A project of Brooklyn Historical Society
Writings from Racial Realities
The Holley Blue Sox. Dad: Second Row Right. Click to enlarge
Dad, Me & Baseball Memories by Juanita Bobbitt


   When I was eleven and living with my family in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn I became a huge baseball fan.  My dad announced he would take me to a baseball game one Sunday. I was excited. My brother, Phil, just four years old, was still too young to appreciate the game. He would stay home with Mom. It was a special day for just Dad and me.

  The night before, as the family watched the news on our recently acquired black and white television set, I decided to listen to a game to try and understand it. I had a radio in my bedroom and as I heard the broadcaster talking about the pitcher on the mound I pictured some guy standing on top of a little hill tossing the ball down. 

   When we arrived that Sunday, the stadium was an impressive sight. Spread across a whole city block in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, it was covered in tall, arched windows, with Ebbets Field emblazoned in bold letters across the top. As we moved through the turnstile and entered the rotunda covered in Italian marble my excitement mounted. Dad had the tickets in his hand as we made our way to box seats on the lower level down the third base side. They were so close it felt as though we were part of what was happening on the field, almost as if we could reach out and touch the players. The warm sun on my shoulders told me it was going to be a great day.

   Dad had played on a local team when he was younger and when it came to major league baseball he had always been a New York Yankees fan. But something exciting had happened to the game. Negro baseball players had entered the top tier of professional ball. 

   Jackie Robinson took the field along with his teammates. As they ran onto the field, the announcer called out each name. Jackie, wearing number 42, was the second baseman, Roy Campanella, the catcher, and Don Newcombe was pitching. All three were Negro baseball players and among the elites in the game. Jackie, of course, had been the first. He had been so outstanding that it had opened the door for others. But I loved watching all the players: Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, and Duke Snyder soon became some of my favorites.

   Although I’d listened on the radio, there was a lot about the game and its rules I still had to learn. Dad began explaining the players’ movements as the game got underway helping me to put together what I’d heard on the radio with what I was seeing on the field. He’d even bought us a program which featured photographs and details about each player.

   “Don Newcombe is pitching today,” he said, pointing out the towering figure about to toss the ball. I couldn’t believe how low “the mound” appeared when I finally saw it. It was just a small pile of dirt in the center of the infield. As play continued, Dad would lean in and explain in his soft voice finer points of the game like what it meant to be in scoring position or the meaning of a sacrifice bunt.

   At one point an opposing player hit a ball hard in Pee Wee Reese’s direction. He deftly caught it flipping it to Jackie. The opposing player’s teammate took off from first base. He slid into second, feet first, coming hard at Jackie, trying to dislodge the ball from his hands. Jackie held on, tagged the runner and threw to first base before the hitter could reach it.

   Dad leaned over, smiling, “You just saw your first double play.”

   Before the game ended, he’d even begun demonstrating how to track the game play by play, for example by filling in a “K” on the scorecard to indicate the batter had struck out.

   A group of fans behind the dugout serenaded the team with their instruments and we ate hotdogs with mustard, the best I’d ever tasted.               

   I fell in love with baseball and with Jackie Robinson. From that day on I was hooked. I listened to Red Barber croon every detail of every game in his lyrical, southern tones, at first on the radio and whenever I could I watched the game brought to life from Ebbets Field.

   I remember one day when the sun had bathed our street in a mid-summer glow. Mom, Dad and my little brother were all in the backyard working on our flower garden. I glanced out the back window upstairs, watching as Dad cleared the weeds around the hydrangea bushes, Mom pruned the rosebush and my little brother ran his plastic dump truck along the bluestone walkway.

   "Why don't you come out and help us?," asked Dad.

   "I can't. The game is coming on,” I replied.

   "But it’s so nice out here. Why don't you come out and get some fresh air instead of staying cooped up inside?” asked Mom.

   “But I've got to watch the game,” I answered.

   Nothing outdoors seemed better than that.

   During those years, there were three major league teams in New York. In addition to the Brooklyn Dodgers, there were the New York Yankees in the Bronx and the New York Giants in Manhattan. The Giants’ manager, Leo Durocher, was married to an actress named Laraine Day. What a lucky woman, I thought. What could be better than being a movie star and being married to a baseball player?  Boy she had it all!

   For many of their early years, the Dodgers had not been the most successful team, but the deep abiding love and devotion expressed by their fans seemed always to have surpassed that of any other team. They acquired the nickname Dem Bums, a pejorative which became a term of endearment.

   In 1947, the first year that Jackie Robinson joined the team, the Dodgers played in the World Series for one of the very few times in their long history but it was the beginning of a competitive streak. They would go on to play in five more World Series during the rest of their time in Brooklyn, always against the Yankees.

