The pregame ritual happened every spring between 1951 and 1956. I bounded down the stairs of my family's two-flat in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn, a leather mitt covering my left hand, and excitedly knocked on my grandparents' door. Ready to go, Pop?
My grandfather always seemed eager to begin our journey. He grasped my free hand and we strolled three blocks to the Ave. U station of the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit. A half-dozen subway stops and two blocks later, we arrived at baseball's mecca, the iconic Ebbets Field -- home to the Brooklyn Dodgers. No sight was more beautiful than Ebbets in springtime -- the lush grass, the short brick wall that barely separated fans from the action and the hand-operated scoreboard that tracked every inning of every game, even from as far away as St. Louis.
And, there were the players. We arrived in time for batting practice and watched Duke Snider (my grandfather pronounced it "Schneider," believing he was Jewish) hit majestic homers over the right field wall onto Bedford Ave., where kids scrambled for a souvenir. But my eyes were drawn mostly to the battery of Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella and the team's fleet-footed second baseman, Jackie Robinson.
Newk, Campy and Jackie were the largest contingent of black players on any team in the majors, and I followed them intently, out of curiosity as much as for their talent. My block in Gravesend was all-white, inexplicable since its Jewish and Italian residents were either liberal Democrats or avowed Communists. The struggle for civil rights was our struggle, I had learned, as Jews had also fought slavery and oppression.
So Ebbets Field became a place for all people to gather, a common ground for cheering on the underdog Dodgers, a team that would win only one World Series in its seven decades in Brooklyn. And, it provided a source of hope that, someday, we would overcome. "Wait 'till next year" became the team's motto after repeated losses to the Yankees in the fall classic, and an agonizing defeat to the Giants in the last inning of the last game of the 1951 season, my first as a baseball fan.
Observing my growing addiction to the sport, my grandfather admonished: "Be careful, David. Baseball will break your heart." But we kept going to games and, win or lose, he bought me an autographed baseball from that year's team. Walking past the kids playing stickball outside Ebbets, we headed home, vowing to return.
Although I didn't know it at the time, my first night game would be our last at Ebbets -- in 1956 against the lowly Chicago Cubs. The Cubs had a shortstop with the quickness of Robinson and the power of Snider. He was Ernie Banks, the team's first black player. I was so taken with the magical glow of Ebbets at night that I can't recall a single detail of the game, other than it had attracted thousands of black fans who rose in unison whenever Robinson and Banks came to the plate.
That night would also be the final time we saw Robinson play. In the off-season, we were stunned to learn that the Dodgers had traded him to the arch-rival Giants, a blow softened only by his decision to retire from baseball rather than leave Brooklyn. Even worse, the team announced that it would move to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. A Robinson-less team in Southern California? I promptly boycotted the Dodgers and, like my grandfather, became a Yankees fan. But that did not ease the pain of another event. In 1960, the wrecking ball demolished Ebbets Field, metaphorically ending my childhood.
Five years later, I moved to Chicago to attend college while my grandparents retired to Florida. My cynicism about baseball would not last long. In September of 1966, I read that the Dodgers were coming to town and would start future Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, whom I'd last seen pitch at Ebbets Field. Better yet, the Cubs were pitching rookie sensation Ken Holtzman, creating an unprecedented match-up of Jewish southpaws.
So I hopped the "El" to Wrigley Field to take in the game. The pitching duel lived up to expectations, with the Cubs winning 2-1. But the more powerful experience was seeing Wrigley. Its intimacy, hand-operated scoreboard and neighborhood setting instantly brought me back to Ebbets Field. It didn't matter that the Cubs were pathetic. I was home again.
In 1969, my grandparents visited Chicago in June. My grandfather noted that the Cubs were somehow in first place and wondered if Holtzman was the reason. He was important, I replied, but even more so were a trio of black players with Hall of Fame potential -- starter Fergie Jenkins, left fielder Billy Williams and first baseman Ernie Banks (who'd been moved from shortstop.) And, the manager was former Brooklyn Dodgers skipper Leo Durocher.
We decided to ditch the family and catch the second game of a series against the Montreal Expos. Jenkins was magnificent, and the Cubs came from behind to win in the bottom of the ninth, 3-2. As Ron Santo ran off the field, clicking his heels, I brazenly predicted the Cubs would go all the way. My grandfather thought the Cubs looked good, but repeated his mantra that baseball would break my heart, reminding me that the 1951 Dodgers had blown a 12-game lead in August. Indeed, after 155 consecutive days in first place, the Cubs collapsed and finished behind the Dodgers' replacement in New York, the Mets.
My grandfather called to console me when it was over. I wish he could have done the same in 1984, when the Cubs were a game away from going to their first World Series in my lifetime, and in 2003, when they were five outs from nirvana. But, he passed away in 1978.
Now the jersey numbers of the three greatest black players to don Cubs uniforms adorn the Wrigley flagpoles. Robinson's #42 has been retired from baseball, but is worn by all players every April 15 (and at last night's Cubs-Rangers game) to honor the day he broke the sport's color barrier. Yet where are the black players of the future? Baseball is trying to figure out why only 8.5 percent of major leaguers are African-American.
I hope they solve the problem soon. This July, I will be taking my 5-year-old granddaughter to Wrigley. I want her to appreciate that baseball is more than wins and losses, video scoreboards and boutique hotels. It is about the communal spirit and cultural pride that are fueled by diversity. If my granddaughter doesn't learn that lesson from our national pastime, it will break my heart.
Dedicated to the memory of Abraham Gordon.