Happy Smith Goes to Brooklyn: Chapter 6

Baseballs and Matzoh Balls

brooklyn superbas happy smith baseball cardDespite his fatigue, Henry stared at the ceiling and soaked up the unfamiliar sounds of the city which didn’t seem to diminish in pace or volume.  The alarm clock on the night stand, which he wound before getting into bed loudly ticked off the seconds.  Eventually it had a lulling, mesmerizing effect and he eventually drifted off.

Next thing he heard was its jarring announcement that morning had arrived, and Henry reluctantly rolled out of bed and down the hall to the toilet.  He had no recollection of getting dressed but soon found himself with his equipment bag in the dining room again.  Breakfast was a simple affair of toast and jam with coffee and then off to Washington Park for the first day of training.

On the corner of tree-lined Carroll St. heading west, Henry passed the Old First Reformed Church whose roots date back to the earliest settlements in Brooklyn (or Breukelen as the original Dutch settlers referred to it).  The current impressive granite and limestone church was completed in 1891.  With its tall spire and stained glass windows it resembled something Henry imagined you’d see travelling in Europe.   It was in fact, at 1200 ft. to the top of the spire, the tallest church in Brooklyn and would prove to be a handy landmark to lead him back to Fanny’s place after a night acquainting himself with the numerous taverns that dotted the neighborhood on the commercial blocks of 5th, 6th, and 7th Ave.  Easter was just a few weeks away so Henry made a mental note to attend services and get a look at the church from the inside.

The rest of Carroll St. was primarily residential with row after row of large three and four story brownstone houses, most occupied by well-to-do families, many of whose breadwinners commuted across the river to Manhattan to work each day.   At 4th Ave. Henry turned south and the neighborhood changed dramatically.  Instead of brownstones or commercial shops stood a few factories and just a few blocks away, bordered by 1st and 3rd St., was the stadium.

The wooden grandstands towered over the streets and cast long shadows in the morning sun.  As he neared the entrance, his nerves approached a gallop and his breakfast was churning in his stomach.  So rather than entering through the player’s gate on the 3rd St. side he continued on and decided to walk the perimeter of the stadium as he did in Chicago.  Ten minutes later he was back at the 3rd St. gate with no excuse not to enter.

The player’s entrance led straight to the club house area beneath the grandstands, where he reported and was given a temporary locker to put his clothing.  He was issued a uniform that was a size too big and a bit threadbare – the equipment manager explained that if he actually made the team he’d be issued a new uniform that fit properly.   The team’s equipment budget didn’t include shoes so Henry’s old beat up cleats he’d brought along with him would have to do.  Henry promised himself that if he made the team he’d treat himself to a new pair.

After changing, he walked with the other players through the locker room and dark tunnel towards the stairs leading to the field, which were eerily illuminated by the daylight from above.  The sound of dozens of metal cleats clanking on the concrete floor provided a staccato rhythm counterpoint to the catcalls and whistles from the players that echoed in the long narrow space.

When he climbed the stairs he found himself standing in the Brooklyn dugout, which was a new experience – in the amateur leagues a bench on the sidelines was a luxury.  He squinted through the bright morning sun on the broad expanse of the field and was taken aback by the bright green everywhere he looked.  No sign of crabgrass, dandelions, or barren dirt in the outfield that he was used to playing on and the manicured grass and clay infield was a thing of beauty.  The grandstands behind the plate and extending out to both right and left field were empty but Henry could easily imagine them filled to capacity with the roar of a sold-out crowd… Henry stood in the dugout for a moment daydreaming and taking it all in.

Noticing Henry’s momentary trance and wide-eyed stare as he brushed by, one of the newly acquired veteran players paused on the dugout steps and grinned.  “Hey kid, not bad, huh?  Name’s Tony.”  As he reached out his hand, Henry’s reverie quickly dissolved and he was both embarrassed and heartened at the same time.  Returning the handshake, “Henry” was all he could muster at the moment but he did manage a smile in return.  Yeah, it’s somethin’ all right he thought to himself.

This was only the second season for this incarnation of the Washington Park stadium as it was rebuilt after a fire had totally consumed the wooden grand stands several years ago and Henry had heard rumors that it may be one of its last.  Team owner Charles Ebbets who took immense pride and interest in his ball club was mum on the topic.  The reality was that the Brooklyn club was just scraping by financially and Ebbets was not wealthy enough to finance such an undertaking on his own.

The Superbas invited a rather large group of new players, 36 athletes mostly from the amateur leagues all around the country and worked with them exclusively for a week before the veterans showed up.  That way they could whittle down the prospects considerably to a manageable number, only keeping those with a reasonable chance of playing at a professional caliber and a demonstrated capacity to stand up to the grilling with which they would most certainly be greeted by the regs.  Eventually only about five of those players would be left standing as the new season began.  In addition to the amateurs trying to make the team, there were a handful of veterans who were new to the ball club (including Tony Smith and Bill Davidson who were included in the deal with the Cubs).

