New York isn't New York any more," said the man in the center of the group that stood at the railing and looked down into the great excavation across the street from the Radio City Music Hall in Rockefeller Center. "It's all part of a trend, all part of the decline and fall that's set in. Look what they've done here. They've torn down their finest sporting saloon. And for what?"
A man in a Burberry coat spoke up. "It's all done in the name of progress, sir."
The first speaker nodded. "That's what I mean," he said. "There's no respect for tradition. The Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field go next. Then we'll be down to one ball park. We're being turned into a second-rate town."
The speaker himself obviously had seen better days. His camel's-hair coat was worn and in desperate need of a dry cleaning. His Tyrolean hat was shapeless and faded and the brush was missing from it altogether. The attaché case he carried was battered and weather-stained. Yet because he was uniformed (however shabbily) in the approved New York manner, there was a certain air of sophistication about him.
January 11, 1960
"Just consider, gentlemen," he went on, "first they steal away two of our ball clubs, and the world championship flag that should be flying over Ebbets Field in Brooklyn has been run up the flagpole in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Next year, the word is that the Giants—our Giants, mind you—will cop the National League pennant for San Francisco. What are we left with? One ball club and a third-place one at that."
"That's just a temporary state of affairs, mister," an old man said. "The Yankees will come back strong next year, and we'll have a new ball club in that Continental League. That was announced by one of the big television sportscasters in his predictions for 1960."
The man in the camel's-hair coat looked at him and groaned. "A third league," he said. "Bush. Strictly bush. That's my point. Everything's second-rate everywhere you turn."
A man in a leather jacket broke in. "I'll tell you where your argument falls down, pal," he said, turning and smirking at the others. "Ever hear of a football team called the Giants?"
The man in the Burberry laughed. "There's one for you, my friend. There's nothing second-rate about the Giants!"
The man in the camel's-hair coat glanced from one to the other. "Give me a cigarette," he ordered. Nobody offered him one. Finally the old man said, "I've got a long butt here if you're not finicky."
"Give it to me," said the man in the camel's-hair. He took it and broke off the filter tip. The old man held out a match for him and he dragged deeply.
Exhaling, he said, "Nothing wrong with this. I've always said it's what's up front that counts."
"You're changing the subject, aren't you, Mac?" asked the man in the leather jacket archly. "Weren't we talking about the Giants?"
The man in the camel's-hair coat nodded. "Precisely," he said, flicking the ash from his cigarette butt, "and they prove my point that it's what's up front that counts. A great football team, I agree. But consider, my friends, isn't there a slightly greater one down the line in Baltimore? In other words, the Giants are second-best. They're the best we've got and they're second-best! Just like a young man you all know. A New York boy. A prizefighter. A heavyweight. As a matter of fact, since that Swede came over and knocked him silly, he's the second-best heavyweight in the world!"
The entire group was silent. The leather-jacket man squirmed uncomfortably. The Burberry man frowned. The old man shook his head. "Oh," he said weakly, "I think Floyd Patterson will take the Swede in the return match."
The man in the camel's-hair pressed his advantage. "Second-best," he cried. "Second-rate—or worse! Go on all down the line. Hockey? The Rangers are last in the league. They have not won a championship since '42. Basketball? The Knicks are in the cellar, a player has to take over as coach. They offer to trade anybody on the roster and there are no takers. College football? Columbia was last in the Ivy League. College basketball? We put on the Holiday Festival and all three New York teams are knocked out of their own tournament. The thing is even getting to the animals. A French horse they train on artichokes comes over here and beats Trader Horn in the International at Roosevelt. And who was named dog of the year?"
The old man rubbed his chin. "Wasn't it some mutt from up in The Bronx? A boxer or something?"
"It was not!" exclaimed the man in the camel's-hair, "it was a lousy Pekingese from Atlanta!" He tossed away the last fragment of his cigarette butt. The man in the leather jacket pulled out a pack. "Here," he said, "take a fresh one. I didn't offer you one before because I thought you were a phony. But I can see you're a man who knows what he's talking about where sports are concerned."
"Thank you," said the man in the camel's-hair, throwing back his outer coat to reveal the narrow lapels of an Ivy League Executive Model suit that looked like it might have been slept in. He accepted a light and inspected the filter tip. "Aha," he said, "excellent smoke. I like the recessed element here. It avoids filter feedback. I consider this little recess to be the most important quarter inch in smoking today."
