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On The Pleasure Of Hating

An aging European generation remembers 1956 as the year Nikita Khrushchev's tanks clanked across the Ukrainian border into Hungary to suppress a revolt. Soviets and Americans grappled at the planet's outer reaches in a contest promising a new frontier in space but threatening wholesale nuclear destruction. In a world that had barely caught its breath from the Second World War, hate seemed an enduring universal constant. And I was soon to be party to an equally absorbing hatred, but one more personal and far more pleasurable.

Sophocles once remarked that we should hate our foes only so far as we soon might love them, but baseball hatred that year had promised to spread its vitriol too deep for that. The Yankees and Dodgers were to play in the World Series. The Dodgers still haunted Ebbets Field in Brooklyn's Flatbush section. The East River sprawled like a noxious demilitarized zone separating Brooklyn from the Bronx, where their natural enemies, the New York Yankees, reigned. Yankee players then seemed pressed from the mold of Homeric demigods, their deeds - on-field and off - fodder for adjective and adverb-obsessed sports writers hacking away at their Underwoods. Such adulation has always enraged as much as it has enthralled. Even today Yankee hate reinforces the cleft between underdogs and heroes that forever defines the American psyche.

I was an Air Force brat then, a Southerner living in Niagara Falls, reason enough to find myself parboiled in New York's lower middle-class ethnic cauldron. I took that in stride, and risked more. I tattooed the loose-leaf binder I carried to school with the names of Yankee players. I regurgitated Yankee lore daily in school hallways in my hick accent, quickly learning that sports disputes in upper state New York were invitations to take the conversation outside and escalate it. Still, I loved my inclusion in this form of hate, this abhorrence of all things Yankee. It allowed me footing and a leg up in an alien locale. 

October came, the Dodgers bent on using the World Series to prove the Yankees fallible. By Monday the eighth, the teams were tied at two games apiece, the Yankees seeming all too mortal. I slunk from class to class that day to escape the gloats and catcalls. Clambering up the stairs to study hall after lunch, I hoped someone would have word of the fifth game, already in progress.

Seventh grade study hall resided in a narrow, high-ceilinged room on the top floor, warmed by a bank of full-length windows, the period supervised by a coach whose name I've long since forgotten. Hunkered over his radio, he glanced up and informed me that pitchers Don Larsen and Sal Maglie were presiding over a scoreless tie.  

Others shuffled in. Soon, one boy asked the question: Would Coach let us listen to the game? To our surprise, he agreed, setting his bulky transistor radio on a bookcase, the volume at a barely audible level. We settled in as the Yankees came to bat in the bottom of the fourth. Mickey Mantle arced a pitch into the stands.

"Yes!" I whispered.

Two boys turned to glare.

One offered to maul me, as if I were somehow responsible for Mantle's ice-breaking homer.

"Shaddup!" Coach said.

"Shithead Yankee fan," the boy mumbled too loudly, meaning Coach, who was.

Coach banished the boy to the principal's office.

Too bad. He missed Hank Bauer stroking a pitch into centerfield in the fifth to score Andy Carey. We didn't know it at the time, but that ended the game's scoring. Still, it was hardly the game's end.

Maglie continued to shave the Yankee strike zone. Larsen's less-than-memorable fastball slowed to minor league speeds, requiring Mantle and Bauer to shag fly balls as if in batting practice. The period ended before the seventh inning, and we took to the halls, realizing we had been witnesses to history. Maglie pitched flawlessly, but it didn't matter. No Dodgers were reaching base. Don Larsen had a perfect game going.

As we made our final rounds of classes, that vivid, perfect afternoon seemed to drain Yankee hatred from the Dodger fans about me. It drained their hatred of me, the hick Yankee fan, who before the conflict of baseball season had felt all but invisible in that forbidding, northern place. I felt strangely let down by Larsen's moment of glory.

That evening's TV news revealed the Yankees had hurried through their at-bats in the eighth, as if only Larsen mattered. The sports announcer made hay of hyperbole as he described Larsen's slow walk to the mound. Larsen struggled against Carl Furillo's four foul balls, and then coaxed him into flying out. In the Dodgers' second turn, Roy Campanella grounded out. A no-name pinch hitter, Dale Mitchell, came to bat. He went down on three strikes. An ecstatic Yogi Berra leaped into the taller Larsen's arms. The Yankee pitcher had done it. He had pitched a perfect game.

The Dodgers managed a weak win in game six, the Yankees roaring back in the seventh to take the series. For days, everyone remained devoid of the Yankee hate I so enjoyed. I received no glares. Dignity-rescuing scuffles were in abeyance. It was as if my team had abandoned me in stepping to a level inconceivable by mortals, one on which hate could gain no traction.

Why the loss I felt as Larsen's perfection choked out Yankee hate that day? Perhaps the answer lurked in the idea that hate connotes strangeness and conflict, and conflict ultimately leads to resolution and acceptance, and perfection was too exalted a phenomenon for such social dynamics. Whatever the answer, a mass of global problems were crying out for entente, and those problems began to engulf me. I entered the U.S. Naval Academy as the world swooned on the brink of nuclear holocaust. Leaving there before graduation, I returned to Louisiana and a disappointed family, my few friends having scattered before the Sixties' gale-force winds. Still, I had proven myself a master of good-natured animosity. I knew in a pinch I could rely on one particular, benign form of hate to deliver me once again into the embrace of Sophocles' collegial love.