It seemed like one long nightmare ever since the last day of the 1950 season in Philadelphia when the Whiz Kids beat the Dodgers in the last of the ninth for the National League pennant. Boy oh boy, was I depressed. No one could talk to me for weeks… I just sulked around and was totally miserable. But, I was a true Dodger fan, and there was always “next year”. It sure felt like the nightmare finally came to an end around All-Star Break the following season. The Dodgers were way out in front with an unbeatable 13 ½ game lead and it looked like the pennant would fly atop Ebbets Field once again as it did in 1949, the year I fell in love with baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
But that was not to be as I watched in total amazement the insurmountable lead dwindle down to nothing by the last game of the season. They even needed a very dramatic finish on that final day to tie their archrivals, the Giants. I didn’t think I could stand much more drama with the three-game playoff coming up, but I now know that drama came with the territory if you were a Dodger fan in the early fifties. It didn’t matter how old you were, where you lived or what you did, the Brooklyn Dodgers were a very exciting team – even for me, a twelve year old, freckle faced little girl from Queens, New York.
The first game went to the Giants, the score was 3 to 1. The Dodgers murdered them 10 – 0 in the second. The final game was to be played on a Wednesday, a school day for me. I lived with my parents and baby brother in a small two bedroom apartment in a place called Middle Village, a working-class area of mainly Jews, Germans, Irish and Italians in Queens, New York. Middle Village had grown from farmland into a prosperous community after 1851, which was the year New York City passed an ordinance prohibiting further burials in the borough of Manhattan. Several church groups had bought farmland near the Village for cemeteries and the area soon became a center for florist, tombstone makers and, of course dead people. Public School 87 was within walking distance so I’d run home every day for a fast lunch which my mother always had ready, and eat while listening to my two favorite radio soaps, “Aunt Jenny” and “The Romance of Helen Trent.” By the time “Our Gal Sunday” began, I knew it was time to hurry up and walk the three and a half blocks back to school.
October 3rd 1951, however, was an exception. The last game of the playoff was going to be televised from the Polo Grounds that afternoon. That was the day I decided to play hookey. Since my mother had dropped my baby brother off at my grandmother’s house and had gone shopping for the afternoon, I didn’t even have to ask her permission. What luck!
Plastered on my bedroom wall were color photographs, mainly from the pages of Sport Magazine, of each of my adored Dodgers players, scotch-taped around the centerpiece: a blue felt Dodger pennant. The pictures were arranged by line-up leading off, followed by Cox, the Duke, Jackie, Gil, Roy, etc. When the Dodgers played out of town I’d always listen to the game in my room, which made it easier to talk to my wall of handsome heroes. As the game played in the background on the radio, I would tell them each what I wanted them to do, assume their batting stance and imitate their swing (which I find amazingly is something I can still do to this day). “Okay, PeeWee… surprise ‘em with a bunt,” I’d tell the captain looking up at his picture. Then I’d take the PeeWee bunt position. It was always a treat when Duke Snider was up. Even though it felt somewhat awkward to swinging my imaginary bat “lefty,” like the Duke, I loved taking that smooth, graceful cut while looking up at his handsome face.
Of course when the home games were televised my routine underwent an exhausting, but necessary change. I’d have to run back and forth, from my bedroom in order to talk to my players to our living room, where the treasured, 10-inch black and white, Dumont set was perched atop a low mahogany table, strategically placed against the wall opposite the sofa.
It was great having the house to myself that day as I settled down on the dark green silk, plastic-covered sofa to watch the game, feeling very excited, but guilty and uneasy. My mother could come home at any moment and yell at me for not being in school. She was more than a bit concerned about my pre-occupation with the Dodgers. Besides, I had never played hookey before without at least faking an illness. I decided I’d fake my famous stomachache if she happened to come back early and insist. I go back to school. My Dad would’ve understood, but he was at work. Nevertheless, I was convinced the Dodgers could not win without me rooting for them, pitch by pitch, play by play.
With memories of last season’s heart-breaking loss to the Phillies flashing through my mind, I grew increasingly nervous as I reassured myself that nothing that awful could happen twice in a row. Could it? I sat there biting my nails, (a terrible lifelong habit I’m sure I mastered rooting for the Dodgers) and as the game progressed I became more and more hopeful. Finally, the last of the ninth was coming up. The Dodgers are leading by three runs and things look real good. I even contemplated a quick telephone call to my best friend Jeff just to bug him. He was a Giant fan, (still is) and one of the few Middle Village kids who actually rooted for a team other than the Dodgers or Yankees. Jeff had been taunting me since the Dodgers’ insurmountable lead had started crumbling. He was convinced that the “Jints” could beat the Dodgers. So when Jeff’s favorite player, Alvin Dark, led off with a single, “Dark” Clouds began to loom. I felt something very bad had begun. Then when Don Mueller singled next, I was certain. I nervously paced the floor of our small living room.
