Fiction from Issue 43 (2015)
The Worst Summer Night
by William Harry Harding
August 15, a Wednesday, 1956, My team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, is playing a night game in Jersey City at Roosevelt Stadium, a Depression era ballpark built with WPA funds, and much closer than Ebbets Field, a tunnel and a bridge away in Flatbush. This is one of 15 games to be played here in the '56 and '57 seasons, a ploy ‒ a threat ‒ by Dodger owner Walter O'Malley to get New York City to build him a new stadium.
The New York Giants and Willie Mays will face hard-throwing Don Newcombe, in the middle of his Cy Young and Most Valuable Player season ‒ back when they gave out only one MVP for all of baseball, and the first year the Cy Young would ever be awarded (to only one pitcher for both the National and American League).
The stadium seats 24,000 ‒ a little more than half what Ebbets Field could handle. It sits on Droyer's Point, the left field fence backed by the place Newark Bay starts, where the Passaic and Hackensack rivers come together. From near the roof along the left field line, where we find our seats, I can see across the Turnpike all the way to the Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island, long closed and no longer lit, is out there somewhere in the dark Hudson. Minor League and Negro League teams have called this place home since it opened. Newk, a local product from Madison, NJ, had played here a decade ago with the Newark Eagles.
Unlike Ebbets Field, this stadium has parking for 10,000 cars. Our 1950 maroon Mercury is among the oldest in the lot. Both my mother and father have good jobs now, so in two months, a new blue and white Oldsmobile '88 will be in our driveway.
The Giants start their ace, left-hander Johnny Antonelli, a hero to many in my old neighborhood in the Italian section of Paterson. He will strike out 11, give up only two hits, toss a shutout. Newk is just as good, throwing a three-hitter, but he makes one mistake. In the fourth inning, he challenges Mays with an inside fastball. Say Hey turns on it, lofts what looks like a soft fly to left. Soft because it has so much backspin. Hit so hard, it keeps climbing, over the glare of the lights, over the stare of Jackie Robinson, playing left field these days, no longer able to handle second base, which this night belongs to Charlie Neal, a young athlete who owes his Major League career to his own talent and to the pioneers who broke the color barrier when he was still in high school, including the big man on the mound, the stocky man behind the plate (Roy Campanella), Paterson's own Larry Doby and that old man in left.
I can see Jackie's eyes as he feels for the wall with fluttering fingers of his bare hand. Those eyes go dead on the ball. His head sinks to his chest. Mays trots the bases. The rest of the game is a formality ‒ Campy started a rally, but it fizzled ‒ and my team, my father's team, the team that had finally won its first World Series just last October, would lose 1-0. The greatest all-around player in the history of the game had homered off one of the best pitchers of his time, launched over the head of a living legend, and all I remember are those dead eyes, that sinking head, that ball disappearing into the blackness of the poisoned water. It still hurts.
Within months, O'Malley would trade Jackie to the Giants. Robinson would retire rather than wear the orange and black of the Dodgers' arch rivals. Within a year, the Dodgers would leave Brooklyn forever. Ebbets Field, secretly sold ‒ maybe even by the time we had found our seats that night ‒ would go empty and within three years get torn down, leaving me to root for ghosts. That still hurts, too.
Jackie Robinson Apartments stand at 55 Sullivan Place in Brooklyn today. Roosevelt Stadium, named after FDR, came down in 1985, after having been shuttered for a quarter of a century. It's an upscale gated community now.
Willie Howard Mays and Jack Roosevelt Robinson ‒ each named after Presidents (Taft, Teddy R.) ‒ are both in the Hall of Fame, stalwarts of an era they helped usher in, a time that changed the game and our country. They wore each other's number, but backwards ‒ Say Hey 24, Jackie 42. The two most exciting players baseball has ever known, locked for me in one awful moment of the sweltering North Jersey dark, when a big chunk of hope flew out of my life as silently as that home run.
Less than two months later, Don Larsen would pitch a perfect game for the Yankees against my Dodgers in the World Series. Back then, they played those games during the day and it was a school day ‒ a Monday ‒ so I missed it on TV. Only now, so many games and seasons later, am I grateful for that ‒ an act of divine kindness, sparing me one more wound.
"It's just one game," my father said to reassure me on our short drive home. "We'll still win the pennant." He was right on both counts, but didn't help. About a year later, when the news out of Flatbush became official ‒ the Dodgers were moving to L.A. ‒ when it finally sank in and there was nothing any of us could do about it, I saw tears in my father's eyes. That helped.
It still does.
The Passaic and the Hackensack are cleaner today. So is Newark Bay. The ball Willie Mays hit might be anywhere, flushed into the Atlantic and carried north by the Gulf Stream to Nova Scotia, even Scotland, or maybe swept south by storms to some Caribbean island, bobbing among tiny plastic cocktail umbrellas long ago discarded by tourists.
I never actually saw that ball come down. No one did. I like to think it's still up there, still headed toward Jackie at the wall, still catchable, still rising through dreams on a cruel summer night that, for me, has not yet ended.
William Harry Harding has written three novels – Rainbow, Young Hart, Mill Song – and a children’s book – Alvin’s Famous No-Horse – all from Henry Holt. He is the founder of Garden Oak Press. He publishes the San Diego Poetry Annual.