Hilda Chester in the Country of Brooklyn

The Tampa Bay Rays this year handed out cowbells to its fans, and by the end of the year the rooters from the visiting teams would hear a cacaphony of noise every time they tried to organize a cheer. The Rays fans don’t know it, but the cowbell idea came from Stu Sternberg, the Rays’ owner, who was a big fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Bums’ number one fan was a woman by the name of Hilda Chester, and she would bring a big, loud cowbell to the game, and you could hear her all through the ballpark. Here’s an excerpt from my book BUMS about Hilda and the fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers:

Under [Lee] MacPhail and [Leo] Durocher, the [Brooklyn] Dodgers finally became a team deserving of its loyal and worshipful fans, many of whom had been waiting since the early 1920s for the Dodgers to once again become competitive. Charley Ebbets had always thought first of the fans, but when he died in 1925, though the fans had stuck by their team through thin and thin, management hadn’t reciprocated. The players, however, recognized that the Brooklyn fans were special, and often they went out of their way to show their appreciation.

….There was an informal, nonprofessional quality to Ebbets Field and the Dodgers. It was very personal. The fans loved the players. The players loved the fans. All a player had to do was walk out onto the field, and the fans would begin waving at him and hollering to be waved back at, and they would throw down little vials of holy water and religious medals, and when a ballplayer had a birthday, there would always be one or two homemade cakes in the clubhouse for him.

In Ebbets Field there might be 5,000 fans in the park, but it would sound like ten times as many. Five fanatical fans that made up the Dodgers Symphony would play and dance on top of the dugout and walk through the stands playing their ragtime music, and when the umps came out before the game, they would play “Three Blind Mice,” until the year when the National League added a fourth umpire to the crew, lousing up their little joke. If an opposing pitcher was knocked out, the symphony would razz him by playing “The Worms Crawl In, The Worms Crawl Out,” and they would wait for an opposing batter who made [an] out to return to the dugout and sit down, and just as the player’s backside would touch the bench, the cymbal from the symphony would crash, and the Dodger fans would applaud and chuckle at the player’s embarrassment.

….Never had there been such involvement …. At Ebbets Field before each game, the fans would line up along the railing, and the players would walk along and shake hands with everybody and sign autographs and chat about that afternoon’s game. For many of the fans, the Dodgers became part of their family. And every once in a while, the Dodgers made a fan part of theirs.

IRVING RUDD: “I remember when I was a kid, I used to major in hooky. I would run off to the ballpark at the drop of a hat. And one day …. I was hanging around outside the ballpark, holding my scrapbook under my arm, when Al Lopez came out of the clubhouse. He was a kid catcher, about twenty years old, and he’s got with him a guy by the name of Hollis Thurston, who had been a good pitcher with the White Sox, and a guy by the name of Louis ‘Buck’ Newsom, who was Bobo later, Jake Flowers, and Clise [Dudley] …. Lopez says to me, ‘Hey, kid, how ’bout going to dinner with us?’ I said, ‘Gee, I have to ask my mother.’ He said, ‘Give her a call.’ Who had a phone in those days? …. I told him we didn’t have a phone. They asked me where I lived, and I told them, ‘Powell Street in Brownsville,’ and Lopez said, ‘We’ll drop you off on the way home. You ask your mother.’ And he added, ‘Wash your face, too, and put another pair of pants on.’ I was a sloppy kid in those days.

“So we got into the car … and they drove me to Brownsville.

“I went upstairs, and my mother came down to say hello. ‘Take care of my son,’ she says. They say, ‘Sure, Mom, don’t worry about it.’ And they took me to a Spanish restaurant near the St. George Hotel. Lopez knew about this joint. I had arroz con pollo. And after they fed me, they brought me back to the hotel, and we sat around until midnight bullshitting about baseball. And then they brought me home.

“It was so different then. I remember going up to Dazzy Vance, when he was leaving the ballpark. I said, ‘Hey, Daz, that pitch you threw in the ninth inning…’ He said, ‘Kid, let me tell you about it. Now, you got a guy like Hack Wilson playing against you…’ and as we walked, we talked about the game. And that’s the way it was then.”

