When the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks staged their street fight at Chavez Ravine last Wednesday, I imagined Daddy's scorn. His words would echo what he'd said decades ago about a similar shamefest. Though my adoptive father, Paul French, didn't exactly exude charm and loving-kindness, he held tight to his principles with an unshakeable grip.
Happy Father's Day, Daddy. RIP, Paul A. French, 1910 - 1983
Daddy and the Dodgers
By Terri Elders
Daddy never minced words when it came to his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. The old Ebbets Field fans mantra of hope, “Wait until next year,” never crossed his lips. “Those damn Dodgers,” he’d growl instead, “They deserved to lose. They threw the game away. You've gotta earn the victory. It doesn't just get handed to you."
He espoused an equally no-nonsense approach to child-rearing. After he and Mama adopted my sister and me in l942, whenever we would visit Newberry’s or Woolworth’s and plead for a new toy, Daddy would quote the slogan, “Use it all, wear it out, make it do or do without.” Daddy could have written that World War II motto himself. “You each already have a doll,” he would say, shaking his head at our grandiose expectations. Mama tried to make up for it, spending long December evenings ripping up our outgrown blouses and nightgowns to make new doll clothes, hoping to counter any Christmas morning disappointment.
Raised in Kansas, the son of a prison guard and a mother who would later become the president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Daddy frowned on frills. Because he worked two jobs, as a diesel mechanic by day, and a shoe salesman on Friday night and Saturday, he had little spare time. He and Mama traditionally spent Saturday night together, visiting friends for a Pinochle game. That left just a few week nights and Sundays for family activities.
By the time I was starting junior high in l948, I used to beg Daddy to take us all to the Sunday matinee. All my friends had gone with their families to see The Red Shoes or Portrait of Jennie. “Just listen to the radio,” he’d say. “It’s free and good enough.” So instead of heading for the Temple or the Rialto, we’d chuckle along with studio audiences at The Jack Benny Show.
When Benny got the biggest laugh ever registered on radio by replying “I’m thinking it over,” when a mugger demanded, “Your money or your life,” Mama said that sounded just like Daddy. Daddy scowled at first, but then nodded, as if these were words of praise. Mama also used to joke that when Daddy opened his wallet, moths would fly out. Daddy would counter that he was frugal, not stingy; thrifty, not a spendthrift. But he would turn his back to us when he opened his wallet to fish out some change
The Dodgers were his one indulgence. Whenever the reception from the east coast was strong enough, Daddy hunkered down in front of the Philco, munching on a peanut butter sandwich, scribbling on a sheet of paper he called a scorecard. Seeking a way to get his attention, I, too, became a fan. I checked out stacks of library books to learn about the infield fly rule and why triple plays are so rare.
In the late afternoon I would hover by the front porch, watching for the Herald Express paper boy so I could follow the daily recounts of the Dodgers’ battles. Though Daddy and I admired Jackie Robinson, we especially cheered when Duke Snider, deemed the Duke of Flatbush but actually a native Angeleno, hammered in another homer.
Soon we expanded our fandom to the Pacific Coast League Hollywood Stars, as well, and doubled our evening listening time, tuning out complaints from Mama and my sister about missing Your Hit Parade and Lux Radio Theater. When we weren’t nodding our heads in approval over the feats of outfielder Frankie Kelleher, Daddy would help me with my geometry homework. “I don’t know why they make girls take this stuff,” he’d say, as I struggled with lengths, areas and volumes. “It’s not as if you’re going to be an engineer.”
“But, Daddy, I need to understand math if I’m to figure out the baseball odds and understand the stats.”
“Well, that’s certainly true,” he conceded.
Once I started high school, I began a series of evening and Saturday jobs as a waitress, a sales clerk at a hosiery counter, a bus girl, so could no longer join Daddy in listening to the games. By then we had a second radio and even a television. And my interests had expanded beyond baseball, mostly to boys.
So when Daddy asked me to accompany him to Gilmore Field one Sunday to watch the Stars play a double-header against their archrivals, the Los Angeles Angels, I was both astonished and ambivalent. Sundays I usually went to the bowling alley or the miniature golf course with my boyfriend. On the other hand, Daddy had never asked me to go anywhere with him before. I hesitated only a second before accepting.
That Sunday game turned out to be one that became infamous as “The Brawl.” The popular and usually mild-mannered Kelleher took an Angel pitch to his back after a pair of close brush-backs, strode out to the mound, and threw a punch, setting off a violent brawl that lasted over half an hour and required fifty police officers to break it up and restore order. A second donnybrook erupted a little later. And that was only the first game of a double-header.
I spilled my popcorn when I jumped up to cheer when Kelleher decked the pitcher, but Daddy told me to sit down and refused to buy me a second bag. And when I wanted to stay for the second game, Daddy shook his head in disgust. “It’s bad enough that the players were behaving like hooligans,” he said, “but that the audience was endorsing it makes it worse. And that includes you, young lady.”
On the long drive back from Hollywood to southwest Los Angeles, Daddy asked, “What if the Dodgers behaved like that? What if they had spilled off the bench and ambushed Bobby Thompson when he hit that homer off Branca back in ’51? Would you have cheered just because they were Dodgers?”
“No,” I said, “But that’s different. Thompson hit ‘the shot heard round the world.’ Kelleher got hit by a ball.”
“How do you know Hatten hit him on purpose? Didn’t look like that to me.”
Daddy shot me a sideways glance. “Terri, one thing you have got to remember, both in sports and life. You have to earn everything fair and square. It’s not fair to take advantage of somebody else’s mistakes. The better team should win. The better player should prevail. And hard work will pay off, not cheap tricks. There’s no room in baseball for brawls.”
“Well, the Stars did win. So I guess they’re the better team.”
Daddy shook his head and drove the rest of the way home in stony silence.
A few nights later I started to tune in the Stars game. “Turn it off,” Daddy ordered. “I’m through with those guys. And they call the Dodgers ‘bums!’ That should be the name of the Stars.” We never again listened together to the Hollywood Stars.
It was that simple for Daddy, no ambiguity, no shades of gray, and no mitigating circumstances. A couple of decades after his death, in this era of corporate corruption, political chicanery, and athletes who lie, cheat and steal, I often think of his old-fashioned principles, and how he tried to use sports as a metaphor to teach me about right and wrong. Not that Daddy would ever use a word such as “metaphor.”
Not long after he died, Mama told me he had never stopped talking about the day he took me to Gilmore Field and how upset he was about that legendary brawl. I reminded her that a few years later he escorted me to Chavez Ravine to see our newly relocated Dodgers.
I well remember both of those days. And I especially recall his words when we sat down to watch our beloved boys from Brooklyn.
“Now, Terri,” he said, “You’re going to see some class.”
(Published 2009, Literary Cottage, My Dad is My Hero.)