The Duke of Flatbush

Duke and Willie 

The View From Argyle Heights By Homeowner Harry (Another in a series of observations about life in West Midwood as it is lived today…or maybe not)

April. Opening Day. Hope. Last season is washed clean. My team starts out in first place and probably won’t fall more than 15 games behind until May, by which time the NBA and NHL playoffs will be in full bloom. So yes, I’m a Mets fan. Not out of choice, I can assure you. And it’s not destiny either. It’s geography.

My father was a Giants fan who was fond of saying Willie Mays was the best ball player he ever saw, “and that includes Ruth, Cobb, Williams and ANYBODY ELSE YOU’D CARE TO MENTION,” he’d interject before you could counter. And yet none of his nine kids followed him into Giants fandom. Instead we all rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Duh. We lived only two miles from Ebbets Field – Rogers Avenue to Empire Boulevard and then left to Bedford Avenue. I don’t remember attending a game with my father there – but we did manage to take in a Mets game together, in May 1972 when Willie Mays was traded to the Mets. In his first game on a gorgeous Sunday at Shea, we watched Willie, then 41 and in the twilight of his career, homer to beat the Giants and the next year, his last, he helped lead the Mets back to the World Series.

When the Mets first arrived in 1962, I was in high school and free to roam the subways, attending quite a few games those first two years at the old Polo Grounds, usually with my brothers. And we were there on two Sunday afternoons that have lived forever in baseball lore. The first was June 17, 1962, a doubleheader against Ernie (“It’s Such a Nice Day, Let’s Play Two”) Banks and his Chicago Cubs, when Marvelous Marv Throneberry committed two errors in the top of the first, leading to four Cubs runs. That year Marv had one of the worst fielding percentages in history, to include other star systems.

But in the bottom of the inning, Marv came to the plate with two runners aboard and cracked a tremendous drive to right center that rolled all the way to the wall. The center fielder was a rookie named Lou Brock who got a bad jump on the ball – maybe he was still thinking about the homer he hit in the top half of the first that sailed into the right field bleachers, 475 feet away – the only time it was ever done in the long history of the Polo Grounds if you don’t count Babe Ruth, who did it back when the bleachers were 20 feet closer. Ironically, Lou went on to become a Hall of Famer for his small ball skills, not his power, so you can tell in retrospect there must have been some weird warp in the time-space continuum on this particular day at Coogan’s Bluff. So anyway, there goes Lou running into the bullpen area as the pitchers scattered. This was an age when many ballparks had enormous center fields. So why not put the bullpens in the field of play? In Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, the Pirates would store the entire batting cage out in center field, which was in a different time zone than the rest of the park.

But I digress. Back to Marv who chugged around the bases – Marv’s caught stealing ratio was even worse than his fielding – and pulled into third standing up by the time Brock got the ball back in to the infield. And there Marv stood, panting heavily, bathed in applause as we all cheered the redemptive power of baseball – a goat one inning, a hero the next. In baseball, redemption and love was just a pitch away, a pitch away, a pitch away, with apologies to the Rolling Stones who on this date were practicing for their first gig in London.

And then the next batter, ex-Dodger Charlie Neal, stepped in to hit but the pitcher wheeled and fired to second base, whereupon the ump there pointed to Marv and then pointed to the bag, yanked his thumb skyward and shouted “You’re Out!” Apparently, Marv had failed to touch second on his sojourn around the base paths. Now Casey Stengel, the aging Mets manager, comes trotting out of the dugout, heading toward a confrontation with the ump. Stengel’s emergence was probably more the result of muscle memory than any firmly held belief in Marv’s base running talents; after all, Casey had managed the Marvelous One in the late 1950s when Throneberry was a Yankee sub. The umpire however, perhaps anxious that 71 year old Casey not exert himself too much, trotted forward with his hands in the air as if to say “Hold on Casey, wait until you hear me out” and they met by the pitcher’s mound. We watch the ump point toward first, and Casey trots over to speak to the first base coach and then disappears back into the dugout. Odd. The morning papers would report that Marv had also missed first base.

I have often wondered if Marv’s blast had been to dead center and rolled 500 feet to the stairway that led to the players’ dressing rooms would he have tried for an inside-the-park home run? No doubt: Marv would have missed third too. And if Lou Brock had gotten lost under the stairs, and Marv came in standing up, would he have missed stepping on home plate? The mind boggles.

Some accounts of this game claim that when Charlie Neal hit the next pitch for a home run, Stengel ran out of the dugout and pointed to each bag as Charlie circled them, showing Marv how it’s done. But I don’t recall seeing this since everyone in the 100 rows in front of us stood to cheer the homer and blocked our view. It really was a lousy ballpark.

