Dem Bums, from World War II to Outer Space

The Brooklyn Dodgers, seen here training at Vero Beach, have been referenced in many Hollywood works. (via State Library and Archives of Florida)

How’d the Dodgers make out, anyway?

Won the pennant, dropped the series to the Yanks

Dem bums!

The inquisitor is a burnoose-clad peddler (“razor blades…collar buttons…shoelaces”) in a souk! Improbably, he admits that he is actually a native of Brooklyn.Talk about straining credibility! All is explained at the end of the movie when he is identified as a military intelligence operative.

The scene is from A Yank in Libya, a 1942 B movie, so the characters are doubtless discussing the 1941 World Series, the one made famous by Mickey Owen’s dropped third strike. The writers could not have known that the dialogue would have remained timely after the 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953 and 1956 seasons. Only in 1955 would it have been inappropriate.

In this 2018 season, the Dodgers are wearing a uniform patch commemorating their 60th anniversary in Los Angeles. But thanks to the accessibility of old movies and television shows, the unique relationship between Brooklyn, its baseball team and popular culture is not lost.

References to the Brooklyn Dodgers occur in the most unlikely places, in old movies that take place nowhere near Brooklyn and have nothing to do with baseball–and they persist even in the post-Brooklyn era. But the golden age of such references was from Pearl Harbor through the mid-1950s.

The high point for Brooklyn references is Guadalcanal Diary, released in 1943, the year following the famed campaign in the South Pacific. Based on the best-selling book of the same name by war correspondent Richard Tregaskis, the movie was a hit with the public and the critics. If you wanted some idea of what life was like for Marines in the Pacific theater in the first year of the war, this was your go-to book and movie.

In the film, the designated Brooklynite is Corporal Aloysius T. “Taxi” Potts, played by William Bendix, who once served as a Yankees batboy and was hopelessly miscast in the title role in The Babe Ruth Story in 1948.  Throughout his tenure on Guadalcanal, Potts never forsakes the Gowanus Canal and all things Brooklyn including, in spades, the Dodgers:

Times like these kinda make me wish I was back in Brooklyn, drivin’ my cab with the fast meter and keepin’ an eye on dem Bums.

Ebbets Field. That’s for me. Watchin’ dem beautiful Bums…just leadin’ the league…. That’s all, just leadin’ the league. You got any dough which says the Yanks’ll take the Bums in the Series?

The film was shot in 1943; hence the “leadin’ the league” reference is to the 1942 season when the Dodgers won 104 games but finished two games behind the Cardinals. Dem bums indeed!

Potts’ most memorable quote occurs while he is digging a foxhole: “Maybe if we keep digging, we’ll come up someplace around Ebbets Field.”

His buddy, Private Johnny “Chicken” Anderson (played by Richard Jaeckel), comes up with a pretty good rejoinder: “Yeah, I’m practically standing on second base right now.”

Catfish and Me
Reminisces of a meeting with an all-time great.

If I were a scriptwriter, the next line would be “While you’re there, say hello to Billy Herman and Pee Wee Reese for me.”

Copies of Guadalcanal Diary are still out there in used bookstores. If you buy a copy and look for anyone in the book named Taxi Potts you will be disappointed. The cast of characters in Tregaskis’ book is large, and he takes pains to identify the hometown of every soldier from dogface to general. There was one guy from the Bronx, and one from Jersey City, but no one from Brooklyn, and no one named Taxi Potts. The Brooklynesque dialogue was courtesy of screenwriters Lamar Trotti and Jerome Cady. Neither was a native of the borough, but perhaps they’d been reading about the Dodgers in the sports section of their local papers or The Sporting News.

For the first four decades of the 20th century, the Giants were perennial contenders. The Yankees dominated the 1920s and 1930s. The Dodgers won pennants in 1916 and 1920 but were usually also-rans. In 1941, however, they not only won the NL pennant, they set an attendance record of 1,214,910–more than double the league average. More importantly, they outdrew the Giants (763,098) and the Yankees (964,722).

If the Dodgers “arrived” in 1941, much the same could be said of Bendix, a New York actor recently transplanted to Hollywood. Before Guadalcanal, Bendix had already played a soldier named Aloysius (full name Aloyisius “Smacksie” Randall) in Wake Island, which was released in August 1942 when the Guadalcanal campaign was just getting started. In fact, Bendix received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

At the same time, he had embarked on a series of comedies (Brooklyn Orchid, released on January 31, 1942; Two Mugs From Brooklyn, released on December 31, 1942; and Taxi, Mister, released on April 16, 1943) in which he played Timothy McGuerin, a Brooklyn cab driver. In the last film, he even got to play for an amateur baseball team based in the Flatbush neighborhood. (These films were all “streamliners,” films longer than a short subject but not as long as a feature-length film, more or less the span of a one-hour TV show minus the commercials.)

