In a corner of my mind that serves as a storage bin for happy childhood memories, there is a special place for that wonderful time when Brooklyn fielded one of the greatest teams in baseball history. I’m referring to the early 1950s when the Brooklyn Dodgers won three National League pennants and its first World Series victory.
It was a team that boasted such baseball greats as Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider and my own personal favorite, Roy Campanella – the Dodgers Hall of Fame catcher. I identified with Campy because I was a short, chubby kid with limited athletic ability, but who owned a spanking-new pro-type catcher’s mitt that enabled me to play that position with some degree of skill. In fact, one of the main reasons I got into neighborhood softball games was the fact that I was the only kid on the block who had a catcher’s mitt.
The apartment building my family lived in was one block away from the Bedford Avenue entrance to Ebbets Field. So I can say that I grew up in the shadow of Ebbets Field – no exaggeration. When the sun was sinking over the western horizon, it literally caused the center-field bleachers to cast a dark shadow on the backside of our building.
One of the great advantages of living in this six-story red-brick building was what amounted to a free ticket to the home games. From the roof of the building, we had a clear view of the infield and a partial view of the shallow portion of the outfield.
On many a balmy summer day, several of my friends and I would ascend to our rooftop grandstand, armed with a portable transistor radio, a pair of binoculars and a jug of lemonade or some bottles of Coca-Cola.
Even without the portable radio, it wasn’t hard to figure out what was happening on the field. If one of the opposing team’s players hit a ball into the outfield and headed back to the visitors’ dugout after rounding first, you knew that Carl Furillo, the Duke or Pete Reiser had snared the ball. If the hitter made his turn at first and stayed there or advanced to second, then he had hit safely – and so on.
Then there was Dodgers announcer Tex Rickard, whose booming voice echoed throughout the neighborhood. I can still hear his
stentorian announcement as each player came up to the plate: “Now batting for the Dodgers, No. 39, Roy Campanella, catcher.”
Ebbets Field also provided various forms of entertainment, formal and informal. Gladys Goodding, organist and singer (she also composed the team song “Follow the Dodgers”), astonished me by being able to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” on key while playing the organ at the same time. Then there was the “Dodger SymPhony,” a motley crew of musicians who regaled the fans with their tinny renditions of merry tunes.
Taunting umpires and opposing team players was the SymPhony’s specialty. When an umpire made what fans considered a bad call, the SymPhony would strike up “Three Blind Mice.” To celebrate an enemy pitcher being knocked out of a game, the bandsmen would serenade him with a few bars of the funeral march as he walked dejectedly to the dugout.
Out in the center-field bleachers was another Dodger icon – one I got to know personally. Her name was Hilda Chester, and she was famous among Dodger fans as the gal with the cowbell, which she rang loudly and incessantly throughout home games.
Before and after a game, Hilda could be found at Pete’s Luncheonette, a local hangout on Bedford Avenue, directly opposite the entrance to the bleachers. Here, Hilda held an informal coffee klatch attended by several women from the neighborhood. One of these was my mother, who had the Brooklyn equivalent of afternoon tea (coffee and an English muffin) most afternoons.
Hilda and my mother became friends, and I would occasionally join the group to hear Hilda tell stories about the Dodger players.
One summer afternoon in August 1953, shortly after I had finished my junior year at Erasmus Hall High School, I was sitting at Pete’s sipping a Coke, when Hilda asked me, “How old are you, Henry?” I replied that I was a couple of weeks shy of my 17th birthday.
“What would you like for your birthday?” she asked. Without hesitation, I said, “A baseball signed by the Dodger team.” Hilda nodded. “I’ll get it for you.”
About a week later, I dropped into Pete’s for a soda and was waved over by Hilda. She handed me a small, gift-wrapped box, and with a smile said, “I think you’ll be happy with what’s in the box.”
Indeed I was. Inside the box were two baseballs, still in their original Spalding red, white and blue wrappers. One baseball contained the signatures of all the Dodger players – Reese, Hodges, Robinson, Campanella, Furillo, Snider, the whole gang – as well as manager Chuck Dressen.
As an added bonus, Hilda also got me a team baseball signed by the New York Giants, who had recently played at Ebbets Field. Among the better-known names were manager Leo Durocher, Hank Thompson and Sal Maglie.
In the years that followed, I kept these baseballs pristine in their original paper wrappers, taking them out occasionally to reminisce about the good old days when New York boasted three great baseball teams.
I have since learned that my Dodger baseball is partially a “club ball,” with some signatures replicated by a batboy. But no matter. Nothing can diminish the luster of those wonderful relics of a golden era in baseball or that precious moment when, at the age of l7, I received them as a birthday gift from Hilda Chester, the cowbell lady.
Recently, I decided that it’s time to divest myself of some of my childhood and adolescent treasures. So I consigned the two baseballs to a sports memorabilia auction in the hope that some younger sports buff will enjoy possessing them in the years ahead.
As for me, I will always be able to trot out of the attic of my mind images of bright summer days when the Dodgers ruled the hearts of Brooklynites and a wonderful lady named Hilda Chester roused the fans at Ebbets Field with her clanging cowbell.