Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Great Grandma

(Note: I thought better of putting a picture of her here, so instead I put up a picture of the "ghost" of her ballpark instead.)

Today is June 4. It would have been the birthday of my grandmother, Grace Darton, later Grace Golden (1924-2006).

She was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens, in a neighborhood she called South Ozone Park -- except her house was actually in South Jamaica. But that doesn't matter now.

She was a Brooklyn Dodger fan. Not able to afford to attend many games at Ebbets Field, her lifeline, as it was for so many, was the radio broadcasts of Walter (Red) Barber.

She remembered a time when a player got hurt crashing into the outfield wall. She never remembered who it was, but it was probably Pete Reiser, a great hitter and speedy runner who ruined his career by crashing into outfield walls, which were not padded in those days. Barber, a Southerner but a college graduate at a time when not very many people were, was a very cultured man, and he was determined to sound like a Southern gentleman.

By contrast, the public-address announcer at Ebbets Field was Tex Rickards -- I'm not sure what his real name was, but he was surely nicknamed Tex after George "Tex" Rickard, the boxing promoter who built the 1925-1968 version of Madison Square Garden (a.k.a. "the Old Garden") and founded the New York Rangers. Tex Rickards had a Brooklyn accent, and wasn't very bright. There's an oft-cited legend that, between innings, the umpires got him a message to ask people sitting in the front row along the baseline to take their coats off the railing. So Tex got on his microphone, and said, "Will da fans sittin' down the foul lines please remove dere clothing?"

Apparently, in this game in which Reiser was knocked out cold, Tex asked someone why Reiser was being carted off the field on a stretcher, and was told, "He don't feel good." And his announcement could be heard over the radio: "Your attention please: Reiser has to leave the game because... he don't feel good!"

According to Grandma (who always told it as, "So-and-so has to leave the game... " because she didn't remember who it was), she laughed, because she knew what was coming: Red Barber was going to have a fit over Rickards' poor English. And he did!

*

Grandma lost both parents while she was at John Adams High School, which is in Ozone Park, a neighborhood over. She never graduated. She went to work. Getting a job was possible because many jobs that were filled by men were vacant due to the draft and enlistments for World War II.

She eventually became a bookkeeper, and held that job into the early 1990s. She married my grandfather in 1946, and, to protect her from anti-Semitism, he changed his name from George Goldberg to George Golden. My mother was born... some time after that. (Mom wouldn't want me to tell you that she's now 61. Oops. I had an accident. Well, at least Mom wasn't an "accident.")

They lived briefly in Hunter, in New York's Catskill Mountains; then on Manhattan's Lower East Side, then in the Forest Hill neighborhood on Newark's North Side, then in neighboring Belleville, then in neighboring Nutley, where they lived when Mom married Dad. Grandma and Grandpa moved to a retirement community in Brick, near the Jersey Shore, and lived there for the rest of their respective lives.

Grandma exulted and groaned with the Dodgers. Her great hero in baseball, and her great hero in life, was Jackie Robinson. She loved Pee Wee Reese. She loved Roy Campanella. She loved Gil Hodges. She loved Carl Erskine. She loved Joe Black. She loved Don Newcombe -- and, years later, long after both she and the Dodgers left the City, she ran into Newk in an elevator at the building she was working in, on Newark's Broad Street. (She guessed Newk was visiting a law firm that worked there.)

She said Carl Furillo, "the Reading Rifle," had the best outfield arm she'd ever seen. She said Billy Cox was the best third baseman she'd ever seen. She loved to tell the story of how Elwin "Preacher" Roe, a lefthanded pitcher with a great curve and a nasty sinker -- cough-spitball-cough -- but a lousy hitter even by pitchers' standards, hit a home run, and Red Barber told his listeners, "Folks, we'll never hear the end of this one." Red was right: Roe is now 93 years old, one of the oldest living former players, and he still talks about it.

But she hated manager Charlie Dressen: "Oy, God," she would occasionally say, "that Dressen was so stupid." Looking at some of his managerial moves, half a century and more after the fact, I agree.

She hated the Dodgers' arch-rivals, the New York Giants, and didn't like the most successful team in town, the New York Yankees. She hated manager Casey Stengel, probably because he'd previously been the Dodgers manager, and had stunk at it. (Which, he did.) She hated superstar center fielder Joe DiMaggio, thinking he was stuck-up. (Which, he was.) She hated catcher Yogi Berra, comparing him unfavorably with Dodger backstop Roy Campanella. (Rather, Campy should have been flattered.) She hated broadcaster Mel Allen, thinking he couldn't shine Red Barber's shoes. (Mel did have his flaws.) She didn't hate Mickey Mantle, but she thought Duke Snider was the better center fielder and the better hitter. (There were times, especially through 1955, when she had a point.)

