Out of the mists of time—and the Off-Track Betting parlor on 86th Street in Brooklyn—comes one of the last icons of the golden days of Ebbets Field, that fabled sward where baseball players were real men, and their fans were raving lunatics.
Frankie Germano is 77, and facial surgery for a suspected malignancy has left him looking, he moans, "like Popeye." But as he shadowboxes into his smoky basement apartment, flinging phantom uppercuts at invisible enemies, it is clear that he has lost little of the passion that earned him an hour of fame a long lifetime ago.
It was Sept. 16, 1940, after a Monday game between the Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds in the beloved little ballpark that survives today only in the reverie of a brokenhearted borough. Walking across the diamond toward the stadium exit—as spectators commonly did at many big league parks then—Germano, a young, black-haired scrapper from the Brooklyn waterfront, confronted, berated, knocked down, straddled and repeatedly pounded a 230-pound National League umpire named George Magerkurth, who had made a crucial call against the Dodgers.
It was the Ebbets Field taunt made real—"Kill the umpire!"—and for an instant in the twilight, it seemed as though Germano actually might.
As it turned out, he didn't. The 51-year-old umpire survived, uninjured. Germano, 21, was hauled away by the police. But by the next morning, as the photographs and headlines swept Brooklyn and its suburb, New York City—and as Germano was paraded into magistrate's court on Snyder Avenue, escorted by cheering Dodgers fans who had gladly coughed up to pay for his lawyer—the legend had been secured.
Never a dull moment out at Ebbets field, the Brooklyn Eagle chortled. "The little man had his big day in Flatbush yesterday," wrote the Eagle sports editor, Jimmy Wood. "Our Frankie will become ex-officio a member of the Hall of Fame."
"He bolted from the stands, knocked Magerkurth to the ground, and proceeded to pummel him with his fists," wrote Stanley Cohen in his 1992 book Dodgers! The First 100 Years.
And so it went. Little Red Riding Hood had eaten the Big Bad Wolf. A humble fan had decked the brawny ump. In fragrant, florid Brooklynese, "Da woim had toined."
Fifty-six years later, Ebbets Field is the name of a housing project and Frankie Germano is sitting at his kitchen table, down near Coney Island, his throat in bandages, his arms pumping, his eyes dancing.
We have met through an improbable chain of connections that include Mary Blevins, Frankie's companion of more than 30 years; Junior's Most Fabulous Restaurant in downtown Brooklyn, where Blevins has worked since the early 1960s; a book I wrote in which Blevins appears; and the manager of Junior's, Alan Rosen, who, one morning when I was in the joint, motioned toward Blevins and asked me, "Do you know who her husband is? He's the guy that slugged the umpire!"