The other day I asked a friend of mine, an old-timer and a longtime baseball fan, if he remembered the 1955 World Series. He thought a moment, and said: “Oh, yeah, wasn’t that a Dodger-Yankee series?” “Yes, it was. But 1955 was special. It was the first and only time the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series.” And Willard Mullin drew his famous cartoon of the grinning, toothless, unshaven hobo with the caption: “Who’s a bum?”
I asked more. “Do you remember what the crowds looked like at World Series games in those days?” He didn’t understand, so I continued. “I could show you pictures where the only spectators seem to be men in business attire, coat and tie with a black or brown fedora, aged 35 and up. Remember, World Series games in those days were all played in the afternoon.” (I always like to add: “on grass, in the daylight, as God intended.”)
My friend added: “Yes, school was in session; no kids were there and few women.” Right. “Now in ’55 there were four games at the rather large Yankee Stadium, and three at Ebbets Field, where any more than 32,000 were truly shoe-horned into that grand old bandbox on Bedford Avenue. The official attendance for the series was 362,310. How many do you think are still alive?”
My friend mused: “Well, if you had to be a business guy with enough seniority to take off from work, and since that was 50 years ago, there can’t be too many still with us.”
“Yes, that’s what I was thinking. But what really gets me is: How many are alive today who saw, as a paying spectator, in person, at the ballpark, every one of those seven games?” My friend shrugged, and said: “Oh, for every game, and with tickets for a subway series so hard to get, and still living 50 years later, that’s a real, real long shot.”
“That’s what I thought. But I was there. For every game. When Brooklyn finally won a World Series. Bums no longer. And I wonder if I’m alone now with these memories.” With a bit of awe and wonderment my friend asked: “How did you manage that?” So I told him.
I had been sent home with an infectious and debilitating tropical disease from our Jesuit mission in Jamshedpur, India, in August of 1955. The superior of the Maryland Province, William Maloney, S.J., visited me in Georgetown University Hospital and said: “Jim, when they discharge you from here, go home and visit your family for two weeks.” (A home visit was a big deal in those days!) “Father, thank you. I would like to wait, though, and go in October.”
He was puzzled and appeared even a bit peeved. Then light dawned in dark eyes. He fairly thundered at me: “I know! You think the Dodgers are going to win the pennant, and you want to go to the World Series!”
He had me cold. My reputation had preceded me. How we loved the Dodgers! It used to be said that in Brooklyn you always knew the score. Because it came out of the radio with Red Barber’s voice from every living room, automobile and storefront. Peewee, and the Duke, Campy, Jackie, and Gil, Junior Gilliam, and the Preacher. Every one of them. Carl “Oisk” Erskine. And we still hadn’t won the Big One! Our favorite psalm was: “Wait ’til next year!” This could be it. I wanted to be there.
The tickets? My father worked in Manhattan and had enough corporate connections that he was able to cover us for the first two games in Yankee Stadium, and games six and seven there if needed (as they were). The games in Brooklyn, in tiny Ebbets Field, were another matter. I took the subway over to 215 Montague Street, the official Dodger headquarters. No luck. The clerk at the window was tired of repeating: “I’m sorry. The World Series games are sold out.”
As I left the building, rather discouraged, on a hot September noon, a heavy-set old fellow, somewhat frayed, with a few days’ growth of beard and tired eyes looking for someone to talk to, was sitting on a folding chair out there on the sidewalk. “Father, what’s the matter?”
We talked. I learned he used to be a groundskeeper at Ebbets Field. (I wish I remembered his name.) He did the work of an angel: “Go back in, and tell them you want obstructed view seats. By law they can’t offer them for sale. You have to ask for them.”
Well, heaven fell in my lap. I immediately found a pay phone and asked my father how many tickets we wanted. I was warned that with these tickets you had to lean to the right of the post to see the pitcher, to the left to see the batter. Never bothered me, nor my neck, in the slightest. I was thrilled to be there. Each ticket was $7. We have the stubs.