So Bendix, despite his short tenure in Hollywood, was already typecast as a Brooklynite, a cab driver, a baseball buff, and a soldier. A “veteran” of Wake Island and Guadalcanal, he somehow eluded deployment to Iwo Jima.

In 1944 Bendix did not play a soldier but he was still a working-class Brooklynite and a staunch Dodgers fan in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. The entire film takes place on board a lifeboat; the cast is restricted to survivors of an attack on a freighter by a German U-boat.

Bendix plays Gus Smith, a stoker on the freighter. Predictably, he rambles on about Ebbets Field, the Dodgers’ chances against the Cardinals, and taking his wife to a game. Keep in mind that in addition to being stranded in the middle of the North Atlantic, he has a leg that needs to be amputated! Of course, if he bled Dodger blue, it would be hard to tell in a black and white movie.

World War II ended in 1945, but movies about the war continued to be made, and as TV spread across the country in the postwar years, the new medium picked up those themes in series. Some (like Combat) were serious; others (like Hogan’s Heroes) were not.

The TV series with the most Brooklyn references was McHale’s Navy, featuring Ernest Borgnine as the commanding officer of a PT boat in the South Pacific. His crew included Lester Gruber (Carl Ballantine), a used car salesman from Brooklyn. During the series’ run from 1962 to 1966 (a couple of feature films based on the series were released in 1964 and 1965), he took over the designated Brooklynite role, periodically making glowing references to the borough, the Dodgers and Ebbets Field. Given the number of episodes (138), it is remarkable he never encountered a Yankees or Giants fan eager to bust his chops.

The Brooklyn references soldiered on in non-military productions also, notably science fiction movies. The obligatory Brooklyn infantryman or seaman became the obligatory Brooklyn crewman on board a spaceship.

Destination Moon (1950) was a big-budget film about the first space flight to the moon. Along for the ride was Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson), a classic (or perhaps stereotypical) Brooklynite (he says “woik” for work, “woid” for word, and “thoity” for thirty). As a reluctant, last-minute substitute, he functions as a radar and radio operator for the mission.

In war films, the Brooklynite is just one grunt among an assortment of men from all walks of life and from all across the USA. In the outer space movies, however, the Brooklynite is surrounded by a bunch of absent-minded professors with their heads in the clouds. He is there to keep them grounded – no mean achievement in a zero gravity environment. Comic relief, of course, goes back at least as far as Shakespeare when groundlings were the equivalent of Brooklynite commoners.

Curiously, groundling now has another meaning: it applies to someone literally on the ground, as viewed by someone traveling in an airplane or a spacecraft. So in outer space the Brooklynite crewman managed to rise above his fellow groundlings. Kind of like moving from Red Hook to Park Slope.

At one point in Destination Moon, the crewmen are looking at the earth through a porthole. North America is clearly visible. The men pick out Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. “Can you see Brooklyn?” wonders Sweeney. After a reply in the affirmative, he muses, “I wonder who’s pitching.” Well, it’s 1950, so maybe Newk, maybe Oisk. Won’t make no difference, ‘cause by the end of the season dem bums will finish two games behind, just like in 1942.

By the end of the 1950s, The Angry Red Planet offered Jack Kruschen as Chief Warrant Officer Sam Jacobs. When production (“lensing,” as they call it in the trades) started on September 9, 1959, the Dodgers were not only in their second year in Los Angeles, they were on the verge of winning the NL pennant. But the Brooklyn connection was still intact. So, after landing on Mars, CWO Jacobs says “Shall we go out and claim the planet in the name of Brooklyn?” Might as well, Sam. While you’re at it, why not name the base camp Ebbets Field?

The unasked question is why the working class guy is always from Brooklyn. Why not the Bronx or Queens? Why couldn’t he be a South Side stockyards worker who pines for Comiskey Park? Or a North Philly motorman who can’t wait to get this friggin’ war over with so he can go back and watch Connie Mack’s A’s at Shibe Park? Or a St. Louis beer truck driver who can’t wait to get back to Sportsman’s Park, quaff a Falstaff, and see Stan the Man lash line drives off and/or over the screen on the right-field pavilion?

