The Way Home is Longer
April 22 -23, 1947
|5.||New York Giants||2-3||.400||2½|
|8.||St. Louis Cardinals||2-4||.333||3|
THE RAIN THAT FELL ON ME that Sunday was snow in Boston. It lasted through Monday, postponing both games with the Braves, and the Dodgers came home to Ebbets Field on Tuesday the twenty-second with an unchanged record of two wins and two losses. I was at the ballpark early that morning, unpacking the trunks for a three game series against Philadelphia. By noon, most of the players had already gone up to the field, but a few of them still sat around, wrapping up interviews with reporters.
Getting to his feet, the Telegram guy said to Hugh Casey, “It’s a good thing you’re pitching well. It looks like the bullpen will see a lot of action this season.”
Casey, who’d pitched hitless relief in three of the first four games, shifted a bulging wad of tobacco from one cheek to the other and said, “Oh, I don’t know about that. Our starting pitchers have good stuff.”
“Maybe so. But the eight home runs they gave up at the Polo Grounds last weekend wasn’t exactly pretty.”
“We’ll be okay,” Casey answered.
Once the Telegram guy was out of earshot, Ralph Branca said, “What a pile of shit. It’s only April and they’re already starting.” He’d given up a pair of the homers in the second game of the series with the Giants—one to Johnny Mize and one to Bill Rigney—and he’d been steamed about being yanked by Shotton early in the game.
“Forget about it,” Casey laughed.
The two of them couldn’t have been more different. Just twenty-one, Branca was black haired, tall and lean, with dark shadows rimming black eyes. He always looked like he was watching the ground and worrying. From what I’d seen, he didn’t mind a joke, as long as it came from him. When it didn’t and he wasn’t in the mood, he could get pretty mad. He had a great arm and great stuff, but he was always fussing with the ball on the mound—twirling it around in his fingers, slamming it into his mitt, taking it out, slamming it back in, grinding it into the pocket—so that when he finally pitched, it looked like he didn’t want to let the ball go.
Casey was also tall, but broader, older. On the mound, he was all business, holding the ball like he owned it, taking the catcher’s sign, kicking and dealing without delay. In the clubhouse, he was as easygoing as they got, but he was no pushover. During a rainstorm the year before, Kirby Higbe had told me how Casey once fought Ernest Hemingway, the writer, at Hemingways house near the Dodgers’ spring-training site in Havana.
“Ernie’s a big baseball fan,” Higbe had said, “and he invites a bunch of us over for drinks—rum and lime juice is what he drinks. This is right after the war started. We’re putting it away pretty good for a while, and then Ernie pulls out a couple pairs of boxing gloves from the back room and hands one to Hugh and says something about how they’re both big boys and they should do some sparring. You know Hugh. He grins and tells Ernie no thanks, but Ernie isn’t hearing any noes from Hugh. Fact is, Ernie doesn’t like hearing no from nobody. So Hugh starts pulling on his gloves and I’ll be damned if Ernie doesn’t haul off and slug him, and Hugh not even with his gloves on all the way yet. Hugh falls onto a table where all the liquor and glasses are, and the whole mess goes crashing down with Hugh on top.
“When Hugh gets up, he’s not grinning no more. He hitches on his gloves and now he’s stalking Ernie and the broken glass is crunching under his feet and Hugh’s not saying a word. For a while, they just spar, but pretty soon they’re unloading them big, heavy punches. First one of ’em goes down, and then the other, and they’re taking lamps and furniture with them, but they keep getting up. Little by little, Hugh takes charge, and now Ernie’s going down pretty regular and pretty hard and getting up pretty slow, and I’m sure Hugh is going to knock Ernie cold, except that out of nowhere Ernie kicks him in the balls. Everybody figures that’s the end of it, but the funny thing is Ernie wants Hugh to spend the night so he can fight him a duel in the morning. Swords, guns—whatever Hugh wants. And Ernie’s serious. He really is. They didn’t fight no duel, but if they did, Hugh woulda killed him. Hugh don’t let no one kick him in the balls.”
Now Casey got up from his trunk and stretched, a wide, lazy grin spreading across his face, like he’d just finished a big breakfast and was looking forward to a nap. “You gonna let a couple of flap mouths bother you, Ralph?”
Branca waved. “As long as we play, I don’t care. I’m sick of the goddamn rain.”
I left them and headed up to the dugout. I was sick of the rain too. In spite of the dampness and the cold—the temperature was barely forty-five degrees—it felt great to be outside. The sky was high, a savory blue, and the stands were full of sunlight. A drying wind gusted through the dugout with a sound like stalled old cars coughing to a start. Cleats etched the dugout’s wooden floor, a light, eager, upbeat sound. And when the big arm of the Bulova clock on the right field scoreboard snapped off the hour, the Dodgers took the field, sprinting across the grass like they’d been set free.
