Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bobby Thomson, Memory and Identity

by Norman Markowitz

Someone from our PA collective sent me a video clip of Bobby Thomson's "shot heard round the world" home run yesterday, realizing that I was an "old (and I would say ongoing) Dodger fan."

Thomson, was a decent man at a time when baseball players lived under the "reserve clause" and most made salaries not so far above the average worker (and, unlike the average worker could be "traded" to another team and city at the whim of the owners, and be blacklisted if he refused to go) passed away this week. Ralph Branca, who threw him that ball, was a very decent man also, the Dodger pitcher who welcomed Jackie Robinson in 1947 when some others on the team were so hostile that they had to be traded because of their opposition, is fortunately still with us.

There is a minor "scandal" connected to the home run--one worthy of the high cold war period of the 1950s. In recent years it was "discovered" in that "spies" for the Giants in the Polo Grounds bleachers(the farthest bleachers in any ball park anywhere) claimed to have stolen Roy Campenella's signals to Branca, thus tipping Thomson off, but that is largely irrelevant, just as the spy stories of the cold war era were largely irrelevant to the larger context of events. Rather, the Giants went on an incredible streak, winning 34 of their last 39 games and forcing the Dodgers to tie them on the last day of the season by wining a 14 inning game on a hit by Jackie Robinson. The Dodger pitcher, Don Newcombe, who had pitched that 14 inning game was exhausted when he left in the 9th inning of the third playoff game after giving up a run and putting on two base runners with one out.

But what does this have to do with memory and identity. I was seven years old at the time, living in the East Bronx, before it became known as the South Bronx, and for some reason in July I became a Dodger fan (I think it may have had something to do with a pre-game TV show, Happy Felton's Knot Hole Gang, which featured little league kids and Dodger players).

At the time, the Thomson home run was a disappointment to me, but I didn't grasp its "historic significance." As I became more and more a fan and more and more bombarded with Sports media, I came to see it as a tragic moment, a sort of Pearl Harbor Day of Infamy aimed at the Dodgers. In my neighborhood I was "encircled" by Yankee fans, for home Yankee power was an expression of the natural order. That they were as poor or even poorer than I was was largely irrelevant. I wore my Brooklyn Dodger cap proudly  to the slings and arrows of the Yankee hoi poloi. And I learned to fight for what I believed in. I also learned to see through racism, at a time when there were virtually no African-Americans on Television except in stereotypic roles  in the fiction shows and as individual singers and dancers (not part of integrated groups) in the variety shows. The Dodgers were Jackie's team, the team that pioneered integration, and their defeats at the hands of Yankees always brought up an undercurrent of racist ideology, i.e., Blacks like Don Newcombe would choke in the clutch, not be able to win the big games, not really be able to play the skill positions. I argued against this as a kid using the rationalism and empirical evidence of the Enlightenment years before I had ever heard of the Enlightenment. I also was prone to have African-American friends since they were usually fellow Dodger fans, which also helped me see through the lies of racism.

When Bobby Thomson hit that home run in New York and nationally the Dodgers were  often the team of the left – associated with anti-racism and general working class values, and the Yankees the team of established wealth and power. To be fair to the Giants, they followed the Dodgers in integration and by 1951 were of the better teams the second most integrated team after the Dodgers (Willie Mays, for example, then a rookie, not yet the all time great player he was to become, was on deck when Thomson hit that home run). Also, in our neighborhood, by the mid 1950s a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood, the family of Ossie Virgil, a Puerto Rican New York Giant player still lived and he would come and play with the kids(Virgil who was not a star, was not making a great deal of money in that era).

While I would never go back to the good old days of the "reserve clause" and its super exploitation of players, I believe that we could learn a great deal from Cuba, where baseball is public about how to make the games open and affordable to the people. The world of "luxury boxes," the elimination of the doubleheader, playoffs that threaten to take the world series into November, are all expression of capitalist profit maximization, even when you have, as you do now, a very strong craft union representing the players.

As a final point concerning identity, I remained a Dodger fan after the team left Brooklyn in 1957. This has opened me up to more than fifty years of criticisms concerning Dodgers owner, Walter O'Malley, who left New York, where he was making a good deal of money, to make much more money in Los Angeles. Although this is also an expression of capitalist profit maximization, most of these criticisms portray O'Malley the way Trotskyists portray Joseph Stalin(the New York journalist, Joe Flaherty actually with tongue very deep in cheek once proclaimed "Hitler, Stalin, and Walter O'Malley" as the three most evil men in history, which I have always taken as a satire on cold war ideology, although many of my fellow Dodger fans would take it seriously.) But this criticism, like the constant attacks on members of the CPUSA and Communists everywhere which invoke the name of Stalin as their justification, taught me to separate the team  and what it stood for from the leadership.

This year the Dodgers look like they are completely out of it, unless they can play for the rest of the year the way the Giants did in 1951 – which is very very unlikely. However, baseball, like the class struggle, has no time clock, although the defeats of the past and present do matter, great victories are possible, as Thomson and the Giants proved in 1951.

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