Directly below our apartment lived the Friedmans, a “Yankee” household. My mother and Ms. Friedman were good friends and had a regular weekly Mah Jongg game. Above us were the Davidoffs, who were Dodger fans. Back in those days it was real important for me to know which team people rooted for. One of the first questions I’d ask fellow classmates, or a new friend was, “who’s your favorite team”? If they gave me the right answer, I could relate to them immediately. If they said, the “Yankees”, I instantly placed them in the adversarial category.
Boys always had a favorite team, but girls, hardly ever. If pushed, a girl would say she liked whoever her Daddy liked. (I wonder if it’s still that way or has the Women’s Lib movement changed that too?)
No one out, men on first and second. It was now serious praying time, those rare moments when I invoked the name of God. In fact, the only time I recall doing this was when it was in connection with baseball and the Dodgers. I promised God I’d be good, I’d practice the piano more and I’d help mom with the dishes regularly. I’d even stop biting my nails – anything please God just let Big Newk get the side out. So when Monte Irvin popped up for the first out I figured my prayers were being answered. I kept praying… praying… praying. Whitey Lockman hits a double to score Dark. Forget praying. I got crazy and began to run around the apartment. Back at the TV screen I saw that they were carrying Don Mueller out on a stretcher. I thought, aha, the tide is turning, and even if the score is now 4 – 2 we’re still gonna get ‘em. My hopes rose until it was announced that Dressen was taking Newcombe out of the game and bringing in… Ralph Branca. A chill ran up my spine. Branca was not one of my favorites. I never trusted him or his droopy eyes, and, besides, had Dressen already forgotten he lost the opening playoff game and gave up a home run to the next batter coming up, Bobby (The Flying Scot) Thomson? This did not feel right. I wanted my heart throb, Carl Erskine. I yelled at the TV set, “Bring in ERSKINE… ERSKINE… ERSKINE”. I slumped down on the floor, staring up at the set, my legs crossed in front of me in a lotus-like position nervously rocking back and forth… hoping for the best, but conditioned to expect something else. Branca’s second pitch to Bobby Thomson was the “something else” … and the rest, as they, is history. I watched in disbelief as the ball sailed over Pafko’s head and the left field wall… I heard Russ Hodges Yelling… “The Giants win the Pennant, The Giants win the Pennant!” I just sat there, numb and in shock, eyes and ears still disbelieving. Then I went ballistic. I began banging my little feet on the hardwood floor, screaming at the top of my lungs, NO… OH NO… no… nooo.nooo.” I was lying on the floor, on my back, with both feet up in the air kicking wildly when suddenly there was a loud crash. In my hysteria I had kicked the TV set right off the table and onto the floor beside me.
I was still so angry and distraught that I paid no attention to the broken television set and continued to pound on the floor, as my eyes filled with tears. I didn’t hear the front door open or see my downstairs neighbor, Vivian, (from the Yankee household) standing over me until she started to shout, “Paula…Paula… are you okay? For God sake, what’s wrong, what happened? Where’s your mother?” Doesn’t she notice that I am hysterical? I want her to get out and leave me alone. My world has just come to an end and I don’t want to explain anything. The front door opens again and this time it’s my mother loaded down with A&P grocery bags. When she sees her daughter writhing around on the floor and Vivian standing over me, she drops everything and bends down beside me as her neighbor tries to explain how she’d heard all sorts of terrible noises overhead, and then a very loud thud, so she ran upstairs to investigate. “Rita”, she says to my mother, “I don’t know what’s going on here. Paula’s been banging on the floor and crying … God only knows what happened.” Silently my calm, wise, all-knowing mother looks at the TV set, nods her head and looks at me. “Apparently,” she says turning to Vivian, “what happened was the Dodgers lost the game today.”
I survived, but I carried the disappointment and pain of that loss with me for much of my impressionable teenage years. I did, however, learn two very important things: that, once a National League fan, always a National League fan. I found myself, albeit half-heartedly, actually rooting for the Giants to beat the Yankees in the Series and collected a small wager from those American League supporters, the Friedmans. And the other, more important thing was, buddy Jeff never rubbed the Giants victory in, which is why to this day, he is still my best friend.