The Way Home is Longer
August 17, 1947
National League Standings
|Brooklyn Dodgers||70 – 44||.614||-|
|St. Louis Cardinals||63 – 48||.568||5.5|
|Boston Braves||61 – 52||.540||8.5|
|New York Giants||57 – 51||.528||10|
|Cincinnati Reds||54 – 62||.466||17|
|Chicago Cubs||52 – 60||.464||17|
|Pittsburgh Pirates||49 – 65||.430||21|
|Philadelphia Phillies||44 – 68||.393||25|
ALL WEEK LONG, the weather had been wicked. Old ladies lugged their shopping sacks up the street, stopping in patches of shade to catch their breath, but even the shadows looked hot. The slouching men who usually collected around the newsstand in front of the Cozy Corner stayed away until dark. On my way to Ebbets Field early the next morning I passed Bohack’s, its weekly specials advertised in the window. The street stank, as if all that meat was rotting somewhere just out of sight. We needed rain.
An afternoon/night doubleheader against the second-place Cardinals in front of separate crowds, with the War Memorial ceremony before the second game: it was a big day at the ballpark, and Ruffin let me know it, running a bunch of orders by me (most of which didn’t need saying) as soon as I walked through the clubhouse door.
"You hear me?" he summed up from his stool. "I want clean socks and stirrups for the second game. This is a big deal. We don’t want to look like shitheads. Hey, where you going?"
"To get things ready."
"Come here, I’m not through yet."
"I hear you got a friend in the color guard today."
"That’s right," I said. I was going to meet Sam outside the Sullivan Place gate before the second game.
"What is he, navy?"
"Army Air Corps."
"Europe or Pacific?"
He looked impressed, "You want to bring him down here to meet the guys?"
"As long as it’s okay with Shotton, and as long as you keep him out of the way."
He grunted. "And another thing. I got the go-ahead to bring you on the next road trip."
"The whole thing?"
"What do you think, we’re gonna drop you in Lake Michigan and wave good-bye? Of course the whole thing."
"What do you care about Cincinnati, it’s a one-piss town. Chicago, St. Louis—those are cities."
I was about to thank him—I knew the decision to bring me had been his to make—but his attention was already wandering, and when he squinted toward the players’ concession at the back of the locker room and said, "Stanky just took a Coke, go make sure he signed the swindle sheet," I walked away without saying anything. Still, I was grateful to him, in spite of all he’d done to make things rough for me, and for the rest of the morning I did my chores automatically, thinking about how great it would be to visit Alma in Cincinnati in the middle of September. What a relief it was to know that her going wouldn't be "good-bye" so much as "see you soon." And why couldn't we go on and on like that? I could visit her again in October, once the season was over, and she'd be home for the holidays toward the end of the year. Who knew what would happen after that? All at once, I felt happy, surer that things would work out for us.
Excited, jittery, the Dodgers paced the clubhouse before the game. Sweep the Cardinals and they'd have an eight-and-a-half-game lead with just a little over thirty games to play; lose the set and St. Louis would be tied with us for first place. No question, this was the biggest series of the year. Still, I didn't expect the afternoon crowd to sound as lean and raw as it did. Needy and desperate right from the start ("Christ," Jorgensen said from the bench, "it sounds like every one of them's got a knife in the gut"), it got worse after we fell behind, 4-2. But then we scored five times in the fifth, and the sound changed, and now it was the way you want it to be, the fans reacting instead of trying to push you with their voices. There were a few close shaves late in the game. Ducky Medwick, trying to beat out an infield grounder, spiked Jackie's right foot, and the two of them traded words around the first-base bag. Then the Cards scored in the eighth and threatened again in the ninth, putting the tying runs on with nobody out. But Hugh Casey relieved Lombardi and saved the game for us, getting one out on a botched sacrifice attempt, then forcing Red Schoendienst to hit a tough slider into a game-ending double play.