Given Hollywood’s fascination with Brooklyn, it was poetic justice of a sort when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958. In fact, the Urban Dictionary asserts that the phrase “Dem bums” migrated to Los Angeles along with the team, but I think that is in error. The term just didn’t fit in L.A. After all, the Dodgers won four pennants and three titles in their first decade out west. Besides, Brooklyn had Flatbush, Canarsie and Coney Island, while Los Angeles had Beverly Hills, Pasadena and Pacific Palisades.

Most of all, Los Angeles had tinseltown, better known as Hollywood. Once in Los Angeles, Dodgers players became commonplace in movies and TV shows. Sometimes they played themselves, sometimes they played bit parts in westerns, cop shows or sitcoms. Among those on camera were Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Chuck Essegian, Duke Snider, Wally Moon, Leo Durocher and John Roseboro – even Walter O’Malley! Far too many credits to list here, but the most remarkable is the episode of Mr. Ed in which Ed – a talking horse, mind you – hits an inside-the-park batting practice home run off Sandy Koufax. You have to see it to believe it – and thanks to YouTube, you can.

So the Dodgers were the darlings of Los Angeles, but the Brooklyn references were not entirely exhausted.

“How ‘bout them Brooklyn Dodgers? Are they bums are what?”

This one occurred in 1988 in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? But the film takes place in 1947. The line is spoken by an animated taxicab (a “toon,” as the movie names them) named Benny. Perhaps an in-joke pertaining to William Bendix?

Perhaps the most off-the-wall Dodger reference occurred in 1974 when Dark Star, a science fiction comedy (promoted as a “spaced-out odyssey”) was released. Today it is best known as the first film from director John Carpenter, who later gave us Escape From New York, Big Trouble in Little China and Halloween, among others.

The movie takes place in the 22nd century and deals with a crew on a 20-year mission to destroy unstable planets. When a malfunction threatens the destruction of the spacecraft and all on board, one of the crewmen, Lieutenant Doolittle, revives Commander Paul, whose body has been cryogenically frozen for years.

DOOLITTLE: Comnander Paul, this is Doolittle! Something serious has come up! I have to ask you a question!

PAUL: (groggy) I’m glad you’ve come to talk with me, Doolittle. It’s been so long since anyone has come to talk with me.

DOOLITTLE: Commander, sir, we have a big problem! The failed Nebula bomb, Bomb No. 20… it’s… it’s stuck! It… t won’t drop out of the bomb bay! It refuses to listen [the bomb is voice-activated] and it plans on detonating in less than 11 minutes!

PAUL: Doolittle, you must tell me one thing.

DOOLITTLE: What’s that, sir?

PAUL: Tell me, Doolittle, how are the Dodgers doing?

DOOLITTLE: Wha… wha… the Dodgers? Uh…they… they broke up, they disbanded over 15 years ago.

PAUL: Oh… pity. Pity.

Pity indeed! Talk about a rude awkening! I think I’d just as soon be re-frozen. That’s not advisable for frozen food, but it might be okay for humans.

When Carpenter made Escape From New York in 1981, he had a golden opportunity to insert a Brooklyn Dodgers reference. One of the characters in the film is a cab driver (simply called Cabbie) played by Ernest Borgnine. The film takes place in 1997, so it would have been fitting for the character (Borgnine was 63 at the time and looked it) to have dialogue about watching Dem Bums at Ebbetts Field when he was a young man. Of course, there might have been such a scene in the original script. Only the cutting room floor knows for sure.

Today the borough of Brooklyn is noted more for its influx of hipsters than for Dodger fans. Schaefer Beer, once a staunch presence on the Ebbets Field scoreboard, is long gone and the upscale Brooklyn Brewery offers such concoctions as Brooklyn Sorachi Ace Saison and Naranjito, an orange peel pale ale. (In fact, one of the offerings is named Bel Air Sour, so even they’ve gone LA!) So I suspect “dem bums” is seldom heard in Brooklyn these days.

But rest assured there will be more opportunities for Dodgers references in the future. In fact, last year a remake of Escape From New York was announced, so Cabbie may get a second chance to reminisce about the Dodgers… though he might be updated to an Uber driver. Guess we could call him Ubie.

References and Resources

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Being a Dodgers fan, this is a great article! My wife is a huge Golden Girls fan, and Brooklyn and the Dodgers are referenced many times in the series.

Dennis Bedard
Dennis Bedard

I remember years ago. It was either in Stalag 17, a re-run of Hogan’s Heroes, or a scene in The Great Escape where a new inmate was asked who won the ’41 WS. He answered correctly but to me that seemed like an easy question for a double agent to answer that any grunt GI would be expected to know.


Ubie Jimenez, of course