RICHMAN: Old men, young dreams

Columnist Marty Richman

Americans have always idolized their sports heroes and still do;
their deeds are easy to understand even for an eight-year-old. When
I was a kid, I idolized Duke Snider, who died Feb. 27, 2011, at age
84. The Duke was an outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers for as long
as I can remember until there were no Brooklyn Dodgers anymore. The
Dodgers played at Ebbets Field, less than 2.5 miles from our
walk-up tenement apartment.
Americans have always idolized their sports heroes and still do; their deeds are easy to understand even for an eight-year-old. When I was a kid, I idolized Duke Snider, who died Feb. 27, 2011, at age 84. The Duke was an outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers for as long as I can remember until there were no Brooklyn Dodgers anymore. The Dodgers played at Ebbets Field, less than 2.5 miles from our walk-up tenement apartment.

The stories about tiny and decrepit Ebbets Field were famous even then, but the team’s fans loved it as you love an old car. It may have been junk, but it was your junk, and besides, it was the home of the Dodgers. If you lived in Brooklyn you were either a Dodger fan or you moved out. We moved for other reasons when I was 11 or 12; it made no difference, you could take the kid out of Brooklyn, but you couldn’t take Brooklyn out of the kid. I left in ’54, the Dodgers left after the ’57 season. I wanted to believe they couldn’t bear to play there without me.

The Brooklyn Dodgers won their first and only World Series in 1955, after having lost in their previous seven appearances. If you go back to the Brooklyn Robins, 1914 to 1931, you can add two more series losses, making them 1 for 10. They say that to love is to suffer – if you loved the Dodgers, you suffered plenty.

The Duke played for the imitation Dodgers in L.A. from ’58 to ’62 and then did a year with Mets. He did his final season in ’64 with the San Francisco Giants. In a way, he made the move that Jackie Robinson had refused following the ’56 season, but at least the Giants were not in New York anymore, so it was different. Robinson had chosen to retire at age 37 rather than go to the hated Giants. Now, that’s a rivalry.

It was a little later in life that I came to realize that almost everyone has feet of clay; once you comprehend that, you can consider yourself grown up. Duke’s came to light in 1995 when he pled guilty to federal tax charges for failing to declare almost $100,000 in income from autograph signings, card shows and memorabilia sales.

How good was Duke Snider? I don’t know and I don’t care. There is no way to compare baseball players across eras. How do you factor in artificial turf, domed stadiums, high-altitude parks or retractable roofs? He was good enough that I wanted to be Duke Snider. We’ve already seen what happens when they wind the baseballs or the baseball players a little too tight. There wasn’t much steroid use in the 50s, but amphetamines were around.

The Brooklyn Dodgers had some unique relationships connecting baseball and television. Wikipedia says that in 1951, WCBS-TV in New York City televised the first baseball game between the Boston Braves and the Dodgers in color. Later that year NBC aired the first coast-to-coast baseball telecast of the Dodgers and New York Giants in the final game of a playoff series. Naturally, the Dodgers lost both games, 8-1 to the Braves and 3-1 to the Giants, thanks to an epic collapse and Bobby Thomson’s famous home run. Everyone knows the Giants cheated — well, everyone from Brooklyn anyway.

One cannot mention the Brooklyn Dodgers without reference to Roger Kahn’s great book, “The Boys of Summer.” It’s a book that justifies the invention of the written word for all time. If you have not read it, you’ll never understand baseball, life or old men with young dreams.

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