I was standing in the bedroom of our Brooklyn apartment with my ear pressed to the radio. It was dark outside, a spring evening in the mid-1950s, and through the open window, I could hear people talking in the courtyard, four stories below. I was 8 or 9 years old, and my brother, Philip, a teenager, was sitting at his desk bent over homework, which explains why the radio’s volume was turned so low. Philip couldn’t hear it over the courtyard chatter, or else he’d have told me to turn it down.
I’d succeeded in losing myself to the world of baseball and could hardly stand still as I leaned further into the radio. If you could have seen me shuffling in place, cheek-to-cheek with a console the same size that I was, my arms gripping its sides, you might have thought we were dancing.
My father had taken me to many games at Ebbets Field, a few at the Polo Grounds, even one at Yankee Stadium. I’d collected baseball cards since I was 6, played punch-ball and stickball and baseball for hours in the spring and summer, invented games with baseball cards to play by myself on the apartment floor, read baseball magazines and books, studied batting statistics. So I knew what I was listening to. I also knew what I was waiting for.
If it was a Yankees game on the radio, I was waiting for Mel Allen to call out, “Going, going, gone,” when a home run was hit. If it was a Giants game, I was hoping Russ Hodges would scream, “Bye-bye, baby.” And if it was a Dodgers game, which was most likely, I wanted to hear Vin Scully’s curt “Gone!” I was homer-happy. But it was the announcer’s call, not the hit itself, that captivated me.
When it came, when the batter’s sudden triumph was described in language so potent with loss, I was never able to keep silent. Going, going, gone. Such success required bidding adieu to what made it possible—Bye-bye, baby—and the delight in the announcer’s voice, counter-pointed with his actual words, packed an emotional wallop I found overwhelming. The ball was gone for good, and so was my last vestige of composure.
Philip would get up, cross the room, turn the radio off and stalk back to his desk. He may even have socked me on the shoulder. But I’d have had what I wanted: a moment when arrival and departure were poised, when the offense’s joyful achievement was mingled with the defense’s sad failure in phrases and tones that acknowledged the whole knotted experience.
My connection with the Dodgers of the 1950s felt deeply personal. The players and their families lived in Brooklyn, could be seen on the streets and on the subway. We knew them by intimate names: Campy and Robby, Junior and Shotgun, Duke and Rube. When my brother was hospitalized at age 7 because shards of glass had slashed his right eye, the Dodgers shortstop and captain, Pee Wee Reese, came to visit him. Pee Wee sat on Philip’s hospital bed and gave him an autographed baseball—and two tickets to a doubleheader in early September, as incentive for steady healing. Why, Pee Wee was practically family! So was Gil Hodges, since I had a Hodges-model baseball glove, a big trapper’s mitt used only by first basemen. Because I was so small, the one position I’d never play was first base, but I admired Hodges for his calm, quiet ways; his steady power; and the etched glower with which he stared at an opposing pitcher. I wanted to be like him, and when I wore the glove that bore his name, I almost was. Then, when the young pitching star, Karl Spooner, hurt his arm and was unable to play again, I placed his baseball card on my desk, in tribute, and surrounded it with clippings from the newspaper like a shrine for a lost relative. Soon enough, a twinge developed in my own arm from the torque of imaginary curve balls. Carl Furillo, in right field, was nicknamed Skoonj, for his love of conch: scungilli. Skoonj sounded a bit like Skloot, so I imagined that we were related, too. Somewhere back in the old country, I decided, his family and mine had once lived in the same village, somewhere near the sea, where we all developed our passion for shellfish. Then his family moved to Italy, and mine moved to Russia. Our names got rearranged, and we didn’t come together again till we both ended up in Brooklyn. That explained it.
Living in Brooklyn and rooting for the Dodgers felt so natural as to be unquestioned, like my affinity for raw clams from Sheepshead Bay or for chicken from my fathers poultry market. But then came October 1957. The publicist for the Brooklyn Dodgers announced, on Oct. 8, that the team was moving to Los Angeles. They’d played their last game in Brooklyn the month before; the Brooklyn Dodgers were no more. And the next week, the Skloot family was moving, too, leaving Brooklyn on Oct. 15. I always felt the two moves were connected, regardless of what my parents said.
