Happy Smith Goes to Brooklyn: Chapter 3

The Bridge to the Future

brooklyn superbas happy smith baseball card

Henry was weary from what should have been a one week cross-country journey but wound up taking three times that long and looked forward to the last stretch that now lay before him. After numerous sleepless nights in cramped quarters, his legs which usually carried him effortlessly around the base paths felt like lead as he approached the bridge.

The final leg had taken another two and half days rolling past stock yards, wheat fields, and industrial parks with stops in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Scranton, and Philadelphia before entering New York City through the newly constructed tunnel under the Hudson River and terminating in the brand new, palatial New York Pennsylvania Station. After his long journey he had finally arrived but somehow his mind was a step behind the reality and the conductor’s unceremonious “Welcome to New Yawk! Last stop” roused him from his temporary sleepless induced stupor.

He grabbed his suitcase and equipment bag and trudged upstairs to the main concourse but wasn’t quite ready for what greeted him. Pennsylvania Station’s huge, 150 ft. tall vaulted ceiling supported by pink granite Corinthian columns provided a regal framework for the mid-day sun as it sparkled through the glass and steel roof and gently reflected off motes of dust and the inlaid marble floor – the sum of which momentarily took his breath away and left him squinting. Standing in the middle of the largest indoor space in New York and one of the largest anywhere in the world, he was transfixed.

The voluminous interior space swallowed up the cacophony of hissing and puffing engines, screeching brakes, conductors announcing arrivals and departures and thousands of passengers shouting to be heard above the din and spit it back out as a kind of low, muffled roar that lulled the senses. The sound was so thick the huge gold Bulova clock suspended from the ceiling seemed to be ticking in slow motion. Frozen by the majestic beauty he suddenly realized that the world he was about to enter was a whole lot more than 3,000 miles away from Coquille.

As he walked outside the station the noises of the city immediately became much more acute – the clanging of street cars, staccato of horses, clicking of wagon wheels on cobblestone, puttering of automobile engines punctuated by air horns to warn people and animals as they approached were layered and dissonant. He’d been in New York for less than twenty minutes and he’d already experienced the overture and first movements of the symphony that was modern-day urban American life. In Oregon he had taken for granted the peaceful lull of gurgling brooks, streams, and rivers that crisscrossed the area surrounding Coquille broken only by the occasional high-pitched whining of a saw mill or the low moan of a passing barge’s fog horn.

Adding insult to sensual injury, the next movement of the New York Symphony he experienced was a sharp uppercut to the nose – a thick soup of acidic smoke and fresh manure hung in the afternoon air burning his nostrils. Until now his olfactory frame of reference was the crisp, pine-scented air of the Pacific Northwest interrupted only by the smell of fresh-cut logs or salt air when the westerly winds were sufficiently strong.

This sensual bombardment continued as Henry walked from 7th Avenue to Park Avenue where he descended the steps below the street to enter yet another station. This one was entirely beneath the ground and compared to the ornate Penn Station, the Interborough Rapid Transit System subway station was all business. He purchased a five-cent token, placed it in the turnstile, and entered the long narrow tube on the downtown side. The white tiled walls glistened and reflected the string of amber electric light bulbs that illuminated the platform, offset every twenty feet with smaller decorative inlaid tiles that spelled out the name of the station, 33rd St.

Within a few moments the large circular headlight of the oncoming train could be seen barreling into the tunnel and after it slowed to a screeching stop, Henry spotted the conductor through the window of a small booth in one of the cars pulling a lever which opened all the doors at the same time. He stepped into the car and was surprised that all the seats were already occupied so he joined the passengers who were standing and holding strategically placed leather straps to steady themselves as the massive car lurched forward to continue making its way to lower Manhattan. The car was lighted electrically too, but as soon as they cleared the station platform, they traveled exclusively through dark subterranean tunnels.

In a mere twenty minutes Henry arrived at the City Hall stop whose many opulent touches including curved archways and ceilings and stained glass skylights marked yet another page in his magical new world. Dragging his suitcase and equipment bag up the stairs, he exited the platform and re-emerged at the surface once again, directly in front of the grand, Federalist style City Hall building and its lush green park across the street.

Walking east toward the bridge, at the edge of the park Henry passed a vendor selling his wares from a pushcart adorned with hand-painted lettering identifying him as, “J. Russ, Purveyor of the Finest Pickled Herring and Polish Mushrooms in New York City” shouting through a heavy foreign accent he was unfamiliar with, “Hair-ring hee-yah, Getya Schmaltz hair-ring! Nickelapiece, Threefera dime!” and realized he hadn’t eaten anything all day. While he’d never encountered fish sold in this particular manner, as a native of the Pacific Northwest he was certainly no stranger to all variety of fish and was eager to try some. Mr. Russ selected three choice herring from the wooden barrel on his cart and wrapped them in a copy of a newspaper called The Fovitz, but other than the name in bold type, Henry could not decipher any of its words. he happily dug out a ten-cent piece in exchange and devoured them practically whole.

