When I was a boy growing up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, there were lots of things to keep us occupied, especially in summer. There was stoopball, triangle ball, handball, stickball and all sorts of other games for the street. We did not need a whole lot of services from adults to have a good time.
The era of the soccer mom had not yet arrived. Very few people in my circle had a family car anyway. My father only bought a car when my mother got sick, to bring her to the doctor or the hospital. This had a good side effect: The streets had very few cars. Men went to work when work was to be had. Mothers, for the most part, kept house and kids were left to their own devices most of the time. I think that we were better off then than now. Today's kids are too structured and have far too much to do. The parents are too involved and never leave the children alone, ever. There is, I'm sure, a balance that would be best, but is as yet not achieved.
I loved to go to Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers since 1913. The Dodgers were a team of great, lovable players. I would go when I could scrape the money together. It was a simple ballpark -- some would call it a bandbox -- but what great things happened there.
I remember once being with my father at a game, and the opponent was the Cincinnati Reds. A man sitting in front of us said he was a Reds fan. With disbelief at such a statement, I remember saying something to the effect that it was terrible that you rooted for a team that was named after Communists.
The Dodgers used to sponsor a pregame show called "Happy Felton's Knothole Gang." It was held in a remote corner of right field. The boys chosen for it were picked out of the crowd, usually from the grandstand. I never sat in the grandstand because it was too much money for the ticket. I sat in the upper deck. There was a nice usher from my neighborhood who sometimes would let me sneak in under the turnstile for nothing.
On one occasion, I managed to get into the grandstand. I think it was on a day when the other team was the Reds, Cubs or Pirates. Not too many people went to see them because they took turns in last place each year, so the coast was clear for sneaky little kids like me. On that occasion, I made it to nirvana: the Knothole Gang. Usually, a player from the Dodgers would appear to give the wide-eyed kids tips on catching grounders, or hitting, or bunting. This was televised.
The day I was there, that player was my idol, Gil Hodges. He was a big man with hands on him that looked like they could crush your head as if it were a melon and arms like those of a blacksmith. Gil had a reputation for not saying much, never arguing with umpires and being an all-around gentleman. His reputation for integrity was so high that the one time he argued a call with an umpire, the call was reversed. I have never seen that before or since. The man was class all the way.
Once, when he went into a hitting slump, there were prayers solicited for him in most pulpits in Brooklyn. I'm not making this up. I don't remember if this call for divine intervention had any effect on his hitting, though.
At the conclusion of the Knothole Gang show, Gil signed some autographs as the players usually did. For some reason, he actually spoke to me. I have always thought that it was because of me being set apart due to my speech defect. I was awestruck. I can picture me looking at him with my mouth open and nothing coming out. Then, he put that big right hand on my shoulder and gave me a ball, I think. To top off this perfect day, another player trotted up, and said "Hi" to the kids. It was Jackie Robinson. Jackie was a fullback when he played college football, so he was built like a football player. Not as big as Gil, but big enough.
Funny, but I remember so many details of these men and how they played from days gone by.
Roger Kahn wrote a book called "The Boys of Summer" about Robinson, Hodges and other Dodgers team members who won the 1955 World Series. I will never forget them.
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