It was, though, an acceptable subject, and there weren't too many of those. I did not understand cars, had not been camping last summer, had a noncooking mother: subject after subject broke in my hands. Only sports could be trusted. Fate had presented me with three frowsy teams to talk about: the Phillies, A's and Eagles, all usually cemented into their respective last places. (I was foolishly pleased when a friend said, "Don't the A's usually finish around sixth?" The A's never finished anywhere near sixth.) Pennsylvania University was some small consolation—I saw it beat Army, Harvard, Cornell on various weekends—but hardly enough. My own social position was too sensitive to burden with three risible teams, so I decided to diversify. I took on board the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Washington Redskins. Sammy Baugh was a man I could identify with. Lean and steel-eyed, my winter self.
On balance, I would say that playing games didn't do much for my character. It gives one a highly specialized confidence and a highly qualified cooperativeness, but in return it makes one incurably childish. Intellectually, it teaches you that you can't argue with a fact, a mixed blessing. However, being a Brooklyn fan was useful. It taught me to suffer. The Dodgers immediately and definitively broke my heart. I had barely become a fan when Mickey Owen dropped the third strike and gave a World Series game away. Then the next season, 1942, Peter Reiser banged his head on the wall and they blew a 10-game lead over the Cardinals. The Dodgers came to Philadelphia on July 4th strutting like gods and pasted the local scarecrows 14-0 and 5-4. Reiser hit the neatest, mellowest little home run you ever saw. Medwick, Camilli—players twice as big, twice as regal as any since.
On the Sunday after Labor Day the Cardinals came in. They had beaten the Dodgers the day previous, on Whitey Kurowski's home run, to reach first place for the first time. The Dodgers were playing two with Cincinnati. There was strangling doom in the air. I knew, everyone knew, what was going to happen. All afternoon I watched the scoreboard. The Phillies were managing to split with the Cards, an unlikely reprieve, but the Dodgers went down slowly, inexorably to total defeat.
I was insane with grief. It was worse than the fall of France, and the feelings were not dissimilar: the same sense of irreversible momentum and crushed dreams. It seemed strange even then that a misfortune suffered by a random collection of strangers could hurt so much. Yet for days I was sick with sorrow and actually tried to forget about baseball: a trick I wasn't to master for another 20 years. I recovered in time to root lustily for the Cardinals in the World Series. A defeat for the Yankees was already sweeter than a victory for anyone else. Hence there was an element of vindictive nihilism in my baseball thinking, which was to run riot when Walter O'Malley took his team from Brooklyn to L.A. some 16 years later, and which has dominated since that time.
In the fall of '43 we moved to New York. The Philadelphia hermitage was over. No more mowing lawns and hoeing vegetable beds in our victory garden to pay my way to Shibe Park, no more early-morning trolley rides to Frankford and long subway rides from there in order to get the whole of batting practice and two games for my buck and a quarter. I had not realized what a grueling regimen this was until I took a friend with a medium interest in baseball along for company. Even though we saw Ted Williams strike out three times on the knuckleball and then hit a home run in the 10th, my friend never once mentioned baseball again.
But now I was in New York, the capital of baseball, and my appetite raged wantonly, like some Thomas Wolfe character in Europe, prowling the streets and roaring. In those days every barber shop had a radio, every butcher shop—the whole block was a symphony of baseball.
To be young in Paris, to be coming up for 13 in New York! Unfortunately, the game itself was not in such hot shape right then. The stars were wafting, or drafting, away and being replaced by squinting, shambling defectives like the ones I had left behind in Philadelphia. The Dodgers tried out a 16-year-old shortstop. The lordly Yankees were reduced to the likes of Joe Buzas and Ossie Grimes. The St. Louis Browns actually had a one-armed centerfielder. The hottest player in town was an aging retread called Phil Weintraub. You had to love baseball to survive those years.
But I liked going to the parks anyway. They offered the cultural continuity of churches. You could slip into one in a strange city and pick up the ceremony right away. College football stadiums made me nervous with their brutal cliquishness, and professional football stadiums always gave me rotten seats—the same one, it seemed like, high up and to the left, in back of the goal line. But ball parks were home and still are, a place where I understand what my neighbors are up to, even after a year abroad.
The football scene was a slight improvement over Godforsaken Philadelphia. The wartime Giants must have been one of the dullest teams in history, with their off-tackle smashes and their defensive genius. But they were usually able to make a game of it. I saw Don Hutson throw a touchdown pass off an end-around reverse, and my hero, Sammy Baugh, quick-kick 66 yards to the Giants' four. You didn't seem to see things like that in Philadelphia.
My own playing career mooned along all this while, striking me, at least, as promising. I had become a spottily effective left end, running solemn little down-and-outs and tackling with bravura (I found I wasn't afraid of head-on tackles, which put one in the elite automatically). I discovered that basketball yielded to humorless determination better than most games and I once succeeded in sinking 17 foul shots in a row. But the game had no great emotional interest; it was more like a bar game of skill that whiles away the evenings. I liked the hot gymnasiums and the feel of the floor underfoot, and it was fun fretting about the score, but the game left no resonance afterwards. Fast breaks and the swishing of the strings—a thin collection of memories.