The closest I had ever come to seeing the color green was in a jumbo box of Crayola crayons. I had seen shades of green. New York City buses were two-tone green, dark Kelly green on the bottom and a pale green on top. I noticed every one of them that ever rode down our street. But I remember the moment when I first truly saw the color green. It was August 31, 1963 just before dusk, one month shy of my eighth birthday.
The back seat of my parent’s red and white DeSoto offered a limited view as we began our trek from Sheepshead Bay to uptown Manhattan. Glimpses of steel, concrete, asphalt, telephone poles, electric cables and street signs were accompanied by an occasional bump over a New York City street. As a soon-to-be eight year-old, I knew we were going to a baseball game but had no particular expectations until my brother leaned over and said, “Wait until you see the grass on the field. You’ve never seen anything as green!” Up to that point, I really hadn’t been looking forward to anything.
Having an older brother to point out such things was my first realization of the role an older brother would play in my life. He told me what to look for and what to look out for, how to hold a bat and release a ball with a two-finger grip. I’m sure I would have noticed the brilliant green grass in the Polo Grounds, but my brother’s prediction made the grass seem more significant and even greener.
Going to the Polo Grounds was not an easy trip for my father. Though twelve years had passed since Bobby Thompson’s historic home run, my dad had lingering feelings of shock and grief returning to the Polo Grounds. As a former Brooklyn Dodgers fan, he clutched a certain ambivalence toward baseball. The Dodgers leaving Brooklyn must have felt like a child abandoned by his or her parents. Like many others, he never recovered. The Brooklyn Dodgers were only a memory and in returning to the Polo Grounds, they were a painful memory. My father managed to put his anguish aside and treat his family to box-seats between home plate and the visiting Milwaukee Braves dugout, just a few rows back from the field.
We arrived at the large, grey horseshoe-shaped stadium. Only 11,787 other fans were at the park that night. This was a small crowd by baseball standards. I thought it was huge. Getting to our seats involved the usual commotion associated with large sporting events. Most memorable was walking through the dark tunnel that went from the stadium concourse to the field level seats. My first sight was the haze that filtered my view of the outfield grandstands. My second sensation was the unusual aroma. I’m not sure if anyone has ever been able to identify the smell that lingered in old ball parks, a mixture of hot dogs, smoke and other unidentifiable elements. You knew you had gone from the outside world to the baseball world when you smelled it. I smelled it for sure.
My next sensation was to hear the stadium organist play tunes that seemed perfectly syncopated to the activities on the field – players tossing baseballs and groundskeepers watering the infield dust and laying down chalk-lines. The experience was indeed just as my brother had predicted. I truly saw the color green for the first time. A brilliant, living, verdant pasture placed perfectly against burnt sienna infield dust. The contrast bespeaks the genius that is baseball and the unique aesthetics of a baseball diamond. It was so unlike the various shades of green in my jumbo box of Crayolas. It would be a myth to suggest that no one in Brooklyn had ever seen grass before. But I know for sure that I had never seen this grass before and certainly had never seen grass as green.
I became a baseball fan that night. The Mets wore white pin-striped uniforms trimmed in blue and orange. Milwaukee wore dull grey trimmed in black and red. I would not have known that three Braves in the line-up would one day be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame – Henry Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn. My father was particularly focused on a young Braves catcher who he once knew as a summer intern at the American Stock Exchange, twenty three year-old Brooklyn-born Joe Torre.
My father told us the story of how he had encouraged Joe to skip college and play baseball. I saw Torre hit a home run in his first at bat and caught an up-close glimpse of him as he made his way through a crowd of fans after the game. There seemed to be a general impression that it was a big deal to see forty-two year-old Spahn pitch that night. He pitched a complete game, giving up three runs, eight hits and walking one batter on his way to his 18th win of the season. Pitching performances like that are unheard of today. The Mets lost 4-3, which in 1963 would have been considered a moral victory.
I ate a hot dog with Gulden’s mustard, peanuts and popcorn that came in an orange, white and blue paper megaphone. When I returned home I used it to mimic the public address announcer giving the starting line-ups, “leading off for the Mets, right fielder, number 23, Joe Christopher.” The game seemed long but I have no recollection of ever leaving. I only remember arriving. I remember the start of the game, but not the end. I suppose there is some symbolism in that.
I became a baseball fan that night and have never looked back. I recently realized that I was born at the moment the groundskeepers were preparing the field at Yankee Stadium for the opening game of 1955 World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees – the only World Series the Brooklyn Dodgers would ever win. Literally, from the very beginning, I was cosmically connected to baseball. I could not have picked a better day to be born or one that was filled with more optimism throughout the entire borough of Brooklyn. On the day I was born all of Brooklyn swelled with great expectations, for the Dodgers of course.
The Mets opened the 2009 season in a new ballpark that captures a nostalgic resemblance to Ebbets Field. The architecture likely brings some healing to Brooklyn Dodgers fans who will forever feel abandoned. I am anticipating my first visit. If dad were still around, I’d tell him, “Wait until you see the entrance of the stadium and the Jackie Robinson rotunda. It looks just like Ebbets Field!”
As for me, I’ll be looking for the grass. It will be green.