….The Dodger fans were part of the show, part of the sights and sounds that made Ebbets Field so special. Some of those fans became almost as renowned as the players they came to watch. The other Dodger fans may not have known their names, but they could count on them being there and adding to the noise and craziness.

….The most famous of the Dodger fans — perhaps the most famous in baseball history, was named Hilda Chester, a plump, pink-faced woman with a mop of stringy gray hair. Hilda began her thirty-year love affair with the Dodgers in the 1920s. She had been a softball star as a kid, or so she said, and she once told a reporter that her dream was to play in the big leagues or start up a softball league for women. Thwarted as an athlete, she turned to rooting. As a teenager she would stand outside the offices of the Brooklyn Chronicle every day, waiting to hear the Dodger score. After a while she became known to the sportswriters, who sometimes gave her passes to the games. In her twenties Hilda worked as a peanut sacker for the Stevens Brothers … who owned most of the concession stands across the country …. [I]n her capacity as peanut sacker she was able to work and attend the Dodger games. By the 1930s she was attending games regularly, screaming lustily, one of hundreds of Ebbets Field regulars.

Shortly after suffering a heart attack, she began her rise to fame. Her physician forbade her from yelling, and when she was sufficiently recovered, she returned to Ebbets Field with a frying pan and an iron ladle. Banging away on the frying pan from her seat in the bleachers, she made so much noise that everyone, including the players, noticed her. It was the Dodger players in the late 1930s who presented Hilda Chester with the first of her now-famous brass cowbells.

In 1941 Hilda suffered a second heart attack, and when she entered the hospital this time, she was an important enough personality that Durocher and several of the players went to visit her. As a result Durocher became Hilda’s special hero, and by the mid-1940s she was almost the team mascot. Sometimes during short road trips, Hilda even went with the team….

During the games Hilda lived in the bleacher seats with her bell. Durocher had given her a lifetime pass to the grandstand, but she preferred sitting in the bleachers with the entourage of fellow rowdies. With her fish peddler voice, she’d say, “You know me. Hilda wit da bell. Ain’t it trillin’? Home wuz never like dis, mac.” When disturbed her favorite line was, “Eacha heart out, ya bum?”

One night in Philadelphia, where she had faithfully followed the Dodgers a local fan began criticizing Dixie Walker, calling him a has-been. “You’re all through!” the Philly fan shouted.

“Oh yeah?” Hilda yelled at him, pointing to Walker in right field. “Look where he is, and look where you are.”

Hilda had a voice that could be heard all over the park. It stood out above all the other voices, and the players could hear her raspy call followed by the clanging of her cowbell all through a game. At least once Hilda even was involved in a game’s outcome.

PETE REISER: “I remember one time, it was either in ’41 or ’42, we were in the seventh inning of a game. I was going to take my position in center field, and I hear that voice: ‘Hey, Reiser!’ It was Hilda, There could be 30,000 people there yelling at once, but Hilda was the one you’d hear. I look up, and she’s dropping something onto the grass. ‘Give this note to Leo,’ she yells. So I pick it up and put it in my pocket. At the end of the inning I start heading in.

“Now [Larry] MacPhail used to sit in a box right next to the dugout, and for some reason he waved to me as I came in, and I said, ‘Hi, Larry,’ as I went into the dugout. I gave Hilda’s note to Leo and sat down. Next thing I know he’s getting somebody hot in the bullpen; I think it was Casey. Meanwhile, Wyatt’s pitching a hell of a ballgame for us. In the next inning, the first guy hits the ball pretty good and goes out. The next guy gets a base hit. Here comes Leo. He takes Wyatt out and brings in Casey. Casey gets rocked a few times, and we just did win the game, just did win it.

“….[A]fter [the]game … he goes into his office and slams the door without a word. We’re all sitting there waiting for him to come out. Finally the door opens and out he comes. He points to me.

“‘Don’t you ever give me another note from MacPhail as long as you play for me.’

“I said, ‘I didn’t give you any note from MacPhail.’

“‘Don’t tell me!’ he yells. ‘You handed me a note in the seventh inning.’

“‘That was from Hilda,’ I said.

“‘From Hilda?” he screams. I thought he was going to turn purple. ‘You mean to say that wasn’t from MacPhail?’

