“Ah ... excuse me sir, I ... ah ... don’t mean to pry but is that a World Series championship ring on your hand?” inquired the passenger sitting to my right in the over-crowded coach section of a United flight to Philadelphia.
I put down the L.A. Times sports section and turned as best I could in my uncomfortably small seat to see the smiling face of a clean-cut young man; I’d guess to be a college student.
“Yeah, how’d you tell, it’s so old and worn?” I answer.
“It’s the shape and the diamond in the center that are the give aways. I’ve never seen a class ring with a diamond in it, not one that big anyway.”
As I place my hand on the armrest the solitaire diamond reflects the sun in bright near blinding flashes. I turn my hand to stop the glare.
“Does that say Brooklyn there over the setting,” he asks as he points to my ring just above the diamond.
“Yep, sure does. It says Brooklyn – World Champions around the top here. See, it has a globe, Dodgers and 1955 cast on this side,” I say as I turn the ring on my finger. “And a baseball and the famous Brooklyn B on this side.”
“Wow, what a keepsake. Is it yours? Did you earn it ... er ... I mean did you play for the ‘55 Brooklyn Dodgers?”
“Well, kind of ... yes, it’s mine and I did earn it but it’s a long story.”
“I’d love to hear it, I’m John Roberts by the way,” he says as he sticks out his hand.
“I’m Bob Rockwell and I’m glad to meet you John.”
We shake hands and I say, “Are you sure you want to hear this old and long story? I’m afraid it may bore you.”
“Absolutely, I’m a big time Dodger fan and I didn’t know there were any of the old The Boys of Summer left.” He says referring to Roger Kahn’s thirty year old best selling memoir about the Dodgers of the Jackie Robinson years.
“Well, you see Roger never mentioned me in his famous book but I was there on October 4th, 1955 when the Dodgers won the series.”
“I don’t mean to be rude but how come I’ve never heard of you. I don’t remember ever seeing Rockwell on a Dodger’s roster.”
“After you hear my story ... ah ... then you’ll know why.”
“Can I get you gentlemen something to drink?” asks the stewardess from her cart in the aisle.
I order two scotches and a glass of ice while John has a beer.
“My story starts in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was playing first base for the St. Paul Saints, a triple A club in the Dodger farm system back in the old American Association. We had just ended an awful season at 75 and 78 and were humiliated when our cross-town rivals, the Minneapolis Millers, won the championship. I had had a good season, batting 343 with 26 home runs and a slug of RBIs but I hadn’t heard a peep out of the Dodgers. Our manager at the time, Max Macon told me to hang tough and he assured me that Walter Alston, the Dodger manager and the owner, Walter O’Malley, knew how well I played that season.”
“Did you know Alston or O’Malley?”
“No not then, they never talked to us peons in the minors. We only heard from them through our manager. Anyway, our season was over and I had just started my day job as a heavy equipment operator for a local construction company. I didn’t have the time to listen to day games on the radio but I followed the Dodgers in the newspaper. The Dodgers had one hell of a season, finishing 13 ½ games ahead of Milwaukee and 18 ½ games ahead of their archrivals, the Giants and ending with a 98 and 55 record. The Yanks finished 96 and 58 in a much tighter race, just 3 games ahead of Cleveland setting up the fifth meeting between these two teams in the last 8 years. The Yankees had beaten the Dodgers in all of their previous series including the '53 series where the Yanks took it 4 games to 2.”
I paused to get my thoughts together even though I’ve told this story hundreds of times.
“I was having dinner at home after a leisurely Sunday afternoon when the phone rang. It was Sunday, September 25, 1955 a little after six my time and I was half way through Linda’s usual Sunday night fare, spaghetti and meatballs. I remember the call as if it were yesterday. It was a long distance call from New York ... from Walter Alston the Dodger manager. He wanted me in New York as fast as I could get there. Gil Hodges, the Dodger’s starting first baseman had thrown his arm out and was iffy for the series. Walt wanted me there as backup, just in case. The series was to start in three days.”
“Wow, you were finally going to be a Dodger and in a world series to boot. I’ll bet you were thrilled.”
“Thrilled was not the half of it; I was going to join my heroes, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snyder, Gil Hodges and the gang. Well you know that lineup they had back then, they were all super stars ... and I was going to play with them ... well maybe not play with them but at least I’d be in the dugout with 'em.”
I took another drink of my scotch and continued. “I caught the first train headed east that Monday morning. I changed trains at the old LaSalle Street Station in Chicago and boarded the 20th Century Limited for my 16 hour trip to Grand Central Station in New York. I sent a wire to Walter and told him of my arrival time the following day.”
“It’s hard to imagine a world without air travel. Did it really take 16 hours to get from Chicago to New York?”
“Yeah, and that was on an express or as they called it ... a limited, for limited stops. I was so excited and nervous that I didn’t sleep a bit that night on the train. I was going to New York for the first time and put on a Dodger uniform just like Duke, Jackie and Pee Wee.”
“I was so excited that I was the first person off the train as we pulled into Grand Central Station. Jake Pilter, one of Alston’s coaches was there to meet me and he drove me over to Brooklyn in his car. It didn’t feel right in Manhattan, the heart of Yankee country, but as soon as we crossed the bridge and headed for Flatbush and Ebbets Field I knew I was coming home.”
“Jake checked me into the Bossert Hotel over on Montague in Brooklyn Heights and told me to take the rest off the day off and see the city but to get to bed early. He would pick me up at 7 o’clock in the morning for our bus ride over to Yankee Stadium, and game one of the World Series.”
“Wasn’t the Hotel Bossert where the Dodgers had their big victory party after winning the series?”
