The Way Home is Longer
October 3, 1946
|1.||St. Louis Cardinals||97-58||.626||-|
|8.||New York Giants||61-93||.396||35˝|
A FUNNEL OF DUST TWISTED ACROSS THE INFIELD AND VANISHED into the late-afternoon shadows as Howie Schultz stepped from the Brooklyn Dodgers’ on-deck circle and walked toward home plate. Behind me, on the Cardinals’ bench, the manager, Eddie Dyer, cupped his chapped hands around his mouth and shouted at his pitcher: “Long drink o’ water steppin’ in now, Harry. Big strike zone. Don’t give him nothin’ good to hit now, hear?” The Cardinals could afford to be cautious. Two days ago, in St. Louis, they’d won the first game of the playoff series. If they couldn’t clinch the pennant now, they’d get another shot tomorrow. The Dodgers were the ones with their backs against the wall. Their season would be over if they lost today.
Working as batboy for visiting teams at Ebbets Field put me in a tough spot: I was rooting for Brooklyn to win, but I couldn’t show it. For most of the afternoon, that hadn’t been a problem. After squeezing out a first-inning run on a pair of weak singles and a walk, the Dodgers had gone hitless for the next seven innings, and I’d pretty much convinced myself I wouldn’t care if they lost: The Cardinals’ll probably tip you better if they win. You’re not some kid fan, you’re almost twenty years old. All the games you’ve worked, you should know not to put your whole heart on the line unless your team shows it’s in the game and has a shot. But then the Dodgers had rallied to score three runs in the ninth,and now, with two outs and the bases loaded, Howie Schultz was stepping into the batter’s box, and everyone knew the deal: a home run would tie the game. The sudden tightness I felt in my chest told me I was wishing as hard as any kid for it to happen. And it could. In the first playoff game, Howie had driven in both Dodger runs, one with a homer.
Their lead mounting as the innings had fallen away this afternoon, the Cardinals had become looser and looser, all smiles and confidence, and I’d been almost invisible to them as I’d collected their bats and organized the dugout. But they were pacing and swearing now that the Dodgers were rallying, and I couldn’t do anything right. When I’d jumped up earlier in the inning to watch Carl Furillo score on Bruce Edwards’s single to left, Dick Sisler—one of the Cardinal rookies—dressed me down, saying, “Goddamn it, kid, sit still. Better yet, find a hole somewhere and disappear.” I’d started away, but another player, Joe Garagiola, had said, “Never mind, just sit down and stay the hell out of the way.” So now, surrounded by Cardinals, I hunkered down in the far corner of the dugout, near the bat rack, the only Dodgers fan in Ebbets Field who didn’t have someone by his side to help him root for his team.
Harry Brecheen, a little, bowlegged lefty, was on the mound for St. Louis, in relief of Murry Dickson. Something was bothering him about the lie of the dirt, and he asked the umpire for time and set to working it over with his spikes. The fans let him hear it—“Take your time, Harry, you’re just diggin’ your own grave!”—but he kept his head down and scraped and smoothed and tamped until he was satisfied. He finally toed the rubber and looked in at the catcher to get his sign, but then it was Howie’s turn. Schultz backed out of the batter’s box, checked with the Dodger dugout, glanced toward the outfield, took his cap off and put it back on, adjusting it as if it weren’t a cap at all, but a heavy weight pressing down on all six feet seven inches of him. When he stepped in again, Brecheen was waiting for him, face blank, feet neatly parallel on the edge of the pitching rubber. Schultz took two practice swings and cocked his bat. Brecheen took the catcher’s signal, wound, and threw.
There were two sounds—the crack of the bat meeting the ball, then the explosion of the crowd. I jumped up the dugout steps, followed the liner toward the left field corner, saw it land and kick up a puff of dust, and knew from the crowd’s reaction that it was foul. It was an awful sound they made—an aching groan beyond disappointment—but the buzz that followed, as they took their seats, was worse. The base runners trotted back to their bases, and I wondered if I’d be able to go through this all over again. Excitement I liked, but this was something else. There was too much riding on the outcome; it seemed that somehow it shouldn’t matter so much. If the next pitch had decided things one way or the other, I might have stood there, numb and quiet, and just let it happen. But Brecheen turned careful, nibbling at the plate, and Howie turned patient, waiting and hoping for a fat one, and as each pitch ran the count deeper and deeper and the fielders crouched ready and the runners tiptoed off their bases, the crowd started up again, clapping first, then calling, too, then shouting and hugging themselves until it seemed like nothing in Ebbets Field was stationary.
