A Bridge in Indiana
It happened right out of the blue.
I had started early on my way through rural, southern Indiana to spend some time in the university town of Bloomington. After maybe thirty uneventful, placid miles on State Highway 57, I passed a sign announcing the nearby town of Princeton. It set off an indistinct bell in my head, one of those moments when you react to something before your memory tells you why.
I had not quite resolved the question when the next sign several miles north answered it for me with jarring finality:
The Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge.
I slammed on the brakes, skidding a bit on loose gravel and coming to a halt just on the far side.
It wasn’t much, a simple, concrete structure spanning the not-mighty White River in an area where coal had once ruled. The bridge was puny compared to the other one named after Gil Hodges—which connects the western chunk of New York’s Rockaway peninsula to Brooklyn. His name was added to its more familiar Marine Parkway title in 1978, six years after he died of a heart attack on a Florida golf course, just shy of his forty-eighth birthday.
But this bridge was Gil Hodges—quiet, simple, strong, unadorned.
It was in the middle of nowhere—a pine forest framed the two-lane road with no signs of nearby life beyond the birds. It was a crisp, clear, windy October day, not unlike another October day decades earlier that began coming back to me in a rush.
It had already been a lovely morning. State Highway 57 shoots straight north out of Evansville. It quickly clears what pass for the suburbs of the small city and then becomes this quiet road, guiding a traveler by fertile fields of soybeans and corn, thick woods, and little else.
It was the right road for someone on the wrong roads a bit too much, the perfect respite from the homogenized sameness of interstate-airport-hotel “life.” As a newspaper columnist with a yen for politics, this is familiar, favored territory because of its proximity to one of the most revealing stretches of real estate in America—the land on either side of the Ohio River. From Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, where it meets the Mississippi, the Ohio defines what is called Middle America; every two years, the six states that touch it provide many of my best clues to where the country is headed.
I am a New Yorker by birth, childhood, and disposition still. Gil Hodges was my father’s hero and he became my hero. At first, I assumed it was because he and my father were both from rural Indiana. Only later did I understand that my father—and eventually I—looked up to his enormous character, his abiding concern for others, his stoic response to adversity. It was very personal.
Gil Hodges was one of the stars on the Brooklyn Dodgers, a baseball team that after World War II personified the hard-luck struggler’s lot; blazed amazing trails in race relations long before the rest of the country caught up; represented a huge chunk of New York with deep ties to the entire country; and then migrated west.
In addition to being one of the premier first basemen of his time, Hodges was also one of the stars on what for a great many years I had no difficulty identifying as the happiest day of my life—October 4, 1955, the only day in the seventy-odd years of the fabled and cursed franchise when the Dodgers ruled the world. I don’t have to close my eyes; I can still see the solid single he hit cleanly into Yankee Stadium’s left field that drove in Roy Campanella with the first Dodger run of the afternoon.
I can still see the long fly ball that he hit near the warning track in right-center field two innings later that for one thrilling instant looked like it might be a grand-slam home run. It was more than deep enough to drive in his pal and Ohio River valley neighbor, Pee Wee Reese, with the second and only other run of an excruciatingly tense game.
I can still see this tall, broad-shouldered man with a big, expressive face reaching and then reaching some more to take two famous throws at first base from his Kentucky friend that day—the first to complete an electrifying double play following a spectacular catch in the outfield that remains one of the memorable moments in one hundred years of World Series lore; the second to record the last out of the seventh game of the one Series Brooklyn won.
I can still see the Dodgers sprinting from their dugout, led by a courageous black man of legendary intensity named Jackie Robinson, to converge around the most improbable hero of all—a kid from upstate New York who had just turned twenty-three and had pitched a shutout at the New York Yankees with everything on the line, too young to understand or accept the long odds against him. For two hours and forty-four minutes, Johnny Podres had simply defied defeat.
And I can still see something else a few hours later, sitting on the stoop of a brownstone just off Atlantic Avenue in the heart of Brooklyn, a couple of steps above my father and mother, who were laughing and necking like teenagers while a parade of happy people pranced before them on the street.
That day on the bridge near Princeton, I had a few doughnuts and a milk with me, so I left my car by the side of the road and sat on the bridge for a while.
I have always associated my Dodgers with the World Series of 1955, and above all with the seventh and deciding game—the moment when they finally won a World Championship, finally defeated the hated New York Yankees, finally gave those of us who adored them the one (and, it would turn out, the only) World Series they managed to win after decades of usually daffy, maddeningly frustrating existence.
But my memories of that glorious day are bittersweet as well as joyous, painful as much as happy, sober as much as triumphant, quietly proud as much as tickled to death. They go well beyond baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
In those days, baseball with its complicated but natural rhythms of pitch counts, innings, games, and seasons was such a shared experience across America that metaphors were not only common but also clear and unforced. Baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers were major ingredients in the glue that held my little family together through tough times and happy times, a metaphor for hope, disappointment, triumph, and tragedy. On that one day in 1955, just before my tenth birthday, I had my first vague insight into how they all fit together—how effort is more important than result, why We is more important than I, and why the only things that truly matter are whether your word’s any good and how you treat others.
