Meeting a baseball legend here in town
My grandmother Libertoff — a stern, unhappy, divorced woman — lived in a basement apartment in what is now called the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn. The dwelling had no windows, creating a gloomy ambience. For some reason, the apartment light fixtures seemed to be limited to 40-watt bulbs. And adding to the frightening atmosphere was the presence of a small freight elevator that went from the sixth floor right down to the basement. Its final stop was not simply adjacent to my grandmother’s apartment, but it opened right into a small back room, sort of a storage space that I slept in when I stayed over.
Several times a day and sometimes in the evening, the elevator would descend and open with some stranger, usually a burly and unshaven man of ample size, lugging garbage pails or discarded household items through the little room and out a back door.
It probably would not surprise you that I did not sleep well at my grandma’s apartment. But when I complained to my mother, she dismissed it with little regard, waving me off; telling me “to grow up.” Looking back, I doubt that my mom spent much time poring over the advice from Dr. Spock.
Grandma Libertoff seemed moody and troubled, but I suppose that being a divorcee in the early 1950s was a social stain that was hard to remove. Although she taught in a local elementary school, there was nothing warm or tender in her presentation. Even to me, she was cool and distant, and she was certainly challenged when it came to showing affection.
But she and I had one, and to my recollection, only one endearing connection and bond, and that was our mutual devotion to . . . the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team.
When I stayed at grandma’s place on occasional weekends, she took me to nearby Ebbets Field — the Dodgers’ neighborhood park — a sacred setting to many. It was a short jaunt from that dark cave of her apartment — a setting that I was already referring to as “the dungeon.” Saturday was Ladies Day at Dodger games, and for 75 cents, women young and old would be entitled to a grandstand seat for a mere three quarters. Although these seats were far from the plate and some distance from the action, they were filled with real blue-collar Brooklyn fans who cheered and booed in response to activities on the field, energizing the air with catcalls and adoring commentary while overloaded bags of popcorn and containers of beer were spilled with reckless abandon.
Grandma Libertoff was not a big spender. As a matter of fact, in all the time we went to games together, we never once munched on a hot dog or a heaping container of fries. Our ritual was to bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from home and take them out during the home team’s seventh inning stretch. And added to the game-day menu were carefully wrapped Oreo cookies — enough for each of us to have five or six — and Grandma’s thermos of water, water that was cold when we headed out to the ballpark, but which went lukewarm while sitting for an hour or two in the warm Brooklyn sun. Still, it was better than nothing.
Perhaps to prove my mettle with my grandma, I had my own ritual. As soon as the game ended, I would set out on a hunting expedition within the several nearby trash barrels. Carefully, I would dip my hand into the mess and seek out my prey: recently disposed-of Borden’s “Elsie the Cow” ice cream Dixie cup covers. This was a favored ice cream brand back then, and the Dodgers allowed any 10-year-old kid like me who presented a dozen ice cream cup covers with “Elsie the Cow” smiling up at you to purchase a grandstand seat for 50 cents at a future game. My grandmother usually applauded my work ethic but made sure that I washed my hands after fishing around in the soiled, smelly, trash bins. She smiled when I held up my collection of valued ice cream cup covers, and that emotional outburst made my day. Perhaps this was her way of sharing and showing affection.
For some reason, I remember often going to games against the Philadelphia Phillies, one of the rival national league clubs. Although the Phillies were generally not as proficient as the Dodgers, they had a great pitcher, a fellow named Robin Roberts. “Oh, no!” Grandma would exclaim the night before the weekend tilt, as she read the New York Post sports section, “Guess who is pitching tomorrow? Robin Roberts!” We both feared and loathed this guy. He was scary out on the mound.
Grandma Libertoff and I would sit up in the bleachers and watch as Roberts mowed down many a Dodger slugger. “I hate that guy,” I remember saying to my Grandma, sounding just like the rabid, young fan I was. Grandma nodded in sympathy, especially when Duke Snider, or Jackie Robinson, or Pee Wee Reese, or stocky catcher Roy Campanella struck out in vain attempts to swat a rising fastball pitch over the wall and into Flatbush Avenue. That fastball, along with his fluid delivery and guile, led not only to a long career but eventually to an induction into the hallowed Baseball Hall of Fame.
Two years later, in 1957, the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, and Ebbets Field was demolished, replaced by a massive collection of apartment buildings. Thousands of kids, like me, suffered from heartbreak, a condition that still carries life-long implications if not shadows on cardiac x-rays in later life. These glory days in Brooklyn were over, and my devotion to baseball, which had been so intense and personal, evaporated steadily like the snow in New England as the month of April transitions to real spring.
Meeting the Baseball Legend at the Montpelier Rec Field
Sixty years later, fate and chance had me living in Vermont, and you can imagine my surprise, and frankly my excitement, reading the sports section headlines in our local newspaper when it was announced in 2003 that Montpelier would sponsor a collegiate summer baseball team to be called the Mountaineers in a league that included teams from other small New England cities and towns. With eyes wide open, I read that the games would be played at the Montpelier Recreation Field on Elm Street, just a mile or two from my house. These young players, all college students, began to fill a void, and repair, if ever so slightly, the remnants of a broken heart.
