By Cheech Marin, Huffington Post Latino Voices
There is something strange happening to our national pastime. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it. Everything seemed normal. I was sitting around on a Sunday afternoon, drinking a beer, watching my team, the L.A. Dodgers, playing their longtime rivals, the San Francisco Giants. I hadn’t really followed baseball as of late; too many other things to do, I guess. I was alone and decided to luxuriate in the wonders of my new big screen “high-definition” TV. Man, the picture was good. You could count the pores in each player’s face. The grass was so green, it looked like the teams were playing in Ireland. I love technology … when it works. I settled back and eased into my massage chair. Life is fucking lovely.
As I was knocking back my second beer, my mind drifted back to the great games of 1950s and 1960s between these two traditional foes. I was about 12 years old and in Little League – for me, the fate of the Western world hinged on who won the National League pennant. I had been a Dodger fan since they were in Brooklyn. My grandfather (Nono) and I would listen to Dodger games every night to a station on the Mexican end of the radio dial. We would live and die with every pitch when the games got close and curse at the radio as if it could hear us when the signal faded. Major league games were just starting to be televised on Saturdays in black and white, which was an apt metaphor because the color line had just been broken in baseball. The TV networks knew what they had right away, so they televised as many Brooklyn Dodgers games as possible.
I guess what really made me a Dodgers fan from the beginning was that the team had Jackie Robinson, the first “Negro” in the major leagues. I must’ve been too young to fully understand the world-shaking implications of that, because by the time I started watching the Dodgers, they also had Roy Campanella, Junior Gilliam, and Don Newcombe. Besides, at the time, everyone in my neighborhood was “Negro,” so what was the big deal? It just seemed normal.
Years later, I remember one of the most surreal moments I ever had as an adult. At some charity event with a lot of sports figures in attendance, I was at the bar getting a drink. I turned around and there was this huge guy standing in front in me smiling. He stuck out his hand and said “Hi, Cheech. I’m Don Newcombe.” I stood there for what seemed like a year with my mouth wide open. I was instantly 10 years old and all I could think of was “Don Newcombe knows my name?” I wanted to say, “I know every single statistic about you. I have four of your baseball cards, including your rookie one. I’ve seen or heard every inning you’ve pitched for the last three years of your career. I know your dog’s name. You’re a GOD!” But the only thing that came out of my mouth was “Yeah, nice to meet you.” Don smiled a big smile and walked away, chuckling. I walked like a zombie back to my table where my wife was sitting and blurted out, “I just met Don Newcombe.” She looked up at me with those beautiful blue eyes and said, “Great, Did you get my drink?”
I liked Jackie Robinson because he was cool to watch, not because he was black. Every time you turned around, he was hitting a triple or making a great play in the field or, best of all, stealing home. Of all the plays in baseball, stealing home is by far the most exciting. It combines speed, daring, timing, surprise and most of all … balls. Man, you can get killed stealing home. Think of it. You have a guy running with his head down, as fast as he can towards home plate and a guy swinging a bat with his back to you. The pitcher is throwing the ball at 95 mph to the same spot you’re going, and the plate is being guarded by a catcher wearing an iron mask and armor all over his body. “Banzai!” It’s a suicide mission and Jackie used to do it all the time … and survive! I couldn’t wait for Saturday morning to see the new adventures of Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers. Life couldn’t get any better … and then it did.
In 1958, the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and my favorite team was now my home team. At the same time, the New York Giants moved to San Francisco and the rivalry continued, only on the West Coast. There was also an extra-added bonus to the Giants moving out west: the team had Willie Mays … the greatest player to ever play the game. Let me say that again: “Willie Mays is the greatest player to ever play the game.”
As much as I loved Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Junior Gilliam, and Don Newcombe, I loved watching Willie Mays play more than all of them combined even if he played for the “bad guys!” My worship for Willie Mays was cemented in 1954, the first World Series to be televised: New York Giants vs. Cleveland Indians; the first game in the cavernous Polo Grounds of New York. In one of the middle innings with the Indians threatening and two men on, Vic Wertz hit a screaming line drive to the deepest part of center…
This article was first published in Huffington Post Latino Voices.[Photo by Kevin.Ward]