In the northern New Jersey neighborhood where I grew up, either you were a Yankees fan or you kept your mouth shut. The Giants had not yet defected to San Francisco, and the Dodgers ("dem bums") still called Ebbets Field in Brooklyn home, but if you rooted for either of them, you kept your preferences to yourself. We used to chant, "Dodgers, Dodgers, boo, boo, boo. Stick 'em in the trash can, two by two. Yankees, Yankees, yay, yay, yay. Put 'em in the field and watch 'em play." And if the Mets had been around back then, they would have generated the same hostility many of us felt toward the Russians in that distant Cold War-McCarthy era. No, it was Yankee pinstripes all the way.
When I was a kid, I was a rabid Yankees fan long before it was considered cool for girls to take an interest in baseball. My friends adored the leading ladies of that era: Debbie Reynolds, Marilyn, Donna Reed, Annette Funicello. My idols were Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Elston Howard, and Whitey Ford. I memorized the Yanks' starting lineup and stats the way other girls had memorized the lyrics to all of Elvis's songs. I even fantasized of becoming the first ever female major league baseball player, and of course I would play only for the Yankees. I'm sure I would have maintained at least a .400 batting average.
My early interest in baseball must have come from my paternal grandfather. Even now I can still see him, cigar in one hand and beer in the other, watching Roy Campanella on black and white TV crouch low behind the home plate at Ebbets Field, easily scooping up a foul tip. Like most Brooklyn residents of that era, Grandpa had two favorite teams: the Dodgers and whoever was playing against the Yankees. After he and my dad took me to see the Dodgers play at Ebbets Field, it must have caused him considerable consternation to see his only grandchild grow up rooting for the team he despised so much. This rift led to many interesting discussions between him and myself, and not only about baseball.
Scene: A Sunday afternoon in the late 50's in my grandparents' apartment in Brooklyn. I am about 10 or 11 at the time. Grandpa, as usual, is smoking a cigar and drinking a Rheingold. We are watching the Yankees playing the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium on WPIX, Channel 11, "The Voice of the Yankees."Every spring it was already a foregone conclusion that Casey Stengel would lead the mighty Bronx Bombers to yet another World Series victory. It was merely a question of which National League team the Yanks would clobber. I still think that the 1956 Subway Series between the Yankees and the Dodgers, with Don Larsen's perfect no-hitter in the 5th game, played a significant part in the Dodgers' decision to move to Los Angeles the following season.
Grandpa (offering me a candy dish): Here, have some M & M's. You know what M & M stands for, don't you? Mantle and Maris.
Me: C'mon, Grandpa, you're just jealous because it's only the top of the 3rd and already the Yankees are leading 3-0.
Grandpa: But Detroit has two men on and Al Kaline's at bat.
Me: Ha! Kaline couldn't hit the side of a barn! And anyway, Detroit has two outs, so there!
Grandma: Sam, are we going for Chinese tonight?
Me: Yeah!!! What're you going to have, Grandpa?
Grandpa: Lobster Cantonese and shrimp chow mein.
Me: Grandpa, you're not supposed to eat that!
Grandpa: And why not?
Me: Because that's shellfish and it's not kosher!
Grandpa (to my father): Nu, listen to her, Sid, the little rebbetzin (rabbi's wife). It's not bad enough she's a Yankees fan?
The voice of Mel Allen on TV: ...And as the side retires, going into the bottom of the 3rd, the Yankees lead Detroit 3-0...
By the time I reached high school, my interest in the Yankees and baseball in general had waned. Maybe it was because I was now becoming interested in more acceptably feminine pursuits (like guys). Maybe it was because my favorite Yankees players were now retiring or being traded to other teams. Maybe it was because Casey Stengel was now managing the upstart Mets. At any rate, it was no longer inevitable that the Yankees would capture the pennant every October.
Occasionally George Steinbrenner rattles Bronx officials by threatening to yank the Yanks out of Yankee Stadium and transplant them to New Jersey (I'd be thrilled by that!) or the West Side of Manhattan. Of course, they could no longer be called the Bronx Bombers. Maybe the West Side Wonders? Or the Meadowlands Marvels?
I still no longer follow baseball the way I used to when I was a kid. Back then there used to be something basic, honest, and innocent about enjoying a hot dog and a cold soda in the bleachers of Yankee Stadium or any other ballpark on a summer afternoon. Back then it seemed that at least players cared more about the game and the fans than in making more money in one season than an entire stadium full of fans would see in a lifetime. Also, if an outfielder missed an easy out, at least it wasn't because his brain was fogged with drugs. But for now, the Yankees are back on top where they have always belonged.
By the way, I still don't eat shrimp chow mein. My tastes have progressed to Hunan shrimp.