Talking baseball with Fred Stein (Volume 2)

A few weeks ago, we (virtually) sat down and shot the baseball breeze with a friendly fellow who’s observed a whole lot of baseball, and offers both warm reminiscences and keen insights. Let’s keep the conversation going.

ST: Tell us some stories about being a teenaged Giants fan in the Terry/Ott era.

FS: In the spring of 1937, after my 13th birthday, my father decided I was capable of taking the subway by myself to the Polo Grounds, and less often to Yankee Stadium. I felt liberated. I went to the Polo Grounds and found myself a congenial niche in the lowest seats just off the field in the right field bleachers, near the Giants bullpen. There I became friendly with fans of all types and ages. We were a completely disparate group, joined together only by our attachments to baseball and the Giants.

I became a disciple of a most unforgettable fan. He was a rotund, swarthy man named Louie, whose voluminous knowledge of the game and seniority (dating back to the 1920s) as a Polo Grounds bleacher resident greatly impressed us. Louie took his wooden bleacher seat more than two hours before the game, and occupied himself watching the players while reading Shakespeare and other classics not normally considered pregame reading fare.

Most impressively, the players recognized his presence during their strolls to and from the Giants’ dugout and the deep centerfield clubhouse. We bleacher fans expected to be ignored when we shouted to our heroes, but the players responded to Louie, smiling at him or exchanging friendly words. As a group, we gloried in the players’ recognition of Louie, which we accepted as an indirect recognition of the rest of us in those 55-cent bleacher seats.

Listening to Louie’s sophisticated analysis of players on the Giants and visiting teams was alone worth the trip to the game. He knew their strengths and weaknesses, and some of their unpublicized off-field activities.

Many years after Louie had departed the Polo Grounds bleachers, The Sporting News published this note:

Who says there’s no sentiment in baseball? Commissioner Bowie Kuhn received a letter from a tuberculosis hospital in Phoenix. The letter was from a patient who wrote that he was a longtime Giants fan and requesting, in view of the writer’s long involvement with the Giants, whether Kuhn could use his influence to convince the New York baseball clubs to subsidize a trip for him to the World Series. The Commissioner wrote back that he would help all he could. The patient’s name is Louie Kloppett.

After all those years, I finally learned Louie’s last name and whereabouts, although I never learned whether he made it to that World Series.

Though I attended many games at the Polo Grounds in the late ’30s and early ’40s, one of my favorite recollections of this period came at Yankee Stadium, on July 11, 1939, when a friend and I attended the All-Star Game. I still remember a few things about the game, a 3-1 American League win. I clearly recall Joe DiMaggio’s home run a few rows into the left field seats, and Bob Feller coming into the game in relief in the sixth to get an inning-ending double-play ball from Arky Vaughan.

I have a vivid recollection of a night game at the Polo Grounds in May 1941 which dramatically drove home the seriousness of the war in Europe. I was chatting with my bleacher friends in mid-game when the public address system came on announcing that the President would be speaking. FDR proclaimed an “unlimited emergency” and the U.S. intention of resisting further Nazi attempts to stop or destroy Allied vessels. I remember that the game was stopped for the fans and players to hear the speech. A number of the players sat listening on the clubhouse stairs, with the game forgotten for nearly an hour.

ST: Did you watch any ballgames during World War II in which the Balata Ball was being used? If so, was the game with the Balata Ball noticeably different from the vantage point of the grandstand?

FS: I saw a number of games in 1942, that is until I left home to begin my freshman year at Penn State. I enlisted in the Army in December 1942, and I managed to see the Giants play once in April of ’43 before being called into active military service in June. I recall that the infamous Balata baseball was used for a brief period after the 1943 season opened. The Balata ball was used because of raw material shortages. The new baseball had the resiliency of an overripe grapefruit and the unpredictable airborne gyrations of a flying saucer. In the game I saw, hard-hit ground balls seemed to slow down before reaching an infielder.

ST: When you were in the service in Europe during the war, were you able to follow baseball back home?

FS: I was in the service from June 1943 until my Army discharge in March 1946. My only awareness of major league activities came through the Stars and Stripes newspaper which was distributed to the troops. I was astonished to read a report in that newspaper that Tigers left-hander Hal Newhouser was seeking an incredible $35,000 annual salary in 1945. But other than that vague recollection, I don’t remember any news of players or teams during the 18 months I was overseas. I was too concerned with other immediate problems, like staying alive, to have baseball news make any impression on me.

My service discharge made it possible for me to attend my last Polo Grounds game on April 16, 1946. Ott’s Giants defeated the Phillies 8-4 and Mel hit his 511th and last career homer in the first inning off Philly left-hander Oscar Judd. Unlike so many of the well-tagged home runs I had seen Ott deliver in earlier years, this was a looping fly that barely reached the right field seats.

