Saturday, September 29, 2007

Dodgers and Giants, a 50th Anniversary Remembrance

Last Tuesday night was the 50th anniversary of the last game at Ebbets Field. The Brooklyn Dodgers beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 2-0 on a five-hit shutout by rookie lefthander Danny McDevitt. The last play was a groundout, shortstop Don Zimmer to first baseman Gil Hodges, who thus became the last Brooklyn Dodger to play in a home game. The night before, Duke Snider had hit the last Brooklyn home run.

I visited the Ebbets Field Apartments in July, and they're still a bit iffy, but hardly the gang-riddled, drug-infested hole they were in the 1980s and early '90s. Brooklyn has gone from all but uninhabitable to actually hip since then. But it will never be what it was when the Dodgers were there.

September 24, 1957, a date which lives in misery. And yet, if the Dodger fans were so great, how come only 6,702 showed up? Huh? (Well, for one thing, the Dodgers were in fourth place. For another, that was also a Tuesday night, a workday and a school night.)

The Brooklyn Dodgers weren't moved. They were assassinated. To this day, Walter O'Malley, the banker's lawyer who owned the team in part from 1942 and wholly from 1950 to his death in 1979, is despised in the New York Tri-State Area.

The story is told of two Brooklynites, both boys of the 1940s and young men of the 1950s, who went on to write for the New York Post. Pete Hamill (Irish Catholic) and Jack Newfield (Eastern European Jewish) were having lunch, and one of them said so-and-so was "the worst person who ever lived." (Shades of Bob & Ray's "Worst Person in the World" sketch, now co-opted by MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, who admits to being heavily influenced by Bob & Ray.) And Pete says, "Let's collaborate on a column: 'The Ten Worst Human Beings Who Ever Lived.' Let's start. I'll write my three worst on my napkin, you write your three worst on yours, and we'll compare." And each of them ended up writing the same three names, in the same order: Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Walter O'Malley.

Today, of course, the more apt comparison is to Lord Voldemort from the "Harry Potter" stories. O'Malley is, for many old people originally from Brooklyn, He Who Shall Not Be Named. The one who said, "Avada Kedavara" to their childhood dreams. Lord Waltemort.


But at least the Dodgers still have a following among people too young to have seen them play. That is not the case for the New York baseball Giants.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the last Giants game. On Sunday afternoon, September 29, 1957, the Jints went into the Polo Grounds and hosted the Pittsburgh Pirates, the same team that had played the Brooklyn Dodgers in the last game at Ebbets Field, five days earlier. The Giants weren't as lucky as the Dodgers: They lost, 9-1.

The Giants had already decided to move. They were going to Minneapolis, home of the their top farm team, which had just opened Metropolitan Stadium in suburban Bloomington. But when Dodger owner Walter O'Malley suggested San Francisco, they went for that deal instead.

If the Giants had said no, even if they had still gone to the Twin Cities -- hence the name of the team that actually ended up moving there, in 1961, the Washington Senators-turned-Minnesota Twins -- the Dodgers would have had, for the time, astronomical travel costs, and Lord Waltemort wouldn't have been able to make the move to L.A.

Despite winning a "miracle" Pennant in 1951 and the 1954 World Series, once the Yankees surpassed them as New York's first team in the 1920s and the Dodgers also surpassed them in popularity in the 1940s, the Giants were doomed. Owner Horace Stoneham couldn't afford to fix up the Polo Grounds, and he couldn't afford to build a new ballpark. He justified the move by saying, "I feel sorry for the kids, but I haven't seen too many of their fathers lately." So they moved lock, stock and Willie Mays to San Francisco, and became enormously popular there. They've usually been competitive in their 50 seasons on the Coast, but they've never won a World Series there, and only three Pennants, in 1962, 1989 and 2002.

(UPDATE: They've since won the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014j.)

The Polo Grounds survived for a brief time. In 1960, it hosted the heavyweight title rematch that saw Floyd Patterson reclaim the belt from Ingemar Johansson, and the American Football League's New York Titans debuted that year as well. In 1962, the Mets arrived. In 1964, Shea Stadium opened, taking the Mets and the Titans, by that point renamed the Jets.

The same wrecking company, and the same wrecking ball (painted to resemble a baseball), that demolished Ebbets Field in 1960 then went to work on the Harlem Horseshoe. Polo Grounds Towers opened in 1966. There's a plaque on one of the towers, roughly where home plate was, and a playground called Willie Mays Field.

The Giants aren't as well-remembered and revered as the Dodgers. The Dodgers had Roger Kahn, who once covered them for the New York Herald Tribune, to write The Boys of Summer for them in 1972. Nobody ever wrote a book like that for the Giants.

They survive in black-and-white clips of Bobby Thomson hitting a Pennant-winning homer while broadcaster Russ Hodges babbles, "The Giants win the Pennant! The Giants win the Pennant! The Giants win the Pennant!" and of Willie Mays making what baseball fans refer to as The Catch. (Today is also the anniversary of that play, September 29, 1954.)

But John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, Mel Ott, Bill Terry, Carl Hubbell and the other Giant greats of the pre-TV era? They may as well never have existed, for those who remember them are either dead or old. And even the youngest fans who remember the Giants and Dodgers playing in New York City are now age 60 and up.

But the Dodgers... They had Kahn's book, to tell of Gil Hodges and Billy Cox and Elwin "Preacher" Roe and Don Newcombe, as well as Hall-of-Famers Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese. And the Yankees of the 1940s, '50s and '60s have had their scribes, writing about Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Roger Maris. The Yankee Clipper had tributes from writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway ("Have faith in the Yankees, my son. Have faith in the great DiMaggio.") and Paul Simon ("Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you, woo woo woo.")

