By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
I spotted the green Beemer through the smoke, pulled up next to it, and we rode.
IT WAS A STILL AND CLEAR AND sparkling Sunday at Dodger Stadium, the grass more emerald and the sky more sapphire in the aftermath of a fierce, early winter rain than it could ever hope to be in July. I emerged from the dugout —l the dugout!—l into all this splendor and breathed deep. I barely took three steps before I heard it.
I froze. The exasperated yell, brief but unmistakably Brooklyn, echoed off the tens of thousands of empty seats. Spike Lee was filming a commercial, and I had stepped into a live frame.
I was here to observe, but thanks to the oversight of a chatty production assistant and my own distracted reminiscing —l I've been a blue-bleeding Dodger fan since the late '70s —l I had become inconveniently conspicuous. "This is gonna cost me 10 bucks," the assistant muttered somewhat cryptically. I was mortified.
But soon I was immersed in watching Lee interview Ralph Branca, one of the very few Brooklyn Dodgers still around who played in 1947, the year Jackie Robinson integrated big-league baseball. That was a famously tough season for Robinson, a season that hit a nadir during a late-summer game in Cincinnati in which the fans, who might have been geographically Midwestern but acted culturally Southern, hurled every epithet imaginable at the second baseman —l beforethe game started. During the pre-game practice Dodger captain Pee Wee Reese, born and raised in Kentucky just across the Ohio River, stopped the proceedings and walked across the field to where Robinson was warming up. Without saying a word, Reese put his arm around Robinson in full view of the hostile crowd. The stadium went silent. It was a hush heard round the world.
This was the moment that Lee was re-creating for his commercial, one in a series of eight for ESPN called "Without Sports. . ." All the spots have played the issue for laughs, with contemporary fans in mind, except this one. "This was a real watershed moment in history," said the network's marketing director, Spence Kramer. "It was deeply poignant and affecting. It wasn't funny at all."
Lee, a prodigious sports fan with a particular interest in Jackie Robinson, proved a relentless interviewer of Branca, who remains as affable as Lee is intense, though both are direct and economical with words. How did Branca feel about Reese's gesture that day in Cincinnati? "I thought it was a courageous act," Branca said. "Pee Wee did it out of friendship and respect. It said 'Dodgers' on his uniform. That's his teammate. That was Pee Wee saying 'screw you' to everybody."
Down on the field I met Lou Johnson, who played for the Dodgers in the '60s with Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, and now works in the front office. Johnson is graying but lean and fit, dapper in a black wool baseball jacket and knife-creased slacks. He played a season with the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs in 1955 before the integration led by Robinson killed those leagues off for good.
"I didn't play with Jackie, but I certainly profited from his act," said Johnson. "By the '60s the atmosphere in baseball hadn't changed that much." He deplores the decline of baseball as a sport of choice among black youth today; he's part of an organization called RBI —l Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities —l that was instrumental in helping to get a South-Central Little League off the ground some years back. "Kids need to know what we had to endure to get to the top," said Johnson. "Jackie integrated not only baseball, but other sports as well."
Lee, relaxing ever so slightly on a lunch break, concurred. He was wearing a knit cap, a bleary look and light beard stubble. "His contribution is much bigger than baseball," he said in his trademark Brooklynese, talking about Robinson. "He changed the American landscape. You can never underestimate the pressure he was under, of having the weight of the race on you." He paused to think. "The only comparable thing would be Joe Louis versus Max Schmeling, democracy versus the Nazis. Baseball in particular was so American, which is why Negroes weren't allowed to play for so long. That's why the moment in this commercial is so pivotal." ä
Dodger Stadium in December may sound about as forsaken a place as this city can imagine, but it lives in my affections as a dazzling proxy for a thoroughly inhospitable place where sports history was made. It is odd but logical, just as the Dodgers' move from east to west turned out to be. As Johnson drove me off the field in a groundskeeper's cart beneath the bright sun, I silently thanked Robinson for being in some way responsible for this private, pivotal, baseball moment of my own.
—lErin Aubry Kaplan
MY NEIGHBOR FORREST (FULL NO-joke legal name: Forrest Glen Owen) often drops by my place on one of his many walks 'round our Atwater Village neighborhood, usually accompanied by his inquisitive, impatient 11-year-old daughter, Sylvana Elektra. Forrest is one of those guys who likes to make this cruelly alienated city smaller, more human-scale. He's an urban caretaker, a wandering dot-connector. He advertises himself on his permaculturalist business's answering machine as "your friendly neighborhood tree surgeon"; he introduces neighbors with shared interests; and he keeps all of us informed about our local environment: e.g., there's a good bookshelf left out curbside on Edenhurst; that dude on Dover decided against putting in Korean grass for his new lawn 'cuz it's too expensive; the fruit on the rose apple tree over on Griffith View Drive is now ripe and the owner said it's cool if we take some this weekend.