There were, however, two Yankees she liked: Shortstop Phil Rizzuto and pitcher Whitey Ford. Why? She thought they were tough, great competitors. Yet she never liked 2nd baseman (and future manager) Billy Martin. Why? Because he was a hothead. Her word for him, and she was right. But there was another reason she liked the Scooter and the Chairman of the Board: Like her, they were from Queens: Rizzuto from Richmond Hill, Ford from Long Island City.

But she really hated the Giants. Hated Willie Mays. Hated Sal Maglie, the headhunting pitcher known as Sal the Barber because his pitches gave hitters "close shaves." Really hated broadcaster Russ Hodges. Especially hated their ballpark, the Polo Grounds.

Hated Bobby Thomson, and if you've read this blog this far, you already know why. She was listening to Red Barber's broadcast on WMGM (at 1050 AM, now ESPN Radio's New York affiliate), and heard Tex Rickards say, "Coming in to pitch for Brooklyn, Number 13, Ralph Branca." And she knew. I don't mean she figured. You know how we so often say, "I knew it"? We never really know it. But she knew it. She knew this team. She knew Branca had only one pitch, a fastball. She knew Thomson couldn't hit anything but a fastball. She knew Branca gave up too many clutch home runs. (Paging Kyle Farnsworth... Except everybody who meets Branca says he's a decent guy, which is something we can't say about Farnsworth.) And Branca had already given up a homer to Thomson in the first game of that 1951 Playoff series. She knew.

She got up out of her chair and turned off her radio. She didn't need to hear anybody tell her, as Hodges put it, that, "The Giants win the Pennant! The Giants... etc., etc., etc."

The Dodgers finally won a World Series in 1955, finally beating the Yankees, under new manager Walter Alston. Two years later, owner Walter O'Malley moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles, and talked Giants owner Horace Stoneham into keeping the rivalry going by moving them to San Francisco.

*

When the Mets arrived in 1962, she found it hard to root for them. After all, they played in the Polo Grounds, and had the orange "curlicue" interlocking NY on their caps like the Giants. But when they had their "Miracle" season in 1969, that was it: Met fan for life. Well, nobody's perfect, not even your Grandma.

Despite all her history with the Dodgers, when I asked her what was her favorite ballgame of all time, she named Game 6 of the 1986 National League Championship Series, Mets vs. Houston Astros at the Astrodome. The Mets had to win, or it would go to Game 7, and Astro pitcher Mike Scott was nearly unbeatable that year, especially in the Dome.

"He owns them," she said of Scott, an ex-Met, at the time. "They're his cousins." By the look on my face, she knew she had to explain what that meant: It's an old-time expression meaning that he does very well against them. Today, we would say that the Mets were his bitches.

The game went back and forth, back and forth, with both teams scoring in extra innings, until finally, as Met broadcaster Bob Murphy might have put it, "The Mets win the damn thing" in the 16th inning. And went on to win the World Series against the Boston Red Sox, and we all know how that happened. Don't we?

She loved those '86 Mets because of their scrappy players like Len Dykstra and Wally Backman. But she hated that the team was broken up for various reasons: Dumb trades, injuries, and, in some cases, drugs. After that, she swore she'd never love another team.

Except the Yankees finally put together a Pinstriped bunch she could love in 1996. And the Mets had a renaissance starting in 1998, and she couldn't resist.

*

She also liked the football New York Giants. And when Bill Parcells became coach of the New York Jets, she rooted for them, too. She hated cheating in all forms (and yet she liked Preacher Roe and Whitey Ford), so had she lived to see the recent Super Bowl with the Giants beating the New England Patriots, she would have loved it.

And even though the New York Rangers won three Stanley Cups in her youth (1928, 1933 and 1940), she was never into hockey. But when the New Jersey Devils arrived in 1982, she got interested. She really got into it after the Devils got good in 1992. After that 1994 double-overtime Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, I told her that Stephane Matteau had become "my Bobby Thomson." That was a hard loss, except they came back the next year, and won the Stanley Cup in 1995, 2000 and 2003.

