Living History

263
Winter Hike - Aliza Abusch-Magder - jGirls Magazine

Dear Editor,

I’m writing this letter not because I think that what I have to say will actually change the minds of anyone, but because it’s important that our team knows what they’re leaving behind. I would not be who I am today without the help of our beloved baseball team who is leaving us all too soon.

Perhaps I should introduce myself. I was born on April 15, 1941. We were in the midst of World War II, and my immigrant parents had never been more glad to be in America. However, since my parents were poor immigrants, they couldn’t really afford a nice hospital. In fact, if my mother hadn’t been so worried about having her first child, I probably would have been born at home, or so the story goes.

It isn’t a nice hospital, they tell me. It’s kind of astonishing (and a tad bit worrying) that it hasn’t been shut down due to health codes. When you walk into the reception room, the smell of rubbing alcohol and rubber gloves smacks you in the face with such a force that some lose their balance as soon as they catch a whiff. The actual birthing room isn’t much better. There are no windows, and the room is poorly lit. There is only one flickering light bulb above my mother’s bed. Everything else is lit by candles or left shadowed in darkness. My mother is in labor with me for seventeen hours. Seventeen hours she has to lie in that dark, mildewy room suffering in a way only those who have given birth can know. Imagine trying to force a bowling ball out of you, she tells me. That’s what it feels like, nonstop, for seventeen hours. Doctors come and go, occasionally checking her contractions and asking her questions. My father doesn’t know much English, they tell me, so my mother has to answer all the questions. I can almost hear them now, my mother’s light Irish accent straining under the pain and pressure, trying to calm the frantic Russian spewing from my father’s mouth. The panic, the fear, and above all, the suspense of the moment has stuck with my parents forever, I think. Not in such a way that they live in fear, no. It’s more like the way an emotional and trying moment sticks with you and keeps you ticking, reminds you to go on, and gives you courage in times you really need it. I’d like to think that, being born into that fear and bravery, I picked up some of my mother’s courage.

When I finally did exit my mother’s body, the doctors picked me up and whisked me away immediately to check my vitals and weight and footprints and whatever else doctors do. Although my parents don’t say this in words, I can hear in their voice that they were afraid that I wasn’t going to come back. They feared that the doctors would take me and send me somewhere far away from them, or that they would be punished somehow for some crime they didn’t even know existed, because that’s all that they knew and all that they had experience with.

I did return though, healthy and loud and crying. My mother held me and they too cried, overwhelmed with joy and relief and gratefulness.

This was where the story used to end. But as I grew older and I grew to love baseball, my parents shared with me the true end of the story.

After my parents held me, the doctor came back in with a birth certificate. He recorded my parents’ names, my sex, the city and county, and so on. He asked my parents what my name would be. They told him. Victoria Keira Alyona. American, Irish, and Russian. Exactly what my parents wanted me to be. The doctor then went to write down the date. He paused and remarked to my parents, “It’s Opening Day. This little one is going to love that game, mark my words.”

My parents, being immigrants, didn’t really understand baseball nor what the doctor said, so they just nodded and went back to cooing at me.

I was never one to believe in zodiacs and horoscopes or really anything that could claim to predict my future. But if there was an exception, if I ever wanted to know something about myself, I think I’d go back to that doctor.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

A couple years after I was born, my parents had baby number two. This time, a boy, born at home, and named after my grandfather, Kostya. He was my best friend for several years, even after school started. No one would talk to the weird Russian girl who spoke in lilting Irish tones, if she ever even spoke in English. I was lonely and relied on my little brother for company. It was not a pleasant experience for a little girl. It was only when Rebecca (Becky) changed schools in the third grade that I had a real friend at school.

Becky is something special. She was one of those kids that was never afraid to speak their mind or talk when no one else would. First day of school, she saw me sitting alone and decided to sit with me and start up a conversation about my bologna sandwich. I’ve never met someone as fearless and oblivious as her. But even with her by my side, I still had no one to play baseball with aside from my brother.

You see, as long as I can remember, baseball has fascinated me. It’s incredible how a person, just a human person, can take a long stick and hit an object moving at around 90 mph. And not just make contact, but hit it with enough force that it can fly hundreds of feet and break windows and bones and noses. So, as soon as I was old enough to pick up a bat and toddle up to home plate, I started playing baseball in whatever empty sandlots I could find. And as soon as my brother could join me, he became my pitcher.

However, baseball is not a two person game. Even just on one team, there are nine players. For a full game, you need at least eighteen, plus base coaches and umps and the most important part, the adoring fans. I wanted all that. The neighborhood boys had all that.

I remember, one summer day in 1951, I was playing with my brother.

“That was a lousy pitch, Kos, come on. Gimme something I can actually hit,” I complained to my brother.

He mumbled something rude at me under his breath before shouting back, “Just throw the ball back, will ya? We don’t got all day.”

