This is an example of the timeline for publishing creative, short non-fiction about baseball: write a rough draft in 2011, edit several times, submit to a half-dozen journals, receive rejections six months later; rewrite in 2012, edit several more times, resubmit to a few places, receive more rejections after six or even nine months; and, “one last time,” edit & tweak just a little more in 2013, submit to just one very niche yet fitting publication, and, at last, receive word of acceptance–then wait just a little longer, out of courtesy to the editors, before sharing on a blog in 2014. . . . I therefore figure that enough time has passed that I can finally post at least an excerpt from “Bums, Burns, & the Brooklyn Dodgers,” an essay of mine that the kind editors at Spitball published last year in issue #73. However, out of respect for the little baseball literary magazine, I’m still not going to post the entire piece; anyway, the original is bookended by a more personal narrative that doesn’t really need to appear here.
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. . . . So imagine my surprise when in the middle of watching the “Shadow Ball” episode from Ken Burns’s sprawling PBS series, Baseball (1994-2010), I heard a narrator elucidate the deeper historical roots of this often (though not exclusively) derogatory expression. Yes, the marvelous, two-hour program documents the surely more broadly, culturally intriguing dilemmas—and, strangely enough, delights—of baseball’s “Negro leagues.” For example, Burns edifies with accounts of how black players sometimes performed a curious game of “shadow ball.” The term referred not to any racial epithet, as you may tentatively cringe with suspicion, but instead how these vastly underappreciated athletes practiced with a “ghost” ball—and with such reputed skill as to dupe the eyes of even the most watchful onlooker. All this, alongside detailed attention to other key events, rising stars, and the fading of that greatest star of the major leagues, Babe Ruth, and Burns delivers a masterpiece once more.
However, in the midst of this greater narrative delivered via some gravelly though often eloquent voices of historians, poets, broadcasters, and aficionados, the episode segues into the exploits and largely laughable disasters of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Disdainfully known for their notoriously poor performances and almost clownish attitude, the team came to be named by fans and foes alike as, you guessed it, “dem bums.”
This rather popular moniker aside, though, the team’s official name originated from an even more ubiquitous notoriety. The Dodgers name actually stemmed from a joking insult that many New Yorkers reserved for Brooklyners. It was all due to that unfashionable borough’s muddled network of trolley cars—hence the old slur, “trolley dodgers.” Early on, the team also moved to a precariously located stadium (at Eastern Park), bordered treacherously on two sides by busy trolley line tracks. The team was thereafter known as the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers. Albeit this nickname was subsequently shortened to simply the Brooklyn Dodgers, which, despite a number of other christenings given by fans, eventually ended up as the team’s official name in the early 1930s.
All this was but merely a predecessor to the team’s status as “dem bums.” Despite an outstanding hitter, Babe Herman, who was just as outstanding a mishap in the outfield, the Brooklyn team largely disappointed the citizenry. As their slump persisted, their unofficially eponymous reputation did, too. And the other name finally stuck when it appeared in the work of newspaper cartoonist Willard Mullin and his popular drawings of the time. Fittingly, the story goes that Mullin first heard the term of endearment one day from a cabbie curious to know how the team fared that afternoon.
Indeed, it did become an endearing term—and one that endured as, eventually, Brooklyn started to actually win some games. But that was long ago. Funny enough, any such fondness in the old expression seems far removed now. . . .