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Reunion of Ebbets Field stars recalls Brooklyn's baseball romance

A dead ballpark was remembered the Saturday that began the recent Memorial Day weekend. They had an Equitable old-timers game at Shea Stadium, New York. One team was from the 1969 Mets World Series championship club, and the other was populated by former stars from Ebbets Field, when the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, and in the hearts of some 3 million Brooklyn fans. I broadcast 15 years at Ebbets Field, and was asked to handle the introductions of the returning Brooklyn Dodgers. Ebbets Field's days as a major league playing field ended after the 1957 season, when the Dodgers went to Los Angeles.

An apartment complex now covers the spot where once grew the green grass of the historic ballpark, where once Casey Stengel, Nap Rucker, Dazzy Vance, Babe Herman, Wilbert Robinson, Al Lopez, Burleigh Grimes, and others won and lost. For many years until the 1940s and '50s they lost more than they won, which somehow endeared them more to the Brooklyn faithful.

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New York City has five boroughs. Manhattan is where the tall buildings, Wall Street, Broadway, Grand Central, and Penn Station are. Brooklyn never wanted to be a part of the city, but was forced into it by the legislature in 1898. Brooklyn had the Dodgers, and no city ever gave its loyalty to a team as did this unwilling New York borough.

The Brooklyn Dodgers who appeared at Shea Stadium were from the eras of club executives Larry MacPhail (1938-42), Branch Rickey (1943-1950), and Walter O'Malley (1951-57) who moved the team west.

Leo Durocher, who began his managing career in 1939 under MacPhail, came from Palm Springs, Calif., for the occasion. Leo, now 81, was beautifully dressed, as always, and was the most sought after by the press. His memory was just as sharp as in his active days. As I watched him answer questions, I was struck by how erect he stood, and by the way he looked around. He had the look of a bird of prey, which he was.

Durocher was already playing shortstop at Brooklyn when MacPhail took over. The first major player he acquired was Dolf Camilli from Philadelphia, for $50,000. Camilli came from California, age 80, and appeared very well preserved indeed. He is still at his playing weight, still has the tremendous hands, and he played his three innings with surprising skill and grace.

Mickey Owen came from Springfield, Mo., where for 16 years he was the sheriff. He remains thin and runs miles each day. Durocher says he plays nine holes of golf a day, or walks five miles. Not too many others of the group bothered to hold down their weight, but most were still able to get into their old Dodger uniforms.

Memorial Day means memories. For a brief time at Shea Stadium, the memory of Ebbets Field burned brightly. The former players made the most of this opportunity to recall games, hits, errors, excitement.

Carl Erskine from Anderson, Ind., where he is a bank president, said, ``We talked of the bad days and the good days - the bad days when we struggled so hard in the minor leagues to get to Ebbets Field.''

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There were 20 Brooklyn Dodgers: Among them were Cal Abrams, Joe Black, Augie Galan, Ralph Branca, Billy Herman, Gene Hermanski, Clyde King, Clem Labine, Tom Lasorda, Billy Loes, Joe Pignatano - each man bringing with him memories of youth and success and sorrow.

Duke Snider flew in from California. New York was blessed with Snider, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays playing center field at the same period. Snider never had a chance to show how much ground he could cover because of the smallness of Ebbets Field, but he was spectacular at Yankee Stadium when the World Series came around.

The most exciting moment at Ebbets Field came in the last of the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 1947 World Series. Bill Bevens of the Yankees had a no-hitter with two out, and was ahead, 2-1. Al Gionfriddo stole second base, Pete Reiser was intentionally walked, and Eddie Miksis was soon at first as a pinch runner. Harry Lavagetto pinch hit, doubled to spoil the no-hitter and win the game. Ebbets Field never heard such noise in its colorful history. Gionfriddo, Miksis, and Lavagetto were on hand for the Shea Stadium ceremonies - of course!

One of the truly great players at Ebbets Field, Roy Campanella, has been confined to a wheelchair since an auto accident after the 1957 season. It was a hard trip for Roy, Los Angeles to New York. Yet in all the years, Roy has never complained. He once told me, ``I accept this chair ... I believe the Lord has let me live for a purpose - for a reason ... I accept this chair.''

By far the biggest hand, the most applause went to Campanella as he was wheeled to home plate. For Roy, as he sat, smiled, and waved, he was again behind home plate at Ebbets Field, giving the signs to Clem Labine, to Billy Loes, to Carl Erskine, to Ralph Branca.

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