Memoir: Doris Kearns Goodwin remembers a neighborhood that vanished and a baseball team that never will.


October 20, 1997|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

Doris Kearns Goodwin went home recently, but it wasn't there.

Old neighbors, some in their 90s, had gathered from afar to meet her. Schoolmates and childhood friends arrived bearing dusty yearbooks. But her childhood haunts were gone -- either boarded up or under new ownership.

"Everybody was gone from the block," Goodwin says of the one block of Southard Avenue in Rockville Centre, N.Y., that was her entire universe as a child. "As you go forward in your life, things are lost behind you. That whole part of my life was gone."

All childhood neighborhoods disappear eventually, but not all are lucky enough to have had their own resident historian in the making. Southard Avenue circa 1950 had Doris Kearns, a precocious, freckly redhead who would grow up to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer.

Having written big, sweeping books on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys, Doris Kearns Goodwin turned inward and intimate for her latest volume, "Wait Till Next Year" (Simon and Schuster, $25).

It is a charming, breezy memoir of a girl who grew up as a fan of the misbegotten Brooklyn Dodgers. In a lesser writer's hands, that would be all "Wait Till Next Year" is, and that would probably be enough. Goodwin, though, doesn't abandon her historian's eye, even for so personal a story as this. And so the book serves also as a history of its time: the shift of the population from city to suburb, the advent of television, the beginnings of the Cold War.

Through all the changes both personal and sociological, there was one constant: baseball. Or so it seemed for a while. Eerily presaging her own personal loss, the Brooklyn Dodgers would leave Brooklyn for the Left Coast in 1957, breaking Goodwin's heart and signaling the end of her childhood. The following year, when she was 15, her mother would die and her family would leave Southard Avenue to escape the memories that haunted every room of the house.

"It seemed important to me to re-create the circle," Goodwin said in an interview after a reading and signing at Bibelot in Pikesville yesterday. "That's the wonder of writing. I feel closer to my parents now because of the writing of this book."

Exposure to baseball

Like so many fans, Goodwin was introduced to baseball by her father, Michael. A bank examiner, he gave 6-year-old Doris a scorebook and taught her how to record every play so that she could re-create the game for him when he got home from work. Unaware that newspapers would print stories and box scores the next morning, she thought she was her father's only source of information on their beloved Dodgers and took to the task as seriously as she would undertake her historical research as an adult.

Listening to Red Barber's broadcasts on the radio, she recorded every play and later recounted the action to her father after dinner. It was her first introduction to the power of narrative: At first, she would cut to the chase, wanting to give her father the final score, but later realized her tale would be more effective if she built up suspense before giving away the ending.

She was a fan during some of the best times, as well as some of the worst. Every year, her Dodgers were contenders, even winning the pennant many years, but the World Series continually eluded them. Her favorite player was Jackie Robinson, although at the time she wasn't fully cognizant of his importance as the first black man to play in the majors. To her, he was simply the Dodgers' dazzling second baseman, speedy and daring, ever dancing off the bases and threatening to steal one, even home.

Although she lived in the suburbs of Long Island, she and her neighbors kept their city alliances: If you were from the Bronx, you were a Yankees fan; from Manhattan, it was the Giants. And if you were from Brooklyn as her father was, you were a Dodgers fan.

These competing alliances made for a lively neighborhood. Goodwin's best friend Elaine was a Yankee fan, Max and Joe at the butcher's shop were avid Giants fans who delighted in teasing their little "Ragmop," as they called the young Goodwin. They put up a board in their window and let Ragmop record the scores of both teams. After the devastating 1951 playoffs when the Giants' Bobby Thomson hit "the shot heard around the world" to snatch the pennant from the Dodgers, the devastated Goodwin began avoiding the shop so she wouldn't have to fill out that hated final score on the window board.

"It was the worst moment in my life as a fan," she writes. A week later, Max and Joe sent her a dozen red roses and a note saying they missed her. She returned and completed the season's record.

In 1955, she and the Dodgers were finally rewarded. Doris and her mother went to Brooklyn to meet her father at work and join the celebration in the streets. It is a lovely scene, and an enviable one for anyone who has waited, and waited some more, for their team to finally go all the way.

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