I remember two formal farewells to Brooklyn. I was 10, and we were going to live in Long Beach, off the south shore of Long Island, and nothing I could say would change that. My parents’ key promotional points—that we’d be renting the top half of a private home instead of living in an apartment, that we’d be living just a few hundred yards from the ocean, that I’d have all new friends and new places to play —meant nothing to me. I knew my way around our Brooklyn block. I had friends in the apartment building and at school, and could find places to go when my parents raged. But Long Beach and its ocean were like the surface of Venus to me, covered in dense clouds, unknowable, alien. I had a map of the heavens on my bedroom wall and already knew all I cared to know about hostile environments. I didn’t like visiting Long Beach when we were looking for our new home and couldn’t imagine adapting to life there. It just did not make any sense to me, which is why I never believed the official family explanations.
Nonetheless, we were moving on Tuesday. My father had sold his kosher poultry market and agreed to begin working for my mother’s brother, managing a dress-making factory; my mother had been looking for new furniture with my aunt, who was an interior decorator; my brother had graduated from high school and was attending New York University, complaining about how much worse his commute would be when we moved; my toys and clothes and books were packed in cartons—everything except my baseball card collection, which would travel to Long Beach with me in the car, like my mother’s jewelry and my father’s cigars.
The first formal farewell occurred just before school let out on Monday. My fifth-grade teacher asked me to stand and face the class so everyone could say, “Goodbye, Floyd,” in unison, as though pledging allegiance to the flag. Except they broke into laughter afterward.
Then I was on the fenced playground outside the school building, standing where home plate was marked in fading white paint, and my friends were spread out in their usual positions for our daily punch-ball game. I bounced the red rubber ball five times, as always, threw it a few inches in the air, and punched it over the left fielder’s head. As I ran, I decided to keep going till I scored or was tagged out. All or nothing, now, in my final turn as a Brooklyn punch-ball star. I wish memory’s highlight reel ended there, with my 10-year-old self flying around the schoolyard bases in a last mad dash toward home. But I remember the play simply coming to a halt as I stopped dead, halfway between second base and third. Sobbing, gasping for breath, I sat abruptly on the asphalt, shocked, unable to control my crying. Everyone gathered around me as though I were hurt, giving me room but watching, until an older boy who lived in my apartment building stepped forward to help me up and walk me home.
The day we moved, I had the Asian flu. My fever began Monday night and by Tuesday was 103 degrees. As I lay in bed that night, in a room that no longer looked like my own, with everything packed away and the walls bare except for a few errant strips of dark scotch tape, I kept remembering myself a few hours earlier on the schoolyard, collapsed in tears between bases. Who was that person? Had the event really happened, or was it all a fever dream? If it had happened, maybe the flu had caused it. My imagination and memory consorted in that now-strange bed to form something new, something surreal and never to be lost, an image of myself as I could not imagine myself being.
I wasn’t able to go to school for the first week we lived in Long Beach, but one afternoon, when the fever was almost gone, my new teacher came to visit us at home. This was something new, too, a teacher in my home, in my room, and I wasn’t sure I liked it. The visit confirmed what I already knew: Long Beach was going to be a strange place. To make matters even odder, my teacher was a man. Mr. Lee was tall and heavy and Chinese, and my whole world seemed to be re-forming as a fever dream. He brought me a couple of schoolbooks and sat on my desk chair. He even picked up my stack of last years baseball cards, removed the rubber band, and flipped through them. I could see that nothing was sacred around here.
By the time he came to visit, my room was set up the way I wanted it. I’d surrounded myself with baseball cards, back issues of Sport and my dice baseball-game paraphernalia, which included a thick notebook of statistics for every player on every team. He touched everything. He leafed through the notebook, then looked over at me. I could tell that he thought I was strange, too.
