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It was the spring of 1956. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the United States, a new fast-food franchise called McDonald's sold twenty-five-cent hamburgers, Milton Berle and Red Skelton dominated the airwaves, black-and-white television was America's new form of must-have technology, and most important, the Brooklyn Dodgers were the World Champions of baseball, having beaten the New York Yankees in the 1955 World Series.
I was a young boy in a transplanted family from Long Island, New York, developing roots in the Tampa, Florida, area, with two hardworking parents. The evening of March 28, 1956, was typical for the Garvey family. My father and mother would try to be home most evenings at five for family dinners, and this evening was no different. As we sat down to fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and peas, a meal I will never forget, my dad asked me the usual question:
"Steve, how was your day, son, did you learn anything new?"
As usual, I answered, good, no, and can I get up and go out and play? Then the unusual, life-changing, dream-beginning question:
"Do you have any test tomorrow, and if you don't, do you want to skip school?"
Now, I had never heard those questions before and a quick look to Mom's smiling face meant something special was about to happen.
"I have a charter tomorrow to pick up the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Tampa airport and take them to Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg. The Yankees are playing the Dodgers and I thought it might be a great father-and-son day for us."
For a young boy who was about to start his first Little League season, this was an exciting moment, filled with questions and a quick trip to my Hav-a-Tampa Cigar box, busting with baseball cards. I spent what seemed like hours looking for all my favorite Dodgers so I could go over stats with the guys on the bus. I called my grandfather in New York, a Brooklyn police officer, and asked who his favorite Dodgers were. Pee Wee, Carl, and the Duke, he said. And how he loved Carl Furillo, the ultimate blue-collar everyday player.
Morning came and I woke up and put on my blue jeans and Ban-Lon shirt. Ban-Lon shirts were the polo shirts of the fifties and came in thirteen colors. This one was a royal blue, almost like Dodger blue. With a little butch wax to keep my flattop sticking up, I was ready to go at 6:00 a.m.
By seven we had picked up the new scenic-cruiser from the Greyhound bus station and were on our way to Tampa International Airport. Dad emphasized the need to be respectful, to not get in the way, and most important, to say "yes sir" and "no sir." I listened carefully, knowing full well that I was awestruck even before I actually saw these great men. By eight-fifteen, we were standing on the tarmac waiting for the Dodger airplane, the Kay O'Malley 1, named after the wife of the owner, Walter O'Malley. The plane hit the runway, and within a minute it had thundered and decelerated by us. I will never forget the Dodger logo written across the body of the plane and a white baseball with red stitches on the tail. The DC 7 taxied to within thirty yards of the bus, and with no Jetways to greet the planes in those days, a stairway was pushed to the open door, and the men began to board the bus. My dad told me to stand near the door, but "Don't block it," so I could see these great Dodgers close up. Off came the skipper, Walter Alston, who was working on the fourth of twenty-two one-year contracts and a Hall of Fame career. He was followed by Pee Wee Reese, Jim Gilliam, Carl Erskine, Duke Snider, and on and on. As each man passed by me, he would pat me on the head. I don't know whether they did this as an endearing gesture, or if they just wanted to feel my proudly waxed flattop. Finally, the last two players approached. One of them was Roy Campanella, the MVP catcher. The other could only be Jackie Robinson, who was constantly center stage during the '55 World Series and was probably the most significant player in baseball history. This was major to a boy from the South. Even at my age, I knew history was standing before me, and it was much bigger than baseball.
Roy and Jackie asked me if I played baseball. I said I would be starting Little League in a week. At least I think that's what came out. When you are as nervous as I was, sometimes air is all that comes out. Roy said, "If you practice hard and listen to your coaches, maybe someday you'll be a Dodger." I nodded, and then Roy asked me if I was doing well in school. That threw me, because the truth was I had been having a tough time. My dad was standing close by and jumped in with, "Roy, Stevie's struggling with reading, but we're working hard each night and he's trying hard." My dad was wearing a name tag with a Greyhound dog on top, and Roy responded, "Joe, if Steve studies hard and practices, maybe someday he'll be a Dodger!" Dad and I looked at each other and smiled, while Jackie and Roy both, you guessed it, patted me on the head and walked onto the bus. I only grew to be five foot ten, but my dad was six foot three, so part of me wonders if all that patting on the head didn't stunt my growth!
