Brooklyn Boro

Gotta Love Those Bums

February 3, 2021 William A. Gralnick
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Two articles recently appeared in the Eagle. One featured Gil Hodges, the other Carl Erskine. Both played a role in my last book, “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales From Brooklyn” (Amazon paperback or Kindle). Many an author has a tale like this. Without looking for it a gift comes to them. In my case someone I worked with learned I was writing a book about Brooklyn and asked if I wanted to speak to Peter Bavasi (son of the famed Buzzi, who owned the Dodgers). As we said in Brooklyn, “Does the Pope want to pray?” She was living in the same house they lived in when Gil was a player. He gave me the contact information and soon I was corresponding and then talking with Peter Bavasi who by his own words said, “I grew up in the Dodger dugout.” After agreeing to endorse my book, he asked me if I’d like to speak to Joan Hodges, Gil’s widow? Did I want Tartufo after an Italian meal? It took me a few days to screw up my courage; he had told me she was getting long in the tooth and was not well. I called. I, like most fans my age, loved Hodges. We loved his gentle giant demeanor. We suffered with him during slumps, hurting but admiring his graciousness about letting the team down. We smiled knowingly as he picked yet another low one from third base out of the dirt.

It was surreal, like talking to someone I knew but hadn’t talked to in a long time. She still lived in the house she and Gil lived in when he was a player. In a few weeks at Shea there would be a 100th anniversary celebration of Gil. Their son was chief cook and bottle washer; she would have something to say. She was very nervous about it. She was wheelchair bound. Did she want to appear before tens of thousands of fans in a wheelchair. Her mind wasn’t what it used to be. Could she focus and get through her remarks? Would she make a fool out of herself?  Would she go at all? It was all very touching. She was talking to me like an old friend or nephew.

Yes, she knew what I wanted. No, she would not endorse the book. She had a great attachment to the Dodgers. She was like the den mother for the player’s wives. How to fit in. What to wear. What to say to whom. How to control your ego when your husband became a star. But now she was old and infirm. She’d written many endorsements, but could no longer. She would not accept an offer to have one drafted for her. Unless she could do it herself, and she couldn’t, she wouldn’t. “I’m sure you understand,” she said.

At the end of about a half hour I felt like I had been talking to my grandmother and  I realized I had had an experience far better than an endorsement.

And Carl Erskine? To see that overhand delivery, the mechanics of it was watching a marvel. There was nothing like it until Tom Terrific came along. 

Erskine, like Hodges, was one of the good guys. He loved his game. As the article quoted, he had a pipe after each game. He was in no hurry to leave the clubhouse. “To leave the clubhouse was to leave baseball,” and he was in no hurry to do that. And that was every day there was a game.

As an aside, I tracked down Joe “Piggy” Pignatano, another favorite of mine. I liked Piggy. He was a good catcher and somehow he realized being a starting catcher for some not so great team couldn’t compare to subbing every-so-often for Roy Campanella and warming up the wild and wacky stars that were the pitching staff of the Brooklyn Bums. He too wouldn’t endorse the book. He said he was through with baseball, didn’t do shows or autographs anymore but wished me great success. Old and tired he may have been, but he was also sharp enough to remember not to sign his note.

Now to Mr. Erskine, one of the great gentleman stars of baseball. In those days, short of doing something unignorable like wife swapping, a player’s life was his own. Only the most dedicated knew that Erskine had a severely learning-disabled child. While well-paid for the day, this was a time when ball players shared rides to the ballpark when playing at home, or as was the case in Brooklynn, at any of the two other major league stadiums in the city. Today starting accountants and lawyers, a good tradesman, make more than the Carl Erskines of the day. There were no multi-multi-million-dollar contracts. In fact, today, rookies start out making more than a guy like Erskine did his whole career. Who and how was this child to be cared for? If Erskine had pitched after Don Drysdale money might not have been an issue; but it was.

And the end of his playing days, the great over-hander moved back home to Indiana. He is 94. He still cares for his son. And he’s still a gentleman. He wrote me a lovely note bemoaning the arthritis that had over-taken his hands and ruined in handwriting. As the article said, he told me he loved his life, it had been a good one and good to him. And he endorsed my book.

How could anyone stop loving the Dodgers?

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