No one wrote poetically, or even lovingly, about where Monte Irvin, Whitey Lockman and Larry Jansen had gone. Plus, the Giants didn't have distinctive fans like Hilda Chester the cowbell lady, and Fierce Jack Pierce with his helium tank and his balloons and his "Cooookie!" cheer for Cookie Lavagetto, and the spirit-is-willing-but-flesh-is-weak musicians known as the Dodger Sym-Phony Band.

Unlike the Dodgers (who could also have laid claim to Queens, Staten Island and Long Island, but they never overtly did so), the Giants didn't have a Borough all to themselves, since Manhattan was pretty much divided between the three teams. They had monuments and plaques in center field, and they had them before the Yankees, but it seemed as though no one cared about those. (There is some lore about the first such plaque, a memorial to former Giant Eddie Grant, who was killed in combat in World War I, but their "monument park" as a whole is rarely discussed.)

And despite being just as racially integrated as the Dodgers were during that epic 1951 Pennant race, they weren't first, as the Dodgers were with Robinson. So they missed out on that special place in not just baseball history, but American history. And they weren't the Yankees, with all their championships.

And once the Mets came along, to unite Dodger and Giant fans in a common cause -- National League baseball in New York and hatred of the Yankees and all things American League -- there seemed no point to remembering the Giants.

But they should be remembered. More Hall-of-Famers than any other team, if you count any HOFer who actually played for them, even if just for one game. More Pennants than any NL team, though it took the Dodgers until the 1980s and the St. Louis Cardinals until the 2000s to surpass them. And they made baseball big business in New York for the first time.

The New York Giants baseball team may not have been better than the New York Yankees very often after 1922, or better than the Brooklyn Dodgers very often after 1937. But they gave New York 75 years, from 1883 to 1957, and they should be remembered as something more than a pair of 1950s film clips, a few artifacts 200 miles away in the Hall of Fame's displays, and a few fleeting memories of now-old men.

The Brooklyn Dodgers, and the New York Giants. In each case, born 1883, died 1957. In each case, may they rest in peace. In each case, may the men who moved them never know peace.

In each case, "Forget, hell!"

Friday, September 28, 2007

Yanking a Sox Fan's Chain

As I write this, the Yankees' 12-year streak of winning the American League East is likely to come to an end. However, if the Yankees win their last 3 in Baltimore, and the Red Sox lose 2 out of 3, then the Yanks still win the East.

But what gets me is that a lot of fans of the Red Sox, who got into the Playoffs via the Wild Card in 1998 (swept in Division Series by Cleveland), 1999 (lost ALCS in 5 to Yanks, clinching at Fenway), 2003 (lost ALCS in 7 to Yanks, the Grady Little/Aaron Boone Game), 2004 (ended up winning the whole thing for the first time in 86 years) and 2005 (swept in Division Series by White Sox), now think that, for the team that wins the Wild Card, there should be some sort of "penalty" -- fewer home games? A four-seed vs. five-seed play-in game?

Oh puh-lease. Where was this when it was your "Idiots," as the now-reformed Johnny Damon named them, were desperate for the Wild Card?

And considering that the Sox blew big Division leads in 2005 and 2006, to the Yankees, and are still in a position to lose the Pennant to a team most people thought had been buried in May, it could be argued that a curse is at work. The Curse of the Bambino? Maybe it's the Curse of the Caveman, the aforementioned Damon. Beating the Red Sox? It's so easy, a Caveman can do it!

So here's what I'm thinking, in the event the Pennant once again comes down to Yanks vs. Sox, regardless of which one wins the Division. Either...

A: The Curse of the Bambino still lives, and it took a well-earned ten-day vacation from October 17 to 27, 2004. Or...

B: It is the Curse of the Caveman, and never mind that Damon is not Babe Ruth (who is? Not Barry Bonds), the original principle still applies. Or...

C: Curse? We don't need no stinkin' Curse! We're just better! It's like it says on those T-shirts sold on River Avenue, sold outside the Stadium: "OK, Boston, you're right, there never was a Curse. Your team just sucked for 86 years!" (Actually, for about half of those seasons they were at least competitive, but let's not pick nits here.)

The Mets? Uh... We'll know for sure in about 48 hours. Until then, I'll wait for the chips to fall where they may.

"Meet the Mets, meet the Mets, step right up and beat the Mets..."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Big Premiere

I'm way behind the times. It's taken me this long to get a blog going. Anyway, here I am.

This blog will contain analysis intended to be serious, jokes intended to be funny, and maybe a surprise or two. As Ed Koch, former Mayor of New York (a man I won't normally quote, since I stopped liking him years ago) would say, "If you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, that's good. If you agree with me on twleve out of twelve, there's something wrong." It would mean you're not thinking for yourself.

This blog will mainly be about my favorite teams: In baseball, the New York Yankees; in hockey, the New Jersey Devils; in basketball, the New Jersey Nets; in college sports, Rutgers University. I don't really have a favorite football team.

(EDIT: This was before I got into English soccer, and started supporting North London-based Arsenal F.C. It was also before the Nets made their move to Brooklyn official, leading me to give them up.)

This blog is dedicated to the past, to my grandparents, George and Grace, who taught me to love the games, and that you don't have to be high-class to be classy; in fact, many who claim class have very little.

And dedicated to the future, to my nieces Ashley and Rachel, and hopefully to any cousins they might have, and to their mother, whoever she turns out to be. She doesn't have to be a Yankee Fan, she just has to be able to put up with one. In other words, built like Cindy Crawford but rooting for the Mets or Red Sox, out; built like Rosie O'Donnell but rooting for the Yankees, worthy of consideration.

Anyway, someday, Ashley, Rachel, and the hoped-for child (or children) of my own will be able to read this blog. So I'd better make it good, because chances are, they'll be at least as smart as I am. At least.