Bill Roeder, who edits the Newsmakers section of Newsweek, is a rehabilitated baseball writer. We covered the Brooklyn Dodgers together for a while. Suddenly, there were no Brooklyn Dodgers and there were in Cleveland, trying to pay attention: were the Yankees 10 games ahead of 12?
We were in the Wigwam Room of Municipal Stadium, free-loading our supper, when Roeder mumbled through his salad: "Prewar National League infielder J.B." It was, without warning, the trivia game that alleviated so much boredom. Those were all the clues you got, and you knew the subject wouldn't be anyone as prominent as Jimmy Brown, the Cardinals' switch-hitter of the '42 World Series.
"Jimmy Bucher," I said without hesitation. It is not easy to discompose Bill Roeder, but he lost some salad. The answer was indeed James Quinter Bucher, Manassas native ans utility man amid the futility of the 1937 Brooklyn Dodgers.
Who could forget the '37 Dodgers: he has been, never was band of Gibby Brack and Blimp Phelps, Ralph Birkofer and Heinie Manush? ("Overconfidence." Bill McCullough had written of them in the Booklyn Eagle a year earlier, "may cost the Dodgers seventh place.)
Anybody could forget them, especially their angry manager, Burleigh Grimes. But not I. It was they, those melancholy merryandrews, who played The Real Game, the onw may grandfather took me to in Ebbets Field - my first one.
At age 11, I was irretrievably hooked on baseball, but my only connection had been the back page of the tabloid, 2-cent New York News (its front page being my family's only connection to everything else in the world).
I was an unreconstructible Giant fan. I listened loyally to broadcasts of the Jersey City farm team (there would be no big-league radio until 1939). I exculted when Hub and Ott inked their pacts for twenty two-five. I was proud when my shorstop, Rowdy Richard Bartell, beat up the Phillies' catcher. I exulted when we got Wally Berger from Boston. Convertly. I adored Harry Danning, even if he was Jewish, and it was an article of my faith that Lou Chiozza was the fastest human on spikes.
So I was ecstatic when my grandfathe said we would go to a Real Game, and dismayed when he said it would be a Dodger game.
Nothing else would have occurred to the old man, who had swilled hogs on his farm in Canarise - rural Brooklyn - less than two decades earlier. Brooklyn was where I had gone to my first movie alone. Errol Flynn in "Captain Blood," when we we visited my aunt on Avenue P. Brooklyn was where my Grandfather had taken me to a big restaurant named Oetjen's and stood me up on the bar to sing a song called "Down on the Farm."
"They all ask for you;
"The cows and the chickens.
"And the pigs a-a-a-ask for you."
With a Long Island accent, slurring off the final consonant . . . well, the men all laughed, gave me money and asked my grandfather to have the kid do it again. I was told I had more than $75 in the bank before my third birthday.
But a Dodger game! The drive in from The Island was nervously long and we were on Empire Boulevard with people pointing to parking lots, before I had made up my mind how to my grandfather to root against the Dodgers, but a traitor to JoJo Moore, my leadoff man, to root for them.
The game would be, I determined as my grandfather bought me a Dodger pennant scientific experience. After all, Vinnie Forcillo's father, who used to come around collecting 10 cents a week for the Prudential (and somehow never seemed to cancel anybody who couldn't spare a dime), had said just a few days ago that the Cubs were the team to beat. And the Dodgers were playing the Cubs. So I could be sort of scouting for the Giants. Right, Mel?
The old man had been able to write a five-figure check for a little while in the 1920s. The money was long gone but the style lingered on. We sat in the $2.20 box seats, right behind the Dodger dugout. So when somebody raised a foul ball in an early inning. Gabby Hartnett's red face glowed with sweat as he leaned into our laps, it seemed, to catch the ball.A mand with a cigar said something about Harnett's diet and he smiled and winked.
Gabby Hartnett. You could see his eyes, the same blue as his uniform. Somebody in the Dodger dugout must have said something to Rip Collins, the first baseman, and he said something back. I can't remember what he said, but you could hear it. Ten years later, you hear some of the garbage Jackie Robinson had to take. In 10 more years, the Dodgers would leave Brooklyn and there would be no more seats like those in baseball.
In the middle of the game, Babe Phelps, a catcher fatter than Hartnett, bounced to the box and Curt Davis, the Cubs' pitcher, stood turning the ball over in his hand while Phelps huffed and puffed down the line. Finally, Davis whipped a sidearm throw and got Phelps by a step. On his way into the dugout. Phelps said something but I couldn't hear it.
The next spring, the back page of the Daily News would announce that Dizzy for $185,000. Curt Davis and a couple of other guys. On the 6:45 radio news, Paul Douglas would quote a Cardinal official predicting Davis would win more games than Dean. He did, 12-7.
A guy I wanted to scout for the Giants, that day was Tom Winsett, who had been on a cover of a new magazine called Life. The story said he had been hitting balls to places Babe Ruth never reached in Florida. It didn't say why he didn't hit any balls over palm trees until he was 28. He didn't play that day, having established himself as a 237 hitter who struck out a lot.
Dave Kingman, a 233 hitter who hit 37 home runs but struck out monotonously last year, is asking the Mets for hundreds of thousands of dollars; there have been 40 years of progress since Long Tom Winsett.