Excerpt From “A Tale of Three Cities: The 1862 Baseball Season in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco”

The East-West Fall Classic

“Total triumph is unsettling.”

– San Francisco Chronicle columnist Charles McCabe after the Giants barely missed winning the World Series

On the evening of the day the Giants won the pennant, the circulation manager of the San Francisco Chronicle, which uniquely printed its sports section on green and pink paper, asked the editor what the headline was for the next day’s editions.

“It’s ‘WE WIN!’ – white on black,” the editor replied.

“How big?”

“Same size as ‘FIDEL DEAD!’ ”

The papers cared only about the Giants. Richard Nixon’s campaign was noteworthy because he had appeared in the Giants’ clubhouse, a move meant to usurp San Francisco votes normally ticketed to the Democrat Party.

There were human interest stories about little kids using their piggy bank savings, running away from home to buy Series tickets. A constant refrain from the provincial writers harkened back to the “gay ’90s,” when owner Jim Mutrie called them “my giants.” Now, in San Francisco, they were “our Giants.” The social set was aghast.

“Good God!” one member of the landed gentry exclaimed. “People will think we’re like Milwaukee, or something!”

Chronicle columnist Charles McCabe, who was not a sportswriter, normally wrote of the comings and goings at Trader Vic’s, city hall, the Sausalito avante garde scene, and other uniqueness’ of San Francisco life. He now directed his attention to the Giants, who he saw as a metaphor for his vision of what America should be. McCabe did not like greatness, as embodied by American Exceptionalism, because for America to be exceptional, other countries had to be unexceptional. That was . . .  unfair.

Therefore, he determined that despite having won 103 games, with perhaps the greatest superstar of all time in his prime playing center field, the Giants displayed “lovable incompetence.” McCabe warned San Franciscans (who cringed at the moniker “Frisco” applied to them by out-of-towners, of whom thousands were flocking in alarming numbers) that victory would bring on a smugness that would be less comfortable than defeat. It was not what George Patton told his troops before they embarked on the rescue of Bastogne.

For the better part of two decades, whenever classic baseball was played (and often when very mediocre baseball was played), the great Roger Angell was there to chronicle it for The New Yorker. Angell’s political and social sensibilities, which had not cottoned to the Los Angeles scene, were much more attuned to the San Francisco he found in October of 1962.

The City changed drastically as a result of the Free Speech Movement, the anti-war movement, the gay liberation movement, the women’s liberation movement, and in particular, the “Summer of Love” (1967). The San Francisco that emerged in the years after that event, after Vietnam and Watergate, bears little resemblance to The City that Angell found in 1962. There are still vestiges of it that will always be there, if one chooses to search them out and find it, but in ’62 it was a way of life.

San Francisco was indeed sophisticated, cultured and foggy. It was The City of Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, with Humphrey Bogart leading moviegoers while “Spade turns up Powell Street.” This was a far, far cry from Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry a mere decade in the future. It was a city of men in suits, elegant women, coifed hair, and evening manners; of the theatre and the opera; of letters and iconoclasm.

“We’ve had a lot of trouble in the past few years,” a woman told Angell, who by virtue of his New Yorker pedigree tended to run in effete literary circles. Thinking she was talking about a scandal in her family or some such thing, Angell was surprised to discover she was talking about the Giants’ tendency to lose in September since their arrival in 1958. Instead of pointing out the long history of September pratfalls that afflicted the New York Giants, Angell said nothing to the matron, “for I realized that her affair with the Giants was a true love match and that she had adopted her mate’s flaws as her own. The Giants and San Francisco are a marriage made in Heaven.”

How they were, and whey they were, is not easy to describe. McCabe had a point, truth be told; they were almost good enough, just as San Francisco was. Almost good enough was good enough in these parts. Somehow, these people could turn their noses up at the team, the city, the political figure that finished ahead of them. It was snobbery. Beating Los Angeles was like winning a competition with Howard Hughes to build rocket boosters for NASA (did they really want to do that?), but now – almost to their relief – another obstacle, even more daunting, had been set before them.

“You win the pennant, then you have to go out the very next day and play the Yankees,” said Orlando Cepeda. “That didn’t give us much time to savor our win against the Dodgers.”

“The way the season ended, and the way the play-offs went, it took away a lot of the excitement of the World Series, ” said O’Dell. “We never really got the thrill of the Series that I believe everybody else gets.”

This may well have been what made them so effective. For decades, National League teams that clinched the pennant early would spend an inordinate amount of time staring at the mounting Yankee forces, and soon they were defeated Gauls slain at the feet of the Roman Legion. Better to know death up close and quick, rather than see it marching toward you over the horizon, across the valley, into their very homes and villages . . .

Angell was shocked when he got a gander at Candlestick Park, especially after spending two days in Taj O’Malley and a pleasant evening in the salons San Francisco cafe society. Candlestick was nooooo Dodger Stadium, Angell noted, “with its raw concrete ramps and walkways and its high, curving grandstand barrier, it looks from the outside like an outbuilding of” – yes, Angell got it the very first time he saw the place – “Alcatraz. But it was a festive prison yard during the first two Series games here.”

The Giants used 12 pitchers in the play-offs, and the Yankees were well-rested. The only advantages the Giants had was that it opened at Candlestick and they were tired, which was a strange advantage.

“Man, I’m tired,” said Mays. “Man. We’re all tired.” Yes, they were exhausted, but they had adrenaline.

They also had the advantage of surprise.

“It’s funny, we spend a week going over the Dodger hitters and here I am pitching against the Giants,” said 33-year old Whitey Ford.

When San Franciscans got a glimpse of the New York Yankees they felt like Belgians watching the victorious Americans arriving, but these larger-than-life icons were not there to liberate them. It was like somebody had hauled the statues from center field at Yankee Stadium and now they were come to life, walking about Candlestick Park. There is a truth about the Yankees; it existed then and it exists now. They do still have Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in their line-up. Those guys are not dead.

As if Ford, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Roger Maris needed Ruth and Gehrig; these guys broke those guys’ records. In 1962, there were a very small handful of people walking the Earth who were a bigger deal than Mickey Mantle and company. Dwight Eisenhower and John Glenn. Doug MacArthur, maybe. The only guys bigger than the Yankees, it seemed, were former Yankees, and in this a conundrum was posed. “Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio, San Francisco’s own, the pride of North Beach, was unquestionably rooting for the Bronx Bombers.

This being 1962, it was before the Super Bowl; before Larry and Magic and Michael; and baseball still reigned supreme, the World Series a near-religious event, its day-games-played-during-school-days giving off a slight Holy Ghost quality, to be seen by kids whose fourth period teacher had a TV and let them watch; whose fifth period teacher did not. Snippets from the radio, 12-year olds who were fans feeling superior to clueless classmates who were not.

The West Coast games started at noon to avoid late afternoon winds, which for the Giants, whose trip from LA. to San Francisco and subsequent scramble for cabs, rental cars and hitch-hiked rides home, meant little sleep. They would need to rely on that adrenaline, which can often propel one to greater heights than standard preparation, at least in the short term.

The crowd arrived early, bearing picnic hampers for much gin-and-tonic tailgating. It was a polite, cheerful, well-dressed gathering, as if they were attending an outdoor opera concert, or “a country horse show,” wrote Angell.

To purchase . . .


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