The drive from the airport to Al Lang field in St. Pete was about forty minutes. I stood in the stairwell one step from Dad, who was behind the wheel. I held on to the guardrail and glanced at the men on the bus. Walter Alston and another coach sat in the front row and most of the players were talking or reading papers. I would learn years later that the manager always gets the first seat on the left -- as a sign of respect, I believe, and to give the players a chance to do their talking behind him. We finally pulled into the Al Lang parking lot and maneuvered to a space in front of the visiting clubhouse. Dad opened the compartments under the bus, and each player, coach, and manager grabbed his equipment bags and headed for the clubhouse. A man suddenly emerged from the clubhouse, dressed in boxer shorts and a strapped T-shirt, with a little cigar wedged into the side of his mouth. We would later find out that he was John Griffin, the equipment manager and a throwback to a different time. "Buddy," the man said, "does the kid want to be a bat boy?" "Sure!" my dad said. "Well, let's get the bats, balls, and catchers' bags to the dugout, set out the helmets, and put the towels on the bench." Each bag weighed more than anything I had ever lifted, but Dad helped me and we got all the equipment ready for batting practice.
The first player to come out was Gil Hodges. When I saw him in street clothes, he seemed to be about my dad's size, but now in the Dodger gray wool uniform he looked much bigger. He picked up a ball and motioned as if he wanted to play catch with me. Me! I pointed my finger at myself, he nodded, and I grabbed my new Rawlings mitt. His first toss was arced high and intended to test my ability. I must have impressed him with a clean catch, as the next few throws were harder. I remember feeling a sting with each one and wondering if the new gear had enough padding. More and more players came out, and finally Gil said, "One more, son!" That last toss had no spin to it and only my chest kept it from going by me. The loud thud probably scared Mr. Hodges, who came up to me to see if I was all right. The pitch had knocked the wind out of me a little bit, but I gave him an "okay" nod -- mainly because I couldn't speak! Just then, the Yankees ended pregame batting practice, and the Dodgers took the field for fifty minutes of hitting, fielding, and stretching.
Now all the players looked bigger -- not just Hodges, but Furillo, Snider, Robinson, Campanella, and even Reese. Maybe it was the wool uniform itself or the cleated shoes that added height. These men were World Champions, baseball stars from the largest market in the country. They had suddenly walked off the baseball cards I had in my pocket and come to life. What I noticed over the next hour was how smoothly and effortlessly these players used their skills. Everyone seemed to have a routine that prepared him for the game. I still had not played my first game in Little League, but by watching and listening I was learning more about the game than I ever could have on my own. I have learned that we human beings are great imitators. What we see over and over again, we frequently can absorb and embody.
Practice ended and the cleanup began. Pads were picked up, bats placed in the rack, and helmets put in a special case. A gooey rag and a powdery sack were placed on the first steps of the dugout. The rag had liquid pine tar on it that hitters used for a better grip on their bats, and the bag was rosin, which the pitchers used to keep their hands dry. Hitters also used the rosin on their bats, and combined with the tar, it formed a glue that would prevent any grip from slipping. I picked up a new ball made from horsehide, stitched in twine, and with a smell like nothing else. This pure white ball, nine inches around, weighing five ounces, and with 108 stitches, was like a diamond to me. When no one was looking, I tried on Pee Wee's shortstop mitt and Campy's catcher's mitt. The cowhide felt much softer than my mitt. I wondered if they had used them in the championship last fall. Finally, I picked up a couple of Louisville sluggers, heavy for a seven-year-old, but it was still a thrill to hold a lathed piece of wood that is used to perform the toughest act in sports, hitting a baseball.
