The New York Mets were playing the Chicago Cubs recently in a spring-training baseball game. I believe the game was in Arizona (or somewhere else where it was warm and had mountains). As I watched the TV, while I struggled through my obligatory half hour on the treadmill, I was struck by something odd: between the two teams on the field, there were only two players’ names that were even vaguely familiar to me. Now that might not seem like much, but to me, it is anathema. Not only was I a professional sportswriter, a long, long, time ago, in a galaxy . . . well . . . you get the picture . . . I was also a pretty rabid baseball fan at one time. But that’s all changed.
I grew up in Brooklyn in what were referred to as “The Projects,” those five or six-story tenement buildings erected post-WWII to serve as housing for returning GIs until they could get on their collective financial feet. Naturally, I was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, as was my brother, Gene. In the 1950s, all 154 regular season games were broadcast on the radio—in living black and white! The “color” was provided by sportscasters Vin Scully, Connie Desmond, and “Red” Barber. The latter left in 1954, when he joined the hated Yankees. In 1950, they started showing the games on TV (I was five years old at the time), and it was Scully, also a redhead, who painted the best descriptions that accompanied the images we watched on the twelve-inch black and white Admiral TV. In 1957, owner Walter O’Malley moved the team to Los Angeles, losing me as a fan forever (my brother remains loyal to this day. I actually rooted for the Yankees until 1962, when the hapless Mets captured my imagination).
Back in the day, there were baseball cards, those little cardboard rectangles, usually five to a package; the rock-hard, pink slab of bubble gum that accompanied them was more of a nuisance than a source of enjoyment (some of us even threw it away). Did we know the names of the players? Of course! Not only that, we were also familiar with each player’s position, height, weight, batting average, and runs batted in, which we committed to memory like students do the periodic table of elements. And we never missed a broadcast (well, almost never). We even memorized the Schaefer beer jingle and sang along with it when it played. Old Gold cigarettes was another sponsor, and Abe Stark Suits (“hit sign, win suit!”). Our father worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard then, and during those wonderful summer months he would save up the wrappers and lids from Borden’s Elsie ice cream. When he had enough, he would redeem them for grandstand tickets at Ebbetts Field (I think you needed five, along with a quarter, for each ticket). Then, he would take my brother and me, along with one or two other neighborhood kids, to see a game.
Ebbetts Field was what was referred to as a “band box.” It was a tiny facility—built for around $750,000—that only accommodated about 32,000 fans, and there wasn’t a bad seat in the house—unless, of course, you happened to be behind one of the steel columns that supported the upper deck. Unlike today, when every moment of every game is inundated with some kind of sound or motion from a billion-dollar scoreboard, the only sounds then were the shouts of the fans, the vendors hawking “peanuts, popcorn, Crackerjack,” etc., and the crack of wood on leather when a batter struck the ball. The smells were of beer, hot dogs, sauerkraut, popcorn, cigarettes, and cheap cigars. For that reason, whenever I catch a whiff of an “El Cheapo,” I am immediately transported back to that little ballpark in Flatbush.
As I recall, there was a makeshift band called the Dodgers “Sym-Phony,” which would parade around the stadium playing off-key music designed to inspire the uninspirable. Joining them in whipping up crowd enthusiasm was the irrepressible Hilda Chester, a devoted fan whose trademark was a cowbell that she pounded mercilessly during every game. Before the game there was Happy Felton’s “Knothole Gang,” which hosted kids lucky enough to be selected to participate on the field, where they engaged in throwing and fielding contests for prizes. There was the famous Schaefer Beer scoreboard, whose letters “e” and “h” would be illuminated individually, depending upon whether there was a hit or an error recorded on the play.
Fast forward to the present. Is it any wonder that most kids don’t follow the sport? Virtually all the games are played at night; the World Series is often played in weather considered more suited to football than the national pastime; and ticket prices are so high that the average person can’t afford even one, let alone the several required for a family. If I sound as though I’m waxing poetic, I am. I long for the good old days when ballplayers played mostly for the love of the game—not the love of money—and fans rooted for the players, not the uniforms that housed them. We lived and died with the likes of “Pee Wee” Reese, Jackie Robinson, “Junior” Gilliam, “The Duke” (Edwin Snider), Carl “Oisk” Erskine, and “Scoonge” (Carl Furrillo).
So, it was with sadness that I watched the pre-season game on TV the other day, not knowing—or caring—who was playing, and wishing desperately for those good old days of “Peanuts, popcorn, crackerjack!” Oh for the smell of an El Producto cigar. Is that hoping for too much? I don’t think so.
NOTE: Joe Perrone Jr is the author of the highly-successful Matt Davis Mystery Series: As the Twig is Bent, Opening Day (a 2012 Indie B.R.A.G. medallion winner), Twice Bitten, and Broken Promises. All four are available in paperback and E-book. As the Twig is Bent and Opening Day are also in audiobook, with Twice Bitten and Broken Promises soon to follow.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider following my blog and telling others about it.