Brick by Brick
A confluence of short, narrow thoroughfares -- Sullivan, Empire, Flatbush -- formed the boundary of the famous Home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Ebbets Field. The street trio came to a point at the main entrance known in more glamorous days as the “Rotunda.” It was marble-floored and domed with blinking stars in a painted sky, trimmed with small caged windows, the ticket booths.
The almost square block on which Ebbets Field stood had at one time been nothing more than a huge hole, some thirty feet deep, sheltering squads of squatters who had existed there like ground moles for years. Eviction notices were served, the hole filled in, and I watched Ebbets Field as it was built. Brick by brick.
Ebbets was an edifice of charm to Brooklynites the day it opened, in 1913. I was only 12 years old at the time and had no idea of what was to come.
Twenty-five years later, May 16th, 1938 to be exact, the place where I pulled on my first big-league uniform was also where my jersey and socks came off for the very last time.
The dam broke and my tears poured. I was engulfed by the terrible realization that it was all over. The life I had lived, loved, and believed would never end, could not be revived. I just stared at Ebbets Field from outside its gates, thinking, stupidly: “Take me back – I’m not ready to quit. I want to go on.”
The saddest day for someone who has played professional baseball for 23 years has got to be the day he is dismissed forever -- carrying inside him the gnawing, biting knowledge that it is over. Never again will he accept the challenge of the game, or continue to perpetuate the dream he so fantastically pieced together as an impressionable youngster.
For me, the saddest day had arrived. It was over. Worse than that it ended in tomb-like silence, steeped in bitter humiliation.
I had no quarrel with my release. I was 38 years old. I had served my time. I expected the calamity. But when it came, it caught me unprepared, and to make a bad situation worse, none of the officials of the Brooklyn club, nor its manager, was gracious enough to say goodbye, or even offer an expression of good luck. Not even close. I arrived at Ebbets Field at about 12:30, and as I entered the clubhouse I saw Heine Manush and Roy Spencer standing by their lockers, still in their street clothes. I asked, “What’s with you guys -- a day off or something?” Manush didn’t crack a smile. “You’ll find out,” he mumbled, almost to himself.
My locker was the last one at the end of a line. When I reached my chair, a Western Union telegram was laying on the seat with other mail. I sensed what was to come, and there it was:
BURLEIGH ASKED ME TO ADVISE YOU HE IS GIVING YOU UNCONDITIONAL RELEASE TODAY STOP HE WILL SEE YOU AT CLUBHOUSE BUT WE DID NOT WANT YOU TO READ IT IN PAPERS FIRST AND COULD NOT REACH YOU ON TELEPHONE. JOHN McDONALD.
My arm was spent, my legs were gone and my time was up. I was not the only one. The Dodgers, that year, were a shambles of a ball club. Ebbets Field itself showed unmistakable signs of severe wear, tear and neglect. It used to be a wonderful park, similar in atmosphere to Wrigley Field in Chicago, one of those small diamonds where everybody knew each other. You’d have box seats and wave across the field to somebody else on the other side. This was my initiation into big-league baseball.
In right center field, at Ebbets, to the left of the scoreboard, was a big gate. It was only used for trucks that brought in provisions for the concession stands and things like that. It wasn’t for the fans, but it featured two huge wooden, heavy oak doors, with cross-beams to bolster them. If you were clever, you could put your foot on the lower beam, climb the gate and get over it.
One day, when I was about 14, I scaled the fence out there in right center field and dropped down inside. By George, Charlie Ebbets, Jr., who was tall and lanky, happened to be there -- not on the field but in a box out near the right field fence -- and he saw me. I was like a fellow late on making a double play. I didn’t know which way to go. I stood there and hesitated, which gave Charlie his chance. He was a big, tall, mean, son-of-a-gun, and decided to take out after me.
I saw him come running from the grandstand. He leaped over the box seats and started out toward the scoreboard along the right-field fence. I took off around the left-field fence and boy, I never ran so fast in my life. I slid around there with him after me. Then I got down to the box seats in left field, way over to the grandstand, and I leaped over the seats. He was gaining on me a little bit and I took two steps at a time, up into the back of the grandstand. Spectators in the stands were cheering me on because nobody liked Charlie Ebbets, Jr.
I skidded along the back of the grandstand and I was afraid. I didn’t know if I was going to get clouted, or put in jail. Nevertheless, I ducked into the first door I saw and what do you think it was? The Ladies’ Room! I was afraid to go any further in, or to come out. I could hear the crowd yelling, and luckily the room was empty. A little while later, I peeked out and everything seemed okay.
Charlie never did find me.
Yet there I was, 25 years later, caught.
Everybody is, eventually.
It’s so useless to tell any old ballplayer, “Well, you had your day.” Listen, nobody can take away from me what I had in this game of baseball. For me, there were four episodes in particular. The first was being signed by the Giants at age 15 as the youngest-ever big-league recruit at the time. I was thrilled at being cast into the role of public figure. Next came August 1919, when I made my second appearance in a big-league game, pitching for the Boston Red Sox versus Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers, winning 2-1, in 12 innings. I was walking on a cloud that night.
