The movie “42” starring Chadwick Baldwin as Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, is a must see for anyone growing up in the 1950s or who loved baseball in that magic era.
I was a huge baseball fan as a kid. I was devoted to the New York Yankees in the 1950s and can still recite the numbers of the starting eight Yankees (not the pitchers). Phil Rizzuto, short-stop (No. 10), was my favorite to the point where I would actually pray for him to get a hit when he came up to bat – he was short like me. Rizzuto was the Most Valuable Player in 1950. In the early-mid 50s, I was also the only kid in the “300 Club” which was named the 300 Club because it was limited to 299 New York City business men and one child (me) centered at the Republican Club located on the same block where my commuting father worked at Schumacher’s next to Bryant Park.
The 300 Club was a gambling club. Every year in April, the members submitted their teams of 10 players with two alternates (if one or two of the first 10 did not come to bat at least 400 times). The trick was to pick a team with the highest combined batting average by the end of the baseball season. It was not as easy as it sounds because every year someone would have an off year or would not come to bat 400 time because of an injury. The pay-off was $50 if you were leading at the all-star break and $500 with a smaller second place prize if you won at the end of the season. So the New York Times sports pages were my bible for that decade. The closest I came to winning was when I came in second at the all-star break one summer.
Because of the club I didn’t just study and choose Yankees (usually Mickey Mantle #7, Hank Bauer #9 and Yogi Berra #8). I knew of all of the top hitters of that decade which included Willie Mays (center field) and Don Mueller (right field) on the NY Giants, Stan Musiel (center field) of the St. Louis Cardinals, and Duke Snider (center field), and Jackie Robinson (third base) on the Brooklyn Dodgers. Good hitters like Roy Campanella (Dodgers), Roger Maris (Yankees and Cardinals) and Hank Aaron (Boston Braves) came in toward the end of this era. I went to quite a few Yankees games with my parents. At my first game, Yankees v. St. Louis Browns, I saw Satchel Paige give up a bases loaded home run to Yogi Berra in the last of the 9th. I never had an opportunity to go to any Dodgers’ games in Brooklyn. Andy Rooney took me to my only NY Giants’ game in their last season at the Polo Grounds in New York before the team moved to San Francisco. We sat in the CBS box and I recall seeing Willie, Bobby Thompson, and Mueller hitting and fielding. In the 80s and early 90s Becki and I with kids rediscovered the Giants and went to many games at Candlestick Park where we were entertained by Will Clark and Matt Williams among others. Remember the earthquake World Series between the Giants and Oakland As?
I have always enjoyed my brushes with fame so when John Sharnik, a CBS producer and author, asked me to warm up Jackie Robinson for an exhibition at the Rowayton Bayley Beach tennis courts one summer weekend in either 1959 or 1960, I was more than happy to do so. As much as I was a student of baseball I was only faintly aware of the difficulties that Jackie struggled with in the late 40s and 50s. This is because I saw baseball through a kid’s eyes. Only later would I learn to understand the destructiveness of prejudice and hate in our society.
In Rowayton I was considered the best kid tennis player. I would consistantly beat the pro next door at Roton Point, I was number one on the Norwalk High team, went on to play college tennis and ultimately made the all conference team in doubles. But if the truth be known, Mike Newman and Paul Tebo, two other Rowayton kids, were just as good. But I had a lot of important mentors like Ward Chamberlin, best adult player around and George Shiras whose son Lief became a top grass court player with success at Wimbledon. I would usually be put out of the annual Rowayton Tennis Tournament by Ward and there was always a good gallery. Ward would always make sure that I got more games off of him than the other big hitters in the tournament. I also like to tell people that I beat Paul Gerken from neighboring Norwalk who rose to 32nd in the world beating the likes of Bjorn Borg and Arther Ashe. Paul has the only winning record over Borg (2-1). This was in the summer of 1961 when we played one set and I won 6-2. I always follow-up and confess that Paul was only 10 years old and I was 18, but Paul was already receiving his rackets from Jack Kramer.
So when Sharnik asked me to warm up Jackie Robinson, I rose to the occasion. I vaguely remember that when I was introduced to Jackie I showed no awe because this was serious business and I sensed that Jackie felt the same way. Since he was quite stoic, I wondered about his interest in being at Bayley Beach where everyone was white except for him. Darien next door was also all white except for the maids that came daily on the bus from Stamford. Jackie and his wife, Rachel, lived in Greenwich between Rye NY and Stamford where my maternal grandfather had built fine homes in the 1920s and early 30s.
I call this “my moment with Jackie Robinson” because it probably lasted 20 to 25 minutes. It was a beautiful warm day and I was hitting with someone I admired as a baseball player. He was at best an above average country club tennis player because of his athleticism. His forehand bounced deep in the court and was heavy to return. Jackie went on to play the exhibition doubles match with Ward and two other Rowayton men. Over those years we also had exhibitions with other top players including Billy Talbert. In my book, Ward was always the star.
After this experience I became more aware of Jackie Robinson’s trials and tribulations and the negative side of baseball in that era. In the 1960s I lost all interest in the major leagues except for the revival that I mentioned in the late 1980s and early 90s. Two things dashed that revival – the baseball strike that ended a superlative season and homerun crown for Matt Williams and the arrival of Barry Bonds in San Fransico. Bonds made even his uncle Willie Mays look bad.
Jackie paved the way for Elston Howard (Catcher, Yankees), Don Newcombe (Pitcher, Dodgers), Roy Campanella (Catcher, Dodgers), Minnie Minoso (perennial 300 hitter, outfield, Chicago White Sox), Monte Irvin (outfield, Cleveland Indians), Roberto Clemente (right field, Pittsburgh Pirates), Willie Stargell (first base, Pittsburgh Pirates), and many others. I lived in Pittsburgh while in Grad School from 1966 to 71 and would often walk from the lab at the medical school about five blocks down to Forbes Field where I was able to enter the stadium for free after the seventh inning (bleachers on the left field foul line cost only 50 cents). Roberto Clemente was the best all-around player I ever saw. He played right field because he had a terrific throwing arm and would occasionally throw out surprised hitters at first base who thought they had hit a single. Stargell was a phenomenal clean-up hitter behind line drive hitter, Clemente, who on numerous occasions would hit the ball over the third tier roof in right field. When that happened, everyone at the KFC up on the hill (the getto) would get free Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Baseball in the 40s and 50s was magical. It’s not the same for me today.