Baseball and Marxism
by Peter St. Clair
in Brooklyn (and Boston)
Every spring when the snow melts away and baseball season rolls around, my thoughts turn to Brooklyn where I was born and grew up in the baseball-crazed New York of the ’50s. Despite the fact that I’ve lived in and around Boston for the last 45 years, it was in Brooklyn that I first fell in love with baseball and with my team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. When I turned eight in 1955 my family moved from a crowded little apartment off Newkirk Plaza to the wilds of Flatlands and into a little three-bedroom duplex that I thought of as a mansion. The kids on the block were baseball crazy as were most of the people in the world as far as I could tell, kids and adults alike. There were three teams in New York and my extended family was divided in their loyalties. Most were Dodger fans but my grandmother loved the New York Giants, even though they played in Manhattan in the very strangely shaped Polo Grounds, and my cousins who lived in the projects in lower Manhattan rooted for the Yankees.
I grew to hate the Yankees who seemed to beat the Dodgers every time they met in the World Series. I had just developed this passion for baseball and I eagerly listened to the stories about the many times the Dodgers had made it to the Series only to lose to the Yankees, usually in some excruciating way. My father liked to tell the story of the ’41 Series, when the Dodgers had the 4th game in the bag only to blow it, with two outs in the ninth inning, when catcher Mickey Owens dropped the third strike, letting the batter, Tommy Henrich, reach first. The Yankees went on to win the game and the Series.
In the fall of 1955 the Dodgers won the National League pennant and met the Yankees once more in the World Series. The Dodgers had never won a World Series but they won that year and all of Brooklyn celebrated—none more fervently than me. I ran home from school in time to see the last innings on TV. Vin Scully, the Dodger announcer, called the last play—a grounder to Reese, up with it over to Hodges and the DODGERS WIN THE WORLD SERIES! I burst through the screen door onto East 54th Street whooping and yelling. My younger brother and I became fanatical Dodger fans and baseball card collectors after that.
We attended a couple of games the next year at Ebbets Field with my father and my Cub Scout troop and two more the following season, 1957, that I remember quite clearly. I was 10 and my brother Jimmy 7 when we came up with a brilliant idea for a Mother’s Day present: we would take Mom to a night game in Ebbets Field. We didn’t need a scorecard. We knew all the Dodgers’ names from their uniform numbers. That wasn’t so unusual but Jimmy even knew the Cincinnati Reds by their numbers. What we didn’t know, what we could not even fathom, was that this would be the last year that the Dodgers would play in Brooklyn. They left for Los Angeles the next season tearing out the hearts of their poor loyal fans like my brother and me.
We also left Flatlands and the nice—almost rural by Brooklyn standards—neighborhood of trees, backyards, and empty lots perfect for playing baseball, for the hard concrete and barbed-wire neighborhood of Boro Park, where we played stoop ball and stick ball in the street and soft ball on the cement schoolyard field of P.S. 192. The neighborhood of mostly Italian and Jewish kids took different paths in dealing with a post-Dodgers baseball season. Some, like my friends the Bosco brothers, Anthony and Louie, still rooted for the Dodgers from afar while others like Jimmy and me wrote them off in the manner of jilted lovers. If the Giants had stayed we probably would have gone over to them but the evil Walter O’Malley, owner of the Dodgers had talked the pliable Giants’ owner, Horace Stoneham, into moving with him out to California and so the Giants left New York for San Francisco. That left the Yankees as the only game in town. It was out of the question for us to root for them but for the next four years we took plenty of subway rides up to the Bronx on Sunday afternoons to watch American League doubleheaders at Yankee Stadium. I saw Ted Williams and the Redsox, Al Kaline’s Tigers, the White sox, the Indians, the Orioles. We always went with a gang of kids and giant hero sandwiches to last us through the six or seven hours it would take to play the two games. Brooklyn rebels among the Yankee loyalists, we rooted for whatever team the Yankees were playing. I was an anti-Yankee fan. It was my first taste of nonconformity.
