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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US

Ode to Dick Allen
By Lee Vilensky

The first major league game I ever attended was in 1965. My father took me to Connie Mack Stadium to see the Phillies play the Dodgers. Everybody called it Connie Mack Shack, because it was old and dirty and run-down, but it looked fine to me. Connie Mack was located in North Philly, which was, and still is, a very depressed area. Solid ghetto, no artists' lofts in sight. There was no stadium parking, so you had to find a spot on the street and then give the neighborhood kids some money so they wouldn't break your windows. Big, dirty, and exciting to a little boy from the Jersey Shore. I remember seeing "FUCKY" spray-painted on a brick wall we passed by on the way to the stadium. I couldn't tell whether it was someone's nickname or just general commentary. I guess I'm still wondering.

Connie Mack Stadium was an old-style ballpark erected in 1909 and originally named Shibe Park. It was built for the Philadelphia Athletics of the American League and was the first baseball facility constructed entirely of concrete and steel. It looked like a church, a massive, soot-covered fortress where the gods played baseball. I will never forget going through the turnstiles and into the belly of the building. It was dark, cool, and damp, and smelled of mustard, urine, stale beer, and cigar smoke. People were moving about at a frantic pace, bumping into me, cursing, yelling, holding onto impossible configurations of beers, hot dogs, pennants, programs, small children, and miscellaneous souvenirs. They didn't seem polite. I held my father's hand tight, and he held mine back. You could get lost forever in a place like this.

We must have entered the building far from where our seats were, because it seemed like we walked for miles, fighting our way through human traffic. I thought we were going the wrong way because everyone was coming against us. Finally my father pointed at some numbers on the wall, and we turned right through an archway into bright sunshine. I looked down and saw the most perfect green lawn I'd ever laid eyes on. It was so beautiful. They didn't need to play a game. Just sitting in the sunshine, staring at that green lawn, would have been enough

Our seats were way up high, in left center field. Thank god my father was there to interpret all the numbers for section, row, and seat. Impossible math problems. We sat down, and a man started singing the "National Anthem," so we stood back up. All the men took off their hats and covered their hearts. It was a nice gesture, I thought. The singer was great. He milked the "of the free . . ." part like it was his big moment, and it probably was. The game started, and I didn't move a muscle for two or three innings.

The Phillies were my team, but 1965 was the first year I really followed them. The year before, they blew a six-and-a-half game lead with twelve games left in the season, and the Cardinals took the pennant. This is still considered one of the worst "chokes" in professional sports history, so everyone hated the Phillies in 1965. Everyone but me. I didn't know from the previous year.

My favorite player was Richie Allen, who was National League Rookie of the Year in 1964. He was clearly the best player on the team. Everyone seemed to hate Richie Allen because he was black. As a matter of fact, he was the first black rookie to win a starting position—at the major league level—in the history of the franchise. I liked him because he could hit, field, throw, and run. What's not to like? I knew nothing of racism in 1965. I'd just turned eight.

Richie Allen was the most abused athlete I have ever seen. He was outspoken and articulate and said what was on his mind to the "good ol' boys" of the Philadelphia press. He didn't know how to "work" the media, so they worked him over, but good. Black and outspoken didn't go over very well in Philadelphia in 1965. Fans would throw things at him on the field, and by things, I don't mean paper cups and rolled up napkins. I'm talking batteries, bottles, paper weights from the office—serious bludgeons. And constant verbal abuse. Phrases like "nigger, nigger, nigger" and "fuckin' nigger, nigger" swirled around me at my first-ever ball game. (Interestingly, the Phillies second baseman at this time was a Cuban player named Tony Taylor. Taylor was a fine player and a fan favorite. They loved Tony, and used to have "Tony Taylor Day" once a year at a home game. Tony was the same color as Richie, but spoke very little English and was considered "Latin." Man they loved Tony Taylor.)

I was very confused by all this commotion. It seemed to me that adults shouldn't curse so much in front of a kid. They didn't care about the game, and didn't seem to be enjoying themselves. They came to Connie Mack Stadium to taunt Richie Allen. I decided then and there that the more they hated him, the more I would love him. I felt like he needed that from me.

I guess it was about the seventh inning when Richie came up for his third at bat. I don't recall what he had done in his two previous at bats, but the chanting started anew. "Nigger." "Big mouth nigger." "Fuckin' nigger." "Go back to Africa, nigger." Yes, someone actually yelled that. The game program listed him as being from Wampum, Pennsylvania, which only caused me more confusion. I can't remember the pitch count, but suddenly there was a crack of the bat as Richie Allen crushed a line drive over our heads. I turned around just in time to watch the ball bounce off a little eave above the top of the grandstand, then go completely out of the stadium. A shot more than five hundred feet in distance. Not a high, arcing, majestic home run, but a cold, vicious, angry drubbing of the ball. A loud slap. The power of it scared me. It made people quiet. Took all their air like a punch to the gut. As Richie touched home plate, the man next to me said to no one in particular: "Fuckin' nigger can hit."

—EFQ

 

LEE VILENSKY is a semi-retired musician, cab driver, and freelance writer living in San Francisco. He was born in Wildwood, New Jersey, and is proud of his nifty footwork around the first base bag in 1968 for the Marine Bank team of the Greater Wildwood Little League. His lurid but factual cab stories have appeared in the San Francisco Herald, and he's also been published in Andrei Codrescu's online magazine, Exquisite Corpse.


© 2003 Lee Vilensky

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