The box scores are in the history books. It seemed like “déjà vu all over again” (to use Yogi Berra’s words), when the damn Yankees won the first two games up in The Stadium. Jackie Robinson did steal home. Photographers captured Berra literally hopping mad at the umpire’s call. I remember thinking Jackie was out, but knew that the code prohibited me from verbalizing the thought.
We were depressed. Years later a true Brooklynite got off a good one: “It’s not that we considered ourselves a bunch of losers. It’s just that we weren’t accustomed to winning very much.” But now in Brooklyn on a sunny Friday afternoon, among our own crowd of the colorful faithful and with Gladys Gooding at the organ, Roy Campanella parked one in the first inning in the left field bleachers, and left-handed Johnny Podres, on his 23rd birthday, went all the way to win game three.
On Saturday, in game four, Campanella, Hodges and Snider homered, and Brooklyn was booming. Sunday became oh so important. We couldn’t go back to the Bronx with any hope unless we won game five. In the bottom of the eighth when Jackie Robinson lined a single to center, adding the insurance run in a 5-to-3 win, I fairly skipped past the Dodger “Sym-phony,” the homegrown band up in the stands between first and home, five characters who looked like a combination of the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers, but having more fun. They saluted me and struck up: “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”
I remember the pure joy of the moment. This could be “next year.”
Game six was all Whitey Ford, a four-hitter. Ten years ago on a Sunday night lounging in the Dallas airport, I asked Whitey Ford about that game. He remembered it as a routine win. It set up game seven on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 1955, 50 years ago this year. In the bottom of the sixth inning, with Brooklyn leading 2 to 0, (Gil Hodges had driven in both Brooklyn runs), two Yankees on base, Johnny Podres says he threw a pitch 10 inches outside to Yogi Berra. Yogi golfed it down the left field line. My heart sank. “So, this is how we lose this year!” Sandy Amoros made his spectacular one-handed, spearing catch, and I slumped into my seat behind first base, in an agony of relief. With people standing and screaming in front of me, I never saw the Amoros-to-Reese-to-Hodges relay that doubled McDougal off first base.
That’s okay. Three innings to go. And when Elston Howard bounced out, Reese to Hodges, I am told that young Vin Scully proclaimed, with the restrained eloquence for which he would later become famous, “The Brooklyn Dodgers are the champions of the world.” The next day in The Washington Post, Shirley Povich said it less glamorously: “Please don’t interrupt, because you haven’t heard this one before. The Brooklyn Dodgers, champions of the baseball world. Honest.” As my father was pounding my shoulder, I was trying to tell it to myself. “Honest.”
A few hours later we were at a watering hole on Park Avenue and East 41st Street, Churchill’s I believe, waiting for a lifelong friend from Flatbush, then a detective in Frank Hogan’s district attorney’s office, to join us for a victory libation. I remember the terrible feeling: “What do you do with this victory jubilation?” I felt like I was bursting with joy, but I had to “do something” with it. But what?
It’s heresy, I know. But I think I preferred the feeling of scraping and scrambling, longing for victory, losing one day and tasting the joy of anticipation the next. Maybe I have too much Brooklyn in my blood. But being on the eve is the big fun, like walking past The Dodger “Sym-phony” in the eighth inning of game five. I think I began to learn on Oct. 4, 1955, that heaven must be the place where the joy itself lasts forever, and you don’t have to “do anything” with it.
Don’t get me wrong. Born and bred in Brooklyn, I feel blessed. I was at every game of the 1955 World Series. I wonder if I’m alone now with these memories. But that’s life, isn’t it? Surely Brooklyn and baseball taught us something about life. In June of this year, on holiday in New York, I went over to Holy Cross Cemetery in Flatbush. Before I visited the graves of my father and mother, I stopped at the plot where the stone was inscribed: “Gilbert R. Hodges, 1924-1972.” The grass was neatly cut, and flowers added color. At his grave and the grave of my father I prayed an unusual prayer, so I thought, for a cemetery. “My God, you have given me so much. Give one thing more: a grateful heart.” I think they both heard and understood.