It was like playing in a ghost town. — Baltimore pitcher Zach Britton
You’ve heard of the Ship without a Crew. Last Wednesday it was the Game without a Crowd, Camden Yards entering the Twilight Zone as the man who wrote “The Raven” put his stamp on the Field of Dreams. For the first time in history, a Major League game was played with the fans locked out. Of those nine innings in a vacuum, what should have been a dramatic high point, the moment Chris Davis of the Orioles hit a long home run, produced only a small, quick, brittle sound instantly buried in silence (“But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token”) as the white speck disappeared from view, landing on Eutaw Street a few blocks from the spot where in the early fall of 1849 Edgar Allan Poe was found lying on the pavement, delirious, in mortal distress, outside Gunner’s Hall tavern.
The official explanation for the bizarre state of affairs in Baltimore is that the gates to Oriole Field had been closed to protect fans from the “civil unrest” set off when Freddie Gray died in police custody. Or perhaps, as I prefer to think, Poe’s perturbed spirit whispered the idea in the ears of the mayor, the owners of the Orioles, and the commissioner of Major League Baseball. That might help explain grotesqueries such as the recorded singing of the National Anthem into the “quaint and curious” void and the organist playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for the benefit of 46,000 empty seats during the seventh inning stretch.
Locked Out of the Hall
The idea of organized baseball denying entrance to its fans has ironic resonance if you’ve been reading Princeton resident Mort Zachter’s Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life (University of Nebraska Press $34.95), about a great player and manager who has been denied entrance to Cooperstown. Eminently qualified players like Pete Rose and Mark Maguire have been excluded because they did not live “Hall of Fame” lives while Gil Hodges did just that. As Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci says of Zachter’s book, “In these pages you understand how Hodges defined what it meant to be a role model in a golden age.”
It’s reported that the foul balls retrieved from the empty seats at last week’s fanless affair were collected for the Hall along with other relics. Thus do the gatekeepers of a domain built for the fans enshrine a surreal event that could serve for a painting illustrating the ignominious effects of the 1994 strike. So it goes: baseball trivia finds a place in Cooperstown but not the man who hit 370 home runs and managed the Miracle Mets.
The empty stadium in Baltimore also has elements in common with the fate inflicted on the Dodgers faithful following the 1957 season a mere two years after Brooklyn’s first and only world championship. The forces that shut down Ebbets Field violated a neighborhood gathering place where some of baseball nation’s most colorful crowds convened every summer for the better part of a half century, until the owners absconded to the West Coast with the beloved Bums.
The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn’s classic memoir of Brooklyn and baseball, put the depth of the loss into words: “Ebbets Field was a narrow cockpit, built of brick and iron and concrete, alongside a steep cobblestone slope of Bedford Avenue. Two tiers of grandstand pressed the playing area from three sides, and in thousands of seats fans could hear a ball player’s chatter, notice details of a ball player’s gait and … see the actual expression on the actual face of an actual major leaguer as he played. You could know what he was like!”
Hodges Was Here!
Mort Zachter grew up haunted by the ghost of a field without a game, a city without a team. The first sentence of his preface states the specifics: “I was born in Brooklyn four months, twelve days, and six hours after the Brooklyn Dodgers played their last game at Ebbets Field.” Clearly he was also born to write the life of the only Dodger star who “still called Brooklyn home after the team moved to Los Angeles” and “lived a few blocks away from where I grew up. Every morning as I walked to my elementary school, PS 197, I crossed Bedford Avenue and looked north in the direction of Hodges’s home, proud that he had stayed.”
Hodges was “a visible figure in the neighborhood” and “could be seen walking his dog, a German Shepherd named Lady Gina, down Bedford Avenue or stopping by Gil Hodges Field on McDonald Avenue to watch the kids play, or buying Marlboros at Benny’s Candy store on Avenue M.” The reference to Marlboros stings a bit once you learn that Hodges was a heavy smoker who would die of a heart attack in 1972, at age 47. Zachter ends the preface recalling how “if you walked into Benny’s candy store shortly after Hodges had left, you could hear the owner…in a voice so filled with excitement you would have thought the Dodgers had just moved back to Brooklyn, saying over and over again, ‘Hodges was just here, Hodges was just here, Hodges was just here.’ “
The cover of Zachter’s book features a close-up of Hodges, the rough, grizzled, middle-aged manager of the Mets, frowning, intense, eyes narrowed, chin propped in his clasped hands. Tom Clavin and Danny Peary’s 2012 biography, on the other hand, shows Hodges the Brooklyn Dodger slugger in his prime, blue-eyed and young, bat poised, face free of lines except for the furrowed brow, his gaze fixed on the pitcher. The pose reminds me of the color portraits of players I used to paste in scrapbooks. My devotion to the Dodgers’s arch rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, didn’t rule out a 10-year-old fan’s fondness for other stars. While my feeling for Hodges centered on his resemblance to the ultimate Cardinal Stan Musial (two role-model-worthy coal miner’s sons with lopsided grins), what clinched it was knowing he’d grown up in southern Indiana, like me. The fact that his birthplace was a town called Princeton meant nothing at the time, of course, but now that I’ve spent most of my adult life in another Princeton, I can’t help smiling when Zachter refers to young Gil “on the playing fields of Princeton,” or when I read that as Hodges’s casket was being carried out of a Brooklyn church the organist played “Back Home in Indiana,” just as the Ebbets Field organist did every time he hit a home run.
A further absurdity concerning Hodges’s exclusion from the Hall of Fame is that by all rights his career as a star on one of baseball’s most storied teams should have been enough, all by itself, to save him a place there with his teammates Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and Roy Campanella. Yet on top of that, he led the hitherto cosmically hapless New York Mets to their miracle, the winning of the 1969 National League pennant the vanquishing in five games of the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Though few Brooklyn fans accepted the notion that the Mets could ever in any way take the place of their Bums, what Hodges had accomplished in his brief term as manager was like a microcosm of a half-century of Dodger history, a team that went from being the joke of the National League, a perennial loser, to a dominant force.
Hodges the manager is shown in action in Zachter’s prologue, “His Reputation Preceded Him.” As the title suggests, it was the big man’s stature, along with his “reputation for integrity” and the fact that he’d always treated umpires with respect (one of the rare players who had never been thrown out of a game) that enabled him to convince Lou DiMuro to reverse a crucial call in what proved to be the turning point of the fifth and deciding game of 1969 World Series against the Orioles. As Zachter describes it, “Hodges didn’t yell or scream. He didn’t have to. It was all measured and calculated—even the modulation in his deep voice.”
There are references to the persuasive power of Hodges’s voice all through A Hall of Fame Life, one of the most powerful examples being the night in Washington D.C. when he talked a player out of suicide. This was when Hodges was managing the lowly Washington Senators and one of his best pitchers, Ryne Duren, drunk and despondent, had climbed to the top of a bridge over the gorge on Connecticut Avenue and was threatening to kill himself. Zachter quotes from Duren’s autobiography describing how Hodges came to the bridge with the police and told him, in that voice, “You’re too good to do this to yourself.” As Zachter relates in the epilogue, Ryne Duren “overcame his demons, stopped drinking, and worked to help other athletes with their addictions” before he died in 2011.
I wonder what Gil Hodges, the “role model in a golden age,” would make of last week’s strange doings in Camden Yards. Most likely he would join the city, the owners, and the commissioner in opting for caution over tradition. Still, it’s possible to imagine him seeing the empty stadium as a symbolic defeat, a surrender to death in life over what might have been a validation of baseball’s right to be called the National Pastime. Perhaps he would have told the powers that be, in that voice of his, “You’re too good to do this to yourself.”