The second memorable game occurred a year later, on June 23, 1963, against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Mets were already playing out the schedule and in a possible attempt to add some personality to the team after banishing Marvelous Marv to the minors a month before – from whence he never returned – the Mets got Jimmy Piersall from the Washington Senators. Jimmy, of course, was semi-famous for freaking out as a young player with the Boston Red Sox in 1952, which led in short order to a hospitalization, a comeback, some more whacky behavior, an autobiography and a 1957 movie, “Fear Strikes Out”, starring Anthony Perkins in a pre-“Psycho” warm-up.

Jimmy and Casey figured to make some zany music together. After all, back when Stengel managed the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1930’s and the ump refused to call a game because of darkness (in pre night-light times), Casey signaled from the mound to the bullpen for a new pitcher with a flashlight and promptly got booted. A recent memoir by former Times sportswriter Robert Lipsyte ( described Stengel as having no problem with segregated facilities for his ball players during Spring training in Florida, but was genuinely supportive of the handicapped. Apparently this support did not extend to bi-polar ballplayers such as Piersall.

Jimmy was a great outfielder – Ted Williams called him the best he ever played with – but Piersall’s mood swings got him ejected quite often. Perhaps the most famous pre-Mets moment came during a game against the Red Sox after Jimmy had been traded to the Cleveland Indians. Piersall was playing center field when his old pal Ted Williams came to bat. Piersall proceeded to sprint back and forth in the outfield, waving his arms like a windmill, trying to distract Williams, who stepped out of the box. The umps warned Piersall to stop running around but he refused and was given the heave-ho. Piersall felt this was unjust and had to be restrained from going after the umpires by his teammates.

Now Piersall was joining the worst team in major league history. In 1962 and 1963 the Mets lost a combined total of 230 games, setting individual and team records for futility which likely will never be equaled. Jimmy knew exactly what to do in this new environment: have some harmless fun. During an exhibition against the Yankees, the so-called “Mayor’s Trophy Game,” Piersall saw the fearsome Mickey Mantle striding to the plate and promptly retreated to the deepest part of the ballpark in dead center field where three concrete slabs, as tall as Jimmy, stood with bas-reliefs of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Miller Huggins. He was 450 feet from home plate. Piersall then crouched behind the monuments, peering out between Ruth and Gehrig to home plate, where Mantle, now seeing Piersall pounding his mitt behind the stones, began to laugh and stepped out of the batter’s box.

I sat in the upper deck, an entire section to myself, watching this episode and thinking: “Damn, the Yankees might have a lot of Hall of Famers but the Mets are a lot funnier.” As the game wore on and pitcher after pitcher was summoned from the Mets bullpen in the valley that separated the left field stands from the bleachers, Piersall would sit on the base of the monuments and gaze into the stands, seemingly as bored as the rest of us. As it turned out, this episode was just a warm-up…

Shortly thereafter my brothers and I went to see the Mets play the Phillies at the Polo Grounds and witnessed something that will likely never occur again. We were sitting in yet more lousy seats in the second deck grandstands behind third base. It was impossible to see where any ball hit in the air was going unless you took clues from the movement of fielders after the ball was put in play. So when Piersall hit a fly ball to left field we watched the outfielder for the Phillies move back toward the wall only 280 feet away. Then we saw him stop and look up. At the same time we noticed the third base umpire running down the line waving his right arm in a circle above his head, the universal baseball sign of a home run. We then turned our attention to Piersall, who was about to commemorate this homer, the 100th of his career, in a special way.

Jimmy had just finished rounding first base but now he momentarily paused and turned his back to second base whereupon he proceeded to trot backward toward second. Unlike Marvelous Marv, Piersall managed to step on second and as he rounded third facing backward, he reached out to shake the hand of the stunned third base coach who was barely able to grab it. Finally, peering over his shoulder, Jimmy spied home and stepped on it, whereupon he resumed a forward-looking orientation and trotted back to the Mets dugout.
There were about 20,000 of us in attendance that day and we were all laughing. But Piersall was gone in a week, traded to the Los Angeles Angels, where he went on to enjoy five productive years before retiring. Apparently Stengel felt there was room for only one clown on the team.

Piersall said he got the idea for his stunt after watching the ho-hum reaction of fans in Cincinnati when Duke Snider, acquired by the Mets from the Los Angeles Dodgers at the start of the 1963 season, hit his 400th career home run at Crosley Field a week earlier.