IN DAYS OF OLD PAYOLA
The old man looked at him in awe. "That was on television. Say, used you to be an advertising man or what line of endeavor were you in?"
The man in the camel's-hair smiled at the old man patronizingly. "No," he said, drawing on his cigarette and exhaling slowly, like a man savoring a Corona-Corona, "it so happens that I was handling disc jockey payola for one of the big outfits before the bottom dropped out of the business."
"Is that a fact!" said the man in the leather jacket. "I'm terribly...."
"Don't feel sorry for me," interrupted camel's-hair. "Just remember all that I have said and add to it that Toots Shor's that used to stand right in front of us here is now just a hole in the ground!"
"Toots Shor's!" cried the old man, trembling with excitement, "that was the hangout for all the sporting crowd. I used to watch them come and go. Gil Hodges of the old Dodgers, I've seen him go in. Joe DiMaggio, he was a regular up to the last. Oh, they all came, baseball players and football players and hockey players and coaches and managers and umpires and sportswriters!"
The man in the camel's-hair smiled benignly. "I was one of the sporting crowd," he said. "A pal of Toots. Always at the big events. On the 50-yard line at the football games. Ringside at the big fights. In a box behind the dugout at the Series."
"I know one thing," said the old man knowingly. "You had to be known to even get in Toots Shor's. Am I right or wrong, mister?"
The man in the camel's-hair shook his head. "You didn't have to be known to get in. But you had to be known to get one of the good tables. Tourists were permitted, but table-hopping and autograph-seeking were not permitted by Toots.
"New York was New York," he went on, "in those days. We had the big events, we had the champs, we had the big crowds. We had the big sportswriters. Why, when we'd fly out to some special occasion, like the Derby or the All-Star Game, people would point us out and you'd hear them say, 'That's the New York crowd in the seats down front there. That's Toots Shor and his pals, the various celebrities.' "
Suddenly, deep in the crater below, there was a great explosion as the dynamiters blasted the solid rock of Manhattan Island in search of a foothold for the skyscraper hotel that was to rise out of the ruins of Toots Shor's saloon.
It brought the man in the camel's-hair coat back to reality. His shoulders sagged and his cigarette hung limply from his drooping lips. He turned around and looked at the faces of the little group gathered around him. The tears filled his eyes.
"It's all gone now," he half sobbed. "It's all over now. There's no place for the old gang to congregate. They're scattered all over town. They've got no pride left. Nobody respects New York any more. We've got no champs. No big games. We used to brag about big crowds—60,000 in the Stadium. Now they're laughing at us in L.A. Out there they put 90,000 in the Coliseum all the time. They're laughing at us. And we've got no comeback. We're second-raters. Our best is only second-best."
Nobody had an answer. Finally, the old man spoke up, as kindly as a grandfather to a child. "Don't feel bad, mister," he said soothingly. "I just happened to think of something we all forgot. We got one champion, we got one young fellow who's the best. That boy in Brooklyn named Bobby Fischer. Just this week he won the national chess championship for the third time!" There were excited cries from the group: "Yes, yes! Of course, of course! We do have the chess champion!"
The man in the camel's-hair fell back against the railing as if he had been struck a blow. "A chess champion," he groaned, "a kid, a teenager, a champ too young even to be served at a bar." He buried his head in his hands.
The man in the leather jacket put a hand on his shoulder. "Take it easy, pal," he said. He turned and started away. The old man followed him.
The man in the camel's-hair coat raised his head. "Wait!"
The others stopped and looked back.
"Boys," cried the man in the camel's-hair coat. "I wonder—I'm not holding temporarily—and I wonder if one of you could stake me to the price of a Bloody Mary?"
They just looked at him.
"For one of the old crowd? For one of the New York gang?"
The man in the leather jacket and the old man and the man in the Burberry shook their heads and vanished.
And then, except for the roar of the traffic and the screams of the cab drivers and the window-rattling explosions of the dynamiters, a strange and poignant big-city kind of silence settled over the great chasm where once stood the meeting place of New York's proud sporting fraternity—back in the days when nobody cared who was champion at chess.