I saw my first Dodger World Series game in 1920, 7 years before I was born. The viewing instrument was my father, who relished baseball and had so vivid and detailed a memory that friends called him, somewhat laboriously, the walking encyclopedia.
We were indeed walking on a quiet Brooklyn street and he began to recall a game, Oct. 10, 1920, when the Dodgers fell behind the Cleveland Indians. That World Series was tied, 2 games apiece, but the Indians moved ahead, knocking out a glowering spitballer with the manor house name of Burleigh Grimes. Clarence Mitchell, another spitballer, relieved and in the fifth inning two Dodger batters reached base.
Mitchell hit a line drive up the middle. The Cleveland second baseman, Bill Wambsganss, was shading that way. Wambsganss caught the liner, stepped on second base and retired a baserunner, Pete Kilduff. Then he ran toward first and tagged out the second runner, a catcher named Otto Miller.
“And that,” my father said, “was the only unassisted triple play in World Series history. But here’s the kicker. Next time Mitchell came to bat, he grounded into a double play. Two at-bats. Five outs. Hard to do.”
For anyone with a reasonable sense of history, the World Series is a continuous event. Each builds from ones that went before, so that Clarence Mitchell, who died in 1963 and Orel Hershiser, born in 1958, stand in the same picture, perhaps giving one another batting tips.
Walter O’Malley knew that history. “The Dodgers,” he said once, over a Lucullan lunch at Perino’s, “are the only team to win the World Series on both coasts.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “The Athletics won in Philadelphia and in Oakland.”
O’Malley gave me a fierce look. “Damn, you’re right. But I’m the only owner who has won on both coasts. You mustn’t take me all that seriously.”
Past 70, O’Malley was feeling merry. He had exacted a promise that I would pick up the tab. He reminded me from time to time that he had known me first at Froebel Academy, a sedate private school in Brooklyn, which he had served as a trustee. In all that reach of years, he pointed out, I had never bought him a meal.
He was right. He was worth a hundred million dollars and he was right. “What’s worked for you out here?” I asked. “How in the world do you draw 3 million people?”
“It’s a good operation,” he said. “I notice that when the president of the Dodgers comes to work at 9 a.m. the rest of the staff tends to do the same.” He paused to chew. O’Malley could think and chew simultaneously. “It’s a nice ballpark,” he said. “And the restrooms are clean.”
“Walter,” I said, “nobody goes to a ballpark for clean restrooms.”
“No,” he said, “but a dirty can sure as hell will keep ‘em away.”
We proceeded to raspberries and cream. I grabbed the check. Walter never looked happier.
“Here’s something for you,” he said. “All those years in Brooklyn, we wanted a big Jewish star. How that would have helped our attendance. But we couldn’t find one. I come out here and everything works so well that I could fill the ballpark with nine Chinamen. And what do I get? Sandy Koufax.”
There has been precious little mellowing in Brooklyn. Few people past the age of 50 really forgive the Dodgers for moving West and hyperbole being what it is, some assert, “The borough of Brooklyn was ruined when the Dodgers left.”
That confuses baseball with urban renewal. I can sometimes terminate the nonsense by saying: “Right. The Yankees stayed in their stadium and look what that has done for the South Bronx.” And sometimes not. Rooting is a passion, resistant to argument.
Now a young clique swells the anti-Dodger crowd. They are furious at the Dodgers for defeating the Mets in the league championship playoff. All summer long these people heard that the Mets were the best team in baseball.
Reality takes time to to settle in. The Dodgers wore down the Mets. They were better managed, more competitive, gutsier. Dwight Gooden still has not won a postseason game. Keith Hernandez choked on a bunt. But most New York journalists who picked the Mets are having a hard time with such considerations. One actually wrote the other day that the Dodgers have only two good ballplayers, Hershiser and Kirk Gibson. (He then picked Oakland to win the World Series in 4 games.)
I have dwelled in such emotional territory before. From 1947 through 1953, the Dodgers lost the World Series to the Yankees four times. There were decades to wonder why. It startled me last year when Carl Erskine said he had finally thought it through. “The Yankees were a better team.”
Obviously. But like the tungsten filament in the light bulb, the answer was obvious only after someone else had figured it out. The Dodgers beat the Mets because they are a better team.
Hot passion and lukewarm beer ran through the streets of Brooklyn on Oct. 4, 1955, when the Dodgers finally won a Series from the Yankees. Then, 2 years later, mixing reluctance and arrogance, O’Malley moved West. He said, and he believed, that the incompetence of New York City government forced his hand.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, disoriented, finished seventh in 1958. The 1959 Dodgers won the World Series. It took longer than half a century for Brooklyn to win. Now Los Angeles won in its second year. I had a little trouble with that myself.
O’Malley himself felt transient in L.A. His first ballpark, the Coliseum, was the wrong shape and size for baseball. You might as well play tennis on a golf course. It was some time before O’Malley bought a house. For more than a year his primary residence was a hotel suite.
With success, Dodger Stadium and more World Series victories, the buccaneer in O’Malley subsided somewhat. But he never lost his love of needling. If he disliked one of my books, he took to saying, “I’m surprised a Froebel boy would write something like that.”
“Ah, now you’re a critic.”
“I say, don’t take me that seriously. Only half the lies the Irish tell are true.”
Then he would mention that our families went back together for 5 decades. He was gone, as my father was gone when someone asked me to pick up the Dodgers for a story in 1985. I brought along one of my children, Roger Laurence Kahn, an honor student who had been an outstanding scholastic hockey player.
Fred Claire was kind enough to give Roger a spurious press credential and we walked into the office of Thomas Charles Lasorda. Tom Lasorda, famous manager, wasn’t famous when we met in 1952. He was funny, intense and renowned in Vero Beach mostly as a dropper of water bombs from the second floor of the old Navy barracks that housed the team.
“This your boy?” Lasorda said.
I made introductions.
“Your father is a great man,” Lasorda said. Roger was speechless. “If you don’t believe he’s a great man,” Lasorda said, on cue, “just ask him and he’ll tell you so himself.” Then we settled into baseball talk.
Orel Hershiser subdued the Giants and when I touched base with him afterward, Orel and Roger fell into conversation about hockey, two gifted young men who knew all about the blue line.
A reporter appeared. “Orel, could you give me the sequence when you got Brenly to hit into that double play?”
Hershiser said to Roger, “Excuse me. I’ve got to go to work.” Then they picked up hockey again.
Just a night at the ballpark, but wonderful to be there with my son amid the company of Lasorda and Hershiser.
I was mentioning reality. Roger liked risks--that made him a brave hockey player--and some time after our night at Dodger Stadium he began taking chances with heroin. He despised needles, but someone showed him how to crush heroin crystals and sniff the stuff. I would say there is not a whole hell of a lot of difference between heroin and shrapnel.
Roger Laurence Kahn died in Thousand Oaks on July 7, 1987, one week after his 23rd birthday, a radiant promise unfulfilled.
That may be why this World Series feels like a family reunion. Watching Hershiser and Lasorda, I sense my late father and my late son both with me. (And Walter O’Malley too, blowing storm clouds of cigar smoke from a captain’s chair.)
Roger is looking at the pitching. He hit .420 in high school. Walter is counting the house. My father out of his own past is saying, “The Dodgers look pretty good so far. I think they’ll be all right. Just so long as they remember to pinch-hit for Clarence Mitchell.”