Like most children of the fifties, TV would 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 a thoughtful neighbor 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 Trojans' own home turf, the L.A. 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 elementary school.
By the age of ten I'd already become a morbid, beady eyed, unhealthy little sports fan. I was also that energetic, obnoxious little kid who organized the pickup games and - if you happened to be a bit uncoordinated, a bit "husky" - may have picked you last. (Except for Little League, we were happily free of all adult, organized sports.) Football, baseball and basketball made up our holy trinity, with track and field a distant fourth. If you did any other sport it was only because you couldn't do the ones that mattered.
By seventh grade, I'd developed a grown-up jump shot, possessed a quick, level swing and, with a precocious strength and touch on my passes along with moves learned on a narrow Hollywood hillside street, did a fair imitation of a pint sized Paul Cameron, Sanders' first great tailback.
Fall weekends were spent playing touch football on the deep outfield grass of West Hollywood Park. But right after a heavy rain we'd play tackle, sliding along the grass like freshwater otters. But no matter how perfect the day, nor how many kids we had up for a game, if there happened to be a big game on the tube, I'd always 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 shocked to find him holding a full house, I immediately became a Dodgers fan. Had I been aware of tiny Spike Lee and little Doris Kearns, both crying their hearts out for their beloved "Bums," I couldn't have cared less. L.A. had Major League baseball, and it wasn't some sorry, second-division club stuffed with time serving vets and no-hopers. L.A. had hooked the Dodgers!
Flush with pocket money from my first summer job, I couldn't have missed more than a dozen or so Dodgers games that first year ('58) in the Coliseum. Busing my way east to Vermont Ave., then rolling south on the streetcar past Venice, Washington and Adams, watching the faces outside my window gradually 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 man even though I'd followed his second base rival, future Hall of Famer, Bill Mazeroski, at tiny, long gone Gilmore Field. My heroes had to have a certain style, which, for me, the stubby Mazeroski lacked. Then again, Maz is in the Hall of Fame while Charlie is barely remembered today.
A child of the urban bourgeoisie, I remember feeling oddly pleased when the cosmopolitan, neurasthenic Oscar Levant, on his local TV show, let it be known he, too, was a Charlie Neal fan. Oscar may have looked like some broken down, old world artiste, but he obviously knew style when he saw it. Any day Neal got two or three 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 batting average than Charlie ever did. Which may have accounted for his rather 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 consummated its love for the Dodgers. Charlie might have beaten out home town boy, Larry Sherry, for World Series' MVP had Chicago's "Jungle Jim Rivera," in game five, bottom of the seventh, not robbed Charlie of the probable Series clinching hit on a great running catch in the wastelands of right centerfield. Rivera was a lefty, and a right hander would never have made that play. Having gone in with a couple of high school, over the line, buddies on a set of Series tickets for games three, four and five at the Coliseum, I was unlucky enough to have witnessed this tragedy, in person, from behind the infamous left field screen. (This was, of course, in the days before ordinary people got priced out of spectacles like a World Series or an NFL title game.) But my first trip to Exposition Park had come five years earlier, for the 1954 UCLA - USC game. Truly God is great…
Passing through thousands of picnickers on a 100 degree, mid 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, slowly baby-stepping our way through 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 102,000 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, fifty something guy who claimed to know the great coach personally, one of Sanders' fishing and drinking cronies. Since he owned a company that did business with the athletic department, his story may well have been true.
I was the shy, stuttering, neighborhood kid who used to amuse himself squeezing out sly mute ones while the rest of the company, crammed into the padrone's long, narrow den watching Milton Berle on the first TV set in the neighborhood, fought to remain conscious in this toxic hellhole. So… either Del's olfactory sense was shot or I'd overestimated my noxiousness. At any rate, I was surprised and thrilled when he invited me to the "Biggest Game." (The popular Herald Express writer, Bud Furillo, coined the term in reaction to Bay Area pretensions: If Stanford - Cal was "The Big Game," surely UCLA - USC was bigger than that.)
Del was a practiced, veteran drunk driver, whose tiny wife, Della, tottering around on little gold high heels, could knock them back herself. One evening in a posh LaCienega restaurant, the poor girl got so wasted she somehow lost her panties on the way out. Trailing her, my gallant stepfather 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 stories of "Red's" prodigious drinking, all the while bitching about perceived social snubs he'd received from those "God damn friggen snobs" (Jonathan Club types, that sort of thing). If Del was "a bit common" for that WASPish crowd, nothing about him offended my own crude, adolescent sensibilities. I mean he had UCLA season tickets, dead on the fifty. I liked him just fine.
Only Jim Tatum's defending National Champions, Maryland, and Washington, the following week, in Seattle, would even make the ‘54 Bruins sweat. UCLA was not only unbeaten, they were running amok. Included in their string of blowouts was a colossal 72-0 demolition of the precious young sons of "Leland Stanford Junior 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 too perfect, something like your typically phony Hollywood sports sequence.
The ‘54 Trojans, ranked #7, were quite formidable themselves, having lost only once, early, to TCU. The Bruins scored quickly on a long post pass, Primo Villanueva to Bob Heydenfeldt. More than fifty years later, Terry Debay, a team captain and blocking back, described the play something like this: Villanueva, running left on a run/pass option, leaves his feet while throwing across his body, and was still able to put the ball 50 some yards in the air and on the money. Debay calls it "one of the greatest passes I've ever seen."
But the gutty little Trojans hung tough and, late in the third quarter, were threatening to tie the game. SC 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 – jumped the route near his goal line and returned it the length of the field. The crowd exploded, and though the Trojans got a brief reprieve in the form of the inevitable broken field clipping penalty, the Bruins still drove it in for the decisive touchdown. Hardiman Cureton, Mickey's uncle, then forced a Jon Arnett fumble on the ensuing kickoff and the rout was on. Three more touchdowns would provide a fabulous 27 point fourth quarter and an impressive 34-0 final. After one of those scores I have this indelible image of a Bruin receiver (Debay as it turned out) coming off the field with end zone chalk all over his back.
Our brisk winners walk back to Del's Caddie in the fading, still sweltering afternoon was actually exhilarating. For the serious Crank, nothing but a national championship compares to grinding your most hated rival into the dirt. Close competitive games are for English teachers, prose poets and other such refined persons.
Naturally the AP media schmucks dropped UCLA to #2 behind Ohio State, but the United Press coach's poll did the right thing, and the Bruins, like at least a couple of other great Pac-10 teams, had to settle for half a #1. Out here on the coast, in "La La Land" and the anti-heartland, that's probably all we can reasonably expect.