The first Major League baseball game I ever saw took place in May 1957 at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. The Dodgers, my team, were taking on the New York Giants, and my father took me on the long subway ride from Washington Heights, where we lived, to deep Flatbush, where Duke Snider patrolled center field, Carl Furillo played the caroms off the right field wall and nailed the runner trying to stretch a double, Pee Wee Reese gobbled up grounders and Gil Hodges completed the putout, and Roy Campanella won three MVP awards.
And who should be pitching for the Dodgers that day? A local boy, who played first base at Lafayette High and basketball at the U of Cincinnati: a Jewish "bonus baby" with a fantastic fastball, a lot of potential but somewhat erratic results thus far in his Major League career: Sandy Koufax, born on this day in 1935.
Auspicious. Also, of course, heartbreaking to fall in love with a team that would move to California at the end of that very season, taking the Giants along with them. The Dodgers settled in Chavez Ravine, and Dodger Stadium, erected in 1962, remains the most elegant baseball park in the nation. It is also, amazingly, the third oldest. The Giants have given strutting San Franciscans something extra to cheer about in the last couple of years, but I like the Dodgers' chances with their astute new management this season.
On that May day in 1957 Duke Snider stroked his 1,500th major league hit. He also homered and made a graceful running shoestring catch of the line drive that ended the game. Koufax pitched into the eighth inning when Clem Labine relieved him. The final score: Brooklyn 5 -- New York 3. Ray Jablonski homered for the Jints (the authenticating detail!). I was eight years old and still remember Gil Hodges's smile when, before the game, he turned in our direction and acknowledged the greeting of a devoted fan.To this day I have never had a better seat at a ballpark than that one some ten rows back from first base at little Ebbets Field.
I have known a number of Sandys -- such as Sanford ("Sandy") Friedman, my classmate at Clare College, Cambridge, who quarterbacked our occasional touch football games and knew more than most of us about pipe tobacco, English cheeses, Renaissance poetry, and Wittgenstein.
But I am told that Sandy (like Leslie) is now assumed to be a girl's name -- as you could tell from the coverage of Hurricane Sandy back in 2012. That tempest did terrible damage, and was altogether lamentable, but it did suggest a nickname and an image for the greatest pitcher, who totally owned home plate for a stretch of six years in the early half of the 1960s. Hurricane Sandy. He had the most beautiful curve ball -- it bent like the semicircle that forms the top of a question mark -- but he could beat you even when that pitch deserted him. A steady flow of fastballs mastered the fearsome Minnesota Twins sluggers (Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison) in game seven of the 1965 World Series, won by the Dodgers 2-0.
Desire for spring as the winter of our discontent refuses to go gentle into the past?
All of that, plus the chance to praise my Dad, who took me to that game in May 1957 as he had taken me to the United Nations years earlier when it seemed like a significant entity; who gave up a Wednesday afternoon at the office years later for a pair of choice orchestra seats at "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," that perfect musical for the period; and who drove me to Yale (1965) and Harvard (1969) for memorable visits?
Nice to praise the greatness of Sandy Koufax and your own father in the same column, I must say.
Originally posted on Sandy Koufax's birthday, December 31, 2015.