The wise guy side of my journalistic persona always interrupts these reveries to remind me that romanticizing childhood memories, especially where a sporting event is involved, is just about the hokiest exercise in silly self-indulgence imaginable. In fact, there is nothing of my superficial memory that is special, much less unique. Where the Brooklyn Dodgers of 1955 are concerned, I was just one kid among roughly 3 million Dodger fans in New York City, an even tinier pebble in the ocean of people around the country in those days for whom the Dodgers were the epitome of deserving underdog-ism, just as the New York Yankees symbolized Roman Empire–like success and intimidating mastery.
In the twentieth century, sports on occasion reached legitimate, metaphorical heights—when Jack Johnson and Joe Louis reigned and when Seabiscuit raced during the depression, and earlier when onetime caddy Francis Ouimet took on the snotty establishment of golf at the democratizing breakthrough that was the U.S. Open in 1913. The fact that Dodgers–Yankees was multidimensional only added to its grand character.
On the bridge that day, it occurred to me that at some point in my life I might try at last to puzzle through all this—to see if my memory of that day and that astonishing seventh game stood up to examination, to understand the mixed emotions it evoked, and to see if the personal might find space in a larger picture of the Brooklyn Dodgers and their unique history. I have come, years later, to the conclusion that the Dodgers are well worth it and that my wise-guy side can go to hell.
That day and that game in 1955 turn out to be even more amazing and memorable than the snippets of memory that had remained with me. The game mocks the linear, shorthand summaries that have followed it for nearly fifty years—a brilliant 2–0 shutout thrown at the Yankees by a kid southpaw, a tight game saved by a spectacular catch in the sixth inning by another kid, a black man from Cuba. In truth, the game was nearly three hours of unrelenting torture and suspense, a roller-coaster ride mostly evocative of all the past years of disappointment until literally the final pitch. Each team came to bat nine times that afternoon, and the game and the Series could have gone either way during fully seven of them, not counting the Yankees’ last, excruciatingly drawn-out at-bat. It is no accident of New York media myopia that this World Series and that game are on all the short lists of the most memorable games, strictly as baseball.
My memories should resonate with anyone for whom the Brooklyn Dodgers stand as a decent metaphor for life’s battles against the odds and hard facts of history; they resonate twice as loudly because the only major-league team named after a neighborhood represented a special place that meant and still means melting pot, working families, and a rash pride in a unifying struggle that is mostly hard; and they resonate three times as loudly with the unique leitmotif of Dodger history, the fact that this is the organization that first clawed successfully at the walls of racial segregation that besmirched baseball’s self-identification as the national pastime, long before civil rights was a powerful national movement, and even before Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the country’s armed forces.
After evolving in the 1880s, the Dodgers were down much more than they were up, a source of exasperation as much as love, and the inspiration for an annual defiant optimism immortalized by the cry after each disappointing season—Wait’ll Next Year. They played for World Championships in only two of their first four decades—in 1916 and 1920—and lost each time. Between 1941 and 1953, they lost the World Series to the Yankees five times; in 1946, 1950, and 1951, they lost the National League pennant on the final day of the season.
The Dodgers are inextricably linked, their California migration notwithstanding, to a huge, noisy, diverse agglomeration of acreage called Brooklyn—two dozen sprawling neighborhoods of unique diversity. For more than three centuries, Brooklyn has been a destination as well as a gateway for tens of millions of Americans. The Dodgers make no sense without Brooklyn, and Brooklyn was their bridge to the rest of postwar America.
The famous chip on the shoulder remains an essential part of Brooklyn’s character; true borough maniacs are proud to tell you that it was the place where the curveball, the seventh-inning stretch, and the box score all originated. Brooklyn’s Dodgers complemented the borough’s quirky personality. I still chuckle on my way there from La Guardia Airport when my car enters the borough via Williamsburg, where a sign at the border says: Welcome to Brooklyn. Believe the Hype!
There was so much more however, to the linkage between neighborhood and baseball team. Any one of the images conjured up just by saying the name Brooklyn Dodgers would not set it apart. This country is full of working family towns and neighborhoods, for which the local team is a rare source of unifying devotion and fun. The story of the hard-luck underdog is deeply etched in American myth and more than one American reality. The stories of diligent scrappers who overcome past failures and present odds to have a moment of pure joy at the expense of the direct source of so much of that woe is less common but hardly unique. And the long struggle to rid America of segregation and demonstrate that true integration can both work and inspire has its share of heroes.
But put them all together, one on top of the other, and the cumulative effect well beyond the boundaries of Brooklyn in 1955 was electric. It really was more than it seemed at the time, and even today it is a cut above a mere baseball story.