Then there was the second game of the 1921 World Series, pitching for the Yankees against the Giants and beating them 3-0, allowing only two hits. That was the series in which I pitched three full games, 27 innings in total, allowing just two runs, both of them unearned. Finally, being notified of my election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969, along with Stan Musial, Roy Campanella and Stan Covaleski.
Of some 11,000 players who had participated in big-league baseball at the time of my induction, fewer than 150 had been elected to the Hall of Fame. If there is a pinnacle of anything, that would be it. Very few people experience it. Nobody’s going to take that away from me or any of the memories and the wonderful things I’ve thought of and done -- the thrill of standing out there on the pitcher’s mound, the exhilaration of winning and the disappointment of losing.
Even losing becomes, perversely, a very great feature. The intense disappointments that you suffer sometimes makes you feel you’re alive just as much as sticking a pin in you makes you jump out of a lethargy. Sometimes my heart goes out to the loser. I feel more quickly for the guy who’s defeated in a tough one because there is no compensation for that. It’s as if the bottom has dropped out of your world, like the kid who crashes his brand-new bicycle on Christmas morning. It is utterly devastating.
I lost two of the toughest games that ever were lost in a World Series. The first was the final game of the 1921 World Series when Roger Peckinpaugh made an error in the first inning. The ball came to rest behind him about 15 feet in the outfield and he couldn’t find it. The runner for the Giants made it to home plate from second base. Neither side scored for the rest of the game. Then, in the last game of the ‘26 Series, when Pete Alexander came in and struck out Tony Lazzeri. In that game there were three errors by our side. In both games, my pitching was not the problem.
It just carves me up, that’s all.
A few personal effects had to be collected from my locker: gloves, shoes, sweatshirts and other items of little importance. Then the goodbyes. No great displays of emotion there. Professional players are inured to trades and other sudden changes in their careers. It was a simple, “I’ll be seein’ you.” I was then made to wait three hours for my final check to be prepared but with that in hand, along with a feeling of complete desertion, I plodded slowly out of Ebbets Field.
The emotional impact was sort of dulling, like that of a guy who had taken too many pain pills. As I stood outside, in the middle of Sullivan Street, looking up at the flapping pennants atop the roof, it seemed the whole history of my life -- my career -- rushed by in rapid review, yet clearly defined. Accented scenes and events, catalogued in importance, underscored in influence, picturesque in degree and circumstance.
When I signed that major-league contract with the New York Giants at 15, I surrendered to temptation, just like my high-school English teacher, Miss Scoville, said I would. She called me in and told me, “Waite, I wish you would reconsider your decision. Professional baseball is a rugged game, and not for a young man like you.” She saw a very different future for me and wanted to help guide me there.
“If you finish your schooling here,” she said, “I will tutor you through the school of journalism and you’ll become a writer.” Then she took a long, serious look at me, shook her head ever so slightly and just about whispered: “But I suppose the glamor has got you.”
She was right: The glamor did have me.
I have often thought about what would have happened had I taken Miss Scoville’s advice and gone to a school of journalism. Lots of times, in lots of ways, I wondered if I wouldn’t have been more at peace with myself had I chosen to go to art school. I was happier painting than I ever was pitching. I have an aesthetic side and I do like, without reservation, the beautiful and gracious things of life, the wonders God has given us. I always believed in my innermost self that I was a person of two parts, the aesthetic and the athletic. Which was I really? I couldn’t fathom my true destiny in life.
Miss Scoville’s advice was on my mind when I was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the greatest honor of my life. I was now recognized for achievement within the one-percent of all-time great baseball players. It was a beautiful day in Cooperstown, and I was beyond humbled. Yet, I stood up on the dais next to Bowie Kuhn, the baseball commissioner, and after thanking everyone and saying all the usual things, I mused that I could have chosen to become a journalist instead.
I could have forgiven the audience for thinking: “What the hell does this guy want?”
Well, I never really knew what I wanted; that’s just the issue. I’m quick to confess it. When I review my life in its entirety, its escapades and the things I’ve done, it doesn’t present a rhyme or reason. I always had a feeling that I should get on with it, but didn’t know what I should get on with. The word “confused” appears so often in my own detailed account of my life, and it strikes me that I’ve been baffled always, not knowing what was coming next, whether I was acting properly or not, or making the correct choices in life. I was introspective, and found myself wanting a great number of times, but somehow managed to bolster my ego with a self-sufficiency that carried me over the rough spots. I must say, fortune was with me when it mattered most.
My entrance into the big leagues certainly came through odd circumstances. I managed to stay there. I gave 100 percent, 110 percent. I wasn’t a damn fool or kidding around with anybody. I led an exceptionally fine life, playing with the New York Yankees, the greatest team in the history of baseball. I gave it my best throughout my career, winning six World Series games, losing four and establishing records broken only by Whitey Ford in the ‘61 Series with the Reds. Some say I was one of the best clutch pitchers in the business and I had a very enviable reputation.