After the game, I made another Kogan’s run and did the rest of my chores. The second game wouldn't start for a while because the ushers had to clear the ballpark and seat a whole new crowd. With some rare time on my hands, I grabbed the pillow from my locker, stretched out in a corner of the clubhouse, pulled my hat brim down over my brow, and closed my eyes. Sometime later, Furillo walked past, slapped the bottom of my shoes with his mitt, and said, "You dreamin', Stidge?" I was—or maybe just daydreaming. I was remembering how, in the old days, when we got the chance, Sam and I would come to the ballpark and sit on the Bedford Avenue curb behind the right field wall, listening to Tex Rickard's monotone voice announce the batters over the public address loudspeaker. We'd use the sound of the crowd to picture the action, hoping a home run would clear the wall for us to chase down. Sometimes, on a quiet weekday afternoon when there weren't many other kids around, we could stretch out on our stomachs and watch the game through the gap between the sidewalk and the big gate in deep right-center field.
It was Tommy Scott's voice. I sat up.
"LaVista's waiting for you outside the gate on Sullivan."
So I had fallen asleep.
"Shit," I said. "How long’s he been out there?"
"I don't know."
"Why didn't you bring him in?"
"Don't look at me. He said he was waiting for you."
I hurried down the corridor under the stands and went out to the street. Sam was pressed against the wall, avoiding the long line of ticket holders.
"Jeez," I said, "I didn't mean to keep you waiting."
"That's all right. I haven't been here long.
"Inside with my parents."
"What kind of seats do you have?"
"Field level, behind home plate."
"Great. You want to come in and meet the guys?"
He glanced over his shoulder, toward the rotunda. "Maybe after the game."
"I can take you in now, it's no problem."
He glanced anxiously over his shoulder again. "Later, maybe. I told the guy who's organizing this thing I'd be right back. He's waiting at the press gate. I don't want to be late."
"All right. I'll walk you."
We wove through the crowd and the shouting vendors to the entrance to the press box on McKeever Place. Sam was quiet and his face was weighted with the heavy tiredness I'd noticed a couple of weeks ago.
I said, "Is everything okay?"
He stopped walking, took a deep breath, and said, "I don't want to do this."
"What do you mean?"
"I thought I was going to be one in a crowd of guys. Now I find out there's only going to be a handful of us out there, two or three from each branch, that's all, and they’re going to introduce us one by one."
"What's the matter with that?"
"It's all wrong."
"How's it wrong?"
He shook his head emphatically. "They want to introduce us like we're heroes... I'm supposed to walk out there like I'm here because I did something right... All those guys who didn't come back..."
A grimace separated each phrase, and the last ended with a wave of his hand as if words couldn't say what he felt.
I said, "It's not like that."
"It is!" he said.
The second or two of trying to look past his agitation and uncertainty to find the real Sam gave way to a sudden, terrible insight: this was Sam.
"You can do it," I said, trying to sound and look confident, and before he could say anything else, I put my hand on his shoulder and looked into his eyes. "I know you can do it. It's just butterflies, that's all. You should have seen the Dodgers before the first game. Lombardi was pacing the clubhouse before he went to the bullpen to take his warm-ups. Taylor'll be down there in a little while, and he'll be feeling the same way you are now, wondering if he has his stuff." With my hand on his shoulder I talked and talked, trying to do what he'd done for me so many times—let a flow of words stop him from doubting and pull him back to a place where he could feel more like himself. There was a moment when he looked so doubtful that I actually thought he'd turn and go. It made me mad, mad that this could be happening to him, mad that I hadn't been on time to meet him earlier.
"I can't say I know how you feel," I said, still holding his eyes with mine, "but I bet those guys you were talking about would want you to go out there for them now. You took your chances and you made it back. They didn't. All right, that's the way it turned out. You can't change that, but you can go out there for them." Nearly out of words, I said, "You're my hero, Sam. You always have been."
I couldn’t have been clearer if I'd told him I loved him. Maybe he felt that. His shoulder relaxed beneath my hand and his face changed, as if something physical was draining from it.
Behind us, someone called, "Where's the other Air Corps guy?"
I let go of Sam's shoulder. "That's you. I have to get back to the clubhouse or Ruffin'll be all over my ass. I'll meet you by the dugout after the game." I walked away without looking back. I didn't dare to.
The beginning of the ceremony was actually a letdown. Things took too long to get started, and the fans fidgeted as the borough president, John Cashmore, thanked the Dodgers and the Cardinals and the concessionaire for donating the game’s proceeds to the War Memorial Committee. But then the color guard was introduced and the announcer called for a moment of silence, and all at once, the ballpark hushed. Taps cut the air, a single bugler's notes rising toward the violet sky where, flickering faintly, very far away, a few early stars winked down on us, and there was Sam, a single spot on the thick, green grass, worried, unsure—alone. I started toward him after the last note died, but Al Barlick, the home plate ump, called at me to get the baseballs I'd forgotten to give him, and by the time I ran them up from the clubhouse, the Dodgers were taking the field and Sam was in the stands.
