully: “That’s how the game’s played, Bernie.” I glanced over my shoulder at my father and that seemed to be explanation enough for him. He smiled and turned back to the TV.

Hugh Casey ultimately got us out of that jam. Not, however, before the Yanks scored one more run and had the winning run at the plate, did he get Snuffy Sternweiss to ground out and end the game. Of course, the next day, inevitably, the Yankees won the seventh and deciding game, and the Dodgers went home, once again with their tails between their legs. “Wait ’til next year” become our rallying cry.

I’ll never forget that Series. And, of course, I’ve never forgotten, nor, I fear, before today, ever forgiven, my father, for his question. Poor guy. That question embraced a lot of what was going on with us culturally at the time. Sure, we were mostly kids in the room that day, but, before and during the War, an Eastern European “greenhorn” was often suspected, even in Jewish circles, of not being “one of us”; of not assimilating rapidly enough for our taste, and, when he erred culturally, he became the butt of condescension.

Now, in reminding myself of that day, when I was humiliated because my father didn’t know about baseball, I’m again the most embarrassed guy in the room, but this time, out of shame for myself.

***

Norbert Weissberg is a resident of East Hampton, New York and a student in the memoir writing class  offered by the East Hampton Library under the direction of noted journalist Andrew Visconti

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§ 4 Responses to “Did I Hear That Right?”

  • Harry Abrams says:

    Hey Norby,

    Just loved your story! Even though I grew up in Los Angeles rather than New York, I became a Dodgers fan when they moved west to warmer climes.
    My wife Gay on the ither hand, is from Sheepshead Bay, and treasured The Brooklyn Dodgers!

    I am sharing your story with all of my baseball friends, even though in later years, I became an NBA and Lakers fan. Baseball became too fast a game for me!

    All the best,
    Your pal Harry

  • William Schutt says:

    What a warm, engaging memory so delightfully expressed! The specifics! I was-right there with you! Quite possible your father was quietly relishing the presence and ardor of the community of roughneck pals you brought into his house-a different appreciation of the game beyond its simple mechanics.

  • Jay Kaudman says:

    What a beautiful story brilliantly told! Takes me back to my relationship with my father, my love of the Dodgers, my 13-year-old self. You write so well, and I’m grateful for the echo of my own journey.

  • I always wondered what it was like up there in the big time cheering for the stars, while I tucked in under the covers listening to the New Orleans Pelican’s broadcast, hoping Al Flair would snag another one off the first base line and smack one over the fence when he batted from the clean- up slot.

    You brought me there, and I could feel your father’s bewilderment.
    Great job, Norby.

§ Leave a Reply

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