I rolled my eyes and hid my smile behind the old beaten down leather glove I’d found in a dumpster a few years prior as I picked up the ball. It wasn’t the nicest glove you could have, but it was free and functional and smelled like baseball, and to me, that was all that mattered.

After a couple more lousy pitches from Kos, he finally threw one that was halfway-decent, and lucky me, I managed to hit it. Far, far away.

“Woo-hoo! Didya see that, Kos? Did ya? Did ya? Betcha you could never hit one that far. Woo-hoo!” I jumped around celebrating my hit like only a ten year old could and rubbing it my little brother’s face.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, well now someone’s gotta go get it, Jackie Robinson. That’s our only ball, ” he taunted. “And you hit it, so that means you have to go get it.”
“No fair! You pitched it to me.”
“You didn’t have to hit it so far.”
“Fine, fine, lazy puss. I’ll get the stupid ball. But you owe me!” I called back over my shoulder as I dropped my glove by the bat and ran as fast as I could in the direction that the ball went. I was still so high on an adrenaline rush from hitting that ball that I didn’t even care where I was going. I didn’t care that I was getting closer to one of the more popular sand lots. I didn’t care that I could hear crowds cheering on boys not much older than I was. I didn’t care that I ran smack into a teenage boy trying to play his own game of ball with his team and his opponents and his coaches and umps and fans. Well, I didn’t care up until then.

“What do you think you’re doing, little girly?” The boy asked, not in a friendly tone. More patronizing than anything, really. “Don’t you know this game is for the big boys?”

My face went pale and my voice began to tremble. “I-well-I just-wanted…to get my ball back, you see, because I only have one and it got hit way over here and my brother and I don’t wannastopplayingandI’msorryIinterruptedyouguys’sgamecanIjusttakemyballandleaveplease?”

Once the words started coming they wouldn’t stop and they all just tumbled out of my mouth without ease or grace, tripping over themselves and my tongue and forgetting all of the rules about personal space.

The boy laughed. “Well, alright, little girly. You can take this ball back to your brother and you tell him that next time, either he comes to play with us or we don’t want to see this ball in here again, okay?”

I nodded my head vigorously, wanting nothing more than to get out of there as fast as I could. I didn’t even bother to tell him that I had been the one that hit the ball.

“Alright. Now, scat!” He handed me the ball and I ran away as quickly as I could, barely remembering how to get back to the familiar patch of street where Kos and I had been playing.

“Took you long enough,” grumbled Kos, not looking up from the ground where he was drawing designs with the end of the bat. “Where’d it go, the ocean or something?”

When I didn’t respond, Kos looked up and saw me, unwilling to move with tears tripping their way down my face. The look on his face immediately changed from annoyance to one of brotherly concern as he ran over to me and hugged me. “What happened, Vi?” he asked me.

“The ball went into the neighborhood boys’ game,” I whispered against his shoulder, tears pooling in my eyes. “They called me ‘girly’ and told me to scat.”

“Oh, Vi…” Kos hugged me even tighter. “D’ya want me to go over there and tell ‘em off? I’d do that for you. You know I would. I’d do anything for my big sis.”
I stepped back and dried my eyes. “No, Kos, don’t worry about. We’ll just avoid them from now on. I never liked ‘em, anyways.”

“You sure?”
“Sure,” I sighed. “Let’s go home now. I bet Ma’s almost got dinner ready.”

We headed home together, me holding the bat over my shoulders like you see all the pros do, and Kos holding the ball. No one had ever said anything like that to me before. I didn’t ever tell anyone, but that was the day I decided I would never play with any of the neighborhood boys, no matter how much I wanted to. They were just too mean, and besides, they wouldn’t want a ‘girly’ on their team.

Now, just because I wouldn’t play with those boys doesn’t mean I stopped playing. I played almost religiously with my brother. Baseball was as much a religion to me as Christianity was to so many others. When there was a Dodger game on, I was at home listening to the radio. When I turned twelve, my parents got me my own handheld radio that I could take with me anywhere I wanted. I know it cost them a lot of money, but they said that they’d been saving up for something special anyways. Besides, now it meant I didn’t have to stay in all the time during the summer. My parents never found the money to go to Ebbets Field, but I heard all the stories and saw all the pictures and read all the newspapers so I knew what it would be like. I wanted nothing more than to walk in the gates and see the Dodger Symphony and line up on the edge of the field to meet the players. I had planned out what I would say to each one, if I got the chance. But mostly, I just wanted to see baseball live. Real baseball, too, not the stuff the neighborhood boys play, or even what the schools lets us play. The real stuff. The professional stuff. Our apartment was just down the block from Ebbets Field, so we could hear the sounds of baseball when we opened our window. I could hear the chatter of excited fans, the cheer when someone scored a run or hit the ball or when a pitcher struck someone out. Sometimes, on real clear days, I could even hear the crack of the bat when it hit the ball and I knew that my ears would never hear anything more beautiful than that sound right there.