“So,” Mr. Lee said, “you like baseball?” When I nodded, he added, “Maybe you can give us a report on it in class.”
That sounded exceptional. So I modestly informed him of my related scholastic interests: “I’m pretty good at punch-ball and stick-ball, too. And football. I could give a report on that also.”
“Tackle or touch?”
This was very promising. A teacher who could talk about sports, who came to your house to welcome you, who knew how to handle baseball cards and talk at the same time. He even knew the right terms to use when talking about football. Maybe I could forgive him for touching my things.
On my first day as a fifth-grader in Mr. Lee’s class, I got into a fight with Big Eli Haas during recess. He kept calling me “new kid” and pushing me when I went to field a ball, which made me lose my balance and miss the catch. People would think I was a lousy fielder, something I couldn’t bear, so I finally turned on Eli and tackled him. In a flash, Mr. Lee had picked me up by the belt and lifted me away. It was as though he knew something like this was going to happen and had been watching out for me.
My punishment for fighting was extra homework: I had to write that composition about baseball. Punishment as reward! When he saw me smile, Mr. Lee made sure I understood that my other homework had to be done first.
On the school bus going home, I tried to decide who or what I’d write about. My favorite player? I didn’t want to offend Pee Wee Reese by writing about Gil Hodges, or vice versa, even though Hodges had been an All-Star in 1957.Jackie Robinson was retired. Roy Campanella was getting old and had just endured a poor season, something I didn’t want to mention to anyone in case they didn’t already know about it. There were the other Dodgers All-Stars: Gino Cimoli and Clem Labine, one new to the team, the other an old-timer already, players with curious names, almost as memorable as George Shuba’s. And there were the young pitchers, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax, but I hadn’t yet decided between them, even though Koufax was Jewish and, therefore, also part of my family. No, clearly I would have to write about something other than my favorite player.
When it occurred to me that I should write about the Dodgers moving to Los Angeles, I almost had my second public-crying fit of the month. I didn’t know if I could manage it, wondered if I should wait until I didn’t feel so unhappy about the subject. Nah, better to face the truth.
After I finished my other homework and ate dinner, I sat at my desk and tried to write. My family thought I was playing dice baseball, as usual, and left me alone, but I couldn’t even begin my assignment. The problem was how to get past the phrase “The Los Angeles Dodgers” in the first sentence. So I wrote about my baseball-card collection instead of the Dodgers’ relocation, explaining in great detail how hard it was for me to find a 1957 Ed Roebuck card to complete my set, because I’d lost mine during our move, the season was over and 1957 cards were no longer for sale. I think I was hoping Mr. Lee, who had clearly admired my collection when he’d visited, might have an Ed Roebuck card of his own and be moved to give it to me.
There was a tall, thick oak across the street outside our house in Long Beach. Its trunk was the ideal width to represent a strike zone when I played Wiffle ball with my neighbor, Jay Shaffer.
One of us stood by the Wiffle ball tree, bat cocked, while the other stood across Coolidge Avenue at the top of my slanted driveway, ball in hand, ready to pitch. If the batter didn’t swing and the pitch hit the tree, it was a strike. If it missed the tree, it was a ball, and the batter had to go chase it down the street.
Pitching well with a Wiffle ball required craft and dedication. The hollow plastic ball, with its pattern of eight oblong cutouts, could be made to curve and dip, to rise, to dart toward a batter or away. But it was difficult to control the movement. The art of Wiffle-ball pitching revealed itself as I realized that the slower I threw a ball, the more it moved. Gripping adjacent holes with thumb and index finger, twisting my wrist as I threw, I could make the ball swoop and plunge like a crazed hawk. I worked hard to master a pitch that reversed directions in midair, practicing for hours against the garage door, each pitch leaving a small smudge on the white paint.
In 1958, a green Ford careened off the road and smashed into my father as he stood behind his Buick, about to open the trunk and change a flat tire. It pinned his body between the two cars and crushed his legs. A box containing the torn and bloody clothes he had been wearing was in the garage, resting against the far wall.