   Dad never gave up his loyalty to the New York Yankees but he rooted for the Dodgers as long as there was no rivalry. It became fun between us in those years when the Dodgers and the Yankees met in the Fall Classic. Dad rooted for his team and I rooted for mine.

   “We’re gonna beat you this time, Dad,” I’d exclaimed.

   Dad was a warm, loving guy of few words. “We’ll see.”

   Every year they would beat us, and we Dodgers fans would rally with, “Wait ‘til next year.”

   When we finally beat the Yankees in 1955, there was euphoria. The Dodgers had brought home the title at last! It was to become their only World Series victory but it counted for more than all the World Series combined that had gone before.

   Despite his allegiance I know Dad was happy for me, for Jackie and all the players who had proven that what mattered most was talent and ability, not skin color.

   I always understood Dad’s fidelity to his team. After all, he had been a Yankees fan for many years before there was such a thing as a Negro baseball player in the major leagues. The Negroes had the Negro Leagues but they were not allowed to play with the white players. Until Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, Negro ballplayers could only dream of playing major league baseball.

   Dad never told me stories about his youth. One day years after his passing, I found a picture of him in an old photo album, looking handsome as ever. He was wearing a baseball uniform, posing with a bunch of other guys, his co-workers from the company baseball team. Across their chests the shirts read Holley Blue Sox. I imagined them having fun.

   Studying that photograph, I sometimes wonder whether Dad had dreamed of becoming a professional ball player. Given the era in which he grew up, surely he might have hesitated considering the substandard conditions and indignities which Negro ball players had to endure. One can only marvel at the players who stuck it out for years in the Jim Crow leagues, never having the chance to prove themselves in the major leagues.

   I never had the opportunity to ask Dad. I wish I had.

   I don’t recall our talking much about the insults, the hate and death threats Jackie dealt with, bearing it all with such dignity. Rather, we watched with pride as he went about winning awards and honors for his athleticism and talent. By not stressing these harsh realities had Dad been shielding me, not wishing to burden me with the weight of the painful experiences of black life in the America he knew? Was he hoping I would bear witness to a different, more enlightened American experience?

   Other teams gradually followed the example of Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers, and began recruiting exceptional Negro talent. The Yankees turned out to be nearly the last professional team to employ a Negro player.  It was 1955 before Dad would see a black face in the Yankee line-up.  But I was glad when they finally did.

   Then things began to fall apart. I had only a few short years to revel in my team. In 1957, as I entered my junior year at Brooklyn College, the Dodgers played their last game at Ebbets Field.

   The owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers had undertaken a search for a site on which to build a new Dodger Stadium to replace the aging Ebbets Field. Ironically, one site considered was at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in the area where the Barclays Center now stands. When he failed to get the support he needed, he elected to move the team to California, breaking my heart and countless others.

   How could anyone do this to Brooklyn’s own?

   In the present era where teams and players are traded across the country in multi-million dollar exchanges at the whim of owners, it may be hard for some to fully grasp the abiding commitment of Brooklyn fans who crowded into the limited number of seats in an outdated stadium to watch their band of warriors win only one World Series in their entire history.  But they were ours, they were part of us and they represented the true meaning of a home team. 

   The year before, Jackie Robinson had played his last game but I continued to admire him and follow his career. I was proud of him when he became the first black Vice President for personnel at the restaurant chain Chock Full O’ Nuts and admired the work he did in the community to promote civil rights.

   Today, as I walk past the plaza in front of the Barclays Center which is near my house, I glance up at the original flagpole which stood in the outfield at Ebbets Field until the ballpark was torn down in 1960 and replaced by The Ebbets Field Apartments.          

   I read the plaque which acknowledges this historical symbol of the Brooklyn Dodgers, as it permanently resides now at the borough’s new home for major professional sports; right here on this very site where the Brooklyn Dodgers had once hoped to build their new stadium.

   I text my brother Phil.

   “Did we throw out the old Dodger yearbooks?”  I ask, bemoaning my loss.

    Some years ago, he and I were cleaning out the basement of our old brownstone in Bed-Stuy when we came across my Dodger souvenir journals.  They had grown a bit musty. I was in a mood to clean and clear clutter.  “You can toss ‘em out.” I’d said to him. 

   He had looked at me with disbelief and reluctance. 

   “Heavens no,” he texted back, “I still have them.”

   I went by his house and we pulled them out from the box where he had carefully tucked them away.  What joy! Nostalgia flooded in.

   There is no major league baseball in Brooklyn anymore, but the memories created at Ebbets Field will live on forever.

   Several years later, a new team, the New York Mets, was installed in Queens, New York. Could they take the place of the Brooklyn Dodgers? Are you kidding me?

   It was decades before I could bring myself to watch another baseball game.          

   Many more years passed before I could finally become a fan of the game once again. I chose the Yankees! When I root for them I am upholding Dad's tradition. I am rooting for Dad's team.