I remembered something Stan Musial had said early in the season: “There are two kinds of come-from-behind crowds. One knows their guys will win it, the other kind prays.” My uncle Tony said Yankee crowds were the first kind: “They yell like they mean it, but when you come right down to it, they’re just a bunch of spoiled kids on Christmas in white shirts and ties.” The Dodger fans packed into Ebbets Field that afternoon were the praying kind.
Brecheen wound and delivered, and his pitch ran the count full. Howie stepped out of the batters box again and, turning toward the Cardinal dugout, took a huge breath. He exhaled heavily, looking my way, and I gave him the thumbs-up, my hand pressed tight against my chest so the Cardinals wouldn’t notice and give me hell. His eyes didn’t move from me, but he didn’t react, either, and just as I was about to give him the thumbs-up again, I realized he wasn’t seeing me. Maybe he wasn’t seeing anyone. Face pinched and tight, shoulders sloping heavily, he looked like he was lost inside himself. I felt for him. Unlike the other Dodgers, who mostly ignored me unless their batboy was tied up and they needed a hand or a favor, Howie always went out of his way to talk and kid with me and make me feel like somebody. If it was one of the other Dodgers up there now, it wouldn’t matter so much to me, but Howie was different, and hearing the expectation in the din of the crowd, I hoped for his sake he’d come through. “Just hit it hard somewhere,” I said to myself. “A single would be fine.”
Howie hefted his bat, turned back toward the plate, stepped into the batter’s box, and dug in. I stood up to watch, and this time none of the Cardinals told me to sit down. They were up too, lining the dugout steps, and I was probably the furthest thing from their minds. Pee Wee Reese on third, Bruce Edwards on second, Cookie Lavagetto on first, the Dodger runners led away from their bases and, with Brecheen starting his full-count, two-out windup, they took off, heads down. The pitch blurred toward the plate, and Howie cut hard, a lunging miss that almost pulled him off his feet, and then the Cardinals were racing from the dugout and mobbing Brecheen on the mound and the Dodgers’ season was over.
I waited for a while by the bat rack as the Cardinals celebrated, then watched them skip down the dugout steps to the dirt track that would lead them under the first-base stands to the dressing rooms in the farthest right field corner of the ballpark. I really didn’t want to follow them down there just now and watch them romp around and drink their beers, but I had a lot to do yet, so I went anyway, passing the closed door to the Dodgers’ clubhouse, feeling the silence behind it, then continuing on to the visitors’ clubhouse where reporters and Cardinal brass pressed together. Flashbulbs exploded, pulling my eyes here and there, lighting up Musial, Dickson, Brecheen, Slaughter. They were whooping it up and the room was already so thick with cigar smoke that everyone seemed to be floating. I realized I wouldn’t get anything done until the place started to clear out, and I knew that wouldn’t happen until the reporters were gone. It would be a late night. I walked out, headed back down the runway, and climbed the stairs to the dugout, figuring I’d straighten it up and save myself some time.
Empty now, the dugout had a raw, unfinished look. I separated bats and other equipment from the damp towels, spent plugs of tobacco, and puddles of spills that littered the benches and floor. Cleanup brooms were already whisking in the stands. The upper-deck bleachers in center field were bright with late sunlight, and most of the fans there were disappearing through the exits’ gaping mouths, but some sat scattered in motionless knots as if they’d come just to watch the stretching shadows darken the flawless turf.
I finished packing Musial’s trunk and went up to the field for some air. Night had almost buried the twilight. A rising full moon topped the right field fence, crowning the scoreboard advertisement: “ELECTRICITY: more for your money in 1946.” On the infield, between the pitcher’s mound and the third-base line, tall and narrow in a dark suit jacket, Howie Schultz stood with his back to me, a suitcase at his feet. I almost called to him, but I checked myself. He came out here alone—he probably wanted to be left alone. He was looking at the moon, thinking—what? That it looked like a baseball, still rising into the sky off a giant man’s bat? He lifted his arm as if to reach for it, but adjusted his hat instead, then bent, picked up his suitcase, crossed the infield, and continued through the outfield. I lost him for a few seconds in the deepest part of right-center where the high wall blocked him from the moonlight. Then the Bedford Avenue gate swung open and the streetlight silhouetted him for a couple of seconds before he vanished. I felt for him—for all the Dodgers—but especially for Howie, who’d always treated me so good. Though neither of us knew it right then, he would never start another game for the Brooklyn Dodgers.