The box, I’d been told, contained evidence for the trial that would occur some day, and I was not to open it because the air or my fingerprints would ruin the evidence. But I knew I was not to open it because it would be horrible to see what was inside, which meant that I couldn’t stop imagining it.
I opened the box in November 1959, when I was twelve and alone because my mother was visiting my father in the hospital. My father’s trousers were on top, a black heap crusty with dried blood, and I didn’t touch them. Couldn’t touch them. Poking out beneath were the toes of his brown wing-tip shoes, striated with more dried blood; the tails of his white dress shirt looking as though they had been dipped in blood, as well; and his dark, stiffened socks scrunched against the side of the box. The only item that I picked up was an envelope, which had been stuffed beside the socks. Inside, I found three black-and-white photographs of my father lying on the ground behind his crumpled, white Buick. He was on his back, glasses gone, forearms raised as though warding off more blows. I wondered who had taken these photographs. A passerby? A journalist? The driver of the other car?
Every time I threw the Wiffle ball at the garage, I felt as though I were throwing it at that man who’d injured my father. I knew his name was Mr. Pincus and that he owned a delicatessen on the west end of town. The garage door handle was Mr. Pincus’ heart. In time, I could make the crazed hawk attack that heart at will.
My father spent most of the two years after his accident in hospitals. First, he was in a ward at Queens General Hospital, near the site of the crash, as his massive injuries healed. Then he came home for a month, sleeping in a rented hospital bed, before entering Long Beach Hospital for surgery to re-break his legs, which had healed wrong. A child, I wasn’t allowed to visit him. When he finally returned home, in early 1960, his hair had turned gray, his skin sagged from his face, he smelled strange, and he couldn’t get out of bed. It took another half-year for him to be mobile enough, using a wheelchair and then canes, to return to work in the dress factory.
Every Monday morning, my brother, who was also working in the city, selling adhesive-backed papers, would drive him into New York. They would stay together in a mid-town hotel during the week and return home on Friday evening.
I would always contrive to be outside, playing with Jay or by myself, waiting for their car to arrive. Using the inflexible arrangement of house, tree, street and sidewalk, Jay and I had designed a Wiffle-ball “stadium” that included my front porch, jutting into the playing field like short bleachers in left field. It made sense to us because the real Dodgers were now playing in a Los Angeles stadium that contained left field bleachers only a short distance from home plate. We decreed that any batted ball landing on the porch and managing not to roll off under the railing was a home run. So was a ball hit onto the house’s roof. If it struck the house above the garage but below the living room window, it was a double; above the window, it was a triple. A ball the pitcher couldn’t catch was a single; anything the pitcher caught was an out.
In November 1961, as we played an important contest between the Dodgers and Giants in the dwindling light before dinner, my father and brother arrived home. The car’s horn sounding when they turned onto Coolidge Avenue signaled the impending end of our game. Jay and I waited till the car disappeared into the garage, then we began one final play, which my father, as usual, watched from the porch.
It was the last time I remember seeing him alive. He stood in the bleachers, one hand gripping the rail, his canes perched against the wall of our house, his other hand moving toward his face for another puff of cigar. He smiled down at me. When I socked a pitch over the roof above him, he waved and called out congratulations: “Atta boy!”
He and my mother left later that evening, in the dark, for a Veterans Day holiday at a resort upstate. He died there, in the swimming pool, at the age of 53. When I recall the telephone ringing to bring us the news, the scene flashes back two days. I have just stroked Jays fastball—a straight and easy pitch to hit, a gift from my best friend—onto the roof and turned my head to find my father haloed in cigar smoke, laughing now, saying “Atta boy!”
My brother woke up early on the morning of his wedding. We lived in an apartment house again, having moved to a smaller and less expensive place after our fathers death. My brother was 24, I was 16, and we still shared a room. So I woke up early, too. He lit a Kent and told me to get dressed.
