2008-09-05 / Editorial/Opinion

From the Editor's Desk

A Birthday Party For The Ages
Commentary By Howard Schwach

The date was May 12, 1956.

I was sixteen years old, a few months short of 17. It was my cousin Alan's tenth birthday and his mother was taking us all to Ebbets Field to see the Brooklyn Dodgers play the New York Giants to celebrate his big day.

I was even then a Yankee fan, but Alan was a big Giant rooter, as was our grandfather, Abraham Cahn, the patriarch of the clan at the time.

Any time his beloved Giants lost a game, you'd better stay out of his way. Especially when the loss was to the hated Dodgers. We didn't know it when we left for the game, but it was going to be a birthday party for the ages.

You have to understand something about Ebbets Field and the rivalry between the Giants and the Dodgers to understand the import of the day.

The field defined the word "bandbox." It was so small that, if you were sitting in the left field bleachers, you felt like you were right behind the shortstop. It was a friendly place to watch a game. I remember one game, earlier in my life, when I was sitting in the left field grandstand, rooting for the Giants. The grandstand was separated from the bleachers by a high iron fence, topped with ornamental metal spikes. I was getting it pretty good from the Dodger fans around me, when a giant of a man who had been sitting in the bleachers climbed over the fence and sat down next to me, challenging any Dodger fans in the area to pick on me with him around.

I remember going to a game in 1956 or 1957, along with a huge mob from Far Rockaway High School to watch Stevie Berman, our star athlete, pitch on the "Knothole Gang" television show that was on prior to each Dodger game.

Happy Felton, the man who ran the program, would bring on three high school stars, in this case, pitchers, who would work out with a Dodger star and then be rated by that star.

If I remember correctly (this is fifty years ago, remember), the three threw that day to Dodger catcher Roy Campenella. We all sat in the lower right field grandstand and cheered Berman on. I don't remember whether or not he won that day, but Berman was our star quarterback as well as our star pitcher until he broke his wrist in a football game that ended his sports career.

I have a lot of memories from Ebbets Field that I hope will carry into the new Citifield the Mets will play in next year. I want to take my grandchildren to the stadium, which is based on Ebbets Field, and tell them about my days in Brooklyn.

In any case, about five of us went to Ebbets Field on May 12, 1956, for Alan's birthday.

The Dodgers had won their first World Series the season prior to 1956, beating the hated Yankees to do it. Records show (the Internet is wonderful) that there were 24,588 fans at the field that day, just about the capacity.

Remember, I said it was a bandbox.

We sat along the first base line in box seats. I guess they must have gone for six or seven bucks a seat in those days, and that was a lot of money for the time, especially for my aunt, who worked as a bookkeeper for a paint supply firm.

Both teams were replete with stars.

The Giants had Whitey Lockman in left field, Al Dark at shortstop, Willie Mays in center, Thompson in right and Al Worthington pitching. The Dodgers, although aging, were powerful still.

Pee Wee Reese was at short, Duke Snider in center, Roy Campanella behind the plate, Gil Hodges at first, Jackie Robinson at third, Carl Furillo in right and Carl Erskine pitching.

Erskine was at his best that day.

The 29-year-old right-hander gave up just two walks and no hits. He did not allow a runner to get past second base. His no-hitter was kept alive by fantastic fielding plays by Robinson and Furillo. I remember the Robinson play. The ball was hit into the hole to his left. He dove for the ball, came up to his knees, and threw the runner out at first with a good assist from Hodges (think Marine Parkway Bridge).

On the other side, Willie Mays threw out two Dodgers at home to keep the score close. The game, if I remember correctly, went through the first six innings as a scoreless tie.

Erskine, who had arm problems that season, kept the Giants guessing.

The Dodgers scratched out three runs in the seventh on singles and a double by Hodges. Each team traded goose eggs in the eighth. In the top of the ninth, Erskine got two quick outs.

Then, Al Dark hit a one-hopper back to Erskine, who tossed it to first for the final out. Erskine had his second nohitter, and I was there to witness it.

Even a Yankee fan had to be impressed.

What brings this up now is that I was on a baseball field with Carl Erskine a few weeks ago. It wasn't Ebbets Field, but it was in Brooklyn. The Cyclones honored him prior to a game and he spoke to the crowd about how great it was to be back in Brooklyn.

I was on the field, taking photos of the little league kids from Rockaway who were to take the field during the National Anthem. I went up to Erskine and told him that I had witnessed his no-hitter against the Giants. His response: "You don't look that old."

At his ceremony, he said, "To be back on the field with fans in Brooklyn is a tremendous thrill. There are other guys in the organization who would love to come back and do what I did tonight." Erskine wowed the Brooklyn fans one last time. Just like he wowed a teenager in 1956 when he threw the only no-hitter that the teen ever personally witnessed in his long career of attending baseball games.

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