Although we hated the Yankees we loved their stadium, especially the policy of allowing the fans onto the field at the end of every game. This was to allow them to exit through the large overhead doors in the outfield wall. By the end of a long double header the box seats would empty out and the kids would line the rail ready to pounce when the last out was made. We were supposed to walk along the warning track in an orderly fashion and out the exits. The ushers would line up to try and keep us off the grass but we would dodge around them and run madly after the players as they trotted to the dugout, maybe try a slide into second base before we were chased off the field. It was a lot of entertainment for a buck and a quarter.
In 1962 the national league expanded to 10 teams and the New York Mets were born. As far as I could tell, all of Brooklyn became immediate Mets fans. We forgot all about the Yankees and the American League and spent the next two years travelling by subway to the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan to watch the lovable losers play. Only double headers of course—why pay to see one game when for the same money you could watch two? Ebbets Field had been demolished after the Dodgers left but the Polo Grounds, where the Giants had played since the nineteenth century, still stood and so the Mets refurbished some of it—it held over 50,000 fans and the Mets never figured to fill it so they left the outer grandstand rusted and unpainted. Jimmy and I and our friends Wimpy and Chipper roamed over the whole ancient structure during long summer double-headers (very long sometimes because although the Mets rarely won they often battled their rivals into extra innings). I followed the Mets to their new home, Shea Stadium, in 1964. Met fans relished their underdog status. Unlike the Yankees with their long list of championships, a Met victory in those years was a truly rare event, one to be savored.
The Yankees continued to win pennants in the early 1960s while the Mets set records for losing. As a teenager harassed by my parents at home, teachers in school, and cops on the street I identified with the underdog Mets. The Yankees represented the authorities. As my 18th birthday approached it felt like the authorities were closing in. The Vietnam War was raging and my friends were getting drafted. I had been a patriotic kid who played war almost as much as baseball but in my childhood fantasies I was always on the good side, fighting the Nazis or the Commies. Now, with the counter-culture seeping into my life in the form of music (Bob Dylan) and underground comics, I began to see the Americans as the aggressors and the Vietnamese as patriots fighting for independence, first against the French colonialists and now against the U.S., The Vietcong were looking more and more like the Mets to me and I wasn’t looking forward to getting drafted by the Yankees.
I saw an ad one day in the East Village Other for draft counseling given by an anti-war group in Manhattan. I went to the office on Beekman Street with my friend Wimpy and listened to their counseling. By the time I left I had decided that the only right thing to do was to join the Draft Resistance Movement and turn in my draft card in protest against the war.
I moved into a commune in Red Hook with four other Brooklyn draft resisters. We organized teach-ins on local campuses and draft card turn-ins. We marched and demonstrated in the growing anti-war movement. I was a serious opponent of the war and refused induction into the army at Fort Hamilton in January, 1967, prepared to go to prison as an act of civil disobedience. I was sent home after my refusal and later indicted. As my case dragged through the court system I was educating myself in the history of radical politics, learning about the labor movement, socialism, and Marxism. While my interest in baseball waned, the anti-war movement grew and I became more involved. I moved up to Boston for a summer to participate in what was called the Movement School, a series of study groups run by Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.) on many Boston area campuses.
Boston in 1969 was an amazing sight to a kid who grew up in New York and had never been farther from the city than Jones Beach. The skyscrapers of today had yet to be built. The skyline was the low brick buildings of the Back Bay and Beacon Hill with the golden dome of the State House in the center. It was 19th century all the way with its trolley cars and cobblestone streets. I loved it and never left, though it took me five years to realize I wasn’t just visiting from Brooklyn.
I was very impressed with the knowledge that my fellow Movement School students (mostly graduate students and S.D.S. members) displayed of history, politics, and Marxism until a visit from a leader of the Weatherman faction of S.D.S. convinced most of them to quit and join that militant splinter group. Believing at the time that they could start a revolutionary party was enough of a stretch but to think that the time was ripe for actually fomenting revolution by attacking the police and bombing recruiting offices was madness. I couldn’t understand how these seemingly intelligent people could buy it. I left the study group but continued to study on my own and with like-minded socialists.