“HEY NIGGER! THE party’s over! It’s time to head back to the jungle!”
That’s how the series against the Phillies started, and it was Ben Chapman, the Phillies’ manager, who yelled those words from the top step of his dugout as Jackie Robinson walked to the plate in the bottom of the first inning. They carried clearly in the wind, and if I heard them, Robinson, who was closer to Chapman, did too, but he didn’t show it.
“How many of those guys you blowing, coon? Must be the whole fucking line if they’re letting you drink from that fountain with them, boy.”
I glanced down our bench. The Dodgers were sitting on their hands, staring out at the field, acting like they hadn’t heard, and when Robinson jogged back to the dugout after grounding out, they wouldn’t look at him. Dixie Walker was up next. Someone on the Phillies’ bench shouted, “Watch your ass in the shower, Dixie! Nigger’s likely to stick his big black thing so far up your ass you’ll think it’s a bat.” Walker stepped out of the batter’s box and peered down the first-base line. If he heard them, he wasn’t showing it. His face had the same cold, faraway expression it had had when he’d bumped Robinson in the clubhouse doorway the week before.
Now three or four more Phillies started in.
“The only reason you’re here is to draw niggers, black boy. You’re still a slave.”
“Back to the cotton field, snowflake.”
It made me mad. I knew what Chapman was like and I knew there’d be more. The previous summer, during a game I’d worked for the Phillies in the visitors’ dugout, Chapman had spent a couple of innings scouting women who were sitting in the box seats behind home plate. “Wet testing” he called it. “There’s a slippery one,” he’d say when he saw someone he liked. I must have looked once, because he called me over and said, “You like her, kid?”
To be polite, I said, “She’s pretty.”
“I bet you’d like to take her around the world, huh?” “I don’t get out of Brooklyn much,” I said, hoping that would end the conversation.
“You hear that?” Chapman said to the men around us. “The kid says he doesn’t get out of Brooklyn much.” A few of them laughed and he kept it up, telling me to sit down next to him, asking me, “Why don’t you ask her to take you around the world?” and “You must get tired of traveling alone.” Someone leered and tugged at his crotch, and finally I got it.
“Oh,” I said.
“See that, fellas?” Chapman said. “The light bulb just went on.”
Later, he said something about how I was a good sport and could take a kidding, but I didn’t think he meant it. He was a mean guy. A few years back he’d been suspended from baseball for a year for ripping the face mask off an umpire and punching him.
The Phillies beat up on Robinson all game, but they couldn’t hit Hal Gregg’s pitching. After giving up a hit in the first inning, Gregg handled them without a problem, retiring nineteen in a row during the middle innings. But the Phillies’ pitcher, Dutch Leonard, matched him, making clutch pitches when he had to shut the Dodgers down. For four or five innings the game seemed to drag; then it suddenly turned into a nail-biter where every pitch counts, one of those neat gems that seem to happen more often in the springtime cold before a small crowd. With everything scoreless in the bottom of the eighth, Robinson went to bat. “You motherfucking nigger!” Chapman yelled. “You’re going down!” But if Leonard meant to deck him, he didn’t pitch him tight enough, and Robinson fisted a single to center. That steamed Chapman. He glared out at Leonard, then at Robinson, who was already leading away from first base, and shouted, “Those pansy nigger lovers you’re playing with may put up with you, but if you breathe wrong next to a real man, I’ll cut your balls off.”
Robinson added another half step to his lead. Leonard whirled and threw to the first baseman. Robinson tiptoed back in neatly, just ahead of the tag, and the crowd applauded routinely, a sound like wet firecrackers misfiring. Ebbets Field had close to thirty-three thousand seats, but only seven or eight thousand were filled. Frozen and huddled together as the chilly sun dropped in the sky, the fans looked like they’d come to the wrong place by mistake, then decided they might as well stay. Again Robinson led away, planting his right foot in the heavy clay, six inches closer to second base this time, and Leonard chased him back again with a throw. Behind the Phillies’ dugout, a short, heavy guy in a cloud of blue cigar smoke stood up and bellowed, “Go, Jackieeee!” and now, when Robinson led away, it was different. Now he was bent forward at the waist, now his arms dangled loosely between his legs as he cross-stepped toward second, and now his outstretched hands reached for the ground. Leonard whirled and snapped the ball over, all business, and Robinson dove back into the base beneath the tag of the first baseman and the first baseman’s glancing appeal to the umpire and the umpire’s yelping call of “Safe!” Twice more Leonard threw over, and the voices in the stands started to open up. It was like everyone who yelled set someone else off: “Go ahead, wear him out!” “Yeah, steal it!” “Take it, Jackie, it’s yours! Rob him blind!”
