On Saturday, every major-leaguer will wear No. 42, to commemorate Jackie Robinson, the first African-American in the majors in the 20th Century.
This will be the 70th anniversary of Robinson’s debut in Ebbets Field, Brooklyn – the beginning of a grueling season, a grinding decade.
Jackie Robinson would die at 53. Many people think the ordeal heightened his diabetes, hastened his death. In a real way, he gave his life for a cause.
This sense of Robinson as vulnerable point man for equality is never more relevant than in a time when Americans seem to be questioning their direction – when the Roberts Supreme Court can negate previous civil-rights legislation, letting us know that things are just fine now, we don’t need all those rules bolstering people’s rights to vote.
By some cosmic happening, the Robinson anniversary and the return of baseball take place in the spring, in the time of Passover and Easter, celebrations of survival.
Robinson’s own beliefs – the power that kept him going – is currently explored by Ed Henry in his new book, “42 Faith,” published by Thomas Nelson. Henry is the Fox News Channel chief national correspondent (and a friend of mine.)
Henry is too young to have seen Robinson play or meet him but in his busy life he has admirably sought out people and places where Robinson’s history can be felt.
Henry explores the magnetic pull of the ball park that used to be in Flatbush; the vanished hotel in Indiana where Branch Rickey gave shelter to the black catcher on his college team, the still-standing Chicago Hilton where a wise Dodger scout named Clyde Sukeforth interviewed a Negro League player named Robinson. Holy places, in a way.
The story has been well told by Arnold Rampersad and Steve Jacobson and Roger Kahn, if not with this overt angle on faith: Robinson was a mainline Protestant who relied on his pastor, who taught Sunday school, who saw life through a framework of Christianity.
He was sought out for the Brooklyn Dodgers by Branch Rickey, a man of religious dedication – who did not go to the ballpark on the Sabbath -- who had no qualms about wheedling his best players out of a thousand here, a thousand there.
Aging Brooklyn heroes like Carl Erskine and Vin Scully recall the strength and complexity of Robinson, and aging fans recall the example of Robinson holding his natural fire, to establish himself, and his people.
This was a big deal, the coming of Jackie Robinson. I remember being home in the spring of 1947 when my father called from the newspaper office to say that our team, the Dodgers, the good guys, had just brought up Robinson from the Montreal farm team, that he would open the season in Brooklyn. We (white, liberal) celebrated.
Every year the major leagues celebrate with No. 42 on every uniform. Thanks to an inquiring journalist, the story goes on.
I always thought Chaim Tannenbaum was from Quebec. He was the lanky male presence behind the beloved Kate and Anna McGarrigle, instrumentals and passionate tenor – particularly singing the lead on “Dig My Grave.”
Talk about soul: Chaim Tannenbaum, singing gospel.
One night the sisters decamped in Symphony Space or Town Hall or somewhere, and Chaim was nowhere to be seen. The sisters sang a song or two before a fan shouted lustily, “Where’s Chaim?” The ladies shrugged as if to say, deal with it.
Maybe Chaim had a philosophy class to teach at Dawson College in Montreal. That was his day job.
Kate passed in 2010 and the torch is carried by Loudon, by Martha, by Rufus, in their ways. And at the age of 68, Chaim released his first solo CD, “Chaim Tannenbaum,” last year. Never too late.
One of his songs is “Brooklyn 1955,” about, you know, Next Year.
Turns out, Chaim is from Brownsville. Who knew?
We fans thought Next Year would never come, but the Brooklyn Dodgers beat the dreaded Yankees in that World Series and bells rang all over the Borough of Churches. (I can attest; I was in a soccer match in Brooklyn that afternoon.)
In this tribute, Chaim strums and sings about the hallowed Dodgers long before pre-hipster Brooklyn, catching the mood of a borough finally having its moment.
He’s been in Montreal for decades, and his Brooklyn history is a bit vague: people were already committing white flight in the early ‘50s, and Brownsville is not the total hellhole he describes. But he is right. Brooklyn, 1955, was a time and a place.