“I hadn’t even looked at the note, just handed it to him. Leo had heard me say something to MacPhail when I came in and figured the note was from Larry. It seems what the note said was: ‘Get Casey hot. Wyatt’s losing it.’ So what you had was somebody named Hilda Chester sitting in the centerfield bleachers changing pitchers for you.”

The Yankees are the Yankees are the Yankees

Ever since the Yankees spent $423 million on C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Texiera, there’s been a loud outcry from around the league. But if you look back in history, what the Yankees did is not new. When they bought Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, there was a howl. They bought Joe DiMaggio from the San Francisco Seals. And when Charlie Finley goofed and allowed Catfish Hunter to be a free agent, it was the Yankees that paid him millions, as they did Don Gullett and Reggie Jackson,who were along the first group of free agents.
The Yankees are moving into a new stadium, and ownership feels the team must play up to the status of their new digs. Hank Steinbrenner was right when he said the Yankees were the flagship organization of baseball. He also said he would do whatever it takes to make the Yankees a winner again. A lot of club owners refuse to do that. Why would anyone root for a team where ownership refuses to put a competitive team on the field? (Here in St. Pete, we had an owner who for years took all the salary tax money from the Yankees and Red Sox and put it in his pocket. Every year except one the Rays finished last. Now he’s gone, and good riddance.)

The Rays Owners are Smart

When it was announced that the Tampa Bay Rays were abandonning Al Lang Stadium and moving their spring training headquarters an hour or so south to Port Charlotte, there was a lot of gnashing of teeth about the move. The Rays owners said their motive was simple: to attract fans from south of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Skeptics and conspiacy theorists wondered whether this was the first step to take the Rays to Oklahoma City or Las Vegas or Mexico City. But no, Stuart Sternberg was telling the truth. He was looking for more fans. Last week Annie Miller, who helps run the Eckerd College Elderhostel Program, and I traveled to Port Charlotte to see the new digs. And they are beautiful. The stadium seats about 6,000, and already the best seats have been sold out to those buying season tickets. The name of the Class A Rays affiliate is the Port Charlotte Stone Crabs, and the logo is a hoot, a snarky crab with bg claws. I predict their shirts will become a hot item for Rays fans.

Jane Heller defends the Yankees’ free spending

Here’s another take on the Yankees by a die-hard Yankee crazy

Loving the Yankees Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry
By Jane Heller

Jane Heller is the author of the coming memoir, “Confessions of a She-Fan: The Course of True Love with the New York Yankees.” (Rodale)

“Unseemly.” “Insensitive.” “Galling.” “Grotesque.”

These are among the kinder adjectives being attributed to the Yankees after they spent nearly half a billion dollars to acquire three players. How dare they engage in conspicuous consumption when the rest of the country is suffering! What nerve flaunting their wealth during the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression! What a slap in the face to the small-market, payroll-slashing Have-nots in baseball, proving once and for all that the Yankees are a detriment to the sport and to humankind!