And just like that, he was gone, running long and low to the ground, arms swinging from his shoulders, or his shoulders swinging his arms—I wasn’t sure which it was. The catcher, Andy Seminick, made the throw, but he never should have, he didn’t have a chance, and I could tell from the way he rushed it that he knew he didn’t. The ball sailed into the outfield, and Robinson popped up out of his slide, onto his feet, and headed toward third, and I heard myself yelling, “Go, go, go!” He made it standing up, without a play. Half a dozen Dodgers were off the bench and on the dugout steps, waving their arms and yelling, “Way to run, Jackie!” and “They didn’t have a chance” and “Did you see that?”
The next batter, Hermanski, singled Robinson home, and the lone run stood up: Gregg retired the Phillies in the ninth for a one-hitter.
Once again, getting to and from the dryers after the game was almost a job in itself. The reporters crowded around Robinson’s locker, and it hit me that it would be that way for the next few weeks and maybe even all summer. Wherever Robinson was, things were happening.
“Did you try to steal on your own, or did Shotton tell you to go?”
“I got the sign.”
“How many bases do you think you can steal this year, Jackie?”
“However many the team wants me to.”
They were safe answers, the kind that reporters hated and that pushed them to ask tougher and tougher questions.
“Last year, when this team was losing the National League playoff to the Cardinals, you were leading the International League in hitting and runs scored, and taking Montreal to a championship in the Junior World Series. Will you be the difference for the Dodgers this year?”
“The Dodgers are big-league ballplayers. I’m here to learn from them.”
“How do you feel about playing first base?”
“More and more comfortable every time I go out there.”
By then I was collecting the uniforms for the dryers. As I pulled Dixie Walker’s from the floor of his locker, Tommy Holmes from the Eagle said, “You were a second baseman at Montreal last year, Jackie. Wouldn’t you be even more comfortable playing second base here?”
“You hear that?” Walker muttered to Eddie Stanky.
Stanky said, “Are you bringing that shit up again?”
“I’m not—they are.”
Hugh Casey spat out a used plug of tobacco and looked up at Stanky from under his eyebrows. “If I was you, Brat, I’d be looking out for my job.”
“Listen, they moved him out of position, not me. I can take care of my job.”
Looking at Stanky’s lean, tough face and those icy, pale blue eyes, I knew he meant it. He wasn’t the kind of guy to dodge anything. I remembered a reporter asking Durocher, when he was still managing the Dodgers, why he liked the Brat so much when other guys had more talent. Durocher’s answer was, “Look at Mel Ott over there. He’s a nice guy, and he finishes second. Now look at the Brat. He can’t hit, can’t run, can’t field. He’s no nice guy, but all the little SOB can do is win.” To Durocher, Stanky was always “that fierce little fuck.”
Now Walker said, “Those paper pushers are acting like he played the game all alone out there. Hell, Hal just threw a one-hitter. Where’s his ink?” But he said it quietly, maybe because he’d seen the way the rest of the team had reacted earlier when Robinson had stolen second.
Later, I overheard Sukeforth tell Shotton, in the manager’s office, how worried he’d been at the start of the season because he hadn’t seen a real leader on the team. “Wouldn’t it be something if Robinson turns out to be the guy, Burt?”
“It sure would,” Shotton said. “He’s a hell of a player.”
“I never saw anyone who could run like that.”
“It’s not just running. The guy’s smart. You see the way he had Leonard all shook up today? By the time he finished working him over, Dutch couldn’t have stopped him from stealing if he’d told him he was going. The guy’s sharp. He knows what he’s doing out there.”
THE NEXT DAY, the weather was still cold and clear, and the crowd was small again, around eight or nine thousand. The Dodgers gave Hatten more runs to work with than they gave Gregg the day before, and he beat the Phillies, 5-2. But the Phillies’ bench rode Robinson hard again—even worse this time—and never let up. Robinson took it in silence, which is how the Dodgers watched it. The air in the crowded clubhouse after the game was numbing, thick with more than the smells of sweat, leather, and liniment. Undress, shower, towel off, dress: the players seemed to move in quiet slow motion. And after they disappeared into the street, the empty clubhouse felt like it was crouching beneath the empty stands.
