When 'Next Year' Arrived for Dodgers Fans

Fifty years ago this month, the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only world championship. The 1955 team — think Jackie, Duke and Pee-Wee — still elicits fond memories on the streets of Brooklyn.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Now 50 years ago this month, another team was long overdue for a World Series title, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jeff Lunden has this appreciation.

(Soundbite of "Brooklyn Bridge")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Like the folks you meet on, like to plant my feet on the Brooklyn Bridge.

JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

Was there ever a baseball team as beloved as Dem Bums, the Brooklyn Dodgers? In the 1940s and '50s, they seemed to always be in a pennant race--often with their cross-town rivals, the Giants--or in the World Series, only to lose, often in seven games, to their other cross-town rivals, the hated Yankees. The rallying cry was `Wait till next year!' And then, in 1955, it was next year. The Brooklyn Dodgers finally won it all.

Even today, almost five decades after they left for Los Angeles, the Dodgers can still elicit warm memories on the streets of Brooklyn. Ben Carragie(ph) grew up in Bay Ridge and remembers seeing shortstop Pee Wee Reese around the neighborhood.

Mr. BEN CARRAGIE (Brooklyn, New York, Resident): Pee Wee lived on 97th, and my aunt owned a liquor store, and he used to come out. A couple of Sundays I used to go and see him--I was about 10 or 11 years old--and he'd say hello to you, you know? He'd wave over when he was going downstairs. The Dodgers were family because they lived in Brooklyn. You know, we loved them dearly.

LUNDEN: Hall of Fame sportswriter Jack Lang covered the Dodgers for the Long Island press from 1946 to 1957. He says the close relationship between Dodgers fans and their team was literally in the Brooklyn air.

Mr. JACK LANG (Sportswriter): You could walk down the street and never miss a pitch because all the--everybody had their radios on, and the taxi cabs sitting on the corner had their radios on, and people's windows were open in the summertime. And you could almost walk the street and not miss a pitch.

(Soundbite of baseball game)

Unidentified Sports Announcer #1: Robinson waits. Here comes the pitch. And there goes a line drive to left field! Claude is after it. He leaps. It's over his head, against the wall! Here comes Gilliam ...(unintelligible). Brooklyn wins!

LUNDEN: It was a team of personality and, even in those days before free agency, remarkable stability, says Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Dave Anderson, who wrote about the Dodgers for the Brooklyn Eagle.

Mr. DAVE ANDERSON (Reporter): They had basically the same team for 10 years. Roy Campanella caught. Gil Hodges played first bases. Second base was Robinson and then Junior Gilliam. Pee Wee Reese was the shortstop. Third base was Billy Cox and then Robinson. The outfield was Duke Snider in center, Carl Furillo in right, and the left fielder seemed to change almost every year. The pitching was basically the same, too, for many of those years: Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine. The team was the same team. And as a result, it made it that much easier for the fans to follow them and grow to love them.

LUNDEN: Take pitcher Carl Erskine. He got his nickname, Oisk, from his first day in Brooklyn. When he was promoted from a farm team in Ft. Worth, he reported to Ebbets Field and passed a group of fans buying tickets.

Mr. CARL ERSKINE (Former Brooklyn Dodgers Baseball Player): As soon as they saw my duffel bag with `Ft. Worth' on the side of it, I could hear this fan in the line saying, `Hey, hey, there's Oiskin from Foyt Woyth.' And so that was my introduction to Ebbets Field, and I could hear it to this day. I go back to Brooklyn, somebody will say, `Hey, Oisk, how ya doin'?'

LUNDEN: Of course, one of the most exciting players on the Dodgers during this era was Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 became the first African-American to play in the major leagues.

(Soundbite of "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball")

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Ah, did you see Jackie Robinson hit that ball? It went zoom in cross the left field wall.

LUNDEN: Robinson gave the Dodgers speed. He can manufacture runs by stealing bases and intimidating pitchers. But in breaking baseball's color barrier, he also endured constant threats and racial epithets, says Carl Erskine.

Mr. ERSKINE: On a daily basis, he was there to help us win games, and he did. But in the long look, he was there to change society, and in time he did.

LUNDEN: Retired sportswriter Jack Lang well remembers a now famous moment in Robinson's first season. The Dodgers and the Reds were playing a double-header in Cincinnati, and Robinson was getting heckled pretty badly by the fans. Pee Wee Reese, the team's captain and shortstop, responded in a simple manner.

Mr. LANG: When Pee Wee heard them booing Jackie, he just went over and put his arm on his shoulder--now this was a Southern boy from Louisville. And the fans in the stands suddenly realized that Pee Wee had accepted Jackie and maybe they could, too.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) But it's a natural fact when Jackie comes to bat, the other team is through.

LUNDEN: In short order, several other African-American players joined the Dodgers, catcher Roy Campanella and pitcher Don Newcombe among them. The team performed brilliantly over the years, even if they never won the Series. In 1955, under manager Walt Alston, they came out of the gates swiftly. After a month, they had 22 wins and just two losses. And the Dodgers captured the National League pennant by 13 1/2 games. George "Shotgun" Shuba, who played left field, says for the aging team this seemed like their last shot.

Mr. GEORGE "SHOTGUN" SHUBA (Former Brooklyn Dodgers Baseball Player): We glad we won that time because the guys were getting old. Yeah, I don't think they would have beat the Yankees after that.

LUNDEN: Of course, the Dodgers didn't make it easy. The Series went back and forth for six games until the final showdown at Yankee Stadium. In that game, Dodger outfielder Sandy Amoros made a spectacular late-inning catch in left field which saved the day. And Johnny Podres, a 23-year-old pitcher who had struggled with a losing record all season, improbably hurled his second complete game of the Series, a shutout.

(Soundbite of baseball game)

Unidentified Sports Announcer #1: It's a tense struggle into the last of the ninth. Johnny Podres pitching brilliant ball, one out to go. Elston Howard grounds to short. Reese throws to Hodges. Brooklyn wins, and the Dodgers go wild as they mob pitcher Podres, who hurls Brooklyn to its first World Championship.

LUNDEN: Pitcher Carl Erskine.

Mr. ERSKINE: That was the sweetest victory, I guess, doing it on Yankee soil, and finally, finally give our fans what they had wanted and what they had needed and what they deserved.

LUNDEN: Brooklyn Dodger fan Ben Carragie was 14 at the time.

Mr. CARRAGIE: It was like a New Year's Eve. Everybody was driving around beeping their horns, and we all come out and we celebrated. It was like probably at that time one of the happiest days of my life that they finally won.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm in Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of "Damn Yankees")

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Mmmm, you've gotta have...

Chorus: (Singing) ...heart. All you really need is heart. When the odds are sayin' you'll never win, that's when the grin should start.

Unidentified Woman #3: It's the youth of America, Joe.

Unidentified Woman #4: (Singing) When your luck is batting zero...

Chorus: (Singing) Huh, huh, huh.

Unidentified Woman #4: (Singing) ...get your chin up off the floor.

Chorus: (Singing) Huh, huh, huh.

Unidentified Woman #5: (Singing) Mister, you can be a hero.

Chorus: (Singing) Huh, huh, huh.

Unidentified Woman #5: (Singing) You can open any door.

Unidentified Woman #3: There's nothing to it...

SIMON: And we're pleased to welcome to the world this week Evelyn Jean Hunn(ph). She's the daughter of our technical director, Burke Hunn, and his wife Heather. She arrived just in time to see her dad's Astros in the World Series. Maybe that's a sign.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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