Even with all this excitement so close by, I was never quite satisfied. As you probably know, the Brooklyn Dodgers had never won the World Series. I mean, sure, we’d won the pennant numerous times and faced off in the World Series, but we never won. “Wait till next year,” I got used to hearing and eventually saying, “Next year’ll be our year.” And maybe I believed it, on some level. I never gave up hope. I never stopped wanting our Bums to win, but after so many losses, “next year” seemed millions of miles away. Or, at least, it did until 1955.

We won the pennant. That by itself is amazing and I could writes essays about the games leading up to that day and the days leading up to that game. But the day that really changed my life wasn’t until later, a date that has been seared into the mind of every Dodger fan.

October 4, 1955
It was unusually warm and sunny for an October day in Brooklyn. It was a Tuesday, which meant that I was in school. The game wasn’t scheduled to started until about one, but that didn’t really matter as I would still be in school. My parents weren’t willing to let me skip school for this game, and I wasn’t willing to not listen. So, I compromised.

“Vi, aren’t you worried about getting caught?” Becky whispered at me, glancing furtively towards the teacher at the front.

“Well I wouldn’t be if you didn’t keep looking at the teacher,” I whispered back, only half-joking. “Shhh! The game is back on!”

I put my ears up to the small, portable radio I had snuck into school that day and attempted to listen to the game. Unfortunately, in order to not get caught, the volume had to be down pretty low, so I could only barely hear Connie Desmond and Vin Scully as they narrated the game.

Ms. Barkley kept droning on and on about triangles or prisms or something dull like that. Luckily, it kept her busy enough that she didn’t notice me in the back of class with my head suspiciously close to the inside of my jacket. I’d been doing this for about an hour now, and the only one still worried about getting caught was my dear friend Becky, whom I love, but who can be a bit of a worrier at times.

“…do you think, Victoria?” Ms. Barkley looked directly at me, with a look that made me think that she knew I hadn’t been paying attention.

“I, uh, could you repeat the question?” I asked meekly, trying to hide the radio.

“I asked you, what is the formula to find the surface area of a cylinder?” she repeated sharply.

“Oh, um….” I racked my brain, trying to think of an answer that wouldn’t get me detention. “Oh! Isn’t it the circumference of the circle’s base times the height of the cylinder plus two times the area of the circles?”

Ms. Barkley looked disappointed. “Yes, Victoria, that is correct. Now, onto spheres…”

See, reading the chapter before it was taught could pay off. I quickly tuned her out again and tuned back into the game, upset that I had to miss part of Vinnie’s narration.

“….and Amoros caught it! He actually caught the ball!” Suddenly there was static, and then I heard Connie’s voice again briefly, “Folks, I think this might be a game changer for the Brooklyn Dodgers here…” I heard him announce, but without any context, I had no idea what it meant. What did Amoros catch? He’s an outfielder, he should catch fly balls all the time. And why was this a game changer? I hated being left in the dark, especially during a game like this. Why wouldn’t the teachers just let us listen in class? I glared at Ms. Barkley as if it was her fault that the game was during school hours. Worse yet, my handheld radio was beginning to lose signal from being in my jacket, so I couldn’t even hear most of the game. I glanced at the clock. Two. Only another half hour until I could go home. Hopefully the game wouldn’t be over by then.
Suddenly, the old PA system crackled to life to inform us that we would be listening to the game for the rest of the school day, as it was a distraction to too many students and there was no way to keep up with all the portable radios students kept bringing. I wanted to jump out of my seat and celebrate but I knew I had to keep it cool if I didn’t want detention. So instead I just smiled and slipped my radio in my backpack, careful not to let anyone else see besides Becky, who shot me a glare as if to say, “This is all your fault. Now we’re not learning anything.” I just rolled my eyes at her and whispered. “Relax, it’ll be fine.” She crossed her arms and legs and turned away from me in mock anger, but I could tell she actually wanted to hear what was happening in the game, too. The PA system gave up a quick update, and then tuned into the game. Fortunately, the radio wires at the school were a little bent, so the signal got picked up a couple minutes late. Usually, this would make me groan, but in this case, it meant I got to hear the part that I missed.

“And the ball is going straight to left field! It looks like that’s an easy double for the Yankees…but wait! Sandy Amoros is running…he’s running…he might actually catch it folks! He’s close, close, close….and Amoros caught it! He actually caught the ball! He’s now throwing it to the shortstop, and then to the first baseman…that’s a double play! Folks, I think this might be a game changer for the Brooklyn Dodgers here…”

I suddenly understood why this was a game changer. I could see the ball flying down the third base line, just barely in, swift as a cheetah. Amaros must’ve really been running his ass off to get to it, and to still have the mindset to throw it back? This was incredible. Usually by this point in the games, something incredible, something improbable and amazing has happened. It was usually for the Yankees, but this time, it was us. We caught the impossible catch, and made the impossible play. It was then that I knew that we were going to win the World Series.

