Like most children in the fifties, television had become my window to the world outside the home. Thus was I introduced to Bruin football - indeed had an actual image of it - years before anyone took me to a real game. On the west coast UCLA was the team of the moment, an emerging national power in the process of elbowing aside the old boss, USC, on the Trojan's own home turf, the Coliseum. Best of all, in Red Sanders, they had one of those singular coaches who immediately inspires fear and loathing in the opposition. The newspapers called him a genius, and, since the coach never graduates, I assumed the Bruins would always be good. What did I know? I was still in grammar school.
By the age of ten I'd already become a hardened, beady eyed, unhealthy little sports fan. Don't misunderstand, I also played the games. No budding geek, merely "speaking of sports," I was the kid who organized the pickup games and chose you last (except for Little League, we were happily free of all adult organized sports). Football, baseball, and basketball made up our holy trinity. If you did any other sport it was only because you couldn't do the only ones that mattered. By seventh grade, I'd developed a deadly grown-up jump shot, possessed a quick-level swing, and, with a precocious strength and touch on my passes, along with moves developed on a narrow Hollywood hillside street, did a fair imitation of Paul Cameron, Sanders' All-American, triple-threat tailback.
Fall weekends were spent playing football on the deep outfield grass of West Hollywood Park. Right after a rain we'd play tackle, sliding along the grass like freshwater otters. But no matter how perfect the day, no matter how many kids we had up for a game, if there happened to be a big game on the tube, I'd stay indoors to watch it.
In summer I followed the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League; Dale Long, Bill Caushion and Lino Dinoso were my boys. When Brooklyn foolishly called Walter O'Malley's "bluff," and was surprised to find him holding a full house, I naturally became a Dodgers fan. Had I been aware of tiny Spike Lee and darling, young Doris Kearns, both of them mourning the loss of their beloved "Bums," I couldn't have cared less. L.A. had big league baseball, and it wasn't some sorry, second-division club stuffed with time serving vets and no-talent wannabes. L.A. had hooked the Dodgers.
Flush with pocket money from my first summer job, I couldn't have missed more than a dozen Dodger games that first year in the Coliseum. Transferring at Melrose to the Vermont Ave. streetcar, rolling south past Venice, Washington and Adams Blvd., watching the faces outside my window change from white to deeper shades of brown, I hadn't a care in the world save Charlie Neal's batting average.
Neal was my hero even though I'd followed his second base rival, future Hall of Famer, Bill Mazeroski, at tiny Gilmore Field, on his way up to the Pirates. My heroes had to have a certain style, which, to my mind, the stubby Maz lacked.
A true child of the urban bourgeoisie, I remember feeling oddly pleased when the cosmopolitan, neurasthenic Oscar Levant, on his local TV talk show, let it be known that he, too, was a Charlie Neal fan. Oscar may have been an obvious "spaz," but he knew style when he saw it. Any day Neal got at least two hits was a good day; any day he went hitless was not. And it always bothered me that I seemed to worry more about Charlie's average than Charlie ever did, which may have accounted for his aborted career.
Neal's big year was 1959; the Dodgers' second in L.A., a great comeback year for the club, and the season SoCal truly fell in love with the Dodgers. Neal might have beaten out Larry Sherry for World Series' MVP had Chicago's "Jungle Jim" Rivera, in the bottom of the seventh of game five, not robbed him of the probable Series winning hit on a great running catch in the wastelands of right centerfield (440 feet). I was unlucky enough to have witnessed this tragedy in person, having gone in with a couple of my "over-the-line" buddies on a set of Series tickets for games three, four and five at the Coliseum. But my first trip to Exposition Park had come five years earlier, for the 1954 UCLA - SC game (truly, God is great).
...Passing through thousands of picnickers on a sweltering, late November day, threading our way towards the massive, ivy covered structure, in through the turnstiles, packed shoulder to shoulder, the smell of cigar smoke, beer and grilled hot-dogs wonderfully oppressive... Then, slowly baby-stepping our way down a dark, stifling tunnel, finally opening out upon this vast outdoor theater, this "rubbed shine," of light, sound and color, the pale blue team in sparkling gold helmets and the blood red team warming up at opposite ends of an emerald field, the white shirted, thunderous rooting sections trading insults, two huge bands blasting away, and a hundred thousand fans wired and ready for civil war... I knew I'd found a kind of paradise.
My benefactor this day was a rich, cigar smoking, Caddie-driving Babbitt from up the street named Del. He was a big, bluff guy who claimed to know the great coach personally - one of Red's fishing and drinking cronies. And, since he owned a company that did business with the school, his story may well have been true.
I was the sly, quiet neighbor's kid who used to squeeze out remarkably foul mute ones, while a couple of other neighborhood families, crammed into the padrone's long narrow den watching Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater on the first TV in the neighborhood, fought to remain seated and conscious in this toxic hellhole. Either Del's olfactory sense was shot or I overestimated my noxiousness. In any case, I was surprised and thrilled when he invited me to the biggest game of the year.
Del was a practiced, veteran drunk driver, whose tiny wife, Margie - tottering around on little gold high heels - could knock them back herself. Once, in a posh La Cienega restaurant, she got so ripped she lost her panties on the way out (the ancient elastic, no doubt). Trailing her, my gallant stepfather neatly swept up the delicate things, much like Neal fielding a routine ground ball, and, in the discreet darkness of the parking lot, returned them to their startled, oblivious owner.
Del would tell me stories of "Red's" prodigious drinking - obviously proud to have been holding his own in such exalted company - all the while bitching about perceived social snubs at the hands of the local Westside gentry: the Jonathan Club, that sort of thing. If Del happened to be a bit "common" for that waspish crowd, certainly nothing about him offended my own crude adolescent sensibilities. Hey, he had Bruin season tickets dead on the fifty! I liked him fine.
Only Jim Tatum's defending National Champions, Maryland, and Washington, the week following Maryland, would even make the ‘54 Bruins sweat. UCLA was not only unbeaten, they were running amok. Included among their string of blowouts was a colossal 72-0 demolition of the precious young sons of Leland Stanford Jr. University, a game which featured eight Bruin picks together with miles of punt return yardage by Sam "First Down" Brown (one with so many perfect blocks you could count each one separately; on film it looked almost Hollywood-esque).
The ‘54 Trojans, ranked #7, were formidable, having lost only once, early, to TCU. UCLA scored quickly: Primo Villanueva to Bob Heydenfeldt on a pretty 50-yard post pass. But the gutty little Trojans hung tough, and, late in the third quarter, were threatening to tie. Driving towards the closed west end of the stadium they had goal to go when they attempted a short flat pass, and UCLA's Jim Decker (a wingback who rushed for 500 yards that season on reverses alone) pick