Spring 2001
Valley of the shadow
Safe at home
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Riff Ram
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TCU Magazine Feature

Safe at home

Famed biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin's political punditry garnered her campus visit as the University's Fogelson speaker last fall -- but her baseball stories hit the real home run

Ed. note: The following is an edited excerpt of Goodwin's fall speech in TCU's Ed Landreth Auditorium.

My lifelong love of history is really rooted in two childhood experiences. It began to take dimension when I was only six years old and my father taught me how to keep score of Brooklyn Dodgers baseball games so that I could recount the history of those afternoon games to him when he would come home every night from work.

For two hours each evening, I would go over every excruciating detail of every play of every inning. The game had just taken place that afternoon but he made me feel I was telling him a fabulous story. At first, I had no idea how to construct a story. I would blurt out, "The Dodgers won! The Dodgers lost!" which took much of the drama away of the two-hour story to come. So I finally learned you have to tell a story from beginning to middle to end.

The second root of my love of history can be traced to my mother's chronic illness. She had rheumatic fever as a child, which left her with a damaged heart, so damaged that doctors said she had the heartbeat of a 70-year-old when she was only 30 years old. It bound her to our home as an invalid, but it also meant she read books in every spare moment she could find. Books could take her to the world she couldn't see.

And every night she would read to me as long as I could stay awake. The only thing I loved more was listening to stories of her own childhood. I somehow became obsessed with the idea that if I could keep her talking about the days when she was young and healthy before her illness set in -- when she could jump rope or take stairs two at a time -- that somehow her mind would control her body and the premature aging process we were witnessing would slow down.

I would constantly say to her, "Mom, tell me a story about you when you were my age," not realizing how peculiar that was until I had my own three sons who have never once said to me, "Mom, tell us a story about you when you were our age."

The world which I grew up in -- New York in the 1950s -- was a stable world. Our block had more than a dozen kids exactly my age living right next to each other. The houses had such small lawns we actually were part of one giant house. On summer mornings, we could race into one another's houses and then onto the street which was our common playground.

I talk to my kids about the games that we somehow managed to entertain ourselves with from morning to night, which sounds medieval to them -- tag, hopscotch, jump rope -- with a house key around our necks. Childhood then was separated from the adult world of violence, sexuality and divorce in a way that is no longer true today.

Those were the days when players were not free to move from one team to another at the clink of the highest coin. So lineups stayed the same year after year. Loyalty was a two-way street; we knew and could repeat the starting lineups as well or better than we knew our relatives' names. In fact, if our favorite players were in a slump, as Dodgers first baseman Gil Hodges was, entire families in Brooklyn would pray for him. I even took it a step further by giving him my St. Christopher's Medal -- that's like the Pope -- that I had won in parochial school for knowing the seven deadly sins. (My opponent remembered sloth, envy, pride, but fortunately she forgot gluttony, which I yelled out.)

St. Christopher was the patron saint of traveling.I figured that if I gave it to Gil Hodges, then St. Christopher would protect him as he traveled around the bases until he got safely home. Miracles of miracles, the day after I gave him the medal, he hit two home runs and I was sure that I had made it happen.

But, indeed, so ardent was my love for the Brooklyn Dodgers in those days that I had to confess during my first holy confession at age seven that I had two sins related to baseball. The first had to do with Dodger catcher Roy Campanella and the day he came to Long Island to deliver a speech.

I was so excited; it would be the first time I had ever seen a Dodger player outside of Ebbets Field. But it was announced that he was speaking in an Episcopal Church. Now when you're brought up in the Catholic Church, you have this feeling that if you ever step foot in a Protestant Church, you'll be struck dead. My father assured me that it was not a religious event, so it was okay. Still, as I walked over the threshold that night, I could feel my knees buckling.

And then after I came home after having a wonderful time, I couldn't sleep, certain that I had somehow traded the life of my everlasting soul for one night with Roy Campanella. The next night, I was still having trouble sleeping when all these sirens started ringing in the town. I ran down to see what had happened, and it turned out that two trains had collided at the village station. My parents were debating whether to go to the station when I began to discern the opportunity for my redemption.

I had learned in catechism class that if you came upon a dying person as a lay person, and there were no priests present, you could baptize them and they could go to heaven and all your sins would be wiped out. So, I had been practicing on my doll at home for months, and never did I need it more than at this moment.

I somehow slipped away to the train station, which wasn't very far to walk. The only thing that prevented me from the utter humiliation of lifting up blankets and asking dying people if they wanted me, a 7-year-old, to baptize them, was that there was a priest already there. So I immediately ran home with the sin still on my soul.

So, at my first confession I decided to tell the priest immediately and get it off my chest. He confirmed what my father had said almost word for word, but then he said, "What else my child?" And unfortunately I had the second set of sins related to baseball -- and that was I wished harm on players on other teams. I wished that other players would become ill or break their arms so the Brooklyn Dodgers could reach the World Series.