Over the top? Not on the blogosphere, where it’s a great time to be a Yankees hater. Even Yankees fans are behaving like Yankees haters. If I get one more e-mail telling me I should “wise up and dump the losers,” I’ll –-
Well, I just wish everybody would stop. I’m a grown woman. I can make my own choices. And I’m sick of having to apologize for loving a team with assets, as if that makes me some sort of “trophy fan” who’s in it strictly for the money. The fact that the Yankees do have money and aren’t afraid to lavish it on the people they care about isn’t so wrong, is it? It’s not as if they’ve roped us all into some giant Ponzi scheme and bled our retirement plans dry.
Actually, I pay no attention to the lifelong, die-hard, truly intransigent Yankees haters. They hate us just for breathing.
But to all the self-loathing Yankees fans that fear their team is buzz-killing the holidays for the denizens of San Diego, Minneapolis and Kansas City? It’s not your fault that the Padres’ owner needs to sell his team; not your fault that the Twins trade away their best players; not your fault that the Royals thought signing Kyle Farnsworth was a smart idea. Sure, you’re tempted to walk the earth in sackcloth apologizing to everyone everywhere, but you’re not responsible for society’s ills. Just get used to the idea that being a Yankees fan means always saying you’re sorry.
Besides, look at all the perks that go along with being a Yankees fan.
You’re getting a spectacular new house in April with every possible amenity. It combines the latest in interior design (wide-screen television, state-of-the-art sound system, gourmet kitchens, multiple baths) with outdoorsy charm (distinctive facade, park-like acreage, well-tended lawn, professional groundskeepers).
You get Brian Cashman, the modern-day equivalent of John Beresford Tipton, the guy on the old weekly TV series “The Millionaire” who dispensed million-dollar checks to unsuspecting, deserving individuals. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing how his latest recipients will handle their wealth -– Will they use it for good works or fritter it away? -– just as I used to anticipate the fates of the TV show’s new millionaires.
Speaking of “new,” some fans are stuck with the same old dreary personalities year after year. Not Yankees fans. Our team always seeks out the most intriguing players, whether young or old, rookie or veteran, robust or chronically injured. As a result, Yankees fans are never bored. Sometimes Cashman keeps us entertained by pulling fast ones on us. Like the year he said Enrique Wilson was our third baseman, only to spring Alex Rodriguez on us. Or the time he swore that Bubba Crosby was our center fielder, only to fill the position with Johnny Damon. He told us Nick Swisher would be our first baseman this year, and now Mark Teixeira will be guarding the bag on Opening Day.
Fans of other teams accuse our team of overpaying for players, as well as awarding them large signing bonuses. Excuse me, but isn’t that the very definition of a good employer – an organization that’s generous with both salary and benefits?
As a Yankees fan, you get to root for a team that represents the largest city in the country. Frank Sinatra sings your theme song. You have your own cable TV network. You’re an international brand; people in foreign countries parade around in your interlocking N.Y. You are not the Kankakee Yankees and never will be, and there’s no reason to apologize for that, either.
Another thing to remember is that the Steinbrenner family has a diversified portfolio that includes the breeding and racing of thoroughbred horses as well as the ownership and management of eight Florida hotels. You picked wisely when you hitched your wagon to them. They are not asking Congress for a bailout.
And the next time a Yankees hater gives you the old “You people think you can just go out and buy a championship?” Don’t apologize. We’re fully aware that money doesn’t guarantee a World Series ring any more than it guarantees happiness. We’re not as clueless as our detractors think.
So please, Yankees fans. No more hand wringing. There will be plenty of opportunities for that once the season starts.

Civil Rights Abuse in a Louisiana Prison — by Ira Glasser

Ira Glasser, a Brooklyn boy who grew up with Jackie Robinson, was for almost thirty years the national head of the ACLU. He is a featured voice in In the Country of Brooklyn. Today in the Huffington Post Ira has written a powerful article about the abuse of power forty years ago by those who opposed the civil rights movement. Two civil rights workers continue to suffer from those abuses forty years later. Here is Ira Glasser’s article:

