Persons of a certain age and regional orientation should be forgiven if they persist in regarding the World Series as more of an auditory than a visual experience. Television did not catch them in their formative years; they first saw the World Series through the eyes of a radio announcer. The Series was listened to at home, in the back seat of autos, among a cheering crowd clustered outside a small-town appliance store or record shop.
The Series was seen only in the mind's eye, but there the figures grew much larger than they ever would on the small screen. People of this vintage might see the Series as artist Stanley Meltzoff's heroic groundkeeper sees it in the evocative illustration on the following pages—as personal fantasy. No matter that the groundkeeper swings his bat after the game has ended and that he is a cleanup man in the most literal sense. The romance of baseball, of all sport, is in its capacity for stirring fantasy. We are never too old or too bothered to see ourselves wrapping up a World Series victory with a homer in the final inning of the seventh game.
Meltzoff's paintings are of last year's Series between Oakland and Los Angeles, but they could as well be of any Series. The game and the players may change but, through the generations, the fans never do. Their hopes rise and fall, as do those of Meltzoff's Dodgers' and A's fans at right, with the fortunes of their team. The World Series is a sporting event that is both common and exceptional; it is neither as pompous nor as tense as, say, a Super Bowl or a heavyweight championship fight. Baseball is an earthier attraction. And yet it remains a game of gathering tension, and nowhere is this element better demonstrated than in the Series, where nothing that happens is meaningless. Finally, there is the matter of tradition. The World Series has been with us so long that there can be but few among us who can recall a time when it did not exist.
As a Californian, I first thought of the Series as a rare spectacle that sometimes occurred in such exotic places as St. Louis or Detroit, but mainly in New York City, where a San Franciscan was gallantly upholding his own city's tradition of baseball excellence. He was the Yankee Clipper, Joltin' Joe DiMaggio. "Joltin' Joe...." There was a song by that name, and you could hear it, during its brief tenancy on the charts, as you strolled by the radio stores on your way home from school. What was it the man had done to merit a hit swing tune of his own? The lyrics gave few clues, and, out of fear of appearing misinformed in this most important area of juvenile scholarship, I observed a tactical silence, believing that in time the source of Joltin' Joe's magic would somehow be revealed to me. He seemed a hero out of all proportion, one who even clouded the memory of the baseball player we had all heard about, Babe Ruth.
October 12, 1975
The radio finally explained it: DiMaggio was getting a hit every day that summer of 1941. Nobody, not even Ruth, had done that. Joltin' Joe, the Yankee Clipper, could do everything else, too. He could hit home runs and run down the longest, hardest-hit fly balls. Best of all, he was one of us, a local boy.
The World Series that year was the first I paid much attention to. I was aware, if only dimly, that the Dodgers had won a dramatic victory in their league and that Brooklyn was an unusual place full of odd-looking people speaking a nearly unintelligible patois. It was a team and a place that seemed to seize the public that year. Such native expressions as "dem Bums," "dese" and "dose" and "it's fa da boids" were in vogue, even in San Francisco. The Dodgers were ragtag, dead-end-kid miracle workers. The Yankees were regal, the Dodgers were the canaille at the barricades. A natural inclination now would be to identify with the rabble, but then, inflamed by costume dramas, I equated the Yankees with the British Square confronting screaming hordes of barbarous tribesmen. The Yankees would teach the filthy heathen a lesson.
They did, in five games. The pivotal game was the fourth, in which the Dodgers were leading 4-3 with two out in the ninth. A win would tie the Series and possibly swing the momentum to Brooklyn. The game seemed actually won when Tommy Henrich struck out for what should have been the last out. But Providence intervened. Dodger Catcher Mickey Owen let the ball get by him, Henrich reached first safely, and the next hitter—who else but Joltin' Joe—singled to keep the strange rally alive. The Yankees went on to score four times and effectively clinch the Series. I heard that ninth inning in the back seat of a car—my great aunt's Studebaker, as I recall—and for the first time in my life I advised a woman to kindly shush while I listened to a baseball game. It would not be the last.
Television created new habits in dealing with the World Series. Now the games could be seen at home, in barrooms, at private clubs or, if one was fortunate enough to be employed by a newspaper, in the office. Before the weekday games became night games, playing hooky from the job was a common occurrence in the early weeks of October.
I did not see a World Series game in person until 1962, when my former heroes, the Yankees, now Joltin' Joeless but with Maris and Mantle, came West to play the Giants. It is a pleasure to recall, after this past season when the Giants were almost totally rejected by the community, how affectionately the team was regarded in 1962. The A's would not arrive to carve up the market for another six years, so the Giants had the only game in town. They drew 1,592,594 that year in a considerably smaller (by 15,000 seats) and even windier unenclosed Candlestick Park. It was also the year of the transistor radio, a device affixed to the ear of seemingly every other passerby. The late Russ Hodges' trademark exclamation, "Bye-Bye Baby," was heard in the finest Post Street shops, in the meanest Mission Street taverns and even, as an occasional soprano would complain, in the opera house. The Giants owned the town, and when they won the pennant, champagne flowed in the streets.
My newspaper had assigned me to do "color stories" during the Series games, a duty I perceived as seeking out people in funny hats. The job had two drawbacks: 1) I had no fixed seat in the sold-out ballpark, and 2) if I were to perform with my legendary assiduity, I would not see much of the games. I compromised by finding my oddballs before the games, then watching every inning while seated on the concrete steps of the stadium aisles.
The Series was thrilling enough, but disappointing. The vicious Willie McCovey line drive that would have scored Matty Alou and Willie Mays with the winning runs in the seventh game was caught by Bobby Richardson somewhere near second base. It was over just like that. I was numb in spirit and in the seat of the pants on my concrete perch. There was a kind of double anticlimax. The Giants had lost and I had seen the Series, if under circumstances far from ideal. What was there left to do now? Become President? Write the Great American Novel? Escape to Tahiti? That is the trouble with experience: it ruins anticipation.
How much more rewarding, in fact, was that Series heard from the back seat of a Studebaker, my first serious meeting with Joltin' Joe. We were to meet again years later. He and I were both patrons of a restaurant operated by Joe's close friend, Reno Barsocchini. DiMaggio would sit silently at one end of the bar, I noisily at the other. He is a private man, and in Reno's that privacy was strictly enforced. Five years ago Reno gave a party for DiMaggio on the occasion of his 56th birthday and the 29th anniversary of his 56-game hitting streak. It was something of an honor to be invited, since the majority of the guests were DiMaggio's old friends from Fisherman's Wharf. It was what DiMaggio enjoyed most, a private party. I was seated across from a man I shall call Charlie, because for the life of me I cannot remember his name. He had been a left-handed pitcher in DiMaggio's playground days, and he, too, was apologetic about being there. "I haven't seen the Clipper [they all called him the Clipper] much since we were kids," said Charlie. "I didn't think he'd remember me."
DiMaggio gave no formal speech. He simply greeted his friends, recalled old times, referred to a few of the guests by name. Finally, he spotted Charlie. "Hey, there's Charlie," DiMaggio called out. "Now Charlie here was as fine a young lefthander as I ever saw. Never could understand why he didn't make it to the bigs."
Charlie was flabbergasted. He looked as if he might cry. "Did ya hear what the Clipper had to say about me?"
Twenty-nine years had passed since he first held me in his thrall with his hitting streak and his World Series heroics, but I knew then I had never been wrong about Joltin' Joe DiMaggio.