A friend is taking me to a Red Sox Game at Fenway Park today. It’s the middle of April but the weather still has a Norman Bates quality. So, I’ll layer up, topped off with my retro Brooklyn Dodgers tee-shirt and hope for the best. It’s Jackie Robinson day in the Major leagues and everyone is wearing the fabled #42.
April 15, 2016 – Fenway Park
April marks the beginning of the new baseball season where hope springs eternal for all teams. The haves and have-nots. It’s also the time we open the cookie jar of old memories, mentally racing around the bases to those days when we listened to our boys of summer on the radio.
Vin Scully was a 20 something rookie broadcaster, calling his first season of Brooklyn Dodgers games.
The Korean “conflict” dominated the radio news which preceded the important stuff, BASEBALL. The Brooklyn Dodgers were “America’s Team” in 1950. Vin Scully was a new breed of sports broadcaster. He mixed in stories about President Truman’s desegregation of our Armed Forces and “discontent” about the integrated Dodgers’ team.
Scully used phrases like “Goodnight, sweet Prince”, after Jackie Robinson turned in another memorable game amid jeers from rabble-rousers. It was curious to this young fan who dreamed of becoming a team-mate of Jackie Robinson, Peewee Reese and Duke Snider. I’d wear Dodger Blue with pride, I promised myself.
Vin Scully’s word portraits of the 1950 Brooklyn Dodgers often seemed at odds with the tabloid accounts of the New York Daily News and Daily Mirror. Their sports sections only talked about the games, the heroes and the goats. I only glanced at the front pages, boring stuff about politics and social upheaval.
I thought it would be wonderful if they played baseball all year round and the stories would always be about the Bums and those dreaded New York Yankees. Heck, it would be terrific to listen to Vin Scully and not those other people talking about grown up stuff. Scully even mentioned things we were studying in school and made them sound exciting. I’ll never forget his referring to April as “the cruelest month”. I’d steal that line a zillion times.
Years later, opportunity opened the door to several meetings with Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and other fabled Boys of Summer. Campy was always friendly and outgoing, eager to share stories with a newbie reporter. He would say, “Life is good, young fella..you gotta appreciate it”. Jackie Robinson would often glare at Campy as he wove the stories of good times with the Dodgers. Sometimes, he would interrupt Campanella with a sharp, “Enough, Roy. Enough of that fiction.”
Robinson would turn to me, his eyes blazing and seemingly angry. “Life isn’t a ball game, young man,” he once said. Then, he gently patted me on the shoulder, noting that I was a good conversationalist and listener. It was a bit confusing. It happened that way several times.
People like Campy, Peewee Reese and even a reluctant Duke Snider would share that Jackie Robinson was a very complicated man on a mission.
This week, PBS is running Ken Burns’ two part portrait of Jackie Robinson. It goes beyond myth and legend to examine Robinson, the man. The man from Cairo, Georgia was so much more than the athlete who broke baseball’s racial barrier. The inner turmoil, anger, frustration and multiple health issues took Robinson from us way too early at age 53.
This week, Vin Scully is also being honored as he begins his 67th and final year as the voice of the Dodgers. Scully, at 88 and counting, still sounds like that young story-teller I listened to in 1950.
1950. So long ago. A time of innocence for many young boys like me.