My family was from New York and surrounding areas. I was born in Westchester County where my parents’ families lived and where they met and married. My aunts and uncles lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn. My father’s brother Bill was a customs agent and his wife operated a women's clothing shop downstairs from their apartment on E. 55th St. just off Park Avenue. My mother’s brother, Uncle Art, lived in Flatbush, in Brooklyn. He was a baseball fanatic and diehard Dodgers fan.
My parents had moved up to Hartford, Connecticut, and would occasionally farm me out, back to New York to stay with these relatives and I always loved going. I took the train and learned to negotiate Grand Central Station, and hail taxis. In those days, the cab drivers had Bronx accents.
Visiting Uncle Bill meant Times Square, delis, movies, sidewalk pizza, hot dogs, pretzels and open huckster shops where pitchmen on raised platforms with microphones sold shoddy, useless goods to suckers from everywhere imaginable. For a 10 year-old kid, this was all better than a carnival.
Going to see Uncle Art in Brooklyn was not quite as interesting as going to Manhattan, as Flatbush was mostly residential. But there was one attraction there: Ebbets Field, the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The last time I ever visited Uncle Art was in 1955, and he took me to a Dodgers game. He told me he had once played “semi-pro” baseball. I had no idea what that meant, and didn’t ask. Before the game, he showed me his autographed ball, signed by the players we would see at the game:
C Roy Campanella
1B Gil Hodges
2B Jim Gilliam
3B Jackie Robinson
SS Pee Wee Reese
LF Sandy Amoros
CF Duke Snider
RF Carl Furillo
P Carl Erskine
Other names on the ball were Sandy Koufax and the manager, Walter Alston. Uncle Art acted as if he knew these guys personally, and well, he did have the ball.
We set off for Ebbets Field in Art’s black DeSoto. The day was cloudy but my uncle had no worries about the weather. He was taking his sister’s kid to see the Dodgers. All I can remember about Ebbets Field was that it was huge, and green. Watching games on TV gave one no real idea of the distances involved in such a stadium. We sat only about twenty or so rows back, between third base and home plate, but even then the players looked small and far away, indistinguishable if not for their positions.
We hadn’t even sat down before Uncle Art was yelling at players milling around on the field. “Hey Duke, how ya doin’? Go get’em, Pee Wee!” Guys in white with little paper hats worked the aisles with trays of “Hot Peanuts, Hot Peanuts,” and “Getcha bee-ah hee-ah, getcha bee-ah hee-ah!”
The Dodgers were playing the Cincinnati Redlegs, and little did I know it was near the end of an era, with the Dodgers moving to L.A. two years later and the Cincinnati Redlegs dropping the “Legs” from the name soon after.
If I thought Uncle Art was yelling animatedly at the Dodger players, it was nothing compared to what happened whenever the home plate umpire called a strike on a Dodger batter. He would leap to his feat, shouting obscenities and imprecations, and I wondered if he or any of dozens of other fans doing the same thing would run down onto the field and attack the ump... No wonder they called it The Show.
The weather did not, after all, cooperate and the game was rained out in the fifth inning. But I had seen (part of) a Big League baseball game. And this was the year the Brooklyn Dodgers later won their only world series, beating the crosstown rival Yankees in the famous “subway series.
Sometimes I wonder what happened to Uncle Art’s autographed ball.
Footnote: Our friend Jim Gibbons, the champion runner, has a ball signed by Hank Aaron and Satchel Paige. Ask him about that.