The clubhouse atmosphere in general and the gruff demeanor of the club manager, “Bad Bill” Dahlen and his coaching staff was not unlike Henry’s experience in the Navy.  In retrospect, the military style approach was likely calculated to prepare the newbies for what lay ahead.  But it certainly didn’t ease Henry’s queasiness and he soon became acquainted with the location of the clubhouse toilets.

The first day of training was physically as well as mentally grueling.  They worked exclusively on exercise and running drills which instantly brought Henry back to his Navy training days – the only difference being the uniforms on their backs and the footwear on their feet.    Exercise at the amateur level usually consisted of a few minutes of stretching and calisthenics and even Henry who was in relatively good shape struggled to keep pace.  And thus the weeding out process began…

As Day Two rolled around the posted roster revealed nine self-selected dropouts before a single baseball was thrown or caught.  The physical training continued but now it was broken up by hitting, fielding, and base running drills so the players could at least put their toil in perspective and begin to fantasize about meeting their goals.

Day Three saw the introduction of simulated games with live pitching and Henry was relieved to begin to have an opportunity to demonstrate his skills.  But the competition was fierce – while a few more players were let go in the next couple of days, most were retained and demonstrated a level of competence equivalent to the all-stars Henry played with in Oregon.

As a renowned fielder Henry was more than holding his own defensively.  Batting was another matter though – while Henry was having little difficulty connecting squarely with the ball during batting practice, during simulated games against live pitching he couldn’t shake his fears and wound up  yielding lots of weak grounders and foul balls or worse yet, striking out an inordinate number of times.  He seemed to be caught in a vicious cycle in which his nerves got the better of him to the extent that they sabotaged his natural abilities.  Knowing that there were just a few days to demonstrate he had what it takes only exacerbated the tension.

Henry stayed late after the third day’s practice ended to get some more time in the batting cage and by the time he got back to Fanny’s, showered and changed everyone had finished dinner and the dining room was empty.  Fanny was still cleaning up in the kitchen and came out to greet him with a smile and in her typically slightly sarcastic voice,

“Nu, how’d it go at the office today Mr. Big Shot Professional Athlete?  Did you hit some house runs or get arrested for stealing the bases?”

Despite his insecurities and rocky start Henry couldn’t help but laugh.  “It’s home runs, Fanny…and no, far from it.  I didn’t hit much of anything and since I didn’t get on base I didn’t have a chance to steal any of them.”

Fanny prided herself in being a good listener and after serving Henry a large bowl of chicken soup with matzoh balls she pulled up a chair and demanded to hear all the details.  It turns out she was actually a pretty knowledgeable crank and followed the box scores and accounts of the previous days games in the newspaper, which she read religiously each morning after attending to the needs of her boarders.  Being so close to Washington Park she even attended half a dozen or so games a season – it was rather unusual to see a woman in the stands and even rarer that she’d be there without accompaniment of a male family member or suitor.  But that didn’t bother Fanny – as Henry was quickly learning she was feisty and didn’t back down easily.  Since she’d never played baseball herself, her knowledge was strictly based on what she’d observed, read in the papers, and gleaned from discussions with her ball playing boarders.

Henry recounted his lackluster hitting including as many details as he could recall – he found just talking about it with Fanny a bit cathartic.  She listened intently and when he was done she sat in silence with her eyes shut for a long while as if she was contemplating and processing all of the information.  Finally, she made eye contact.

“Hmmm, I see…  So your timing is all farblongjid.  You swing too late on the fast ball, and too soon mit da curve.  Anticipation… is the key.  You know how to read, yes?  You need to learn how to read the pitches so you swing the bat at just the right time.  You need to watch how the pitcher gets ready before he throws – look where he put his hands, look how he holds the ball, look at his eyes. Pay attention to how he pitches in certain situations so you can get inside his head and think like he thinks.  If you do all these things, you have better chance – less foul balls, less strike outs.  When you got everything right, hitting the baseball with the bat is like scooping your matzoh ball with the spoon.”

Henry was taken aback – of course he was well aware his timing was amiss and that pitchers often tip their hand on pitch selection.  But he certainly didn’t expect to hear such an informed evaluation from Fanny and he suddenly realized that he’d been so nervous he’d neglected the basics that got him here in the first place.  He also realized that there was more to Fanny than meets the eye.  Drifting off to sleep that night Henry smiled with the knowledge that he’d made his first, albeit unlikely friend in New York.

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