Out of the mists of time--and the Off-Track Betting parlor on
86th Street in Brooklyn--comes one of the last icons of the
golden days of Ebbets Field, that fabled sward where baseball
players were real men, and their fans were raving lunatics.
Frankie Germano is 77, and facial surgery for a suspected
malignancy has left him looking, he moans, "like Popeye." But as
he shadowboxes into his smoky basement apartment, flinging
phantom uppercuts at invisible enemies, it is clear that he has
lost little of the passion that earned him an hour of fame a
long lifetime ago.
It was Sept. 16, 1940, after a Monday game between the Dodgers
and the Cincinnati Reds in the beloved little ballpark that
survives today only in the reverie of a brokenhearted borough.
Walking across the diamond toward the stadium exit--as
spectators commonly did at many big league parks then--Germano,
a young, black-haired scrapper from the Brooklyn waterfront,
confronted, berated, knocked down, straddled and repeatedly
pounded a 230-pound National League umpire named George
Magerkurth, who had made a crucial call against the Dodgers.
It was the Ebbets Field taunt made real--"Kill the umpire!"--and
for an instant in the twilight, it seemed as though Germano
August 18, 1996
As it turned out, he didn't. The 51-year-old umpire survived,
uninjured. Germano, 21, was hauled away by the police. But by
the next morning, as the photographs and headlines swept
Brooklyn and its suburb, New York City--and as Germano was
paraded into magistrate's court on Snyder Avenue, escorted by
cheering Dodgers fans who had gladly coughed up to pay for his
lawyer--the legend had been secured.
NEVER A DULL MOMENT OUT AT EBBETS FIELD, the Brooklyn Eagle
chortled. "The little man had his big day in Flatbush
yesterday," wrote the Eagle sports editor, Jimmy Wood. "Our
Frankie will become ex-officio a member of the Hall of Fame."
"He bolted from the stands, knocked Magerkurth to the ground,
and proceeded to pummel him with his fists," wrote Stanley Cohen
in his 1992 book Dodgers! The First 100 Years.
And so it went. Little Red Riding Hood had eaten the Big Bad
Wolf. A humble fan had decked the brawny ump. In fragrant,
florid Brooklynese, "Da woim had toined."
Fifty-six years later, Ebbets Field is the name of a housing
project and Frankie Germano is sitting at his kitchen table,
down near Coney Island, his throat in bandages, his arms
pumping, his eyes dancing.
We have met through an improbable chain of connections that
include Mary Blevins, Frankie's companion of more than 30 years;
Junior's Most Fabulous Restaurant in downtown Brooklyn, where
Blevins has worked since the early 1960s; a book I wrote in
which Blevins appears; and the manager of Junior's, Alan Rosen,
who, one morning when I was in the joint, motioned toward
Blevins and asked me, "Do you know who her husband is? He's the
guy that slugged the umpire!"
"I was a real fan--a Dodger fan," Germano says. He is talking
about how Magerkurth (pronounced MA-jor-KURTH) reversed another
umpire's call on a bobbled force-out attempt by the Dodgers at
second base and the Reds went on to score a run and win 4-3 in
10 innings. "Magerkurth called the guy safe," Germano complains.
"He shoulda been out. There was a big stink. It lasted 15
minutes. Durocher came out, kicking dirt and everything."
Leo Durocher, a dapper dictator of incendiary temperament, was
the Dodgers manager and young Frankie's idol. "I was a Durocher
man," Germano says. "Wherever Durocher went, I went. When he got
mad, I got mad."
That afternoon at Ebbets Field, they both got mad. "Durocher
gets thrown out," Germano resumes, still grieving. "Cincinnati
wins the game. Now I'm mad. I'm burnin'. I jump down to the
field, and I'm walkin' out toward the clubhouse, where the
Dodgers go. Who walks right in front of me? The ump!