He took in the Manhattan skyline behind him and gazed in awe at the imposing visage that stood before him. The magnificent Eighth Wonder of the World, at the time of completion in 1883 the largest suspension bridge ever built, gracefully spanned nearly 1600 feet across the East River and connected Manhattan and Brooklyn, the newly incorporated Borough of New York and Henry’s newly adopted temporary home. Beside its younger siblings the Williamsburg, which inherited the title of world’s largest suspension bridge and the Manhattan Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge still stood out as the most majestic of the trio of lower Manhattan’s East River crossings.

More symbolically, this awesome structure represented a bridge to the challenges that lay ahead. Being the best outfielder in Southern Oregon’s amateur baseball leagues was one thing; New York had dozens of amateur teams and three teams in the newly formed professional leagues – it was the epicenter of the baseball world. Being paid to play for sophisticated cranks who actually bought tickets for the privilege of sitting in the grandstands of an enclosed ball park in the emerging professional National Base Ball League was an another matter entirely.

His self-doubts and perpetual lack of confidence were not nearly conquered – he had tried to ditch them on the West Coast and was partially successful in doing so based on the encouragement he received working out with the Seattle Giants for a couple of weeks… but somehow they managed to stow away and join him on his journey making the bi-coastal passage all the more fitful. He was convinced this was the path he was destined for, but his parents, while proud of his accomplishments as an athlete questioned whether this was a proper way to make a living. They had felt playing ball is merely a kid’s activity in which they saw no future.

He reasoned that it was in fact a new, growing profession and was quite competitive. If he didn’t give it a shot now, he’d never know whether he could have been successful. Besides, if he tried and it didn’t work out, he could always come back to Oregon and follow in his dad’s footsteps piloting steam ships or perhaps work the booming logging industry of the Pacific Northwest. After completing high school he spent two years in the U.S. Navy and had learned the skills needed to earn a living at sea but did not outgrow his love for the game that he excelled in since his teenage years.

In the end his mom came around, “You know, Eugene, Henry’s right…” But his dad cut her off, “I don’t know, Elizabeth, who’d want to pay hard-earned money to watch a bunch of grown men play a kid’s game? Sounds pretty damn crazy to me.” “Well dear”, his mom reasoned, “it’s really just another form of entertainment that more and more people seem to enjoy –I read in the papers it’s getting quite popular in the mid-west and out east. And if people are willing to pay money to watch them, what’s wrong with that?” Eugene was a hard-working sea captain, set in his ways – but after considerable cajoling eventually Elizabeth Smith got him on board and they provided Henry with enough money to make his journey to Brooklyn.

The butterflies in Henry’s stomach were overtaken immediately by the stabbing pains in his legs he felt as he began the steep climb over the bridge. He was carrying his entire wardrobe, paraphernalia, equipment, dreams, and fears in his beaten up leather suitcase and heavy-duty cotton duffel bag left over from his Navy days. In some ways the pain was a relief as he was distracted from his concerns about life in the big city and whether he had what it takes to be a professional ball player.

Once he crossed the summit on the boardwalk path of the Brooklyn Bridge and began his decent, the pains in his legs eased allowing his worries to re-emerge. His anxiety was driven in part by the huge expectations he placed on himself, not wanting to disappoint his family who financed his journey or his coach and fellow players who (like him) had never actually even seen a professional league game played, much less competed in one. How could they possibly be so sure that Henry was destined to be a local hero? True, he was carrying an official letter of invitation from the Brooklyn Base Ball Club to try out for the team during their pre-season workout. But he knew there’d be plenty of other young prospects, all with similar hopes and ambitions and was not convinced he wouldn’t be walking back over the bridge heading back to Oregon in a few short weeks.

As he scrutinized the bustling metropolis before him from the top of the bridge he could make out distinct neighborhoods linked together by cobblestone and dirt streets. Horse and wagons, motorized horseless carriages, and pedestrians alike skillfully dodged the network of wood and steel electric trolleys that crisscrossed streets and connected neighborhoods, supplementing the underground and elevated trains for the 1.6 million residents. Signs of expanding construction were ubiquitous – industrial areas with their smoke stacks sat side by side with residential neighborhoods, parks, and farms alike. He was too far away to hear the clanking and clamoring of his new surroundings but he could sense the vibration and excitement even now.

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