‘Dem Bums’ are coming to town; Time to root for the home team

Baseball is America’s national pastime. Well, that’s what US sportswriters and columnists have been saying since the National League was founded in 1876.
I’m not so sure now, given the amount of publicity afforded to the National Football League and the Super Bowl, and the National Basketball Association, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s March Madness basketball playoffs across the United States.
But baseball has history behind it, from the days of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees, to Stan Musial of the St Louis Cardinals, to Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the major leagues, and his team, the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Dodgers made a controversial move to Los Angeles in 1958, deserting their devastated fans in Flatbush, who loved “Dem Bums,” the nickname bestowed upon them by a despairing supporter in the depression years, who used to cry out behind home plate: “Yez bums, yez.” (That information came from a chapter from Harvey Frommer’s book, New York City Baseball, in The Dodgers Reader, edited by Dan Riley.) Reminds me of a few fans at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the early 90s, when the Swans managed to lose 26 straight games.
Well, “Dem Bums” are coming to Sydney next month, to play two historic games at the Sydney Cricket Ground against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the opening to the Major League Baseball season, the first time it’s happened in Australia. The SCG will be transformed into a MLB diamond, complete with dugouts and pitcher’s mound.
Channel Nine will televise the games on Gem, and ESPN and the Major League Baseball Network will broadcast them in the US and around the world to an estimated audience of 150 million viewers. One of the commentators is Ian Chappell, former Australian cricket captain, and a member of the All-Australian baseball team in the 1960s as a catcher.
He’s a friend from my days at Channel Nine, and a long-time aficionado of US baseball. We first met after I wrote a piece in The Australian newspaper, describing my happiness over the victory of my hometown team, the Philadelphia Phillies, in the 1980 World Series against Kansas City – their first ever. Phillies fans celebrated in usual Philly fashion, with one death and a number of injured in celebratory gun incidents. Ian mentioned the irony in a letter to me.
Ever since, we’ve talked about baseball and the World Series, which he usually attended for Channel Nine’s Wide World of Sports. He was in India covering the cricket for Nine when the Phillies won their second World Series in 2008 against Tampa Bay. I had to wait until he returned to chat about the good news. So I will be looking forward to his commentary on Nine – shame the Phillies aren’t coming! He’s not the only Australian celebrity in love with baseball. Rock star Tim Rogers, the front man for You Am I, is a big fan of the sport, and more importantly, the Phillies. We had a great, albeit brief, discussion of the Phils and baseball after a taping of The Observer Effect at SBS last year.
But the Los Angeles Dodgers aren’t as excited as I am about coming Down Under to open the Major League baseball season. One of their star pitchers, Zack Greinke, was asked by an ESPN reporter about how he felt about the long trip to Australia: “I would say there is absolutely zero excitement for it. There just isn’t any excitement to it. I can’t think of one reason to be excited for it.” (The photo above by Paul Saneya of Associated Press shows Greinke looking less than excited!)
This is how the Los Angeles Times’ baseball reporter, Steve Dilbert, described his response: “Greinke was saying what probably most every player was thinking but not espousing publicly. This Australia trip is one major injury away from being a complete disaster. They have to prepare in an abbreviated camp, travel halfway around the world to play two games down under against the Arizona Diamondbacks, fly 17 hours home, suddenly play three practice games and then start the regular season again in San Diego. What’s not to love?” http://lat.ms/1fStMeI
I love baseball. Like Chappelli, I was a catcher growing up, but never made it to an All-American or All-Australian level. I used to read and memorise the statistics and records in the Encyclopedia of Baseball, and still remember things like the Philadelphia Athletics’ Ferris Fain’s batting average, .327, which was the best in the American League in 1952. The A’s, as they were known, moved to Kansas City in 1955, then Oakland, where they remain. Every time I travel back to the US, I wind up buying another book on baseball, whether it’s The Dodgers Reader, Summer of ’49 by David Halberstam; Season Ticket by Roger Angell, or Good Enough to Dream by Roger Kahn. One of my favourite baseball books is Jimmy Breslin’s excellent Branch Rickey, a biography of the former president and GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who brought Jackie Robinson into the Major Leagues and changed baseball from a white man’s game to a multi-racial sport. I reviewed it in a post on my blog two years ago http://wp.me/s1Ytmx-227 The last book I read with a strong baseball theme was Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927, which has some wonderful anecdotes about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in that amazing summer. (Bill Bryson is touring Australia next month with his live stage show, Many a True Word, hosted by Ray Martin, in most capital cities, beginning in Sydney on March 14, and ending in Melbourne on March 22. Wonder if Bill will be able to get to the second Dodgers-Razorbacks game in Sydney on March 23?)
Some of the best writers in America, like Breslin, started as sportswriters – they were wordsmiths and wrote like novelists. One of the true legends was Red Smith, whose story on a famous baseball game, when the then New York Giants beat the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the pennant in 1951 with a three-run homer in the ninth inning by Bobby Thomson, is reprinted in The Dodgers Reader. Here’s Smith’s opening paragraph: “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.” No mention of the score until much later in the piece. That’s another reason why young Americans turned to baseball – it was a sport eulogised by its best and brightest writers and songwriters. David Halberstam, author of a highly praised trilogy on power in America, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, and The Reckoning, tells the wonderful story in Summer of ’49 about Paul Simon, a Yankee fan, and how he searched for an image of purity in a simpler America while writing lyrics for The Graduate in 1966: “His mind flashed to the great Yankee player. He wrote down, completely by instinct, the words, ‘Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you …’ He knew immediately that it was right – a lament for another time …”
It is another time in America now – when Yankees’ star, Alex Rodriguez, with three years still to go on a ten-year, $275 million contract, is undergoing a season-long suspension for his involvement in a drug scandal – and players seem to be more interested in money than baseball. But it’s still a great game, and the Dodgers will be taking on the Diamondbacks for real – these are not exhibition matches.
Even the legendary broadcaster and voice of the Dodgers since the late 1950s, Vin Scully, is coming Down Under to do the play-by-play for the two games for Time Warner. At the age of 86, Scully told the LA Times he’s not looking forward to the 17-hour flight.
Although most Dodger fans were angry about the departure of their team to Los Angeles – one supporter said at the time: “Baseball didn’t belong in California” – Vin Scully, in an interview with LA Times reporter Maryann Hudson in 1991 (reprinted in The Dodgers Reader), said LA is “now a baseball city: we have won pennants, World Series, lost heartbreakers. We are now a mature baseball city.”
Just one thing before you come down here, Vin. When the organist starts playing the iconic baseball song: “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” please expect a big laugh when the fans sing the lyrics “let me root, root, root for the home team.” The word “root” has salacious connotations in Australia. For example, if you were looking for a “root” in a brothel, it wouldn’t be of the vegetable variety.
Enough said. Come on Down, the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks.

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