When Game 5 of the 2000 Finals against the defending champion Dallas Stars went to triple overtime (the Devils lost) and then Game 6 went to double overtime (the Devils won the Cup on Jason Arnott's goal), she stayed up for all of it, even though she had just turned 76. But in her whole life, she only saw two games live, both in 2004, with me and my mother. The Devils lost one to the Ottawa Senators, and barely escaped the other with a tie against the Minnesota Wild. (It might have been the last tie the Devils ever played, since the NHL changed the rules to create the shootout.) She never saw the Rangers play, either at the old Garden or the new one, and came to dislike them as a dirty team, despite the fact that, in her youth, they were often billed as "the classiest team in hockey." If that was ever true -- roughhousers like Ivan "Ching" Johnson and Bob Dill, a player supposedly so dirty that Steve Avery played him in the 2005 Canadian film Maurice Richard, suggest it wasn't -- it wasn't anymore.

Even though they never played for a New York team, she loved Dizzy Dean, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Wayne Gretzky.

*

On May 27, 1978, she took me to the first big-league ballgame I ever saw, at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees lost to the Toronto Blue Jays, 4-1. It would be another 8 years until we went to Shea together, to a game the Mets won over the San Diego Padres in their 1986 title season.

I never thought to ask her about the first big-league ballgame she ever saw, but I can tell you about the last. I won tickets in a radio contest, and got to see the Jackie Robinson 50th Anniversary tribute at Shea Stadium, on April 15, 1997, with the Mets playing the Los Angeles team -- it's a little hard, considering it's my Grandma, to call them "the Los Angeles Dodger$." (See? I had to make the S a dollar sign. Lord Waltermort would have understood.) I had to take her, not because it would be her last game (I couldn't have known that at the time), but because it was her hero, and her team, that was being honored.

The surviving members of the Robinson family were there, and Jackie's widow Rachel Robinson spoke. So did Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. So did President Bill Clinton. The Mets won, 5-0 -- whether that "taught the Dodgers a lesson" is something you'll have to decide for yourself. Several old Dodgers were on hand, including Duke Snider, Don Newcombe and Sandy Koufax -- who declined to be part of the official ceremonies, but, as a longtime friend of Met owner Fred Wilpon, sat in a baseline box. Wearing a Mets cap, not a Dodgers cap.

On the way out, because our seats were behind home plate, we left through Shea's Gate C, which also contains the entrance for Mets officials and the media. And as we got out... the Robinson family turned out to be right behind us. It was a big thrill for Grandma to see Rachel Robinson up close. I was so glad I won those tickets: Taking her to this game might be the noblest thing I've ever done. (Yeah, I know: I should have done other things even nobler than that.)

And it was the last big-league game she ever saw in person. When the Philadelphia Phillies put a farm team just 6 miles from her house in 2001, she began going to several games a season. The Lakewood BlueClaws, named for a crab native to the Jersey Shore. They weren't very good, but she had a good time.

She lived long enough to see the Mets develop Jose Reyes and David Wright, but not to see the Met collapses of October 2006 and September 2007. (From the Ultimate Skybox, she's seen them, and I know what she said: "Oy, God!" Making "the Macaulay Cuklin Face." You know the one I mean.)

On what would have been her next birthday, who were the Mets scheduled to play? The San Francisco Giants, descendants of her former arch-rivals. And it gave me a chance to boo Barry Bonds.

When Armando Benitez, the ex-Baltimore Oriole and ex-Met, whose decidedly un-clutch pitching gave the Yankees big wins in the 1996 Playoffs and the 2000 World Series, came in to nail down the Giants' win, I looked up, and asked her if this was her doing. I knew Benitez would blow it. Right: Again, I didn't know. I believed. I suspected. I felt. The hell with that: I knew he would blow it. And he did.

The game went to extra innings, and Lastings Milledge hit his first major league home run to tie the game back up, and Shea Stadium went bananas. Then Milledge ran out to right field and high-fived the fans leaning over the railing, which many fans think was the beginning of the end for him in Flushing. I didn't mind it. Alas, the Met bullpen blew the game, and the Giants won. 

But what Grandma couldn't do for the Mets, she did for the BlueClaws: In 2006, having not finished over .500 in their first 5 seasons, they won the South Atlantic League Pennant.

Today would have been her 84th birthday, and her first as a great-grandmother. My sister gave her twin daughters their grandmothers' names as middle names: Ashley Grace, and Rachel Emma. In this case, "Rachel" has nothing to do with Rachel Robinson. But Grandma would have liked that, too. (UPDATE: Now that the girls are old enough to know who Jackie Robinson was, and why he matters, Rachel is thrilled that she shares a name with Mrs. Robinson. And I told them the story of how we ran into the Robinsons that night at Shea, and they loved it.)

Happy Birthday, Grandma. Enjoy the peanuts at your restored version of Ebbets Field. And watch Jackie: He's jumping off third, and I think he's gonna...
Safe.

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