After the anti-war movement crested in the student strikes of 1970, the Weathermen, the Progressive Labor Party, and other so-called vanguard parties tore it apart with factional fights. Most of the participants went back to school, found regular jobs, or moved into liberal politics or community organizing.
I had won my case against the draft in Federal Court in Brooklyn when Judge Jack Weinstein found that my draft board had no basis for denying me a conscientious-objector deferment just because I used Spinoza’s pantheistic arguments in my application. However, the board reclassified me 1-A and I was drafted again, refused to take the step forward again, and was sent home to await a new indictment or arrest.
As the political movement began to ebb, my interest in baseball was starting to rekindle. My old friend Wimpy had some trouble in Brooklyn and had to leave town for a while. I was the only out-of-towner he knew so he showed up one day and stayed. A few days later we wandered over to Fenway Park and bought two grandstand tickets. The little ballpark looked beautiful to us and the closest thing I’d ever seen to Ebbets Field. I felt at home among fans that wore a B on their hat and hated the Yankees as much as I did. My radical politics had given me a new view on baseball history as well, starting with the Dodgers’ move out of Brooklyn.
Back in 1952 the minor league Pacific Coast League was elevated above Triple-A status, making it close to a major league. TV had reduced most minor-league attendance but the Pacific Coast League, far from any major league cities and enjoying milder weather, was thriving. They were petitioning to become a third major league but the current major league owners were loath to share the bounty. Walter O’Malley, a bankruptcy lawyer working for the Brooklyn Trust Company, had worked his way into a controlling interest in the Dodgers. He saw the money to be made on the West Coast and felt that he, rather than some minor-league owners, should reap the profit. Baseball wound up expanding to the West Coast after the Dodgers and Giants moved there, with teams eventually established in most of the formally Pacific Coast League cities: San Francisco, L.A., San Diego, Oakland, and Seattle. The minor-league teams from the Pacific Coast League were bumped back to Triple A-status and had to move to smaller, less lucrative cities. The greedy O’Malley, the quintessential capitalist, played games with New York’s Mayor Wagner and Robert Moses, negotiating to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn while all the while conspiring with Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham and the city of Los Angeles to move them.
I began to see baseball history as a metaphor for the development of capitalism, with the Yankees in the capitalist role and the Brooklyn Dodgers as the workers, repeatedly defeated in their attempts to overthrow capital but picking themselves up and trying again, despite the odds and the overwhelming resources of their oppressors.
I even had a new take on the Yankee’s rise to power—“The Great Yankee Conspiracy.” A hundred years ago three teams dominated the American League. Between 1915 and 1920, the Red Sox, the White Sox, or the Cleveland Indians won the pennant while the Yankees never made it beyond third place, but a series of events changed the fortunes of those teams. First, in 1919, the notorious New Yorkgambler Arnold Rothstein fixed the World Series by bribing eight key players on the Chicago White Sox. After the scheme was uncovered the eight were banned from playing for life. The White Sox became perennial bottom feeders, not competitive again until the 1950s. Then the cash-starved owner of the Red Sox sold the Yankees not only the greatest player of his era, Babe Ruth, but numerous others, over the years supplying the Yankees with a string of stars and resigning the Sox to being the door mat of the American League for years to come. The Cleveland Indians, American League champions in 1920, were the only team standing between the Yankees and the pennant until Yankee pitcher Carl Mays killed their star shortstop Ray Chapman with a submarine pitch on August 16, 1920, at the Polo Grounds. After that the Indians just didn’t have enough. The Yankees beat them for the pennant in 1921 and again in ’26.
Is this all just coincidence? Is it just mingled anti-Yankee and anti-capitalist paranoia? Who knows? But as a new baseball season begins, hope once again springs eternal in the breasts of baseball fans and socialists everywhere.
With apologies to my cousins and other unwitting Yankee fans.
ContributorPeter St. Clair
PETER ST. CLAIR was born and raised in Brooklyn and served thirty-three years on the Somerville, Massachusetts Fire Department before retiring as a Deputy Chief in 2010.