Early in the third game, the Phillies started in again, calling, “Nigger trash!” when Robinson went to bat. But this time, someone on the Dodgers’ bench said, “That’s enough of this shit.” It was Eddie Stanky. I couldn’t believe it. If I’d had to pick someone it would’ve been Reese or Reiser. But Stanky? Never. When I looked down the bench, he was muttering to himself.
“Listen, coon,” another Phillie yelled, “we’re going to run you out of this league.”
“Shit!” Stanky said. He jumped off the bench, climbed the dugout steps to the field, and shouted toward the Phillies’ dugout, “You son-of-a-bitching cowards! Why don’t you pick on someone who can defend himself?”
“Nigger lover!” Chapman shouted.
“If you had any balls,” Stanky yelled, “you’d take a shot at one of us and we’d put your ass on backward for you!”
“Well, come over here then!”
But Bruce Edwards was off the bench and holding Eddie back before he could get started. Now other Dodgers were getting up and shouting at the Phillies, and the Phillies were milling around and starting up the steps of their dugout. I thought they might take it onto the field, but Butch Henline, the home plate umpire, took his mask off and shouted something to both benches I couldn’t make out, and everyone—except for Stanky, who was still fuming and talking to himself—settled down, and play started up again. Branca pitched into the eighth, and Casey came on for the last four outs to save the win and the shutout.
After the game, Robinson walked over to where Stanky was sitting in front of his locker and said, “Thanks for standing up for me out there.”
Judging from Eddie’s face, there was a lot running through his head, but he just flicked his icy eyes up at Robinson and then away. “We’re on the same team, aren’t we?”
On the other side of the aisle, Dixie Walker sat with his back turned, facing into his locker.
SO THE WEEK passed and things settled down in the clubhouse and Robinson wasn’t an island off the coast anymore. The change was subtle—a couple of guys talking to him here, a couple more there—but I saw it happening.
Over dinner one night, my mother said, “Wasn’t Stanky the one who went up to Robinson on the first day and told him he didn’t like him?”
“It seems strange that he’d be the one to defend him.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“It sounds like that was the turning point.”
I knew what she meant, but I didn’t see it that way. When we looked at it now, it seemed like a turning point. But suppose Walker or Casey or Higbe had fought what Stanky did and the team had started falling apart? We’d have been saying now that that was the turning point. Besides, Robinson’s face looked tired, and his neck and shoulders were knotted tight as he hunched over his locker. He was struggling at the plate—no hits in his last twenty at bats. Suppose the Dodgers sent him back to Montreal? That would be the real turning point. But I didn’t say that to my mother because it wasn’t likely to happen. Besides, thinking about it made me think of Howie Schultz, who hadn’t had an at bat yet this season. He was hurting, and I really felt for him.
We moved toward the end of the month, and the team won six in a row and took over first place while the archrival Cardinals lost six straight. For me, the thriller in that string was a Sunday bruiser against the Giants. The heavyweight champ, Joe Louis, showed up during the fourth inning and waved to Robinson from his seat in a dugout box. When the Dodgers came in from the field to bat, Robinson went to the railing and shook his hand. The photographers had a field day. The end of the game was just as dramatic. Trailing by four, the Dodgers scraped back to tie, and with the Dodger Sym-Phony—the awful five-piece band that dressed in tattered clothes—wandering through the stands for the first time this season, playing their earsplitting tunes on beat-up instruments; with the standout fans—Hilda Chester and her cowbell, crazy Bubba Gennard and his whistle—firing up the crowd, Stanky laid down a perfect bases-loaded suicide squeeze to win it.
After the game, I went to my locker and found my jacket buttoned up inside out, the arms stuffed with blades of sweet-smelling grass.
“Something wrong, Stidge?” Bruce Edwards called to me as I stood there, the jacket in my hand.
“Your face looks funny. Whadda ya say, Spider, doesn’t his face look funny?”
“Looks funny to me,” Jorgensen answered.
“Yeah, he looks funny,” added Miksis, hiding a smile.
For the first time, I felt at home in that clubhouse.
Sitting in my father’s chair by the living-room window that night, I read in the paper that fifty-nine thousand had turned out at Yankee Stadium that afternoon to say good-bye to Babe Ruth. The story said he was unsteady crossing the field and that his throat cancer was so bad you could hardly hear him as he leaned over the microphone in the gusting wind to say, “Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen…. You know how bad my voice sounds…well, it feels just as bad.” I felt sorry for him; it didn’t seem like a time when anyone could be sick or old. April had started wet and cold but was ending softly. Spring was finally here. Kids were out of their buildings and in the streets, playing ball. I thought of Mrs. Alcott and day lilies and the tree pollen that now covered everything, just like she’d predicted it would.