By Tony Tedeschi
On October 8, 1956, I sat in a study hall at Brooklyn Technical High School with my new transistor radio pinned to my right ear, listening to the broadcast of the 5th game of the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It was mid-afternoon. My school day was over, but no one with a radio within reach had left the study hall.
With a one-ball, two-strike count on Dale Mitchell, a .311 hitter batting for the Dodger pitcher Sal Maglie, Yankee pitcher Don Larsen, fired a fastball by Mitchell, the ball slamming into Yogi Berra’s mitt. Umpire Babe Pinelli, called Mitchell out.
Larsen completed a perfect game: 27 Dodgers batted; 27 Dodgers made out. I remained glued to my chair, stunned.
Not only was this the first perfect game since Charlie Robertson pitched one for the Chicago White Sox against the Detroit Tigers in 1922, this was the World Series, the ultimate pressure test. By a pitcher who finished his career with a losing record. Against the vaunted offense of the Dodgers, a team that had beaten the Yankees in the World Series the year before.
That previous year, me, a Yankee fan, at a school in Brooklyn, had to slink away, knowing I’d be traumatized by the headlines in the sports pages the next day.
Enshrined In the Hall
Now, 61 years later, I was staring at the mitt Yogi Berra had used to catch Larsen’s perfect game. And I was once again in my seat at that study hall in Brooklyn, with my new transistor radio pinned to my ear.
Baseball can do that to you: instantly bring you back to special moments in your past. If you can tolerate OD-ing on such nostalgia, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, in Cooperstown, NY, is the place to do it, a lot of it.
This pantheon to the gods of the national pastime includes plaques for 312 of the best of the best, the number of inductees growing by a handful each year since the museum opened its doors in 1936. The first players inducted that year – Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner – established just how high the bar had been placed for gaining entry.
While the town was founded by the father of the great 18th century novelist James Fenimore Cooper, Cooperstown has become a synonym for baseball greatness. Placement of the Hall there was in recognition of the town having been the location for “the first scheme of playing baseball,” devised by Abner Doubleday in 1839. Doubleday Field, behind the museum, is the site of the annual Hall of Fame Classic, each spring, played by recently retired major-leaguers.
After that amazing 1956 World Series, I had begun to develop a mindset that would seem nothing short of insanity to rabid sports fans. I was getting bored with my Yankees winning so much. Imagine? But, having listened to a perfect game in the World Series and seen the newsreels, what could possibly be left?
Despite the loss to the Dodgers in the 1955 World Series, my Yankees had beaten them the two other times they faced Brooklyn during the ‘50s. They’d also beaten the Philadelphia Phillies in 1950 and the New York Giants in 1951.
On the other hand, despite being a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, once you were aligned with one of the three teams in the city at that time, you could never switch allegiance to either of the other two.
While channel-surfing one day in 1957, I happened upon a Dodger-Milwaukee Braves game. The Braves were beating the hell out of the Dodgers with sluggers like third-baseman Eddie Mathews, first-baseman Joe Adcock and a lithe young right fielder named Hank Aaron.
Damn, I thought, any team that could maltreat the Dodgers like that could certainly capture my interest. The true extent of my Yankee infidelity manifested itself when I rooted for the Braves in the 1957 World Series against the Yankees, which Milwaukee won, even after falling behind three games to one.
The ultimate payoff of my change in allegiance, however, was the joy of following Aaron’s career, his unmatched mastery of hitting, on full display at the Hall. An extensive, permanent exhibit showcases the career of a player with a lifetime .305 batting average, 755 home runs and 2,297 runs batted in, an RBI record that remains 41 years after he retired.
The exhibit includes equipment, paraphernalia, documents, photos and artifacts, plus the uniform Aaron wore in the game when he hit his 715th homerun to break Babe Ruth’s record. Consistency was Aaron’s greatest attribute. Although he hit a total of 755 home runs, he never hit more than 47 in a season, but hit 30 or more 15 times.
Picking Your Memories
Trying to devote the time it takes to honor the accomplishments of baseball’s greatest reminded me, in an odd way, of the endless hall of ecclesiastical paintings at The Louvre. It’s just too much to absorb in a single visit.
Race-walking the length of the gallery with its 312 plaques of those enshrined in the Hall would be short-changing the equivalent of the sport’s saints and martyrs depicted in all those Renaissance paintings. So I chose to relive some of the sacred moments of my past association with the national pastime.
But I began to feel I was placing too much emphasis on the past. Museums, of course, do that to you. For some perspective, I turned to Dave Hubler, my co-editor of the student newspaper at New York University, a lifelong friend, and author of the wonder baseball book: “The Nats and the Grays, How Baseball in the Nation’s Capital Survived WWII and Changed the Game Forever.”
“Despite the increase in popularity of other sports in America, baseball remains the one sport that has changed only incrementally in its nearly two century history,” Dave explained. “The infield dimensions are the same; the participants remain nine men on the field, hitters run the bases counterclockwise, and once a player leaves the game he cannot return. Yet the game has not remained ossified in the past. Baseball is a continuum; its historic origins are murky and its future is yet to be discovered. Yet baseball persists year in and year out, presenting a new and unique drama every season.”
Evidence the gallery of 312 plaques, beginning with 1936 yet forever lashed to the continuum.
A spin through the museum store creates an exercise in restraint, so I opted for a package of reprints of headlines from the most memorable moments in New York Mets history for a coworker of my wife, who is a diehard fan. I briefly flashed on being present at the ticker-tape parade for the ’69 Mets, while working on Wall Street that year.
O.K., so history lives even for teams like the Mets that weren’t there during those memorable moments of the Yankee-Dodger rivalries in the 1950s, when a young player named Jackie Robinson changed the game forever. Yes, he has his special place(s) at the Hall and I can even forgive him for driving us Yankee fans crazy during those classic World Series. But that’s a subject for another trip.
So, there I stood, outside the Hall, behind a bronze statue of Roy Campanella, the great Dodger catcher and 1969 inductee. He was cast in his classic crouch. Opposite was a bronze statue of Johnny Podres, the Dodger pitcher, who had beaten the Yankees in the seventh game of 1955 World Series, frozen in the finish of his delivery to Campanella. Podres was just a 9-10 pitcher that year. But here he was, cast in bronze, outside the Hall. I guess it takes all kinds, I thought. Then again, maybe not. To make it inside the Hall, you gotta be truly a special kind.
I stayed at the lovely Cooper Inn, which served continental breakfast daily. The Inn is the sister property of the magnificent Otesaga Resort Hotel right on Lake Otesaga, where you can dine at the resort’s Hawkeye Bar & Grill and charge it to the Inn. Both are just a few blocks from the Hall.