Saturday, July 25, 2015

"Like That"

One of the many things that I've learned from a lifetime of sports is that there are games and even seasons that are "like that."  Times where a result or pattern of results happen, no matter or in spite of past performance, logic or any rational explanation.  The Elizabeth Resolutes, New Jersey's first vintage base ball club, has suffered through a season "like that," where the results (victories) have been far fewer than any one could logically expect.  Before Saturday's match at Rahway River Park, for example, the Neshanock had won all four previous encounters, three of which were close affairs that could have gone any other way.  On Saturday, Flemington got a taste of the experience with a day that was simply "like that."  Among other things, after playing good defense the previous weekend, the Neshanock made more muffs in one game on Saturday than  in the four Gettysburg games combined.  

Curtis Campbell at Ebbets Field, September 23, 1944

This is in no way to take anything away from the Resolutes performance as the Elizabeth club was clearly the superior team, taking a 12-3 lead after two innings and then dominating the match for a convincing 32-11 trashing of the Neshanock.  While there were no bright spots for Flemington on defense, there were some noteworthy offensive performances, Danny "Batman" Shaw had five hits followed by Gregg Wiseburn with four.  Chris "Low Ball" Lowry and Scott "Snuffy" Hengst each chipped in three hits while Dave "Illinois" Harris and Joe "Irish" Colduvell had two apiece.  While he wasn't in uniform or on the field, the Nesahnock also welcomed back Bob "Melky" Ritter who looked remarkably spry for someone recovering from two hip replacements. 

Why there are days and seasons "like that" is an unanswerable question as is why it seems like everyone and any one who ever went to Ebbets Field has a story.   Even if that question could be answered, there is no end to the stories, even though the Brooklyn ballpark has been gone longer (55 years) than it was there (47 years).  The latest story to come my way began in June of 2014 after the Neshanock played a match in Woodbridge, New Jersey.  The game was filmed by a local cable station and I was asked to provide historical background and context which led to mention of my interest in Brooklyn Dodger history.  A few weeks later, I received an e-mail from the cable station indicating that Mr. Curtis Campbell, an Iselin resident, had an Ebbets Field story he wanted to share.  It took quite some time for us to finally meet, but a few weeks ago I had a chance to spend some time with this remarkably robust octogenarian.  Curtis also visited with us on Saturday so for once, "Melky" wasn't the oldest pitcher at the game.

Born in 1927, Curtis was in high school during World War II, attending Queens Vocational High School.  Located in an intensely urban setting, the school had no athletic teams and since Curt spent most summers in Maine, he never had much of a chance to play competitive baseball.  Fortunately, however, in both 1943 and 1944, he did spend the summer in Long Island City and pitched for a team in a YMCA sponsored league.  Intent on taking full advantage of the opportunity, the young right hander worked at his craft, developing multiple release points for pitches while also changing his position on the pitching rubber depending on whether the batter was left handed or right handed.  Curtis initially had a problem with tipping off his curve ball, but when an opposing manager started warning his hitters by calling out "curve ball,” Curtis solved the problem by crossing up the batter with a fast ball.  Curt enjoyed considerable success those two summers, but hadn't thought much beyond the YMCA league when opportunity knocked through a newspaper ad.

Clove Lakes Park, Staten Island
Reading a New York newspaper, in September of 1944, Curtis saw a notice that the Brooklyn Dodgers were holding open tryouts on Saturday, September 16th at Clove Lakes Park on Staten Island.  It was probably one part due to the war time shortage of players and one part due to Branch Rickey's practice of collecting large pools of talent, but regardless, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.  However, just getting there by the 8:00 a.m. reporting time was a challenge.  Leaving Long Island City at 6;00, Curt took the subway to Grand Central Station, another subway to the Staten Island Ferry, the ferry to Staten Island and finally a bus to Clove Lakes Park, arriving with 10 minutes to spare.  Upon arrival he found all the prospective major leaguers divided over six fields by position.  Curtis pitched to some hitters and then to a Dodgers coach who relatively quickly, and cryptically, said he had seen "enough."

What "enough" meant was clarified equally quickly when a letter arrived at the Campbell home from Branch Rickey Jr. inviting Curtis back for a second try out, this time at Ebbets Field itself.  One of only about six invited back, he arrived at the Brooklyn ball park where, in spite of what the letter said, he was given a Dodger uniform even though it was just for the day.  Fortunately at a time long before smart phones, young Mr. Campbell had the foresight to bring a camera.  When it came his turn to pitch, Curt surprised the Dodgers coach by saying the protective screen in front of the pitcher (used during batting practice) had to be moved because of his different release points.  Whether it was the multiple release points or some other explanation, Curtis had remarkable control that day as only about six pitches missed the plate.

Finally Brooklyn catcher, Bobby Bragan stepped in with manager Leo Durocher watching off from the side.  After Bragan hit a few routine fly balls, Curtis went against batting practice protocol by throwing an overhand curve ball.  Caught totally off guard, Bragan missed the pitch by six inches provoking a tirade from Durocher that cannot be repeated in a family blog.  Whether in spite of or because of his audacity, Curtis was sent home with the words ringing in his ears that the Dodgers would contact him about spring training.  However, days, weeks and months passed without any follow up and as a high school senior in war time, Curtis didn't have time to wait.  Finally he was given the opportunity to take the test for a special army training program which would allow him to attend the University of Delaware while he was in the army.  Perhaps not surprisingly, once he was irrevocably in the army, Curtis did get the call from the Dodgers, but it was too late.  By the time he got out of the army in 1948, he was ready to get married which along with family responsibilities which meant a steady job was a necessity.  Thus began a long career in banking, fatherhood and over 60 years of marriage that continues to this day.  Curt doesn't have any regrets, but he's never forgotten that special day at Ebbets Field, a day, I’m glad has been preserved at A Manly Pastime.  

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