The Brooklyn Dodgers of 1955 are more complicated, but the impact of their trials and one triumph fit powerfully into the postwar period when America was already beginning to rush to suburbs and to move south and west. Several years ago, the superb writer Peter Golenbock compiled a fascinating survey of the Dodgers’ three generations in Brooklyn via oral history interviews. One of them was with a man, Joel Oppenheimer, who grew up just above Manhattan in the tough town of Yonkers. He summarized most of it: “Dodger fans got beaten down so often that there was an essential humility and an understanding that Yankee fans never had. Yankee fans don’t understand that the world is not a very nice place to live, that more bad things happen to you than good things. When you understand this, you appreciate the good things that do happen, and you’re more apt to take it easy on the other guy who’s having a rough time of it.”
Add to this poignant observation the immense power of race (in this case an unusually positive tale of what is possible when racism is confronted by good people), and the fact that the 1955 Series and, above all, that thrilling seventh game get better the more closely they are examined, and a remarkable mosaic emerges. For baseball, the New York Yankees ruled the 1950s; in the larger context of the country in the 1950s, the Brooklyn Dodgers were America’s Team.
It still resonates across the decades and across the country, a slice of life that managed to transcend its spot in time.
My own family fit neatly, if not always happily, into this Dodger picture. My mom worked as a secretary. My dad was a freelance writer who had great difficulty working after World War II left him partially disabled from jungle diseases in the Pacific. We had a two-room rent-controlled apartment down by the East River and a rich, close life despite our hardships. I was aware from an early age that my parents were living through me, but it was encouragement far more than obsession. The reason I quickly latched onto their devotion to the Dodgers was that it was something we all shared that didn’t have anything special to do with me.
Sorting all this out—from the game itself to the special aura that surrounded Brooklyn and the Dodgers of that long-ago time—is an exercise in both personal and larger history. I don’t wish time had stopped forever at the moment the seventh game ended. I just wish the moment had lasted longer.
It amazes me how durable the memory is, and not just for me. It is equally amazing how durable the Dodgers have proved in our culture—in the movies and on television. A few years ago I bumped into a richly evocative example from the 1970s. By then nearly twenty full years had passed since the 1955 World Series, when the ABC television network had a prime-time special, a series of one-act sketches titled Happy Endings, coproduced by and starring the actor and comedian Alan King. The show featured the work of such well-known writers as Herb Gardner, of A Thousand Clowns and I’m Not Rappaport fame, and starred King and Art Carney, Dodger fans all.
In Gardner’s sketch for the program, an elderly Jewish man, Samuel Margolis, is shown in a hospital bed wearing a baseball cap with Dodgers ’55 printed on it, with several days’ growth of beard on his face. He is hooked up to a heart-monitoring machine.
Sammy Margolis, his heart running out of gas, is trying to decide whether to have life-prolonging surgery or take a pass and let nature take its course. He has heard the urgent pleas of his physician respectfully but feels compelled to summarize the other side of the argument.
For emphasis, he gestures dismissively out the window, at contemporary life.
“Whatever they’re doing I don’t want to be party to it no more. The times, these times, ain’t my time. They took too much away without a snappy notion what to put instead. . . .
“You see the cap? Brooklyn Dodgers of ’55. I do them honor. Nobody came to take their place. They took Ebbets Field away. You take the pyramids away from Egypt all you got is sand and rotten weather. Walter O’Malley, he sells them like shoes without ever discussing.
“Banks. You don’t got teams now, MacDonald; you got Irving Trust plays Chemical Corn Exchange. The heart went with them and the city started to die. What’s to root for? Without what to root the voice goes away.
“Duke Snider! He went away! A lifetime in the afternoon hollering ‘I’m with ya, Duke; I’m with ya,’ never dreaming for a moment he wasn’t with me. Edwin Donald Snider, a person you knew, went to California, which doesn’t even exist.
“They all went. The names, just say the names, you could sing them: Amoros, Gilliam, Campanella, Furillo, Hodges, Podres, gone, even the sound is gone. What’s left? A cap, I got a cap, Dodgers ’55, and sometimes I hear in the summer, on the wind, Red Barber’s voice.”
There must have been people watching who had no idea what Sammy Margolis was talking about, but the correct assumption at ABC was that a great many people knew exactly what he was talking about. The Brooklyn Dodgers survive—unlike, say, the St. Louis Browns or the Philadelphia Athletics—because they evoke themes that fit America like a Rawlings glove.
The enduring resonance of the Dodgers has been analyzed before and probably will be forever, but I had never thought of one element of it until it was mentioned to me by their starting pitcher that long-ago October afternoon, Johnny Podres. He is in his seventies now—a direct, interesting man. We had concluded a long talk about those days and that day in his home, still in upstate New York; I had run through the questions I had thought about ahead of time, but on an impulse I asked him why 1955 has lived on when other years and other events—some just as dramatic, some perhaps more so—have lived on solely as sports memories or not really survived at all. He smiled.
“One thing you have to keep in mind is what happened that day can never happen again. There will be other great seventh games, already have been. Someday someone will pitch another perfect game in the Series, someone will make another unassisted triple play, someone will hit another home run to win it all in extra innings. But the Brooklyn Dodgers will never win another championship. They are gone. The events of that day are frozen forever.”
Copyright © 2005 by Thomas Oliphant