Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Imperfect Memories of a Perfect Game

“A perfect game is defined by Major League Baseball as a game in which a pitcher (or combination of pitchers) pitches a victory that lasts a minimum of nine innings and in which no opposing player reaches base.  The feat has been achieved 23 times in MLB history – 21 times since the modern era began in 1900,” (Wikipedia)

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” (Marcel Proust)

 I was involved in a conversation the other day, which reminded me that I had been an on-site spectator at Don Larsen’s perfect game – the first in World Series history and the sixth one ever.  So I thought I would spend some time trying to remember what it was like to be there.  I mean how hard could it be?  It was after all the most significant sports event that I ever witnessed.   But all that I could come up with were one or two things about the game.

The American humorist Josh Billings said, “There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for their memory.”  It is also difficult sometimes to separate stories you remember because you have heard about them so often, from those things that you actually experienced.  Did you really see the movie “Psycho” or have you seen the shower scene so many times that you believe you did?

So to avoid those mistakes I did some research to see if I could help my recollection along.  Short answer – not much.  Baseball is awash in statistics, so I easily found lots of facts about the event that, as I read them, were familiar to me.  But only one or two of them reignited what I consider personal recollections.  The results of my fact-finding are shown in italics.   (Those who are not baseball aficionados can feel free to skip these sections.) The stuff in regular type (except for the dates) is what I actually think I remembered – or, since it cannot be factually verified, perhaps imagined.  (I also learned how few synonyms there are for “remember” – so please bear with me.)

In the early morning of Monday October 8, 1956 one of my parents (I assume) called the office at Central Junior High in New Britain, Connecticut where I was a 13 year old, 8th grader, to tell the secretary that I was sick and would not be in school that day.  I was a serious student who rarely missed classes, so this would have been a big deal to me – but parents know best.  A while later my father and I drove in our family’s green and white two-tone Pontiac Catalina down the Merritt Parkway to Woodlawn Bronx, New York where we parked and took the Jerome Avenue El to Yankee Stadium to see our beloved New York Yankees play their crosstown rivals the Brooklyn Dodgers in game 5 of the World Series – also a big deal.

Although this was my first and only World Series game, it was not our initial pilgrimage to the “House that Ruth Built”.   (I actually don’t remember this particular drive – but I do recall them in general.)  I am an only child an I bonded with my father over major league baseball, and especially the New York Yankees. He and I went to the Stadium at least once a year from my 10th year on earth, or perhaps earlier, through junior high school.  I clearly remember sitting near third base for Dr. Bobbie Brown’s last game as a Yankee on June 30, 1954 – but nothing about what happened.  And I recall seeing Enos “Country” Slaughter hustle to home plate during what turned out to be an earlier 1956 regular season game.   

Outside the Stadium my father would lean in to the ticket seller to get us seats “right behind home plate” – except for the Bobbie Brown finale.   We always came early to watch batting practice, and to be at the front of the ticket line.  But the best we could do at the series game was the center field bleachers.  Being 450-plus feet away from the plate was (I am sure) initially disappointing to me.  And the demeanor of the rowdier “bleacher bums” was probably a little off-putting for a shy, barely teenager.  (I think I recall smuggled-in fried chicken – but maybe not.) However my father, an extroverted factory worker, would have quickly settled in with our fellow adult male seatmates – all of who to my recollection seemed to be hardcore followers of the gray-uniformed visiting team.

Dad had taught me how to keep score at our first Stadium visit – the arcane shorthand of “K” and 6-4-3” was one of my first intros into what I took to be the secret world of adult male wisdom – so I probably kept track of this contest.  But I was never much of a collector, so as a result the card and the ticket stubs ($1249.99 on eBay) are long gone.  The one memento of my Yankee Stadium history that I do still have is the pencil signature of movie actress Greer Garson (ironically) on a piece of that game’s scorecard whom my mother, on her only trip to a Yankee ballgame, spotted in the stands and badgered me into approaching.  It is pasted with the date May 1, 1954 in the old, half-filled autograph book, which I still inexplicably still have – along with the likes of Harry Agannis, “The Range Rider”, and (it turns out) Bob Turley who (as you may see in italics) came to the Yankees from the Baltimore Orioles at the same time as perfect game pitcher Don Larsen.


Going into game 5 the series was tied two games apiece with the Dodgers having won the first two at Ebbets Field and New York taking the next pair at their home.  Attendance for this game was 64,519.  Larsen had started the second game on Friday October 5 and lasted 2 innings, giving up 6 runs (4 unearned) in what would turn out to be a 13 – 8 Dodgers’ victory.  The final score of this game would be 2 – 0 in favor of the Yankees who went on to win the Series in 7 games.

 Apparently one of the key defensive plays of the 5th game was Mickey Mantle’s running catch of a Gil Hodges line drive in deep left center field, aka “Death Valley”, near our location.  He was my favorite player, so you’d think that I might remember that.  But no.  Mantle also accounted for one of the two Yankees runs with a solo home run in the fourth inning – his 8th of 18 career Series round-trippers.  Again, no.  The other run was an RBI single by Hank Bauer driving in Andy Carey who had singled and been sacrificed to second base by Larsen.   

For the Dodgers Manager Walter Alston fielded a batting order of: 
Junior Gilliam 2b, 
PeeWee Reese ss, 
Duke Snider cf, 
Jackie Robinson 3b, 
Gil Hodges 1b, 
Sandy Amoros lf, 
Carl Furillo rf, 
Roy Campanella c, 
Sal (“The Barber”) Maglie p
and Dale Mitchell ph.    

In 1956 Robinson’s playing level was deteriorating due to diabetes, and he would be traded in December to the New York Giants for pitcher Dick Littlefield and $35,000 – but the swap never materialized because Robinson retired to become an executive with Chock full o’Nuts Coffee. 