It was June 21, 1964, the last day Philip and I would live together. It was also Father’s Day, for the last three years a day of sadness to us—and a day of confusion, since Philip was now sometimes like a brother, sometimes like a father, and our relationship had taken on a new tension.
Through the apartment’s open window, we could hear seagulls bugle above the breakers. The sound always seemed comical to me, a scavenger’s cackle, but that morning I heard it as plaintive, almost forlorn. I couldn’t sort out my feelings. For two or three years, I’d been looking forward to this day—but dreading it, too. Finally, a room of my own! It meant an end to Philip s constant cigarette smoke and pre-dawn coughing spells, access to all the Velveeta in the refrigerator and the freedom to sleep or wake when I chose. It was also an end to his teasing about my obsessions with dice baseball and rock ‘n’ roll, to our combat over the tidy way I kept my half of the room, to his efforts to sidetrack my homework. But I knew I’d miss him: his sudden generosities, his advice, his willingness to play with me. We wouldn’t be watching quiz shows together on the small television beside his bed, trying to be the first with an answer; we wouldn’t play games of Careers on his bed or go out for Saturday lunch at Nathan’s and see who could eat an ice cream cone faster despite the headache it induced. We would no longer play touch football with my friends in autumn or softball with them in summer.
The two of us together could keep our widowed mother at bay. I wasn’t sure I could do that solo. Since our father’s death, she had been even more volatile than ever, charging at us as we sat in the living room, slapping at our faces for imagined infractions and indignities. In the last year, she had begun dating. She had also begun working as a travel agent and taking advantage of complimentary travel opportunities, especially cruises, trying to meet her next husband. It was a time of changes in our family, but even at 16, when I woke up that first day of summer in 1964, I knew my life was about to be transformed beyond anything that had happened so far.
Philip threw a T-shirt and jeans onto my bed. “Move it, kiddo. We’re going to play stickball.”
I’d guessed that was what he’d want to do on his wedding day. So I was prepared for him. Stickball was something we’d grown up with on the streets of Brooklyn. We’d played in the apartment’s courtyard, on the schoolyard, against any wall we could find. Some of my earliest memories of life with my brother are memories of facing him as he wound up to pitch or of watching as he swung at a pitch of mine.
In the mind of most kids growing up in 1950s New York, stickball was associated with Willie Mays. The Say Hey Kid! Mays played baseball with sheer joy, and his array of all-around skills seemed unmatched by any other player. We all knew that Mays loved the game so much that he was willing to hang around after a Giants game and play stickball with the kids in upper Harlem. According to George Plimpton, in his essay “Did Willie Hit It for Five Sewers,” there’s a legend that Mays had hit a red, rubber Spaldeen stickball 800 feet on the fly, playing in the street rather than against a wall.
Stickball was freedom. It was improvisation. We could play the game anywhere, and we could use almost anything as equipment: a baseball bat, a sawed-off broomstick or mop handle, and an official Spaldeen or an old tennis ball with the fuzz worn away. Stickball could be played with just the two of us, or we could team up against other duos.
My brothers brand of stickball combined raw batting power, pitching finesse, a pool shark s sense of angles and psychological acumen. In the street or on the schoolyard court, with a stick or ball in hand, everything came together for him. Cigarette between his lips, right eye half-closed as smoke rose in front of it, he could hit or pitch with grace. Sometimes, if I was at bat first and hadn’t yet had a chance to pitch to him, Philip would set the tone for our game by hitting me with his first pitch. Thrown hard enough, a rubber ball stings and leaves behind a circular welt like a stain. Then he would hit me with the second pitch, too. And the third. In theory, this put him in a jam because now the bases were loaded, with no outs. But in practice, he didn’t worry about base runners, figuring he could score against me at will. His fourth pitch would hit me as well, granting me a 1-0 lead.
So, as we drove from our apartment to the schoolyard, I knew what to expect at the start. But Philip didn’t know I’d been working on a hard curve, throwing against the wall of our building in the late afternoons to perfect the pitch before he got home from work. I thought I could begin the bottom half of the first inning by throwing one right at his head and laughing as he backed away from a pitch that broke into the strike zone.
