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SPEAK OUT: Inside the Brooklyn heaven that was Ebbets Field

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Once upon a Brooklyn, Ebbets Field was a halo over our borough, the shrines where we all gathered to worship a game of baseball, and the distant center-field bleachers were a heaven in the sunshine that baked away the winters to let the spring shine through. 55 cents bought a seat up there in the big leagues. It kept a kid off the streets, and sat him there in the mainstream of all America. No one in that depression ever knew how many milk deposits were cashed in to pay for those tickets, or how many long walks to school were made to save those trolley nickels. In those depression years and the woeful wartime that followed, Ebbets Field was that altar for all “the faithful” who came to root for their “has beens” of that period, with a loyalty borne of the kicking groundballs in practice, as they did during their games. “Dem Bums” was a name we all wore with pride, as the NY World Telegram dubbed our Dodgers in the zany cartoons of Willard Mullin. He depicted them as a lovable hobo, a cigar in the corner of his mouth. They were butts of many jokes of Journal-American cartoonist Burris Jenkins, as well as columnist Dan Parker. In the many Brooklyn daily papers, news of the Dodgers were always prime, as our own Brooklyn Eagle battled the Citizen and the Times-Standard Union for loyal headlines and readership. On that first Spring afternoon, there was electric in the air as we emerged back into action from the Brighton Express at the Prospect Park Station. The youngsters ran from the train with expectancy for a new season, and the oldsters hobbled along with new spring in their fallen arches. Up in the sunlight on Flatbush Avenue, peanut stands whistled a tune of those times on each corner, and newsboys hawked their papers, competitively. “Here, get a picture of each of our Burns on the front page of the Brooklyn Citizen! Three cents!” The Standard Union printed a page one scorecard, for the same three cents, with a pencil! The wise Eagle ran headlines, “Gas House Gang Coming Soon For Series,” and they ran pictures of Pepper Martin belly-whopping into third-base and Dizzy Dean with his left-leg reared to the sky! The intensity mounted as we ran closer to Ebbets Field. The blind newsy was there on the corner of McKeever Place singing defiantly, “We’ll take ‘em today.” Taxis pulled to the curb in front of the rotunda, and judges would emerge, flashing V.I.P. passes at the Press Gate. Special cop, big Joe Moore would tip his cap to “Your Honor.” Everyone ran from there, uphill all the way to Bedford Avenue, there we turned left and again uphill along the right-field fence to the centerfield bleacher gates. Pay the 55 cents and then run zig-zag up all the ramps, even closer to those upper stands where the sun was spraying all those seats. At the top, out of the wind, all the sense came alive. The sun was blinding as you emerged. You heard the cracks of wooden bats belting leather baseballs, above the hawker cries, “Scorecards here! Fi’ cents!” And the smell of spilled coca-colas accompanied the four and 20 salami sandwiches frying in the sun, or the ham and cheese baking in squashed tomatoes. You yelled, “Waddaya mean this seat is taken? Hey usher, these seats aren’t reserved, are they?” Fans were not reserved either. The fans laughed in chorus as Frenchy Bordagaray ran out of his baseball cap chasing a practice between the bigger men, Blimp Phelps, Van Mungo, and Long Tom Winsett. In the infield some 50 years ago, the regulars were booting fungo grounders with precision, first Joe Stripp, then little Lonnie Frey, Jim, Bucher, Johnny Hudson, and popular Buddy Hassett. A long fly ball whistled past aging Heine Manush and it hit the sign beneath the scoreboard, “Hit Sign, Win Abe Stark Suit.” Then the bell rang and the teams came off the field, while the groundkeepers primped the spike marks off the infield. The freshly whitewashed bases and foul lines all sparkled on opening day. Red, white and blue banners draped the box seats, upper and lower. And there was always a band to celebrate the opener, when Borough President John Cashmore would flash his large white teeth and whip the first pitch from his box seat, close to first base. There was wild applause and new hopes in those seasons when the Brooklyn name was usually in sixth place all season. “We” usually opened against the Phillies, one of the few teams that were worse, and we used an old-timer like Ray Bener or Rosy Ryan to win the opener. In those years, you could save the next day’s paper all year, and revere the magic of seeing “Brooklyn” in first place. Times changed, Larry MacPhail moved into Brooklyn. He brought cash with him, and poured some of it into the team he bought. First he lit up the joint, bringing night games and sell-out crowds. He bought a hustling shortstop and made him Mgr.; “Lippy Leo” Durocher. He bought Dolph Camilli and Kirby Higbe from the Phillies, Joe Medwick and Mickey Owen from the Cardinals. He plucked Billy Herman from the Cubs, and he picked up Whit Wyatt, Dixie Walker. Lew Riggs and Jimmy Wasdell, baseball castoffs. He minced them with two priceless youngsters, spring opener of 1941, you could almost smell it. The pennant flag was a-borning. The sun was brighter than ever in that year where Brooklyn climbed into first place way out west in Chicago, late in the season.. And when the team returned “home to Brooklyn” that autumn night there was a record crowd at our own airport where the Brooklyn Dodgers debarked as heroes at Floyd Bennet Field. A week later they went up to Boston to clinch their first flag in 21 years. Ebbets Field was the Shrine where all Brooklyn mankind worshipped our own home team, every springtime hope emerged eternal in an era when kids learned to steal bases, instead of pocketbooks; once upon a Brooklyn!

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