It was too small. The public urinals were fetid troughs. Its architecture suggested a mail-order tool shed, and every August the grass began to die. Then work crews had to spray the outfield with green paint. There weren't enough seats and the parking was impossible and worst of all it had been designed in days when a baseball possessed the resiliency of a rolled sock. Later the ball would leap from bats, and pitchers working there developed sore arms, Jell-O hearts, shell shock. Ebbets Field, 1913-1957. RIP.
Now, having made this obeisance to truth, we may, perhaps, begin? It was a ball park. Not a stadium or a superdome or a multi-sport arena. A ball park, bad for football, unsuitable for concerts, unthinkable for track. You scrambled to get there, riding a subway or a trolley car, and you fought for a ticket and you walked steep runways with a loping gait. Two runways and a quick, sharp turn and there the diamond lay, so close you felt that you could reach it in 10 strides. There were the Dodgers, gabbling through infield drill, wearing white and blue, standing so near that you could almost hear their chatter.
In 1951, the year of Bobby Thomson, a stately English literary critic asked me to take him to Ebbets Field. We rode the BMT to Prospect Park, the critic bristling with concern that he might show enthusiasm. "Promised some people a book," he said. "American mores. Need to see baseball. Ebbets Field. Waste of time."
We climbed from the subway and Ebbets Field loomed, gray and sooty. The critic seemed to shudder. We found our tickets, walked the runways and we turned. There was the painted outfield and the diamond, Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson and Gil Hodges wearing white and blue.
The Englishman stopped stock still and he fell speechless. Somebody bumped him. "Beautiful," the stately Englishman said. Although I had been journeying to Ebbets Field almost from the beginnings of memory, I would not have thought to call it so.
In time, it became a divine prison. I had this job, covering the Dodgers for the
New York Herald Tribune
, $72.50 a week plus the champagne of a daily by-line, and Ebbets Field was where I worked. Most days, across the brightness of mild seasons, I drove a honeydew Chevrolet convertible—honeydew, the salesman said, is the color of the Chevy Dinah drives—to an alley where a man called Frank barked, "Move it. Move it closer. Hell, you reporters can't drive worth a damn." Park the car and once a month slip Frank $2. That made sure no one, certainly not Frank himself, slashed the car's black canvas top. (Honeydew and black, the salesman said, is a terrific combination.)
Climb out onto McKeever Place and pass the rotunda, where tiles were worked into designs of ball and bat. Walk toward the creaking sign marked PRESS GATE. YOU could not help but swagger. If you covered the Dodgers regularly, you didn't have to show a press card. "Hiya," the gatekeeper said, and you answered with a magisterial nod. Press through the groin-high turnstile. Behind, laity milled about and swarmed for tickets.
But once inside you had to go to work. Check the pitchers. "Yeah, my arm hurts," Billy Loes said. "It always hurts. A pitcher's arm hurts all the time. Write that." Read the team. How was it with the Duke of Snider? "'Damn you guys. I'm hitting .280 and you keep writing I should hit .320. What the hell's wrong with .280? And why are you always comparing me with Mantle and Mays? We're different guys." Snider and Mantle and Mays. What a beneficence of centerfielders. Sure, Duke. Easy, Duke. Hit two tonight and you'll be up at six to buy the morning papers.
Try the other clubhouse. Warren Spahn skipping a turn? '"Yep. Spahnie's having some trouble with his back." Actually, Spahnie had been having 10 years of trouble with right-handed power hitters in Ebbets Field. His back would heal on the plane back to Milwaukee.
Ride the press elevator, small as a coffin, and ask the operator if the general had come. Douglas MacArthur was an Ebbets Field addict. Climb to the press box, hanging from the roof. Reach for the yellow Western Union paper and begin.