Duke Snider was my Willie Mays. I grew up idolizing the Duke, as did my brothers so we went to a lot more Mets games in 1963. I saw my first ball game in Ebbets Field with my little league team when I was 8 years old and then my older sister, Julie, would take me. [Back then, females were admitted for half price on Saturday, which was called “Ladies’ Day”.] The Brooklyn Dodgers had the whitest home uniforms of any team in baseball. Blindingly white. And they looked spectacular against the backdrop of the biggest, smoothest greenest swath of grass I ever saw.

The Dodgers’ first World Series victory in 1955, over the hated Yankees, after four unsuccessful attempts in the prior 7 years, seemed to have liberated the team. In 1956 they went down to the wire and for the first time won a close pennant race. Another great subway Series ensued which included Don Larsen’s perfect game and Jackie Robinson’s walk-off hit in the 10th inning of a scoreless 6th game. Snider, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella and Robinson all homered during that Series…but alas and alack, the Yankees won the 7th game handily.

And then a few days later, the Dodgers tried to trade Jackie to the Giants. He retired rather than join the hated rivals. And in 1957 the Dodgers announced they would leave with the Giants for California. After the season ended with a 3rd place finish, Campanella suffered a crippling auto accident that ended his career and one by one the rest of the great players of my youth left the stage. The Mets brought back Hodges in 1962 and added Charlie Neal, Roger Craig and Don Zimmer as well. But they were all just taking curtain calls at the end of their careers.

However, there was only – and ever will be – one Duke of Flatbush. And if you lived as we did, right off the corner of Flatbush Avenue, how could we have any other hero? He was so graceful and regal in his premature gray hair, batting lefty and hitting over 40 homers for five years in a row in an age before steroids when ball players had to work other jobs in the off-season to make ends meet.

The night my father died, I had a dream about the Duke. It was a cold, drizzly late afternoon at the end of the season and Duke was playing center field at Ebbets Field again. The game was meaningless because the Dodgers had been eliminated long ago and there were very few people in the stands. But the Dodgers were winning this final game, against the Phillies, by a run. The scoreboard had posted two outs in the 9th inning and the Phillies had the bases loaded. I hated the Phillies. Some things never change.

In my dream, Duke crouches in center, waiting for the pitch. It’s raining harder, the field is starting to look muddy. The Dodgers are leaving Brooklyn after this game I hear somebody say. The batter swings and all the runners take off. The ball is hit high and far, way over Duke’s head, but he gets a great jump. Running full tilt, even as he sloshes through the warning track, the Duke leaps, his body fully extended and erect, his immaculate white uniform framed against the drab black wall. He makes the catch but as he does, his body takes the full impact of that hard, unyielding wall and he slumps to the ground, lifeless, but still clutching the ball.

My father and I didn’t have much of a relationship until his last years when we welcomed each other’s company and talked for hours at a time. In his last months, I visited him in a nursing home off Francis Lewis Boulevard, not too far from Shea Stadium. And we would always talk about baseball – the only topic we never fought about. Despite our different styles and temperaments, we shared a love for the sport that would bail us out of any approaching acrimony.

I woke up crying from my dream about Duke Snider. Of course, I realized I was crying for my father. No matter how distant a father and son might become, there is always that early bond that can never be sundered. My father was my hero. He taught me how to catch and took me for long walks on Sundays after church to watch fast pitch softball games at what we called “The 40th Street Park”. Now he was gone. The season was over, the house where we all grew up was gone, like Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds. And the Duke was dead.

My father, like the Duke, had his moments of grace that I never forgot. Like the time he took us for ice cream – me and my twin sister and Bobby, a six year old who spent weekends and summers with us, temporarily rescued from an orphanage while my parents tried to figure out how to adopt him. As if they didn’t already have enough mouths to feed on a single civil service salary. As we crossed Flatbush Avenue, my father took Bobby’s hand and told him not to let go. “Yes, Daddy,” Bobby said. This affectionate tableau was not lost on a big brute of a man, crossing in the other direction, who glared at Bobby, a dark-skinned Hispanic kid holding my father’s hand, and then growled at my father “Nigger lover!” My father ignored the brute and shouted in a loud voice, “Look, Bobby, the ice cream store’s open! Let’s all get some!” And the four of us were soon a-swim in cones.

I can’t help but wonder when I’ve played my last game, will my son remember any moments of grace I might have summoned in his presence? Will he dream of Jose Reyes and David Wright? Will he remember our encounter with Mr. Met or how he out-pitched me at the radar gun between innings of a Brooklyn Cyclones game? And I mean it wasn’t even close.

Play ball!

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