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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US
By Robert A. Moss
I pick up my rented Mirage in West Palm Beach and drive south down I-95 toward Deerfield Beach where my mother lives with Beth, the fine Jamaican woman who cares for her. Mom is nearly ninety-one, suffers from Alzheimer's disease, and will not know me, will not even call me her brother as she did in earlier stages of her illness. The approaching visit puts me in a reflective mood, perhaps priming me for a small shock of recognition. Off to my left I notice a raised water tower inscribed "Lake Worth." It isn't Proust's redolent madeleine, but it opens a lane to the past: Burt Shotton, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and 1949, retired to Lake Wales, Florida. In my reverie, I conflate Lake Worth and Lake Wales.
Suddenly, it is the summer of 1947. I am seven years old; the world extends four blocks from our apartment in Brooklyn's Crown Heights section to Public School 167 and across the street to the grocery store run by my father. The store, small, dark, crowded, and a constant drain of my father's vitality, might have come straight from the description of Morris Bober's grocery in Bernard Malamud's novel The Assistant. On many hot summer afternoons I sit outside the "Elmhurst Dairy" atop an upended wooden milk crate and listen on an enormous "portable" radio to Dodgers games broadcast by Red Barber and Connie Desmond from Ebbets Field.
In retrospect, it is that epiphany in baseball history when the "Boys of Summer" are born, the year that Jackie Robinson joins "The Flock," as the New York papers often call the Dodgers. I come to revel in Robbie's heroics and I draw careful pictures of him, coloring his face and hands a rich brown with the Crayola labeled "burnt sienna."
It is also the summer that my father takes me to my first baseball game. We sit behind home plate while the young Ralph Branca, twenty-one years old and enjoying his best season (2112, 2.67 ERA), breaks off curveballs that seem to bend a foot or more, forever inoculating me against the skepticism of physicists.
I am too young to really follow the pennant race, but I exult when the Dodgers defeat the St. Louis Cardinals, their nemesis of the forties. One of my father's customers has a television set and I am invited to watch several World Series games. I am thus introduced to the Dodger-Yankee wars that later become a nearly annual feature of a New York autumn. It is October, of course, and so I go after school, catching the endings of several contests.
What I remember instantly and vividly as I pass the Lake Worth tower is the great catch that Al Gionfriddo makes on Joe DiMaggio's mammoth drive to the left field fence in Game 6. Brooklyn was ahead 85 in the bottom of the sixth inning. There were two Yankees on base when DiMaggio socked what appeared to be a game-tying homer. Gionfriddo ran "back, back, back" as Red Barber described it, and made a one-handed catch in front of the "415" (foot) sign, actually carrying the ball back onto the playing field from beyond the low bullpen fence. Perhaps you've seen the grainy film clip of that magical save, and of DiMaggio pulling up just shy of second base and kicking the dirt in a rare public display of petulance. Gionfriddo's play preserved the Dodgers' victory in Game 6, although the Yankees won the seventh game and the '47 Series.
Gionfriddo got to make that catch because Burt Shotton persuaded Branch Rickey to keep him on the team to do the odd jobspinch hit, pinch run, play defense. Shotton himself was a substitute: Rickey had called him out of retirement to manage the '47 Dodgers when Leo Durocher, the incumbent manager, was suspended by baseball commissioner Happy Chandler just days before the season's start.
"Old Burt" (or "Boit," in the Brooklyn argot) was not strong on names. To him, Gionfriddo was "the little Italian fella." In the free association of cherished baseball memories, I couple Gionfriddo's great catch with perhaps the greatest of all Dodgers defensive plays: Sandy Amoros's Series-saving catch of Yogi Berra's opposite field fly in the seventh game of the 1955 Dodgers-Yankees contest.
In the sixth inning, the Dodgers lead 20. The Yanks have men on first and second when Berra hits a flyball deep down the left field line. Amoros, who has been shading toward center, runs with destiny, snares the ball with his outstretched glove in front of the seats, then wheels and fires a beautiful peg to Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers captain and shortstop. Reese's relay to Gil Hodges at first doubles up Gil McDougald and breaks the back of the Yankee rally. Behind the inspired pitching of Johnny Podres, the Dodgers go on to win the game 20 and capture their only championship in Brooklyn.
I think of Shotton in retirement, watching that play on television as I had watched Gionfriddo in 1947. Perhaps at his agehe is seventy-one at the timehe confuses the years and the names, thinking that with Gionfriddo's catch the Dodgers have a chance, can win the game, win the Series, be champions at last. In my fantasy, Shotton bends forward in his armchair, the dowdy room dissolves, the dugout bench is hard, the field in front of him is green with possibility, the figures of Gionfriddo and Amoros blur into a single scintillating flash.
I recall reading, several years ago, that Amoros developed diabetes, that a leg became gangrenous and had to be amputated. The legs that carried him into our memories forever were mortal, just as Amoros, now sadly also departeda gloomy reflection that returns me to my present purpose. But I temper the dolor with another dose of Shotton. Once, in the course of a beanball war, Red Barber asked Old Burt if he was going to send the team out fighting mad. Shotton replied, "They ain't going to be mad tonight or any other time. . . . I'm here to see they don't get mad. When a man gets mad he can't beat anybody doing anything. They are going out tonight and play their regular game and I expect them to win."
Well, they did win, Burt; it just took a while longer. And in a gesture that I do not think is sentimental, I take off my Mets cap and wave it at the receding Lake Worth tower. I wave it out of respect and in honor of Burt, Jackie, Pee Wee, Al, Sandy, Johnny, Gil, Mr. Rickey, and the elderly lady in Deerfield Beach whose memories are now beyond all powers of retrieval.
ROBERT A. MOSS is the Louis P. Hammett Professor of
Chemistry at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He recently visited
Keyspan Park, the home of the Brooklyn Cyclones (Class A affiliate of the Mets),
and saw the club play against a New York-Penn League rival. While at the park
he also had an opportunity to see and touch the Brooklyn Dodgers 1955 World
Championship banner that flew over Ebbets Field in 1956.
© 2002 Robert A. Moss
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