When I think about it now, my first trip to Brooklyn meant more to me than I realized then or in the intervening years.
On August 27, 1955, I traveled by bus with Cub Scout Pack 10 from Cliffwood Beach, NJ, to Brooklyn to see the Dodgers play the Cincinnati Redlegs. It was good time to go: The season was drawing to a close, the Dodgers were comfortably in first (on their way to their last championship in Brooklyn) and it was a chance for manager Walt Alston to experiment. Seats were cheap.
As we traveled across the bridge over the Raritan River, it looked so big to us kids that there was general foreboding, alleviated only by the cubmaster leading us in song. We drove through Manhattan, this was a decade before the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge was complete, and through Brooklyn to Ebbetts Field, piling out of the bus, with our Brooklyn blue Dodgers caps, balls and gloves. I was a Dodger fan back then, so it was a big thrill for a little guy.
We settled in the left field bleachers. I marveled at how close I was to Sandy Amoros and how green the field was. I remember being very quiet, almost reverential. The crowd was small, a little more than 7,000 paid.
The Dodgers line-up that day was filled with well-known players: Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider (my favorite player), Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo. On the mound was a 19-year-old who only baseball card collectors and major league scouts knew much about: Sanford "Sandy" Koufax. He was fresh out of Brooklyn's Lafayette High. As a bonus baby, Koufax had to be kept on the major league roster for two years. He had a record of 0-0, having pitched but a few innings that year. He had shown potential but he was, oh, so wild. This was his big chance and he didn't disappoint: a two-hit, 14-strikeout complete game shutout. I was there when Sandy Koufax won his first game!
There were things I saw that I didn't recall even after retrieving the boxscore from Baseball Reference a few years ago. Jackie Robinson hit a home run and stole two bases; Carl Furillo hit a homer too. I also realized from reading the boxscore that I had seen six Hall of Famers in one game: Robinson, Campanella, Snider, Reese, Koufax and their manager Alston.
Seeing Koofoo's first win was a big deal. I got lucky two other times I went to a sporting event. In 1961, I saw Roger Maris hit numbers 53 and 54 at Yankee Stadium and in 1962, in a cold Jersey City Armory, I saw a 15-year-old center from a small high school in Manhattan destroy New Jersey's Catholic school champions, Trenton Cathedral. The center's name was Lewis Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (And yes, he had somewhat of a sky hook even then.) After the game, I went up to him and congratulated him on the win, holding out my hand. (I mainly wanted to see how big his hands were. I wasn't disappointed; they almost reached my elbow.) He seemed thrilled at a fan's attention. It was his first big game.
But why do I now think the Dodger game in 1955 meant more than those others? It's because of what happened the next day, on August 28. I ran to the local store to get the Daily News to read about the game...and see a picture of Koufax on the back page. He was sitting in front of a blackboard with the words, "14 Strikeouts" written on it. For years, I had a perfect recollection of that picture, that moment. It was, I now realize, the first news event I had ever witnessed, the first time I was part of something that made news. I was thrilled by the experience as it happened and by the coverage the next day. (Like the boxscore, I later found the picture online, bought it and had it framed.)
Also around that time, I began to have a very vivid dream, the kind a lot of kids must have. I was at a ball field up the street from my house. Jackie Robinson and Peewee Reese and Duke Snider were there! I would wake up so disappointed. But in that disappointment, I began to realize that I wanted to be part of "big" events, meet "big" people, get beyond my small hometown.
Surely, there were other things that led to me along my career path. There was the steady flow of really "big" news over the next few years: the Cuban missile crisis, the civil rights movement, the assassination of a president, Vietnam, etc. There were mentors in high school and college, a lucky break here, some aggressiveness there. Maybe it was just in my genes. But again as I think about it now, it was that game in Brooklyn that gave me my first taste of what it was like to be an eyewitness, the first step on the road to journalism.
Saturday night, I'll be back in Brooklyn, hoping to witness more history, another "big" event. Maybe I will see another Sandy Koufax or Jackie Robinson. But even if I don't, it won't matter. I will be just as happy to be back in Brooklyn, where it all really did begin.
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