To my amazement, in subsequent sports articles I was to learn that one famous former major league star had a close affiliation with baseball in our capital city and he would be honored yearly at a banquet and given the honor of throwing out the ceremonial first ball once a summer.
This man, this major league player, this member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, was none other than . . . Robin Roberts.
After serving in World War II, Roberts, who had played several seasons of college baseball before enlisting, signed up and joined a semi-pro team in 1946 that represented the communities of both Montpelier and Barre. The team carried the moniker of the Twin City Trojans.The team was popular, and in addition to the local, Central Vermont fans who flocked to games, a lonely baseball scout from the Philadelphia Phillies took notice of the big right-hander whose fastball hit the catcher’s mitt with a resounding “thwack.” Within two years, Robin Roberts was not only in the big leagues, but also the ace of the pitching roster for the major league Philadelphia team.
I was away vacationing the first couple of summers when the Mountaineers began playing at the nearby field on Elm Street, but when it was announced that Robin Roberts would visit Montpelier in 2007, I resolved to get a ticket to the July game when Roberts was scheduled to throw out the first pitch. But before departing, I packed up two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to take to the park for dinner.
There was a lump in my throat as I sat in the stands at the Recreation Field when I saw this elderly, slightly overweight man, stroll, with a slight shuffle, to the mound with a borrowed glove on his left hand and toss the ball from the pitcher’s mound to the Mountaineer’s catcher. It was apparent that he no longer had a blazing, big-league fastball, but his pitch, slightly wobbly and off center, did reach the catcher mitt on the fly and was softly embraced. And I instantly thought back to memorable and poignant times of decades ago, when I sat transfixed, watching this ace take on my beloved Dodgers.
My reverie was interrupted when I heard one of the fans sitting behind me, part of a troop of friends, guys probably still teenagers or in their early 20s, casually say “Who the heck is that old guy out on the field.” This comment was greeted with some muted laughter and gentle snickering, all too typical of young men trying to impress some young ladies who were sitting nearby on this perfect Montpelier late afternoon.
These innocent comments did not go unnoticed. It fired me up. I abruptly left my seat and walked down toward the Mountaineers’ dugout. I spotted some old basketball buddies who now helped maintain the field and provided, for lack of a better term, crowd control.
“It is time for me to meet an old friend in person,” I announced to one of these volunteers, referring to none other than Roberts, who had inspired fear and hatred in my youthful heart. As I pointed toward the dugout and Roberts, I noticed that he was sitting alone. To my amazement and dismay, the young Mountaineers players seemed indifferent or unknowing to the fact that a famous sports dignitary, a Hall of Famer, by God, was seated in close proximity. My friend minding the gate onto the field saw that I was serious and opened the entrance onto the playing area. The Mountaineers’ dugout was just steps away and I ducked down and entered.
Robin Roberts looked up at me, and I was immediately taken with his grandfatherly appearance as he politely stood and shook my hand. After all, he was a Midwesterner from Illinois. His eyes seemed to have a twinkle, and besides, he retained a handsome profile and a sweet-looking face. He was much shorter than I remembered as I thought back to 1955, and his body no longer radiated vigor or swagger. I put my hand out and introduced myself.
“I have hated you for 60 years, Mr. Roberts, and it is time to make amends and share good times past,” I said.
If he were thinking, “Who is this strange guy next to me in the dugout and what is he talking about,” I would not have been surprised. But he smiled, perhaps out of embarrassment or confusion, and we sat side by side as the Mountaineers game unfolded. Within a minute, I found myself in animated conversation, and words poured out, gushing like a bubbling stream after a sudden downpour. I told him about Grandmother Libertoff (skipping the part about the dungeon apartment), taking the trolley to old Ebbets Field, the pride of Brooklyn, on Saturdays, my loyalty to childhood heroes such as Duke, Jackie, and Pee Wee, and the rest of the beloved Dodgers, and even my willingness to scour the garbage pails for Dixie cup covers. Now came the hard part. Looking directly at him, I confessed my fear, dislike, and yes, hatred, for that young Dodger killer, that nemesis, you, Robin Roberts. He was moved by the moment, and I could swear that tears welled in the corners of his eyes.
For the next hour, we exchanged memories and he regaled me with stories about playing at this very Recreation Field in 1947 when he got out of the Army, and about how there were cows and even goats up on the hill toward North Street, directly across from home plate, without a tree on the hillside, and how his success on this very field led to a long and successful major league career. Best of all, together, we reviewed the Dodger lineup from the mid 1950s. To my amazement, I was able to rattle off the starting Dodger lineup from back then, and in turn, he shared with me his strategy in pitching to each of my hometown heroes. We talked and talked and not once were we interrupted by the cadre of young Mountaineers players who were oblivious to the special occasion.
Robin Roberts and I embraced as the game ended. “I must tell you,” I said to Roberts, in an emotional moment , “I hated you for years since I sat up in the grandstand of old Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, but no longer — you are a great guy.”
Robin Roberts died in 2010 at age 84. As a tribute, there is a small plaque in his honor by the entrance to the Montpelier Recreation Baseball Field. Based on personal observation, I imagine that most fans today walk by it without even a glance or notice.
But there is at least one fan that pays homage to past memories. Me.