I put everything in its place and walked back to the clubhouse. Dad gave me a turkey sandwich and a cola, but I barely touched either. It was time for the game, and I actually felt like a Dodger with a job to do.
I honestly don't remember much about the game. I know the Dodgers won, and I think most of the players appeared in the game. The Yankees had an awe-inspiring aura about them. They seemed even bigger than the Dodgers. While the 1955 World Championship was the Dodgers' first, the Yankees had sixteen and were considered the greatest franchise in the game. Each player was a potential All-Star, and the power of the New York press inflated the notoriety of even the most average of players.
When the game was over, the traveling secretary, Lee Scott, shouted, "Bus leaves in thirty minutes." That meant no fooling around, and I had to quickly get the gear packed and on the bus. Dad helped me carry the heavy bat bag. The helmet case was bulky but manageable. I cleaned up the dugout, just as I would my room at home. A few minutes later most of the team was on the bus, and Dad was closing the doors to the storage compartments. I got a tap on the shoulder and there stood John the "clubhouse man."
"Good job, kid," he said. "These are for you." He handed me two autographed balls and a couple of brand-new ones. My response was a simple "Thank-you," and I stuffed two in each pocket -- easy to do when you are wearing "husky" size jeans.
Within the hour, our bus pulled onto the tarmac of Tampa International Airport and there waiting for the team was the Kay O'Malley 1. The players and management filed off the bus and onto the plane. Some said good-bye, others were still eating the last of the sandwiches for the day. Lee Scott shook Dad's hand and said he would see him soon. Dad looked down and saw a fifty-dollar bill in his big hand, easily the biggest tip of his career at Greyhound. Dad and I stood in front of the bus, his arm around my shoulder, as the plane taxied down the runway and finally took off into the beautiful pink and gray Florida sunset. My dad asked me what I thought of the day, and I looked at him and said, "Dad, this was the greatest day of my life." All seven years of it.
We walked to the door of the bus and Dad said, "Why don't you sit in the manager's seat?" I remember thinking I'd never forget who gets to sit in seat 1A. As I started to sit down, I saw two used bats, broken at the handle. I looked at Dad, and he said, "I thought you might like these." They were game-used by Duke Snider and Carl Furillo, given to my dad by the clubhouse man after I had gotten on the bus at Al Lang Field. As I ran my hand down the bat and gripped the handle, my dad told me to be careful of splinters. I probably thought, as young boys do, that just one little one might not hurt. Kind of a souvenir of the day with the Dodgers. All the way to the bus station we talked about the day. The players, the game, what a neat plane they had, and the stuff we were going to tell Mom at dinner.
Around six-thirty we came bounding through the door of our house, me calling for Mom and Dad bidding, "Hi, Mill." Mom came around the corner of the kitchen, gave us big hugs, and offered several "Ohs" and "Ahs" over the bats and balls. It was a special moment in our lives -- just the beginning of a new direction for the Garvey family.
Dinner was longer than usual. I didn't just say yes, no, or can I be excused. Instead, I told story after story from that day. I used words I had never used. But more important, my mother and father could sense the enthusiasm I had for baseball and these great players. Finally, I ran out of steam.
I went into my room and showered quickly, too quickly, and put on my pajamas. I pulled down the covers and jumped into bed. I thought I would fall fast asleep, but I smelled a strong odor. My dad stuck his head into the room, as parents do when checking on their supposed-to-be-sleeping children, and whispered, "Are you sleeping?" I think he was startled when I said, "No!" He came over to my bed and asked me what was wrong. I said that I was tired, but there was a smell keeping me awake. He came over and sniffed around. He pulled back and smiled.
"Did you wash your hands?" he asked. I was slow to answer, so he said, "You know that sticky stuff the players used on their bats?"
"Pine tar," I replied.
"Yes," he said, "that's what you're smelling."
I expected him to order me back to the bathroom, but instead he casually said, "Son, you will probably never forget that smell for the rest of your life!"
Copyright © 2008 by Steve Garvey