The second crowd was looser than the day bunch. Why wouldn't they be, with all the runs we scored? We got two in the second, five in the third, five more in the late innings. The Dodger Sym-Phony wandered through the stands playing "The Worms Crawl In, the Worms Crawl Out" with each pitching change the Cardinals made, and it was like the neighborhood street parties I remembered from before the war with a dozen things happening at once—kids playing stickball and tag, adults playing cards, the smell of food everywhere, and everyone relaxed and happy and not worrying for once. Harry Taylor left the game with a sore elbow early in the seventh inning, but we had things sewn up by then, and we won going away, 12-3.
After the game, I met Sam by the dugout. "Come on," I said, "let's go downstairs."
"You think so? It's late."
"You want to meet the guys, don't you?"
"Come on," I said, taking his arm, "it'll be a real scene."
It was. Full of loud talk, laughter, and smoke, the clubhouse felt too small, just like Ebbets Field had felt too small for the screaming seventy thousand who'd filed in and out that day, too small for the moment of stunning silence between the games. Half-dressed, sweat-soaked, Stanky and Lavagetto were drumming with their shoes on the door that connected with the visitors' locker room.
"Eat your hearts out, you birds!" Stanky shouted.
"Six and a half games," Cookie yelled, "and we’ll be back for more tomorrow."
I said, "Let me introduce you around."
"That’s all right," Sam said, "they're busy. Besides, Alma and my parents are waiting outside. I have to go soon."
But his eyes were on Jackie, who was sitting in front of his locker, so I said, "Come on, meet Jackie," and led him through the reporters who were asking Harry Taylor how his elbow felt, past Pee Wee, who was posing for a picture, and toward the back of the room.
"You got a minute, Jackie? I got somebody who wants to meet you."
Jackie tossed his jersey into the bottom of his locker and said, "Is this the friend you were talking about?"
"Yeah, Sam LaVista."
Jackie stuck out his hand and Sam shook it.
"Stigiano! Where the hell are you? Stigiano!"
I said, "I’ll be back in a minute," and crossed the room to Ruffin’s podium.
"Where’s the clean towels?"
"I put them by the shower room."
"Well, Reiser says he can't find them. Go take care of it."
The towels were back there, but I'd forgotten to pull them from the laundry bag. If Ruffin had taken a look for himself, he’d have known that. I set them out, collected the wet ones from the floor before he could get on me about something else, and started back toward Sam and Jackie. But I stopped before I got there. They were sitting together on the bench, Sam with his back to me, talking, Jackie facing him, nodding as he listened. There was something private, even intimate, about the cramped space they occupied, as if they weren't part of the smoke and noise. I couldn't hear what Sam was saying or what Jackie said back to him now, but I could see Jackie's expression, an open look I’d rarely seen him share with anyone else. Maybe it was my imagination—who knew?—but I thought I saw something of Sam mirrored in Jackie's face, the old, sure Sam who listened closely, who didn’t judge you, who made you feel like no one and nothing was present for him except you.
Sam stood now, and Jackie, half-dressed, stood too. I was surprised at how small Sam looked next to Jackie, and I realized I'd always thought they were about the same size. It was as if Sam had shrunk inside his uniform. It made me sad.
They shook hands and parted, Jackie turning back to his locker, Sam toward me. His eyes were bright.
"He's a great guy," he said. "I'm glad you made me come down here."
"I'm glad you came."
He nodded and looked around the room. "I envy you." He waved at the cramped commotion. "You're lucky to be part of all this."
I laughed. "Maybe not that lucky."
"I'll let you get back to work. Thanks for everything." He put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it once. "Thanks for talking to me this afternoon. It meant a lot."
"I was worried about you."
"Don't worry about me. I'll see you when I get back from the shore, all right?"
"All right," I said. "Will you tell Alma I miss her?"
He started away.
"When are you coming back?" I called.
"Four or five days."
Four or five days wasn't a very long time, but the way he said it—and the sight of his back disappearing through the door—made it seem like forever.
