Away Game: The Bums are back, and a dead dad reappears
A year ago, Globe Sports ran an essay on the 60th anniversary of the Brooklyn Dodgers' sole World Series triumph, over the hated New York Yankees. Since then, the author, features editor Bob Levin, has published a novel, Away Game, in which the '55 Dodgers figure prominently. While the story ranges from Philadelphia to Toronto to Cooperstown to rural Ohio, the opening chapter focuses on that historic Dodgers-Yankees showdown in the Bronx, as excerpted here
Part I: Jimmy
I grew up without a father and with a mother who forever mourned him, telling the old stories, sniffling over their wedding photo, making her special brisket on his birthday, his absence so acute it was practically a presence. Maybe that explains what happened. Damned if anything else does.
It started with a spinner. That's the last thing I recalled of the latter-day world, flicking the spinner on my ancient, rediscovered, taped-together All-Star Baseball game, and then I felt as if I were spinning, like on one of those playground gizmos where some sadistic big kid jumped on and nearly made you vomit. No vomiting here; the wave passed and off I went. Don't ask me how this works. All I know is that one moment I was a sixty-year-old man visiting my childhood home in Philadelphia, cleaning out the attic for my mother, messing with an old board game, and the next I was the same man in a ballpark full of oddly well-dressed fans, and not just any ballpark but Yankee Stadium, the Bronx, October 4, 1955.
Of course, I didn't realize this right away, the where and when, nor did I foresee what would follow, the drop-in becoming an odyssey – though I like to believe, while I didn't make the magic, I was at least uncommonly open to it. I was hooked from the start. I was standing in the aisle along the left-field line, looking toward the diamond, the infielders tossing the ball, the pitcher taking his warm-ups, the upper and lower decks draped with red-white-and-blue bunting – lovely sights all, and sounds, the crowd emitting a sweet expectant din, a siren song. A dream? Maybe, though in dreams you don't think it's a dream, all the strangeness just accepted, like Stonehenge or hanging chads. There was a giant Ballantine beer scoreboard in right, as in the Connie Mack Stadium of my youth, but the other signs I didn't recognize: Seagram's, Manhattan Shirts, Philip Morris, Flying A.
"Where is this?" I asked a young guy hurrying by.
"What?" he said, stopping short in his black jacket and gray fedora hat.
"Where – where are we?" I said, knowing instantly I sounded like a loon, trying again. "I mean, what's today's date?"
"It's, I dunno, October, it's the World Series for chrissake."
"The World – what year?"
He eyed my torn jeans and paint-stained T-shirt, my clean-out-the-attic clothes, as if I were dressed weirdly. "You're for the Bums, ain't ya," he said.
"What? Oh yeah, yeah sure."
"Figures," he said, snorting. "Look, want my advice? Go to the can, stick your head under the faucet, sober up. Plenty time to get plastered later after the Yanks beat your Bums again."
And then I knew. I just knew, even if it was a dream (a notion that would take time to wear off, like a bad hangover), because here's what was happening before I landed in this hallowed stadium, before I flicked that spinner: I was talking to my mother about my father, Mel Bauman, who died on October 4, after attending Game 7 of the 1955 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers, when I was two years old.
In my life, even entering my seventh decade, that's still the essential event.
My mother was ninety-one now. She lived alone in our old Philadelphia duplex, having refused my offer to move in with us in Toronto. Actually, that was more my wife's offer, back when our son Luke was small and our hearts big (not to mention we could use the babysitting), but Luke had left and my wife, my wonderful Jess, had passed on. Your mother is not supposed to outlive your wife. And while we no longer spoke of her coming to Toronto, even my mother allowed that, frail little old lady that she'd become, she was ready for a nursing home if I'd help her move.
"Your father was a very handsome man," she said when I traipsed down the stairs with my latest attic treasures, an autographed Duke Snider ball and a framed photo of my father in front of the grand Ebbets Field entrance, looking sharp in the leather jacket he'd worn bombing Germany. "He was also the biggest Dodger fan that ever lived and moving to Philly didn't change that. The Duke, Gil Hodges, and oh Jackie, Pee Wee, Campy, Johnny Podres – to your father those guys were like – like Superman. No, above Superman – Superman couldn't throw a slider, your father said."
"Why haven't I seen these?" I asked.
"You did see them, a long time ago. But I can't have them all out – too much dust. That baseball, though, you should keep that. Or sell it on – what's that computer thing? I'm sure it's worth a pretty penny."
My mother, as she liked to say, still had all her marbles, or most of them anyway. She was often fuzzy on whether she'd taken her pills or turned the stove off, but she could tell you, in numbing detail, about the day her dad bought his Packard wagon and the time she'd posed for an Ipana toothpaste ad. Or about my dad, the love of her life and the gaping hole in mine.
"My greatest regret," she said before I returned to my attic labors and my old board game, "is that you never got to know your father. He was a Cracker Jack, your father, and quite the ballplayer himself once. And he sure loved you."
About that board game: All-Star Baseball was created by an ex-player and first sold in 1941. Mine was the 1957 edition, my mother feeding my innate love of baseball at an early age. It featured stars of the day and all-time greats, each player having a cardboard disc with – here was the genius part – numbered spaces whose size was based on their actual batting records. (Babe Ruth's home-run space, for instance, was huge, as was his strikeout space.) Put a disc on the spinner and spin away. Which I did endlessly as a kid, though I hadn't seen the game in years, not since trying, futilely, to interest my young son in it on a visit to grandma's, electronic gadgets having already benumbed his brain against anything so sedate and cerebral.
So I was thinking of my father, who loved me and died young, and of my own son who never seemed to want what I had to offer – I was thinking of those things (as I pieced them together later, trying to decode the magic) when I was whisked from a Philadelphia attic to a New York stadium more than a half-century before, like a combination lock clicking open. That's it, that's all I know. And one more thing: I'd put the Duke Snider disc on the spinner…
The Associated Press
Duke Snider strode to bat here in the Bronx. It was the fourth inning, no score, some familiar figures on the field: Moose Skowron, Billy Martin, Scooter Rizzuto, Gil McDougald. As a boy I'd seen some of these Yanks, older then, play on TV, though I knew – because I'd read up on this day, my father's last – that a lame Mickey Mantle was not in the lineup. I knew it all: how the Dodgers had never won a World Series, falling to the Yanks five times since '41; how it was always Wait 'Til Next Year and now, in '55, how the Series was knotted at three, forcing a fateful Game 7 – bits of history lodged in my head alongside Bunker Hill and Gettysburg.
"You better find your seat, bub," someone official-looking said, just after the Duke struck out swinging, and I started walking, even knowing where to go, more or less. Sixty-thousand-plus people and I knew to head farther down the left-field side, toward the corner, because my mother had told me where my father sat that day, in what would turn out to be a propitious spot, and surely I had come here – if I had come here – to see my father live his last moments on Earth…
Excerpted from Away Game. Copyright © 2016 Bob Levin. Published by Burnstown Publishing House. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved. Available now.