“Yeah, you sure know your history ― and what a party it was but that comes later in my story. Jake picked me up and when I saw Ebbets Field for the first time I felt more like some hick fan from Nebraska than a real Dodger. He showed me to a locker with my name on it and when I opened it I found my gray, away uniform with the number 16 and nothing else. I got dressed and stood in front of the mirror waiting for the team to show up. No one did, finally Jake came running into the locker room and told me to hurry and join the team out on the bus. I climbed aboard the Greyhound bus in my new Dodger uniform only to see that everyone else was dressed in their civvies.”
“What did they all say when you got on the bus in your uniform.”
“There were lots of laughing and snickering until Walter stood up and introduced me as ‘Beltin’ Bob’ from St. Paul and that I was here at his request as backup for the Hodges at first base. He also told them I’d hit 343 this past season.”
“Bob, I don’t mean any disrespect but how come I’ve never heard of you?”
“Because the Dodgers/Yankee series was the end of my baseball career. After the series I went back to St. Paul and my construction job. I was plowing snow with a little D3 on a miserable day in January and that damn Cat rolled sideways down this bank throwing me off and breaking my right arm in three places. I never played ball again.”
“Oh Bob, I’m so sorry. I ... ah ... interrupted you ... you were about to tell me about Yankee Stadium.”
I took another gulp of my scotch and closed my eyes. I could still see the old Yankee Stadium ... the way it looked that day in ’55 when we pulled up and parked in the lot across the street from the players’ entrance.
“In those days players had to walk from the parking lot across Ruppert Place past the press gate and hundreds of screaming kids and autograph seekers to their own private entrance. I was surprised that there where so many fans out so early but I couldn’t tell by their yelling if they were Yankee or Dodger fans. New York fans all seemed to yell either way.”
“You’ve got to tell me what it was like to be down on the field in Yankee Stadium with all of those ghosts; the ghosts of the Babe, the Yankee Clipper and oh yeah, the Georgia Peach.”
“I was only out on the field for the formal introductions, the warm up exercises and batting practice but I can tell you that the 56,000 fans were screaming like they’d just seen the ghost of somebody.”
“Did you get to play in those two opening games?”
“No, I wore out a little section of the bench but I was so excited seeing my first World Series from the best seat in the house that I didn’t care whether I played or not. Sure, I’d a liked to have hit one out of the park and won the game for the Dodgers but that was not to be. We took an early 2-0 lead in the second inning of the opener when Furillo homered and Jackie hit a triple but the Yankees came right back at us. Snider homered in the third giving us the lead again until the Yankees took a 4-3 lead in the forth and never looked back. They beat us 6 to 5 but ... but let me tell you about the most exciting play of the game and maybe in all of baseball. I can still see it like it was last week.”
“You’re going to tell me about Jackie stealing home in the eighth inning aren’t you.”
“Kid, you sure know your baseball. No one before or since could make that sprint from third to home like Jackie could. Anyway, it’s the top to the eighth, we’re down 3 to 6, we’ve got one out with Furillo on third and Jackie on second. Furillo tags up and scores on Zimmer’s long fly to center field and Jackie easily moves to third. Whitey Ford, the Yankee southpaw ace and starter is still in there. Whitey winds up with his back to third base and releases the low inside fastball that Yogi Berra had just called as Jackie races towards home. Berra, knowing Jackie is coming, moves a step toward the plate to meet Jackie just as Jackie begins his slide. There’s a big cloud of dust and total silence for what seemed like minutes ... finally the umpire raises his arms wide indicating safe. The crowd goes bonkers; Jackie had just stolen home against two Yankee hall-of-famers in front of 56,000 of their most loyal fans. That was our Jackie.”
“Wow, and you were there.”
“Just a couple of feet away; the visitors’ dugout is on the third base side and I was standing at the rail; I could actually feel the wind on my face as Jackie ran by.”
“Yogi insists to this day that Jackie was out.”
“Yeah, but he was safe and the call still stands. It must be the most watched and re-watched play in baseball.”
“You guys lost the first two didn’t you?”
“Yeah we lost the first two in New York and then won the next three back in Brooklyn but the Yankee tied the series in game six at Yankee Stadium by beating us 5 to 1. We were all fired up for the seventh and final game at Yankee Stadium even though we haven’t won a game there in this series. The house that Ruth built was rockin’ with 62,465 fired-up fans for game seven, many having made the trek over from Brooklyn.”
“A seventh game in a World Series; it doesn’t get any better than that.”
“You’re right but they’re especially great when you win. Okay, here’s the scene, we’re ahead 2 to 0 and as we we’re taking the field in the bottom of the ninth Alston looked at me and yells, 'Rockwell in for Hodges.' It was totally unexpected and I ran half way to first base before I realized I had left my mitt in the dugout. I ran back, got my mitt and assumed my position as the Dodger first baseman in game seven of the World Series. Their lead-off guy, Skowron grounded out and I fielded my first big-league ball. Cerv was up next and flew out. I didn’t want this inning to end ... one more out and I was Bob Rockwell, the St. Paul construction worker again. Rookie Howard, the first Negro to play for the Yankees was up next. Johnny Podres, our ace threw a change up and Howard hit a line drive to our shortstop, Pee Wee Reese. Pee Wee fielded it easily and fired it over to me. I leaned to my left, stretched and caught the final out of game seven of the 1955 World Series.”
Authors note: Everything in my story is true and taken as recorded from numerous publications including The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn, Brooklyn Remembered, The 1955 Days of the Dodgers by Maury Allen and Great Time Coming, The life of Jackie Robinson by David Falkner except I where I imposed myself into the story. My apologies to the historians and the decedents and many fans of the late, great Gil Hodges, I faked Gil’s injury so that I could take his place in the lineup for that final half inning of game 7 of the 1955 World Series.
Ebbets Field, 55 Sullivan Place, Brooklyn, NY