Stick with the video because at the end the great Red Barber recites the defensive lineup from the 1952 World Series -- my eventual friend George Shuba in left, plus Billy Cox, “The Hands,” at third base. And Barber promises that sometime that afternoon the fans would be “tearing up the pea-patch” in Ebbets Field, one of his signature phrases -- a southerner talking about a pea-patch. In Brooklyn.
(Below: Young Chaim Tannenbaum sings “Dig My Grave,” a cappella, 1984, Red Creek Inn in Rochester N.Y. with Anna McGarrigle, Kate McGarrigle and Dane Lanken, bass vocal.)
We were driving through upstate New York and I saw a sign for Oriskany Falls.
Right away, I flashed to a ball park in Brooklyn on the last day of the 1954 season, the Dodgers and Pirates playing out the string.
Before Sandy Koufax became Sandy Koufax, before Clayton Kershaw was invented, there was Karl Spooner.
I was there, one of 9,344 fans. A lefty from the minors, who had shut out the hated Giants on Thursday, came back and shut out the Pirates on Sunday.
Eighteen innings in his first two games. Seven hits. Twenty-seven strikeouts. No runs. One of the best two-game debuts in major-league history.
As my friend and I took three subway lines back to Queens that day, we envisioned the career ahead for Karl Spooner. As Brooklyn Dodger fans always said, wait til next year.
Next year arrived, and Spooner had an 8-6 record, and the Dodgers finally won a World Series.
But he had already blown out his shoulder in spring training of 1955, and never again pitched in the majors. Nowadays, there might be an operation for it, but by 1958, he was retired and living in Vero Beach, Fla., the training base of the team that had just deserted us.
He died in 1984 at the age of 52.
I ascertained via the Internet that a ball field is named for Spooner in Oriskany Falls, so my brother and I made a detour and asked a nice man at the filling station for directions. “I saw him pitch in 1954,” I said. I asked whether people in town still remembered Karl Spooner, and he said a few. I did not ask for their names or numbers; I had my own memories.
We found the field down the hill. This being America in 2014, nobody was on the ball field – no league game, no kids playing choose-up, no game of catch. There was a modest sign, painted in Dodger blue, and on the other side facing the field is a resumé of Spooner’s career, from childhood to Ebbets Field. The records were compiled by Dr. Rich Cohen.
“My friend, my doctor,” said my kid brother Christopher Vecsey, a professor at Colgate University. They umpire Little League games together, and every spring they gambol in a game of town ball, the ancestor of modern baseball.
Dr. Cohen has also written a lovely biography of Spooner for SABR: http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/b6f00e89
My brother said he might take his grown son, who still pitches in an adult league, to this field. He can imagine his son taking aim at the short porch in right field. I strolled out to the mound and approximated a left-handed delivery, in homage to the man I saw pitch in 1954.
I spent a lovely day in Brooklyn on Wednesday. As soon as Mike From Whitestone turned downhill, I felt the surging image of Duke Snider slugging the ball over the screen and into Bedford Ave.
Mike parked near McKeever Pl. and I could feel my head swiveling like a compass needle to the apartment buildings where Ebbets Field used to be.
But I was the only person talking about the Brooklyn Dodgers, about ancient history.
The occasion was a career expo at Medgar Evers College, where several hundred very qualified students were seeking leads on jobs, on futures. I heard about the expo through Monica and Miguel Mancebo of Selective Corporate Internship Program (SCIP), which does such a fine job of preparing young people for the job market.
The students saw my soccer book on the table and wanted to talk about their sport. One young woman from Trinidad plays defender for the Medgar Evers team; another young woman roots for VfB Stuttgart, from her home town; a volunteer told me she roots for Barça and her husband roots for Real Madrid. And Michael Flanigan, the director of development and major gifts officer at Medgar Evers, told me how he referees soccer matches in his spare time.
I marveled at the résumés of the Medgar Evers students, their life stories, their work experience. Many of them have worked in kitchens, in day-care centers, in nursing homes. They see it as paying their bills. I told them to be proud of their work; they were learning the process, the system. Many of them want to be doctors and teachers, accountants and, good grief, journalists. I wanted to hire them all.
I hope by now somebody has.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.