Even though I was a die-hard Yankees fan, but I did have  allegiances to some National League players – among them: Reese, Snider, Hodges, Robinson, Furillo, Campanella – and Dale Mitchell who turned out to be a key actor in the final scene of the game 5 drama..

I imagine that I felt the same conflicting emotions at that game that I do nowadays when a player of whom I am a fan plays against a team for whom I am rooting.  I wanted the Yankees to win, but I also hoped that my favorite Dodger players did well.  Yankee and Dodgers games were both telecast in Connecticut on UHF station WNHC Channel 6 from New Haven, so I had seen all of these players in action – albeit only on a 21” black-and-white screen.

Yankees’ Manager Casey Stengel’s batting order consisted of: 
Hank Bauer rf, 
Joe Collins 1b, 
Mickey Mantle cf, 
Yogi Berra c, 
Enos Slaughter, 
Billy Martin 2b, 
Gil McDougald ss
Andy Carey 3b
Don Larsen p.   

Larsen had joined the roster the previous year when, desperate to replenish their aging-out starting rotation of Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds and Ed Lopat, the Yankees acquired him along with pitcher Bob Turley and others from the Baltimore Orioles as part of a 17 player swap in exchange for such Yankee names as Gus Triandos and Gene Woodling.

The game 5 statistics are actually pretty minimal.  There were no errors, 2 double plays (both by the Dodgers), and the one home run by Mantle in the 4th inning off Maglie with nobody on base and 2 out.  No one was left on base and the one Sacrifice Hit was by Larsen.   

I probably could have come up with about three-quarters of the starting lineups based on my general baseball knowledge – but that is not the same as hearing in my mind the echoing voice of Public Address Announcer Bob Shepherd introducing each one of them.  As a sandlot player for a while I had tried to emulate Gene Woodling’s close-legged, crouched batting stance.  So rereading about the big Baltimore trade brought back the feelings of betrayal and disloyalty that sports followers never really grow used to.  The preceding may not make any sense to those of you who skipped the italics portions. But the point is that none of my research resurfaced anything that I would consider an honest-to-goodness memory of that particular day. 

As I think about it, this is similar to my recollection of other significant events. I remember being in my dormitory room at the University of Connecticut listening to the campus radio station when I heard that President Kennedy was shot.  (A former dorm mate recalls me running down the hallway telling people the news.  But I don’t remember that at all.)  And I was at my health club on a treadmill when I saw the Twin Towers collapse.  (Neither my wife Marsha nor I can think of why I would have been there at 9:59 a.m. on a workday – but I am certain that I was.  She recalls telephoning me at work to tell me to watch CNN’s live Internet coverage.  I don’t.)

These incomplete but detailed recollections are sometimes known as “flashbulb” memories – recalling precisely when and how we learned about some major event, but not remembering other aspects of the incident with the same degree of clarity and detail. 

The 5th game of the 1956 World Series was, other than one thing, not a great game to a 13 year-old who wanted to see run-scoring, base-stealing, and defensive gems from all of his favorite players.  As we did at other times, I suspect that my father and I shouted “chatter” at the players, and ate at least one hot dog and a bag of peanuts.  But that’s all based on us doing what we did every other time.  Or maybe that’s just the way I wanted it to be.

My only actual memory of World Series game 5 starts with two outs in the top of the ninth and Pinch Hitter Dale Mitchell at the plate.  Above the tense silence I heard one of the nearby Dodger fans praying out loud for Mitchell NOT to “please strike out.”  Then, after he did, standing and cheering as Yogi Berra jumped into the arms of Don Larsen and the entire Yankee team rushed out to the pitcher’s mound to celebrate.         

Apparently for me the flashbulb went off at the penultimate moment of the game, and faded out after I witnessed live-and-in-color the so-called “everlasting image” that all but 64,519 of us saw in black and white the following day in their local sports pages.

The next morning my homeroom teacher Mr. Kramer greeted me as I came into the room.  “How was the game?” he asked.  “Good”, I replied.  He smiled.  Maybe that was when I actually became aware of what I had witnessed.  Or maybe it was relief at not being hauled to the office for playing hooky.  Whatever the reason, I remember that also.

Marcel Proust’s epic, multi-volume novel “Remembrance of Things Past” – the ultimate paean to a person's power to remember things – begins with the narrator re-experiencing the taste of a madeleine cake soaked in tea (one of his childhood delights) “and suddenly the memory revealed itself. ”  Proust called such happenings “involuntary memories” – not retrieved by putting conscious effort into remembering events, people, and places, but instead triggered spontaneously and therefore containing “the essence of the past.”  

Perhaps the madeleine effect could bring about my own remembrance of things past.

 In the early 1950s, there were two brands of frankfurters sold at Yankee Stadium (I told you baseball keeps track of everything): Hygrade's all-beef and Stahl-Meyer all-beef, as well as S-M's beef 'n pork. Unfortunately today the vendors at the park peddle Nathan’s Famous.

Hygrade’s franks are now produced by Toronto Canada’s Maple Leaf Company (“Saucisses fumes, Tout Boeuf), and Stahl-Meyer is still produced at 1560 Boone Avenue, Bronx, NY 10460.  While “Tout Boeufs” may share the ethnicity of the madeleine, I fear that its memory-invoking powers might have been lost in translation.

However a little taste of S-M might just whip my memory into shape.

1 comment:

Bram said...

Current neuroscience is kind of backing Billings up — turns out our brains are not recorders with a play button, they're storytellers that change and embellish with every retelling.

And, as you mentioned it. Mindful of that, at least once a year I try and consciously remember my 9/11, but still wonder if I'll ever know how much of it happened.