At the same time, my choices were scatterbrained. I was always an impulsive kind of fellow, and my life was a hodge-podge, a criss-cross, the peaks and the pits of experiment and failure and success, wonder and puzzlement. A lot of ballplayers experience that, but I got into such peculiar situations, and tried such odd activities.
Now, I don’t consider myself such an unusual type as Babe Ruth or a lot of other fellows who played ball, but I do believe I got into certain spots that other ballplayers didn’t. Ruth did, but in a different way. He was a little bit careless about certain moral codes and things of that kind. But it was all fun, exciting, and it was all, in a way, breathtaking. Babe played for a while in the minor leagues, for Providence, and of course he came out of St. Mary’s Industrial School in Baltimore. Cobb I don’t think played in the minor leagues at all. Neither of them experienced what I got myself into, at least in my early years. People are somewhat amazed when I tell them about it.
Why, I was only 16 and playing for Lynn, Massachusetts, in the minor leagues, when I had one of my very first lessons in absolute debauchery. We had this pitcher, a big, strong Southern guy named Carl Williams. In those days we didn’t have any refrigeration, but there was a button on the wall you could push twice for ice water. Carl had a big washtub in his room, a huge room, almost a suite. He’d keep ringing for ice until that washtub was filled and then put bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon in it. When he got back from the ball game, the ice would be pretty well melted and he’d ring for more ice.
The proprietor’s wife, Jenny, would bring up ice in pitchers or buckets. After several trips, she said she wasn’t going to bring any more ice. Carl got into an argument with her and threatened to spank her unless she brought more. They continued to fight and then Carl actually did it. He took Jenny over his knees, belly down, pulled up her dresses and in front of five or six guys, he whacked her bare fanny. She screamed words I did not yet know the meaning of.
My eyes popped as big as half dollars watching this performance.
I thought, “This is baseball?”
It couldn’t be. This was so far different from anything I learned as a child. I was brought up to come all cleaned, combed and fully dressed in jacket and tie to the dinner table, to hurry home when my mother called, and to be off the streets when the clock struck ten. All of the admonitions I had received from my parents were disrupted because they didn’t hold true here. There were obscenities and violations of morals. I began to think that this was the real world.
What had my parents been talking about?
It was difficult to hold onto my respectability, or my refinement. My mother always used to say, “That’s not refined.” Or, “People won’t think much of you if you act that way. They won’t think you came from a home of refinement.” Lord knows the minor leagues in those days were anything but refined. They were just an education in disillusionment and consequently I had a hard time justifying the path I had chosen.
I never wanted to consort with these unsavory characters when I was in the minor leagues. I was never accepted as one of them. I didn’t know about poker, or any of the card games. They didn’t include me in those things because I was just a kid. I was too young to drink with them and never liked gambling. I was never a good card player or a craps shooter. I’m not a horse-racing enthusiast. On the road, for a couple of years, almost every morning, Babe Ruth would come down to my room because my roommate, Joe Dugan, used to study racing forms. They’d call two of the finest handicappers in the country. Dugan and Ruth were doing very well with this; they were coming out ahead in 1928.
After either the ‘27 or ‘28 World Series, Joe went to Belmont, without the advice of the handicappers, and blew both his World Series check and his last paycheck of the regular season. That was quite a sum and he lost it all in three days. I wasn’t that kind of gambler. I would break the moral codes, or codes of normal behavior. When you’re gambling with your existence, you’re staying out at night when you shouldn’t, participating in events you shouldn’t and leaving yourself open to criticism.
I would gamble with life, sure, but never with money.
I gambled wrongly in 1930 and as a result got myself traded from the Yankees to Detroit. I had been successful the way I had been going and didn’t see any reason why I should change my philosophy or lifestyle just because my boss said so. I gambled with my place on the greatest baseball team of all time. I paid the piper for that. I can’t point to a risk where I’d cross a railroad track with the train coming. But in ignoring or defying the moral codes of society, the conservative formula for proper behavior, I admittedly was -- not a rebel -- but the bad kid in the classroom.
And yet, for 23 years in professional baseball, I had this great dedication to pitching. I had pitched in 687 big-league baseball games, 3,845 and ⅔ innings. I made 11 World Series starts and one in relief. My earned run average for those games was 1.83 and I allowed only two home-runs over 82-2/3 innings.
Then, it was over. Between 35 and 40 is the average age at which they read you out of the game. I was 38. I was finished.
I took one last look at that glorious temple of bricks, Ebbets Field, on that day in May, 1938, and began making my way towards the subway station. My mind was in a fog. I knew full well that my final exit from baseball, however timely and inevitable it may have been, was of my own making. For the last time in my baseball career, I had taken a fateful flyer with my choices in life, and set myself on one more path to places unknown and uncertain.
As I continued along to the subway station, concession-stand proprietors, whom I knew more than somewhat, cast a sympathetic eye, as if to say, “Too bad, knocked out of the box?” They hadn’t yet heard that not only had I never been in the box that day, but that I would never again be knocked out of it, nor privileged to grace the little mound in center-diamond. A few of them yelled out, “Hello, Waite!” when it really was,“Goodbye, Waite!”
They had no idea that each step I took was a few more inches closer to my oblivion.
© Tim Manners, 2022