The Old Ballgame
Peninsula residents risk injury to recapture what made baseball great.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
The largest contract Hall of Fame baseball player Duke Snider ever got was “$46,000 and a Cadillac.” That was some 50 years, when my father, then the managing editor of a small weekly newspaper in Los Angeles, earned about $7,000 that same year.
That salary ratio of nearly 7-to-1, Duke to Dad, seemed fair to me. Today, Snider, who hit 407 home runs in a career that ended in 1964, would make perhaps $15 million, and the editor of a small weekly, maybe $60,000. That’s a ratio of 250-to-1. No wonder today’s ballplayers are removed from the fans who help pay their salaries.
It wasn’t always that way. When I was growing up 50 years ago in Brooklyn, while the Dodgers still played there, many players lived in its neighborhoods, alongside teachers, carpenters, doctors and lawyers.
Unlike many of today’s superstars—who open their season this Monday, April 1—Snider is approachable. I know this because his locker was adjacent to mine at the Los Angeles Dodgers Adult Baseball Camp last month in Vero Beach, Fla. At 80, regal and reserved, he autographed memorabilia and chatted with admirers.
For a sixth straight year, I attended this weeklong February gathering of mostly middle-aged men, and two women, who still love to play the game.
Several Peninsula residents regularly make this journey to Dodgertown, the club’s pastoral spring home nearly abutting the Atlantic Ocean. There, where the club has trained since 1948, the streets are named after greats like Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax and Roy Campanella, and photos in the lounge and hallways recall the franchise’s storied history.
Sadly, the Dodgers will leave within two years for a new, bigger, more lucrative facility near Phoenix, much closer to their fan base in Los Angeles.
Last month, some 80 of us fulfilled our baseball fantasies alongside former Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers stars, including Carl Erskine, Maury Wills, Reggie Smith, Tommy Davis and Roger Craig, who managed the Giants from 1985 through 1992.
Baseball’s inherent and timeless charm, still vibrant within the 90 degrees in which the game is played, remains intact here. This compound is far removed from steroid use allegations or the fact that the average major league salary last year was $2.7 million.
A generation ago, players needed off-season jobs to pay their bills. Clem Labine, a fixture here for more than 20 years who passed away last month at 80, designed men’s clothing after the season’s last pitch was thrown. No wonder. After Labine, who played 12 years in the majors, helped pitch the Dodgers to the pennant and their only World Series in Brooklyn in 1955, he received $18,000 the following year.
The Dodgers run this camp each February and November. It started in 1983. At $4,395, it is not inexpensive. But that price includes virtually everything, including home and away jerseys and treatment by three trainers kept busy administering balms and bandages. After all, the median age is 53.
Fantasy campers, divided into six squads, play on fields immaculately groomed in preparation for the impending arrival of the major and minor leaguers. Games feature both ragged and sparkling plays. A dropped fly ball might be followed by a doubleplay, a botched ground ball by a running catch. Sometimes minds are willing, but bodies not. A calf muscle strained while running the bases slowed me.
“We have people who have some skills, and people who have limited skills,” says Monterey’s Marty Haskell, 66, a retired Secret Service agent who has attended four camps, twice with his son. “But the fantasy camp brings them all together because of their love of baseball.”
The diverse group included a chauffeur, a psychiatrist, a teacher, an insurance adjuster and a pharmacist from Fresno celebrating his 60th birthday. The youngest player on our squad was 35; the oldest was Denis Horn, retired manager of the Monterey Peninsula Airport. He’s 74.
I was at second base, pitched a little, and also played two full games at catcher, which was both tiring and humbling. Our team went 2-4, but results are quickly forgotten. No matter your age, it remains enormously enjoyable and invigorating simply to play baseball.
Retired Monterey business owner George Robinette, 58, is a Giants fan who first attended in 2003. “I come because I love the history of the game almost as much as playing it,” he says. “I wanted to learn about Jackie Robinson’s impact on the game from his teammates.” Robinette says he has returned three times “simply because it’s been so enjoyable to sit in the locker room or on the bench in the sun during a game and get direct answers from the Brooklyn guys.”
Three years ago, Monterey golf course marshal Don Davison, then 69, debuted. He took the mound in the first inning with bases loaded and none out and retired three consecutive batters, the first two on strikeouts, using almost all knuckleballs. He was joyous.
My team was managed—and I use the word loosely—by Rick Monday, a former Dodger and current broadcaster with a marvelously mellifluous voice, and Ralph Branca, who allowed the historic home run to Bobby Thomson that delivered the New York Giants the pennant in the ninth inning of the third and final playoff game of 1951.
A recent book, The Echoing Green by Joshua Prager of The Wall Street Journal, has vindicated Branca, 81. It details how the Giants violated a baseball canon and stole opposing catchers’ signs by using a high-powered telescope and a buzzer system to inform Giant batters whether a curveball or a fastball was coming.
Leader here among the former players was Carl Erskine, who two years ago wrote an appreciative reminiscence of Jackie Robinson, his Brooklyn teammate for nine seasons. Carl and his wife, Betty, bring their son Jimmy, 46, who has Down syndrome, to camp each year. When Jimmy was born, the Erskines rejected conventional advice to institutionalize him and, instead, raised him at home. What Jimmy cannot express in words, he conveys in enthusiasm and delight.
The end of the game between the staff and the campers is always followed with a special moment. This year was no different. As the mid-winter afternoon Florida sky darkened, Erskine, 80, headed out toward the mound at Holman Stadium, where he first pitched more than a half-century ago. This is the same man who won 122 games and pitched two no-hitters over a 12-year career in the big leagues.
He stood some 15 feet in front of home plate and tossed a gentle pitch to Jimmy, who tapped it and ran slowly but determinedly around the bases, taking a short cut here or there, as campers and staffers lining the baselines cheered with gusto. Jimmy ended the journey with a headfirst slide at home. He was safe, just as has been in the loving care of Carl and Betty his entire life.