This is a story about a double crucifixion happening on the very day that hundreds of millions of Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. It happened yesterday, too, and it will happen tomorrow, unless people of good will and moral decency rise up and stand against it.
The story begins nearly 40 years ago. At that time, it was unthinkable, literally, to imagine a day when a black man might be elected president. Indeed, in some parts of the country, it was still dangerous for a black man to vote, or organize against the oppressive system of racial subjugation that still prevailed despite the recent legal victories of the civil rights movement. And in 1968, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated.
In the states of the Deep South, it was not uncommon for invented criminal charges to be brought against civil rights advocates during the civil rights movement as a way of suppressing their political activities. And in the North, the emergence of the Black Panthers, an organization of aggressive tactics and militant language, frightened many whites. Brandishing guns and the rhetoric of violence, they provided an easy excuse for law enforcement to go after them.
No civil rights advocates defended actual crimes that may have been committed. But in many cases, evidence was manufactured and guns planted by law enforcement officials anxious to break the back of this increasingly militant movement. In Chicago, the FBI broke into a Black Panther apartment and slaughtered its occupants. And in New York, Black Panthers were brought to trial upon evidence that ultimately could not survive scrutiny. In one case, a black man was shot down by cops and then, as he lay dying, charged with attempted murder of the police who shot him, on the basis of a gun in his coat pocket that later was proved to have been planted by the police officer.
In this context, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox were arrested in Louisiana, convicted of separate crimes and sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, an 18,000 acre former slave plantation known as Angola. In those days, most Southern prisons were racially segregated, and many were unspeakably brutal. During the early 1970s, when Wallace and Woodfox first were sentenced to Angola, it was known– even according to the Louisiana State Department of Corrections official history–as the “bloodiest prison in the south.”
It is hard to imagine today what Angola was like then, but it is important to understand the circumstances that led to what happened to Wallace and Woodfox, and to what I have called their crucifixion unto this day.
Angola was awash in violence and over-run by inmate gangs, encouraged and enabled by prison officials as a way of maintaining control. A gruesome system of sexual slavery prevailed, where new prisoners were openly bought and sold into submission; this system was sanctioned and facilitated by guards, as Warden C. Murray Henderson admitted in his book. Favored inmates were given state-issued weapons, and ordered to enforce this system of sexual slavery. Between 1972-75 alone, this armed inmate guard system claimed the lives of 40 prisoners and seriously maimed 350 more. For those who survived, there was a 96 hour work week, harvesting crops of soybeans, cotton, corn and wheat at a minimum wage of 2 cents an hour. This was the prison Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox came to in the early seventies.
Inspired by the civil rights movement, Wallace and Woodfox began a Black Panther chapter in the prison. They couldn’t do much except talk, but talk they did, to as many of the inmates as they could, about human dignity and self-respect, and the need to work to protect vulnerable inmates from being pressed into sexual servitude. This did not endear them to the administration– free speech had not yet come to prisons–nor to the guards and the inmates who functioned as enforcers. But they persisted, and their talk became a thorn in the side of the men who ran the prison.
Then, on April 17, 1972, a young prison guard, Brent Miller, was found stabbed to death in a prison dormitory. He was 23, and his widow was 17.
Wallace and Woodfox were immediately put into solitary confinement, little more than a 6 x 9 cage, despite no evidence connecting them to the crime. They would remain there for the next 36 years, and they are there now, as this is written– in an even smaller cell, 23 hours a day, no yard time, no telephone calls (except to their lawyers) and no contact visits.
No physical evidence ever connected them to the crime. A bloody fingerprint found at the murder scene did not match either man, and both men had multiple alibi witnesses, who were ignored. Moreover, prison officials refused to check those fingerprints against the fingerprint database, and they have continued to refuse to this day. Somebody made that bloody fingerprint, but it wasn’t Woodfox or Wallace. Yet they were charged with the crime.
Other prisoners who testified against them later recanted, and said they were coerced by prison officials to lie under oath.
The only evidence left against them is the unreliable testimony of a convicted serial rapist named Hezekiah Brown, who had previously been on death row, and who was subsequent to his testimony given a variety of special privileges, and later pardoned by the Governor, after the Warden had personally lobbied for his release. Although this was not revealed at the time, Warden Henderson years later testified, at Woodfox’s re-trial, that he had made an agreement with Brown: he would help obtain a pardon if Brown would help “crack the case.”
Before the pardon, Brown was granted special privileges: as Warden Frank Blackburn wrote in a letter to the Secretary of Corrections, “…This, I feel, would partially fulfill commitments made to [Brown] in the past with respect to his testimony in the state’s behalf in the Brent Miller murder case.” The Secretary of Corrections replied: “I concur. Warden Henderson made the original agreement with Brown… I think we should honor the agreement.”
It is pretty clear that, as often happened in those days to vulnerable black activists, Wallace and Woodfox were pilloried and punished for their political activities in behalf of prison reform, and railroaded into a cage for the next 36 years.
About ten years ago, a small group came together to try to overturn this injustice. Their numbers have grown, and progress has been made, as the facts have slowly but systematically been brought before independent courts.
In 2006, a state magistrate, after an extensive review of Herman Wallace’s case, recommended that his conviction be overturned. But by a 2-1 vote, the state appeals court decided to keep the conviction in place. That decision is now pending appeal in the Louisiana State Supreme Court.
In Albert Woodfox’s case, a federal magistrate reviewed the evidence thoroughly and recommended his release. A federal district court judge, James Brady, upheld her recommendation, overturned the conviction and granted bail pending the state’s decision about whether to appeal or re-try him. The state appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the grant of bail pending appeal.
So the court cases grind slowly, as court cases do.
But the brutality that long ago ignited this injustice continues in Louisiana, to a nearly unimaginable degree. When Woodfox was initially granted bail, a niece of his and her family agreed to take him in. The Louisiana Attorney General, Buddy Caldwell, then embarked upon a public scare campaign reminiscent of the kind of inflammatory hysteria that once was used to provoke lynch mobs. He called Woodfox a dangerous rapist, even though he had never been charged, let alone convicted, of rape; he sent emails to neighbors calling Woodfox a convicted murderer and violent rapist; and neighbors were urged to sign petitions opposing his release. In the end, his niece and family were sufficiently frightened and threatened that Woodfox rejected the plan to live with them while on bail. All of this took place while the appeals court was considering the state’s appeal of the grant of bail.
Angola Warden Burl Cain was even more revealing. During the bail hearing, he testified as to why Woodfox should not be granted bail, and why he needed to be kept in a cage, and away from other inmates. Here are a few excerpts:
“The thing about him is he wants to demonstrate. He wants to organize…. A hunger strike is really, really bad, because you could see he admitted that he was organizing a peaceful demonstration…. He is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates….”
For Attorney General Caldwell and Warden Cain, it is still forty years ago, and they can only respond to aspirations for justice by putting its advocates in the hole. Evidence is irrelevant, or to be manufactured to achieve the ends of repression.
Perhaps more surprising, and for that reason even more reprehensible, is the immorality of Governor Bobby Jindal. Elected on a platform of reform, and widely touted as the kind of fresh face for the Republicans nationally that Obama has been for the Democrats, Jindal could stop these crude injustices. But he continues to back them, staining himself and his state with his defense of the indefensible.
By now, anyone who has looked fairly and independently at the evidence in this case has concluded that the convictions were unsupportable. Even Brent Miller’s widow now believes Wallace and Woodfox were wrongly convicted, and she would like the state to find out who killed her husband that April day in 1972.
But the habits of the old South die hard, and the courts move slowly. A black man will be inaugurated on January 20. But Albert Woodfox is 61 and Herman Wallace 67. They will not see that inauguration, nor benefit from it. It is Christmas Day, and they are about to begin their 37th year in the dungeon of the old slave plantation. A crucifixion.
Where is the public outrage that will resurrect them?

