Sixty summers ago, almost to the day, the Dodgers of my Brooklyn were baseball’s greatest team. And they were the most Jewish, even when they weren’t.
Why, they had baseball’s reigning Jewish player, Cal Abrams. What about those other guys with Jewish-sounding names? Pee Wee Reese! Duke Snider!
We had the Jewish thing to ourselves back in 1951. Hank Greenberg, who once had dared to approach Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, had retired. Sid Gordon had left New York and was playing in Boston. Sandy Koufax was a kid, playing for Lafayette High and was years from making his famous decision not to pitch for the (Los Angeles) Dodgers on Yom Kippur.
The Dodgers’ aura of my era stretched from Flatbush to my corner of East New York, a neighborhood of four-story apartments, two-family houses, kosher butchers, grocery stores with the owner living in the back, candy stores open late on hot summer nights, men sitting on the newsstand arguing about baseball.
In front of an apartment house on the corner of Schenck and Sutter avenues sat Mr. Tinn whenever the “Brooklyns” played. They were his Dodgers, and he honored them.
Mr. Tinn — I think his name was really something like “Tinnefsky” — wasn’t born in Brooklyn. He was born in Europe. He was what we then called a “ref” — a refugee of the war. Now we call them Holocaust survivors.
Somehow, Mr. Tinn became a baseball fan, although he was no kid when he arrived here. Whenever the Dodgers played, he would don his blue cap with the white “B,” haul out a metal bridge chair, head downstairs and sit in front of the building, portable Motorola radio blaring. When Mr. Tinn spoke of the Dodgers, Duke Snider became “Schneider.” Jackie Robinson became “Jekkie.” The outfielder of Polish descent, Gene Hermanski, took on a Jewish bent, as well. Even the sign on the bottom of the right-centerfield scoreboard in Ebbets Field was festooned with a Jewish name — that of Abe Stark, a clothier from Pitkin Avenue, whose advertisement declared, “Hit Sign, Win Suit.”
And so, Mr. Tinn was in his Dodgers glory, as were we all.
In my mind, the Brooklyn Dodgers paralleled the Jewish experience in America: Humble beginnings. Years of struggle. Being made fun of. And then, in the 1940s and early ’50s, attaining the mainstream. No longer an object of derision, but of respect.
For our Brooklyns had amassed a lead over the Giants that August that reached 13½ games. Why, they may as well have ended the season right there and simply handed over World Series tickets to our “bums,” as we called them.
And so, whenever I walked the 10 blocks to my house from Thomas Jefferson High School and the Dodgers were playing an afternoon game, I’d see Mr. Tinn, living large his American dream. In the summer’s heat, he cooled off by drinking Pepsi from a bottle. Invariably, he was smiling, for the Dodgers were mowing down everyone. I envied this old guy. Who needed the Catskills or Miami Beach? He knew how to relax, and he knew what was important in life.
Day after day, he was in that bridge chair, his radio telling us about some marvelous Dodgers’ exploit announced by the courtly, Southern-born Red Barber.
But the world as so many of us knew it was about to be turned upside down. Toward the end of August, the Giants went on one of the great winning streaks in baseball history, and somehow the teams ended the regular season tied. They split the first two games of the three-game playoff.
I was on late session at high school. My last class — French studies — ended at 3:50 p.m., and as I left the room on Oct. 3, 1951, someone pulled a portable radio out of a briefcase. Game three was still on. It was the bottom of the ninth. My classmates and I stood in the hallway listening.
Some six or seven minutes later, we heard the call: Bobby Thomson hit a home run off Ralph Branca (also a Jew, as was recently revealed in a New York Times article) and the Giants won the pennant and were headed to the World Series against the damnable Yankees, the un-Brooklyn Yankees.
I walked home, shaking my head. I had lost something greater. The Dodgers had let me down. I approached my corner. There sat Mr. Tinn on his chair, neither sullen nor smiling. I moved closer to commiserate with him.
But no…could it be? Mr. Tinn was wearing a Yankees cap! In my moment of utter dismay — in Brooklyn’s worst moment — Mr. Tinn had deserted his Dodgers.
I stood shocked. How could he have done this? This street, this borough, this country had been so good to him. The Dodgers had been part of his new life. Yet there he sat, reveling in the Yankees’ success. He had forgotten his roots. Why, he even seemed to have lost his accent.
I am reminded of that moment every year, and I have made up in my mind a story about why he did what he did. I think Mr. Tinn learned that he could overcome the pain of loss because he was in America. He could reinvent himself and he didn’t have to follow a loser. He could become a follower of that most American team of all — why, even the name evokes America.
I guess we all have memories of the moment we were no longer children. The pain and loss of my moment: 3:58 p.m., on Oct. 3, 1951, haunts me still. But I’m still a (Brooklyn) Dodger fan, still Jewish. I never thought of converting. Yes, goes the saying, “It’s hard to be a Jew.” But, ah, to be Jewish and a Dodger fan — that is exquisite in its complexity.
Gerald Eskenazi, a retired New York Times sportswriter, lectures on the news media, pop culture and sports.