One of dad's passions that he passed on to me was the appreciation of baseball. That's why I used to joke that 1955 had to be his favorite year because, I was born in May and his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers won their only world championship, (in Brooklyn), in October. Of course we all know that I went on to make my dad proud with my complete and utter...total wonderfulness. But the Dodgers disappointed dad so badly after the 1957 season, that he turned his back on them...and all of baseball too. Because that was when the Dodger franchise moved to Los Angeles.
In the ten year period before their move out west, many Dodger players lived year round in Brooklyn and became an integral part of the community. They were so loved that 50+ years later, schools, streets, highways, and bridges bear the names of; Carl Erskine, Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson etc. Plus, the player's colorful nicknames like; Harold "Pee Wee" Reese, Roy "Campy" Campanella, Carl "Skoonj" Furillo and Edwin "Duke" Snider, made their fans feel personally connected...like friends.
While baseball died for dad when his "boys of summer" left town, my uncle Al took a completely different approach. My Uncle Al Green, (my father's, mother's, sister's husband) lived in Brooklyn and together with my Aunt Ann, owned a candy store in Harlem. They were close to 60 and looking for something new to do before retirement. So when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, Al their quintessential fan, moved with them.
Uncle Al was a hyper, gregarious and friendly man. He was quick with a joke or a wisecrack and everyone loved him. So it was apropos that in L.A., he got a job in a traveling carnival as a product spieler. He mostly sold home remedies, knives or other kitchen slice-n-dice gadgets. His outfit worked all over California in the winter and did a summer circuit that started in Nevada, crossed into Arizona, went as far east as Nebraska, continued to the pacific northwest and back down to Southern California.
Once every few years, he and Aunt Ann would work a partial summer. They would leave the carnival in Omaha and head east, to visit New York. My strongest memory of him was when I was eight in 1963.
Part of my Uncle Al's uniqueness was that he was a carrot top. So a lot of people called him Red. Even when he wasn't making people laugh, he stood out in crowds because of his bright hair.
My folks made him out to be a legend but because he and Aunt Ann never had children, he couldn't relate to kids. So I'm sure he was a funny guy but I guess his humor was too adult for my sister and I. Still he was generous and had a tradition of bringing old-time silver dollars from Las Vegas, (he called them cowboy money), and gave us a few each trip.
My fondest memory of Uncle Al happened on June 14, 1963. Grandma Bessie, my sister and I, piled in his car with Aunt Ann for a barnstorming excursion that crisscrossed Brooklyn. We visited Uncle Al's old friends, family and neighbors. It seemed everywhere we went, everybody got excited and said, "Redgreen was is here!" While everyone else laughed at his jokes, my sister and I thought it was hilarious that because of his hair and last name, that he was called Redgreen...as if it was one word.
We stopped at an Esso station on Bedford Avenue off Empire Boulevard. A grisly old man with an eye-patch and cane hobbled out of the office. He greeted Uncle Al with a hearty handshake before turning around and yelling into the garage, "Redgreen is here!"
The two-old timers gabbed about the old days and pointed up the street as they recalled their great memories of the Dodger's home ballpark, Ebbets Field.EBBETS FIELD WAS THE DODGERS' HOME FROM 1913 UNTIL 1957. LOCATED IN FLATBUSH AT 55 SULLIVAN PLACE, IT WAS WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE OF SEVERAL OTHER LANDMARKS; THE BOTANICAL GARDENS, PROSPECT PARK, THE MAIN BRANCH OF THE BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY, THE BROOKLYN MUSEUM AND GRAND ARMY PLAZA.
On a couple of occasions, Uncle Al's eye-patch buddy stopped passersby and introduced my uncle as Redgreen, the second greatest Brooklyn Dodger fan (to him). During their reminiscence both men dwelt on their favorite player Duke Snider. Suddenly, Uncle Al brought me into the conversation. It was one of the few times he directly interacted with me. Uncle Al told me that Snider was now playing with the Mets. I was dismissed from the conversation when I said, "I never heard of Snider and what is a Met?"
The New York Mets were an expansion team born the year before. That first season, the 1962 Mets established high-water marks for losing and were dubbed the worst team in baseball history, (49 years later, no other team has been able to match their incredible 120-loss level of futility).
The '62 Mets were built on shaky ground because the ownership wanted to make an immediate profit. They targeted the legions of fans who stopped following the game after the Dodgers left. To spike interest in the new team, their two-prong marketing strategy started with bringing in high-profile faces like manager Casey Stengel. Secondly, the signed many ex-Brooklyn Dodger players. Their idea failed because Stengel was a sarcastic, 70-year old fossil on the verge of senility who earned his winning reputation leading perennial Yankee powerhouses. And the former Dodgers they signed were merely marginal players or stars at the end of their careers. The result was the Mets became a goof. Lovable losers if you liked them or the laughing stock of baseball if you didn't.
