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Back to the Bleachers

Fifty years after his landmark baseball book, writer Arnold Hano still enjoys the game among Dodger Stadium's distractions

August 27, 2006|Chris Epting | Chris Epting is the author of "Roadside Baseball."

In 1954, a writer named Arnold Hano went to an old bathtub-shaped stadium called the Polo Grounds to see his beloved New York Giants play the Cleveland Indians in Game 1 of the World Series. That game produced arguably baseball's most famous defensive play, Willie Mays' "the Catch" off Cleveland's Vic Wertz (though as Hano pointed out soon after, it was "the Throw" after "the Catch" that was the real stunner).

The game also produced what many consider to be one of the single best sports reporting works in history: a book Hano wrote called "A Day in the Bleachers." Hano's writing career has included many articles and sports biographies, but "A Day in the Bleachers" is considered his masterwork. First published in 1955, a special edition was issued in 2004 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of "the Catch." Next month, Arion Press will issue a limited edition with bonus extras.

Hano didn't go to the Polo Grounds to write a book--he went to watch a baseball game. But from his outfield perch among the faithful he became inspired and started scrawling observational notes in the margins of his program and his newspaper, filling up all available space (while still managing to keep score). More than just a brilliant account of the day, the book is a primer on how to watch a ballgame in person. The notable baseball writer Roger Kahn called it "the first and, I believe, the best of all the baseball books written from the point of view of the man in the stands."

Today the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan is gone. But Arnold Hano is still in the game. Now 84 years old, he lives with his wife in Laguna Beach. When I learned recently that he lived nearby, it made me wonder: What might it be like to attend a game with him today? To go back to the bleachers with a man who so beautifully defined the fan experience? Is it still the game he loved?

Me, I adore baseball. But my faith has been shaken in these days of chemically bloated records and tape-measure salaries. Where does Hano stand? He, who saw Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig--in Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds and old Yankee Stadium. Would he accompany me and my son to the bleachers of Dodger Stadium for a day of reflection and comparison? I called him and, thankfully, he was up for our journey. In preparing for our field trip, I also reviewed some of the things Hano wrote in a recent piece in the Los Angeles Times Book Review:

"I have been watching major league games since I was 4. I do not know whether this makes me dean of the school of fanhood, but surely I am an elder on the faculty. Most of the fires of my life have been banked. One passion remains hot and full. My passion is to attend ballgames. It is an urge not to be denied.

"It sustains me. I am held by its elegance, its perfect calculus of 90-foot base paths, its pitching distance of 60 feet, 6 inches to home plate."

I couldn't wait for game day.

On a late Sunday morning, I am driving Arnold Hano and my 12-year- old son, Charlie, to Dodger Stadium, where the boys in blue will play the Milwaukee Brewers. En route, my son and I learn that the white-haired Hano is sharp, informed and wonderfully funny in a tough, unsentimental New York way. Dressed comfortably in a checkered button-up shirt and blue jeans, he seems genuinely excited to be heading to a ballpark.

He remembers so much detail from the hundreds of games he's attended that it doesn't seem possible. But it is. We hear tales of Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson (the two men he believes did the most for baseball), Lou Gehrig, Mel Ott, Rogers Hornsby and more; the days of going to the Polo Grounds with his older brother; and how he misses afternoon games and scheduled double-headers. Getting off at Stadium Way and heading up to the parking lot, he tells of his luck to have witnessed not just "the Catch," but also Don Larsen's perfect 1956 World Series game and Sandy Koufax's 1962 no-hitter, among other landmark baseball events. Would his luck rub off on us today?

As we walk to the left-field pavilion gate, Vin Scully's voice is being piped into the parking lot over the PA system, and Hano's ears perk up. "Don't you just love him? Listen to that beautiful voice. And the things he comes up with during a broadcast, the details he remembers." Of course, he's right. And the same thing could be said of Hano, who remembers not just pitchers from 60 years ago--but certain pitches. With Scully in the air, we enter the ballpark.

Our seats are in the left-field pavilion, Section 305, Row A, the first row right above the outfield wall. Hano thinks the view is splendid. "These seats are so close to the field," he says. "I almost feel like I'm back playing shortstop." (Hano was a standout player at Long Island University.)

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