The priest said, "How often do you think these horrible wishes?" And I said, "Every night." And then, talking too much at the confessional (I still talk too much everywhere today) I explained to him that if God was powerful enough to hurt these players, then surely he was powerful enough to cure them once the Dodgers won the World Series.

He said, "Look, I am a Dodgers fan, too. But I can promise you that one day they will win fairly and squarely and you do not need to wish harm on other teams. Do you understand?" And I assured him I did. As I left the confessional, he said, "I will say a special prayer for our Brooklyn Dodgers." How lucky I was that my first confession was to a baseball-loving priest, but each year it seemed the Dodgers would manage to lose at the very last moment.

Finally, in 1955, our dreams came true and the Dodgers beat the Yankees in a dramatic seven-game series. In those days, games were played in the afternoons, which was so much better than it is now. You had to figure out how to listen in school without the teachers knowing. Boys would sit in the back with the radio on their lap and then send a note forward or whisper any important action.

They allowed us to hear the seventh game over the P.A. system but not the earlier games. So we had to find ways to listen. We were in Ms. Brown's geography class and the boys had the radios in their laps. She was the meanest teacher we had. We had to know every single stop on the Trans-Siberian railroad. And she loved to ask the class, "What are the three outer provinces of outer Mongolia?" to which one student responded, "Yaks, Yurts and Yokes."

Just at that moment, a home run was hit. The boys whispered the news, and we all started clapping instead of laughing. At which Ms. Brown said, "I'm so glad you love geography!"

Nonetheless, I made it home in time for the last two innings of the seventh game with my mother, and when the Dodgers announcer Vin Scully said after we had won the game 2-0, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Brooklyn Dodgers are the champions of the world," we jumped up and down with tears streaming down our face.

Minutes later, my father called from Brooklyn where he worked and said we had to come into the city, there was a great celebration in store that evening. Later we learned that more people were on the phones in that hour after Brooklyn won than after V-J Day a decade earlier. I would remember that magical night for years to come, for soon after the elements of my childhood world began to crumble step by step.

Two years after that victory, the Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley announced the unthinkable -- and now I speak to you not as an objective historian -- that he was ripping our team away from us and moving them to Los Angeles because the New York Giants were moving to San Francisco at the same time. There was a horrible saying going around New York at that time. What if you were in a room with this man and with him were Hitler and Stalin. And what if you had two bullets. Who would you shoot ╔ besides O'Malley?

The same year the Dodgers left, something far greater happened to my own family. My mother, after having fought so valiantly and for so long against heart disease, suffered a heart attack in her sleep and died. I had just turned 15 years old. Somehow, when she died, our house seemed to shrink around us, with my father finding himself unable to enter the porch where they shared cocktails in the evening, unwilling to eat in the breakfast room where their day had begun, incapable of sleeping in the bedroom where she had died.

His depression left him no choice but to sell our house and move into an apartment way on the other side of town. I found it impossible to understand leaving the only house, the only block, the only neighborhood I had ever known. I found it difficult to talk to my father about his decisions until one day shortly before we moved he came and sat down beside me in our attic as I sorted through all the stuff I had saved over the years. Old baseball cards. Report cards. Scorecards.

And for the first time, we began to talk about the decision, and he promised me that moving would not mean forgetting my mother -- my real fear, I suspect, because she was connected to every room in the house. It was just, he said, he had to try and pick up the pieces of his life and start over again. And just at that moment, I saw him smile for the first time in months as he picked up an old pennant on which the Dodgers slogan, "Just wait until next year!" was printed in big black letters. Here was the glue, the anthem of pain, bravado and prayer that had somehow served Dodgers fans for so many years and would now serve our own family as the promise of the healing that time would bring.

Over the years, my father's eternal strength reasserted itself once more. Seven years later, he married a warm and wonderful woman and began to take pleasure in life again -- and became a passionate New York Mets fan.

That same year, when I was at Harvard, my boyfriend took me to Fenway Park. I had not followed baseball for those seven years so saddened I was by the loss of the Dodgers. But the moment I stepped into Fenway, with its odd angles so reminiscent of Ebbets Field, I sadly became an irrational Boston Red Sox fan (nor could I have picked a team more reminiscent of the losing Brooklyn Dodgers).

My renewed love of baseball allowed hours of conversations on the phone with my father about his Mets and my Red Sox until he died of a sudden heart attack when I was in my late 20s. Not long after his death and after I got married and had three sons, my love of baseball took on an even more intense form. With our season tickets, I can sit in Fenway park with my boys and close my eyes and dash myself back to Ebbets Field, a young girl once more in the presence of my father watching the Dodgers play on the grass field below╔ Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese.

I must say there is magic in these moments. When I open my eyes, I see my sons in the place where my father once sat, I feel an almost invisible loyalty and love linking my sons to the grandfather whose face they never got a chance to see, but whose heart and soul they have come to know through the game of baseball.