THE CARDINALS WON easily the next day, 11-3. They walloped our pitchers right from the start, and it was up to Branca to try to set things right in the getaway game. Ralph held the Cards hitless through the first seven innings and, remembering my run-in with Al the last time Ralph had a no-hitter going, I kept my distance. It didn’t make a difference—Kurowski led off the eighth with a single. Still, with a 2-0 lead going into the ninth, it looked like our game to win. But Ralph tired, the Cards rallied, and suddenly the game was tied and we were headed for extra innings. We missed winning it in the tenth by an eyelash when Chuck Diering threw Stanky out at the plate, and if that had been the winning run, Slaughter would never have come to bat in the Cardinal eleventh, would never have grounded to the right side of the infield, and would never have come down hard with his spikes on the back of Jackie’s ankle as Jackie made the putout. Jackie went down instantly, and I ran out to him with Doc Wendler and the rest of the bench, sure his Achilles tendon had been sliced, but when he took his shoe and sock off we could see that Slaughter had missed it by half an inch.
"The son of a bitch did it on purpose," Stanky said as Doc got busy with his bandages.
"Hell, yeah," Pee Wee agreed.
There was pain in Jackie’s face, but the anger was stronger. "That's twice in this series," he said.
"I'm gonna drill the next guy right between the shoulder blades," Casey said.
Pee Wee said, "You don't want to give them a base runner, Hugh."
"I don't give a shit."
Jackie looked up at Doc Wendler and said, "I want to keep playing."
"I want to see you walk on it first," Doc said.
Jackie walked up the baseline and back. "It's sore," he said, "but I can play."
"You can stay in as long as it doesn’t give you trouble, but I want to know if it bothers you, even a little bit. You're lucky. Your season almost ended tonight."
Casey said, "The next fucker's going down."
"No," Jackie said, "Pee Wee's right. Besides, this one's mine to settle."
The Cardinals scored a run in the twelfth, and when Jackie, due to lead off the bottom of the inning, walked out to the on-deck circle, I asked him how the ankle felt. "All right," I expected, or "So-so," but he said, "Somebody's going to pay for this." I'd never seen or heard him that angry all year long. After taking a couple of pitches, he singled, and the crowd went nuts as he led away from first and feinted toward second a couple of times. Reiser sacrificed him over and the Cards brought Munger in to relieve Pollet. We sent Arky Vaughan up to hit for Furillo, and just as everyone was thinking Two shots to tie it and Will they walk Vaughan to set up the double play? and Do we try to score Jackie on a shallow hit? Munger whirled and picked Jackie off second. Vaughan bounced out on the next pitch to end the game.
Afterward, the clubhouse was a tomb. Even the reporters respected the mood. They stayed away from the hard questions like "How's it feel to lose after being an out away from winning?" and focused instead on Slaughter.
"Do you think he spiked you intentionally?"
"All I know is that I had my foot on the inside of the bag," Jackie said. "I gave him plenty of room."
"I just asked him about it and he told me he's never deliberately spiked anyone in his life."
"Bullshit," Stanky called over, "he's a fucking liar. He meant to do it."
After the reporters had rushed off to make their deadlines, long after the other guys had showered and gone, Jackie sat alone in front of his locker. Things sounded too loud in the quiet clubhouse: a shower dripping on the tiles, the concessionaire’s carts rumbling down the ramps, an occasional voice drifting through the windows from the street.
"Can I get you anything?" I asked, ready to leave.
Jackie raised his hand and shook his head but didn't look up. His thigh was torn in patches from sliding on sunbaked clay. The sores were raw against their darker background. Like so many times earlier this year, they'd start to heal overnight, and maybe the weeping ooze would dry up by game time tomorrow. Then he'd slide into a base or dive for a ball and the scabs would scrape away.
He tossed his bloodstained pants to me. "See what you can do about those, would you?"
He stood gingerly, heavily favoring the ankle Slaughter had spiked, his face weighted with the same complicated expression I'd seen on the day when I'd watched him get the news in the Royals' dugout that he was joining the Dodgers. So much had happened since then.
I said, "I didn’t get to tell you thanks for talking to my friend the other night. It meant a lot to him. To me too."
"You're welcome," he said tiredly, and walked off toward the shower.
I rinsed his pants, picked up the rest of his uniform, and hung it in the dryer. He was still in the shower when I left for the night.