The rest of the day was kind of a blur. I remember when the game ended, almost three hours after it had started. We’d all stuck around at school because no one wanted to go home and risk missing something on the way there. Waiting in silent suspense, we cheered when something good happened but quickly quieted down so we wouldn’t miss anything. Finally, the game drew to a close. The score was 2-0, Dodgers, and when that final out was called, I just remember hearing Vin Scully say one thing:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Brooklyn Dodgers are the champions of the world.”

That was it. Nothing more. At the time, I questioned why that was all he said, but looking back, I understand. Everyone was so choked up with emotion that if he had said anything else no one would have understood it. Just an incoherent babble of emotion and joy and euphoria. Above everything else, there was this sense that this couldn’t quite be real.

Those who weren’t there question why this meant so much. But they didn’t know. They don’t know. The Dodgers were ours. Even when they were the Bridegrooms or the Superbas, when they were the Bums, when they lost the World Series to the Yankees five times, we never gave up on them. Those Bums were the most important team in the universe to us.

Everyone celebrated that day. Even those who didn’t love baseball. Even those who didn’t know baseball. Everyone knew that this day would go down in history as the first World Series won by the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was unforgettable. There were parades and songs and drinking into the night. I could hear the car horns honking and the people cheering way past midnight, and no one seemed to remember that the next day was a Wednesday and they most likely had work or school in the morning. It was fantastical and almost unbelievable. All people could say was “It’s next year! It’s next year!” and yet that never got old or boring or repetitive because it’s all we were thinking. And somehow in the middle of all this euphoric chaos, I found myself back at a sandlot I hadn’t visited in four years, surrounded by boys I swore I’d never go near. I found myself walking up to boys and informing them that I’d like to play too, that I’d been playing by myself and with my brother for years and now it was my turn to play on the team, that if the Dodgers could win this game I could play in theirs.

I found myself being turned down, and being laughed at. A girl? On a baseball team? Please. No girl could play with the neighborhood boys.

“You’re a girl, you can’t play with us.”
“Who do you think you are, asking to play with us?”
“Sissies can’t play with boys.”

Those words echoed around my head as I found myself walking home in a daze, but whether it was a jubilant daze or a stunned daze or a depressed daze or maybe all three, I may never know. The rest of the night and the following days are all scrambled up as well. I put away my old leather glove and the chipped bat and worn down ball. It was fall now. Baseball season was over. I almost felt like I could never see another baseball again and be satisfied because all I’d ever wanted was for the Bums to win. The good ol’ Brooklyn Bums, who represented the lower class of NYC, who met their fans on the field, who had the most loyal fans and loved them all equally, regardless of where they came from. The Bums, who had broken the color line when they took in Jackie Robinson. The Bums, that I’d pictured meeting so many times before. So many times, that I knew what I’d say them when I met them.

As I went to sleep that night, and the next night, and the next night, and so on for many many months, I kept turning these thoughts over and over in my head. Throughout the 1956 season (which, unfortunately, was not as successful) and the school year and the summer and my 15th birthday and whatever else happened that year, those thoughts were spinning around inside.

It wasn’t until Walter O’Malley announced that he was moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles that whatever I’d been turning over in my head began to form more clearly.

I knew what I’d say to the players: but what would the players say back?

“Listen, Vi, don’t let nobody tell you who can and cannot play baseball,” I can hear number 42 telling me. “Don’t you let nobody dictate who can play with who and who can play where. You don’t like them boys? Don’t play with them. But don’t quit playing because somebody don’t like you. Find somebody new and nice to play with.”

And you know what? Jackie’s right.

So, like I said when I began this whole mess, I know what I’ve written isn’t going to change O’Malley’s mind and the Dodgers aren’t staying here. And while there’ll never be a day in Brooklyn darker than when our Bums leave, they’ve left something behind. I want to tell you that I, Victoria Keira Alyona, am going to take those old Parade Grounds outside Ebbets Field and start my own league. For anyone. Boys, girls, young, old, white, black, immigrant, whatever. We’re taking the spirit of Brooklyn and Ebbets Field and planting it solidly in these old sand lots.

So, dear Editor, I hope you read this and remember a time when the Dodgers inspired you. I hope you can remember what it was like to be a child and to long for the day when you would come out on top. I hope you publish this, not only for me, but for all the children out there who have had no one to sit with at lunch, and as a reminder, that the underdog always wins.

Sincerely,

Vi

Accompanying Photo: “Winter Hike” by Aliza Abusch-Magder