Old Friends — Andy Kennedy and Dock Ellis

Two of my favorite people were in the news lately. Andy Kennedy, who was one of my primary sources in Personal Fouls, is now the coach of the University of Mississippi basketball team. The night before his team was to play a game in Cincinnati, he was accused by a cabbie of punching him in the face and calling him racial epithets. No way. I don’t believe that happened. When I interviewed him about his time at North Carolina State, he was honest and forthright. He was compassionate for his teammates, many of whom suffered at the hands of the saintly Jim Valvano. He stuck up for those teammates, white and black. Andy Kennedy didn’t have a racist bone in his body.
The other former interviewee who made the news is Dock Ellis, who died yesterday at age 63 of liver disease. Dock was a pitcher on the world championship St. Pete Pelicans in the Senior Professional Baseball League in 1989-90. He was also Bobby Tolan’s pitching coach. Dock was a little boy in a man’s body. But he was serious as a heart attack about the game of baseball. He loved the game, loved playing on a team, loved the life. The sad thing for Dock was that after the Senior League folded, he had run out of places to play. The rest of his life wasn’t much fun. Dock was an outstanding pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He gained fame by boasting that he had pitched his no-hitter while on LSD. His other great line came when he was a member of the Yankees. Angry that George Steinbrenner meddled with the team, he made the statement, “I like it when George Steinbrenner flies. The more he flies, the greater the chance the plane will crash.” Dock wasn’t a Yankee too much longer after that.
Dock is an important chapter in The Forever Boys, my book on the Senior League. He was smart, funny, angry, and outrageous. The sport needs players like Dock. All of us who knew him are deeply going to miss him.