The Way Home is Longer
September 7, 1947
|St. Louis Cardinals||77-56||.579||5.5|
|New York Giants||68-64||.515||14|
THE NEXT EVENING, THINKING OF ALMA, I BOARDED A TRAIN with the Dodgers at Penn Station and we started the road trip. Long after we'd passed the brown-green swamps and the miles of smokestacks, long after the sun had faded and the card games had ended and everyone was stretched out quietly in the bunks of the sleeping car, I kept my eyes to the window: I’d never been west before. It was exciting to know we'd be in Chicago when the sun came up, thrilling to think that these next two weeks might decide the pennant race. But I also felt unsettled about leaving Brooklyn behind, and there was something lonely about the way the town and city lights rose out of the darkness only to vanish into darkness again. My mind whirled with all the uncertain and undecided things that had happened the last few weeks. If not for the rocking of the train, I might not have fallen asleep at all.
We pulled into Chicago around eight in the morning and took a bus to the hotel. My roomie was Elmer Sexauer, one of the rookie pitchers the Dodgers had called up on the first of September. He was twenty-one, tall and good-looking, and he didn't like the fact that he'd be rooming with the batboy.
"This bed's mine," he said, dropping his bag onto it. "And another thing. When I travel, I like to keep things in order, okay? No messes in the room, no late nights. None of that minor league shit, okay?"
I figured I didn't have to love the guy to room with him. "Fine with me," I said.
I spent my day off sightseeing, and after breakfast in the hotel lobby the next morning, we took the team bus to Wrigley Field. Unload the trunks, set up the dugout, get the guys sandwiches and hot dogs from a neighborhood store—my job was easier on the road, especially since Ruffin, off his turf and without his stool, wasn't quite so gruff. The ballpark was a bandbox like Ebbets Field, but tidier, with the fans rising up out of a low brick wall that ringed the field and disappeared beneath a shield of ivy in the outfield. It was pretty, and I was excited by the newness of everything. Still, I felt unsettled, lonely, and didn't really know why.
The game brought some relief. Lombardi pitched well, mixing an occasional fastball with his off-speed stuff, setting down twenty Cubs in a row at one point to support the three runs the guys had gotten him. But then, in the eighth, the Cubs got a couple of hits and Pee Wee, back from his spike injury, booted a grounder to load the bases, and Cliff Aberson, the Cubs' rookie outfielder who also played football for the Green Bay Packers, stepped up and hit one out for a grand slam. That was the first game I'd worked all year that Jackie didn't play in. He'd hurt his back against the Giants just before the start of the road trip. All game long he'd been fidgeting and pacing the dugout, unhappy about riding the bench, and when Aberson's blow cleared the wall and put us behind, he stood suddenly and said, to no one in particular, "I can't stand sitting here like this, doing nothing." Angry and full of frustration, his voice reminded me of Reiser's earlier in the summer. Not long after Pete came back from his paralyzing collision with the wall, he and Clyde King, shagging flies in the outfield before a game, had run into each other, smashing heads. Pete had been knocked out. That night, as he and Pee Wee had talked in their hotel room, Pee Wee noticed a lump on Pete's forehead that looked like a golf ball pushing through the skin. It turned out that a blood clot from the earlier injury had been jolted loose and moved when he and King collided. They flew Pete to Johns Hopkins hospital that night for surgery. When he'd finally rejoined the team, Pee Wee had asked him, "Was it bad?" and Pete had said, "Not as bad as waiting around after it was all over. I thought I'd go crazy."
Seeing and hearing Jackie now made me realize that Sam was at the root of whatever had been bothering me since I'd left Brooklyn, and in that instant I thought that maybe I finally understood him. Sure, he'd flown all those missions, had probably had near misses, had seen horrible things, like those dead boys laid out on the cart in the market, but I got the feeling they weren't as bad in his mind as being grounded now. Maybe that was why he was so uncertain about himself. Again, I had that vague feeling, so familiar now, that I'd missed or ignored important things that would have helped me understand what he was going through.
We split two games with the Cubs and went on to St. Louis, and Jackie, back in the lineup now, helped us take two out of three from the Cardinals and run our lead over them to five and a half games. The team was high as we traveled to Cincinnati, but the day in and day out games, the repetition of chores and conversations, the diner and hotel meals in the heat that darkness couldn't cool. Elmer was standing at the foot of my bed, holding a pair of dripping socks. He looked like he hadn't slept well.
"I want to ask you something," he said.
All I'd heard from him for five days were grunts that I'd taken to mean yes or no. A word from him was news. Six words—an event.
"What's that?" I asked, turning beneath the sheet.
"Stanky made me look like a fool, didn't he?"
Late in the second game in St. Louis, the home plate umpire, Larry Goetz, had called time and walked down the right field line to our bullpen, where Elmer had been warming up, using a towel for home plate. Goetz had made him move the towel, saying the right fielder might trip on it if he had to cross the foul line to field a ball. Elmer had gotten a razzing from Stanky in the dressing room after the game.
"A towel?" Eddie had said. "You were pitching to a towel?"
Embarrassed, Elmer had said, "I had to warm up. There wasn't a plate free in the bullpen."
"What do you think this is," Eddie had said, "a sandlot game?"
Annoyed, I stretched now and said, "You're worried about that? He was just kidding you."
"You think so?"
"You don't think he meant anything by it, do you?"
He didn't answer.
"Come on, Elmer."
"The umpire stopped the game. It made me look bad."
"It was no big deal."
He pouted. "Shotton used six pitchers in the second game against the Cardinals. How come he didn't put me in? He hasn't pitched me once yet."
"Shotton's not like that. You got it all wrong."
"You think so?"
I blamed him for waking me up when he did—I didn't like the way my dream had ended, and it bugged me that he was milking me for encouragement after he'd been coming on so strong. I almost told him so, but decided to keep it to myself.
"Forget about it," I said.
It should have been a great day. Jackie went five for eleven; Hatten won both games of the doubleheader before an overflow crowd, pitching a complete game in the opener and five and two-thirds innings of shutout relief in the nightcap to spare the tired bullpen; we knocked the Giants and Braves out of the pennant race and ran our lead over the Cardinals to seven games.
That week, the Yankees won the American League flag. We split a pair of games in Pittsburgh, losing the second, but the Cardinals also lost, and at long last, we clinched a tie for the pennant. We arrived at Penn Station on the morning of the nineteenth to a crowd of a couple thousand fans and a din from the Dodger Sym-Phony Most of the guys snuck off the rear of the train to avoid the crush, but a few of us didn't make it. Pee Wee was hoisted onto someone's shoulders and carried through the terminal to a steady roar. I was almost away when my sleeve caught on something that turned out to be the hand of a chubby, pretty girl about my age with a smear of lipstick that made her look like she'd just been kissed.
"Got you!" she said. "Which one are you?"
"Come on, you can't fool me. I saw you coming up those stairs. I saw you talking to Pee Wee." She tightened her grip on my wrist. "Joanie! I got one!"
A jaunty hat bobbed toward us, and the face, half-hidden beneath the brim, said, "I don't know him. He must be new. I know—you're one of the new pitchers. He's one of the new pitchers. Lord, Dottie, fix your lipstick."
"I'm the batboy," I said, trying to pull free.
"Aw, don't tease," the second girl said. "Everyone's always teasing me—don't you do it too!" She pushed her hat back and tilted up the bluest eyes. "Can I get your autograph?"
Why argue? I said, "Do you have a pencil?"
She handed me a pen and an autograph book. "To Joanie."
I signed—Elmer Sexauer—and they rushed away after Pee Wee.