That was the plan. A going-away surprise from his baby brother, just to say, Don’t worry. I’ll be okay.
There is a brief home movie commemorating this June 21 game. I can’t remember who took the film, but the view is from over my shoulder as I stare at Philip in the distance. If I watch the film closely enough, I can see the cigarette in my brother’s mouth moving up and down: He is talking to me, razzing me, as I wind up to pitch. Then he uncoils and wallops whatever it is I have offered him, not fazed by my fast ball or new curve, and the final image shows him leaning against the wall for balance, head up, laughing as he watches the ball vanish in the distance.
I remember a recurring dream in which I played center field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, wearing my white-and-blue pinstriped pajamas as a uniform, and was able to run the bases or chase after long fly balls without my feet touching the ground. I was so fast that I flew, though the dream never included my scoring a run or catching a ball.
To adults who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I automatically said, Center fielder for the Dodgers, believing that it was important to specify a position if my intentions were to be taken seriously. I kept saying, Center fielder for the Dodgers, even after the franchise moved from Brooklyn, though I no longer rooted for them, and even after I began to play second base for my high school’s freshman team instead of center field.
Sometime around the age of 15, I believe I knew, deep down, that I wasn’t going to be a professional baseball player. The “growth spurt” predicted by my mother and doctor deserted me at 5 feet 4 inches and only confirmed what I’d already understood: I was too small. Besides, in rare moments of honesty about my baseball talent, I could admit that I wasn’t good enough. In all my years playing baseball—or slow-pitch softball into my late 30’s—I never managed to hit a home run over a fence. I hit a few inside-the-park home runs, which are expressions of speed rather than power, but not once did I get to execute the home-run trot that is the slugger’s prerogative. No, I had to fly home. And I was a lousy defensive player, given to making errors on routine plays that undid the value of my occasional spectacular catch.
Still, I sustained the dream, tattered though it may have been by an occasional storm of self-knowledge, and avoided thinking about what I might actually want to do with my life. In my senior year of high school, when the time came for college applications, I understood that it was necessary to make some concessions to reality. Since I hadn’t played for my high school baseball team as a junior or senior because of lingering football injuries to my wrist and ribs, I realized that my plan to be discovered by a major league scout or a college coach was probably unrealistic—unless the scouts or coaches came to watch me play recreation league softball.
I made an appointment with the school’s guidance counselor and asked her advice about college. She was, I can see now, remarkably kind. The only alternative profession I could propose came to me out of nowhere: I should be a physical therapist. I’d seen how much it had helped my father in regaining some mobility after his accident, and I remembered the therapist, Lee Turamo, coming to our house, wearing a long, white coat. Good, I’d be a physical therapist!
The counselor suggested I apply to Boston University, which had a strong program in physical therapy. But she pointed out that my college courses would include a lot of science, and my high school record in science wasn’t particularly encouraging. Maybe I should also apply to a few small liberal arts colleges and take more time to make a career choice. What really sold me on the idea was her final point: I might be able to play baseball at one of these small colleges.
I was playing center field for the freshman team at Franklin and Marshall College when the fantasy finally ended. Neither the timing nor the place could have been better. A line drive was hit to the gap in right-center field; I dove and caught it, rolled over once, leaped to my feet to throw out the runner trying to return to first base, and the ball dribbled out of my hand as my shoulder seemed to lock in place.
Damaged ligaments and, eventually, a serious case of bursitis had done what nothing else could. There would be no further need to dream of flying over the field of play wearing my pajamas. I could actually grow up, touch the ground, face reality’s pitch.
The next semester, I took a creative writing class. For my first prose project, I returned to the material abandoned in 1957, when Mr. Lee punished me by assigning a composition on baseball. I wrote about the Brooklyn Dodgers moving to Los Angeles, discovering as I went along that I was writing about the beginning of the end of my baseball dream.