The following day, Ott dove for a fly ball (which he didn’t catch), injured his knee, and played only sporadically and ineffectively for the rest of his virtual last season as a player. And it typified what become a disastrous, last-place finish for the Giants. I left for Penn State’s summer school a few weeks later, and my Polo Grounds years were over.

ST: Can you remember the first time you saw a baseball game on television?

FS: Sales of small, 13-inch black-and-white TV sets took off in 1947. I can only recall watching Yankees games on TV that summer and I don’t know if any Giants games were televised.

ST: Did you see any of the 1947 “Windowbreakers” Giants games?

FS: Between attending college and other activities, I did not see any games at the Polo Grounds that year. The affectionate “Windowbreakers” nickname was invented by the Giants’ traveling secretary, Eddie Brannick. That team hit a then-record 221 home runs, a mark which stood until the Reds tied it in 1956.

ST: Can you remember the first time you heard about Jackie Robinson, and Branch Rickey’s plan to racially integrate the Dodgers?

FS: I never saw Robinson play in person but I was thrilled at the breaking of the color line. I was pleased to learn that Ott, a proud Southerner, nevertheless instructed his players to treat Robinson “as they would any other rookie.”

ST: It sounds as though your relationship with the Giants, and with baseball generally, was changing quite a bit as you engaged with adulthood.

FS: In July 1948, Leo Durocher replaced Ott as the Giants’ manager. I was saddened at the news but it didn’t surprise me. I had begun to feel that the Giants were not destined to win pennants under Ott’s leadership, regardless of the reason. Also, by this time, my rooting interests had begun to change. I became unable to subsist psychologically on the fortunes of the Giants alone. My baseball interests widened to include all major leaguers, their careers, statistics, playing styles, anecdotes, and so on; in short, most of the wide variety of interests that SABR accomodates today.

ST: Where were you during the “Shot Heard Round the World” game?

FS: Although my interest in the Giants had faded considerably after Ott’s dismissal, I was tremendously excited and thrilled after Bobby Thomson’s home run. The event revealed an unexpected interest in baseball among many people who normally were oblivious to the game.

When Thomson hit his historic homer, I was working in an office in midtown Manhattan and one of my colleagues, was an unfailingly serious, dignified, economics academician who had never shown the slightest interest in baseball. I recall his running up and down the office corridor, opening doors indiscriminately and shouting hysterically, “We won! We won!”

ST: What was your reaction to the Giants and Dodgers leaving New York City in 1957?

FS: The immediate impact of the franchise moves to California were the profound disillusion and feelings of betrayal many fans felt, especially Brooklyn rooters. Since by then I no longer lived and died with the Giants’ doings, my decreased feelings for the club cushioned the blow for me. But most significantly, in the ensuing 50 years, many who were then Dodgers and Giants fans have largely abandoned their interest in baseball, furious at the realization that professional baseball is not truly a sport, but a business.

References & Resources
Fred Stein was born in New York City on April 21, 1924. He served in the Army from 1943-46, as an infantryman in the European Theatre. In 1949 he earned a bachelor’s degree in dairy technology from Penn State, and received a master’s at Ohio State in dairy and food marketing in 1953.

He spent most of his career working for the federal government, in milk marketing from 1952-66, and in water pollution control from 1966-79. He then worked as a pollution consultant from 1980-85.

Fred has been a member of the Society for American Baseball Research since 1975. In addition to numerous articles in SABR publications, he’s the author of the following books:

Under Coogan’s Bluff: A Fan’s Recollection of the Giants Under Terry and Ott (self-published, 1978)

Giants Diary: A Century of Giants Baseball in New York and San Francisco (co-authored with Nick Peters; North Atlantic Books, 1987)

Mel Ott: The Little Giant of Baseball (McFarland, 1999)

And the Skipper Bats Cleanup: A History of the Baseball Player-Manager (McFarland, 2002)

A History of the Baseball Fan (McFarland, 2005)

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Comments

  1. John said...

    Like Mr. Stein, I find that my interest in the game has “evolved” over the years, and I find that I now get a lot of enjoyment out of these kinds of historical first-hand accounts. Many thanks.

  2. Kahuna Tuna said...

    Happy 86th birthday to Mr. Stein!

    “The [Balata] baseball had the resiliency of an overripe grapefruit and the unpredictable airborne gyrations of a flying saucer.”

    He writes better than most of us think.

    Steve, if you correspond further with Mr. Stein, could you ask him whether he ever had the chance to talk with Harold Seymour?  It seems to me that those two students of the game would have enjoyed each other’s company immensely.

  3. Northern Rebel said...

    There is nothing I enjoy more than tapping the wisdom and knowledge of our “seasoned” citizens!

    They are a vast wealth of experience, and their memories are truly American treasures.

    We must continue to access these wonderful people’s insights, and wisdom, before Obama pulls the plug on them!

  4. Bobby said...

    Seriously with the anti-Obama comment? This is a baseball site and it doesn’t need ridiculous statements like that.

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