"I said, 'Hey, George! Why don't you go back to the minor
leagues? You're a bum!' He called me a name. I called him a
name. He made like he was going to push me out of the way. I
thought he was going to hit me. I started throwin'
punches--right hooks! Uppercuts! Then I thought, Hey, this guy's
too big for me! I'm gonna sit on him! So I did."
This is precisely the position in which photographers captured
Germano: a stocky young man, in pleated trousers and a polo
shirt, mounted astride the startled arbiter and whaling away at
him while a few ushers and fellow fans stand, beaming, in the
distance. In the next day's Eagle, there was Germano landing a
crisp right to the cheek of George Levi Magerkurth, who in his
youth had fought as a professional heavyweight in the Midwest
but now found himself on his back, gamely trying to answer
Germano with a knuckle sandwich to the yap.
What the accompanying articles did not say was that Germano was
on parole from the New York State Vocational Institute at West
Coxsackie, south of Albany, where he had served part of an
18-month sentence for assault. The newspapers got wind of his
record pretty quickly. On the Tuesday morning after the ball
game, two reporters showed up at Frankie's mother's house, a
three-story walk-up near the Brooklyn cargo terminals.
"I threw 'em down the stairs," Germano recalls. "Now they take
me down to Snyder Avenue, and I gotta answer these charges. I've
got four months left on my parole. I get to the courthouse, and
all the photographers are there. I'm on the front page of the
New York Post. I'm in Life magazine. The courtroom is filled up.
Magerkurth is there. You know what he says? He says, 'I don't
want to press charges.' He was a nice man."
Durocher was fined $100 by the National League for "inciting to
riot." Germano was ordered by the judge to complete his sentence
at West Coxsackie, where he occupied himself as a sparring
partner for Jake LaMotta and Rocky Graziano, two fellow juvenile
miscreants who later became wealthy and honored in the fight game.
"The story will make the rounds tomorrow and become a legend
next week," Wood predicted in the Eagle, and he was right. Unfed
by truth, the fable of Frankie Germano grew on rumor. In 1989 a
book called Baseball Anecdotes, by Daniel Okrent and Steve Wulf,
noted that "the mugger was an ex-con" and quoted Germano as
saying, "I had a partner in the stands that day. We were doing a
little business." Germano swears that he never said this and
that he had no partner in larceny.
No matter. In 1987, Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo, authors of the
book Baseball Hall of Shame 3, which included the Germano story,
appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, displayed a photo
of Germano whomping Magerkurth and asserted that the attack was
a premeditated diversion designed to draw everyone's attention
while an accomplice of Germano's picked pockets in the crowd.
By then Magerkurth, who worked home plate the day in 1932 that
Babe Ruth allegedly called his home run shot against the Cubs
and who officiated for 18 years in the National League, had died
at the age of 77 in Rock Island, Ill. The Dodgers, of course,
had been stolen from the Brooklynites who loved them, and
Germano was working on the docks. Often, when he was in a bar or
the OTB parlor, someone would come up and ask about the day he
slugged the umpire, and Germano would turn away and shrug. "They
would shake my hand and want to meet me," he says now. "But I
never wanted to talk about it."
A year and a half ago Brooklyn's hero got a funny feeling in his
mouth and lost his taste for food. Doctors suspected cancer,
performed tests, found a polyp, took a biopsy and ordered
radiation treatments. The therapy ate Germano alive. He lost 40
pounds, couldn't wear his dentures, couldn't take solid food.
Except for the World Series, he stopped watching baseball; he
couldn't stomach the salaries and the labor disputes. The
incomparable apple pies Blevins brought home from Junior's Most
Fabulous would sit uneaten.
Now, in his apartment two blocks from the sea, Germano asks,
"Who knows how long I've got left?" But neither I nor Blevins
has the answer.
"Do you know what they wrote in the Eagle the next time the
Dodgers played?" I ask, trying to lighten the mood.
"What?" says Brooklyn's hero.
"'It was a dull day at Ebbets Field. Not a punch was thrown....'"
Allen J. Abel lives in Toronto. His book "Flatbush Odyssey" was
published in 1995.