CASEY "THE OLD PERFESSOR" STENGEL (1890-1975). HE WAS 72 AND LOOKED 100 DURING THE METS FIRST SEASON. HE LOOKED AND ACTED A LOT WORSE IN 1965 WHEN HE FINALLY RETIRED. DURING HIS TENURE, HE BECAME THE DARLING OF THE PRESS CORPS BY COMBINING HIS CAUSTIC WIT WHILE BASTARDIZING ENGLISH WITH WHAT WAS CALLED, "STENGELESE." MY FAVORITE OF THOSE COMMENTS WAS, "CAN'T NOBODY HERE PLAY THIS GAME?"
Mets management did not learn from their mistake. The next year, more has-beens were brought in. The most notable was Uncle Al's favorite player Duke Snider, to play center field.
HALL-OF-FAMERS DUKE SNIDER, (left) MICKEY MANTLE (center) AND WILLIE MAYS (right) ALL WERE IN THE PRIME OF THEIR CAREER DURING THE BROOKLYN DODGERS HEYDAY. AND LIKE POLITICS OR RELIGION, NO BARBER SHOP ARGUMENT EVER SETTLED WHO WAS THE BEST CENTER FIELDER.
CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW TO HEAR AND SEE THE "TALKIN' BASEBALL," VIDEO BY TERRY CASHMAN, (1981). IT PAID HOMAGE TO BASEBALL'S GOLDEN AGE AND FEATURED THE MEMORABLE CHORUS OF, "WILLIE, MICKEY AND THE DUKE," WHICH ALSO SERVED AS AN ALTERNATE TITLE.
On paper, it seemed that Duke Snider had an attachment to Brooklyn. Like magic, Snider's career immediately went downhill after the Dodgers landed in Los Angeles. By the time the Mets acquired him in 1963, "The Duke of Flatbush" at 36, was slowed by injuries and ravaged by advanced age. Yet the Mets expected him to play the demanding position, center field which he hadn't done on a regular basis for five years.
IN 1963, THE METS IMPROVED BY 11 WINS. BUT THEY WERE DULL. THEIR OFFENSIVE OFFENSE WAS SO ANEMIC THAT THEY ONLY MANAGED A PALTRY .219 TEAM BATTING AVERAGE. DESPITE SNIDER'S WANING ABILITIES, HE WAS STILL THE TEAM'S 3rd BEST WEAPON. SNIDER WAS SO ENCOURAGED BY HIS "SUCCESS" THAT HE PLAYED ONE MORE YEAR (1964)...WITH FAR LESS POSITIVE RESULTS AS A SAN FRANCISCO GIANT.
When our tour of Brooklyn was over, Uncle Al took us back to Grandma's house. My folks and Grandpa Willie Edelblum were already there. The adults were laughing in the kitchen while my sister and I watched television in the living room. Uncle Al wandered in, looked at the screen, saw a bunch of monkeys trashing a supermarket and asked, "Watcha watchin'?" I yawned, "THE HATHAWAYS." He crowed, "That's garbage! Put on channel-nine. The Mets are playing and you might get to see that man I was telling you about, Duke Snider." I half-heartedly turned the dial...and it was kismet! Duke Snider was striding to the plate. It became kismet-squared when he hit a home run. And then it was kismet on steroids because the announcers went crazy as a surreal, pulsating TV special effect...that I had never seen...flashed before my eyes.
This monumental blast in Cincinnati's Crosley Field was Snider's 400th career home run. Even the other Mets charged out of the dugout to congratulate him. It was at that precise second, I experienced an epiphany and became a Mets fan for life. Within a short time, my father noticed my youthful enthusiasm. Together with me, the Mets brought dad back to the sport he loved. And I'll always cherish those one-on-one baseball moments I had with him.
Sometimes I feel blessed by my unconditional allegiance to the Mets but mostly I feel cursed... but I wouldn't have it any other way.
Now you know who's to blame for my bum steer down the proverbial Primrose Path.
Uncle Al's next trip was in 1968. I don't have any specific memory of him that time. Instead, I remember my dad's reaction when Aunt Ann told him she was quite ill. She died later that year. Uncle Al resigned from our side of the family and we never saw him again. Through channels, my folks got occasional updates about him. For one thing, we found out that Al remained a big Dodger fan.
LOS ANGELES WOULD BE VERY GOOD TO MY UNCLE REDGREEN AS HE WAS REWARDED WITH A WHOLE NEW GENERATION OF DODGER WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS, (1959, 1963, 1965 and 1981).
We also heard that Uncle Al continued working with the carnival. To his credit, he was so spry that he shacked-up with another female employee named Dixie, (with our entire family's blessing). Also, during the off-season, they rented a bungalow downtown.
Incredibly, Al was 85 in 1985 and still working as a barker. One afternoon, Dixie came back from shopping with a neighbor and found Uncle Al shot to death. He apparently refused to give in to an intruder and paid the ultimate price...an unsolved murder.
Duke Snider, the last of the great Brooklyn Dodgers died last week. Once heaven finishes processing him, I'm counting on Uncle Al being funny enough to get on Duke's good side. Then I hope they let my dad hang-out with them and talk baseball.