I get the idea of letting the camera be a Dodgers fan, starting in the street outside the rotunda of Ebbets Field. Moving in with the crowd, the camera will buy two tickets, then stop to pick up a couple of hotdogs and Schaefer beers, make its way up the steps into a section of reserved seats, zoom at last to good seats behind home plate as an usher folds down the seats, dusts them off, and smilingly hands a scorecard to the camera's outstretched arm.
We film the opening on St. Patrick's Day-a raw, blustery, all-day location shoot. A score of extras in T-shirts and other hot-weather duds are all but frozen solid. But the idea works. Viewers see it start off every Dodgers game on TV from then until the Brooklyn club departs for California at the end of the 1957 season.
I meet play-by-play announcers Red Barber, Connie Desmond and Vin Scully. It's the Ol' Redhead's umpteenth season, but a first on radio and TV for Scully, himself as redheaded an Irishman as ever took a degree from Fordham.
Leading a small group of copywriters, I start pounding out batches of radio and TV commercials because Schaefer was the sole sponsor of all nine innings of the full season-154 home and away games on radio and 77 home games on the tube.
That meant in each broadcast medium at least 18 commercials per game, one every half inning (only 17 if they win a home game and thus don't come to bat in the ninth).
Videotape hasn't been invented yet. Film is expensive in the quantities we need, and once you're committed to it you're stuck with it, unable to change the message on short notice.
So the commercials are live, just :45 each (the interval between innings is then precisely 1 minute), with voice-overs by Red, Connie and Vin.
The picture? High in the structure of Ebbets Field, behind and above the announcers' booth, we create a studio. Each of its four walls is a different stage set-kitchen, living/dining room, bar/tavern and supermarket.
For each commercial, the camera swivels to a set to show close-ups of hands putting Schaefer bottles or cans into supermarket carts, ordering Schaefer at the tap, fixing up mouth-watering hamburgers and cheese sandwiches and sliced ham or turkey, and-well, you name it.
And most always the :45 ends with a hand bringing the beer to the lens and the camera seemingly drinking the beer, because, under the brewers' self-regulatory code, no faces are ever seen actually drinking beer.
Every few weeks, I ride the subway out to Ebbets Field with scripts for a bunch of fresh commercials. Before the game, Barber sits with me at a table in a corner of the press room and goes over them. He wants them pretty straight. Good descriptive phrases, but not too colorful.
And don't try to sprinkle in his favorite expressions. Keep "catbird seats" out of the copy. He'll speak of them when he wants to. But he has fine advice.
"You read the music reviews, Bernie?" he says. "Those writers know how to describe the intangibles. You can learn a lot from them."
Something works. Schaefer, the one and only sponsor of the Dodgers games for the next several seasons, and a Brooklyn beer brewed on the waterfront at 430 Kent Ave., is the largest-selling beer in all its distribution areas: New England, New York City and Long Island, eastern New York state, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania-except Manhattan, where you get Rheingold if you simply say "Gimme a beer" because, the Schaefer sales force insistently alleges, Rheingold salesmen regularly grease the palms of Manhattan bartenders. That's a game Schaefer President Rudy Schaefer, the straitlaced grandson of founder Maximillian Schaefer, refuses to play.
But you can't drive anywhere around greater New York and not see the big red logo type on a Schaefer truck.
Sometimes the visit with Barber leads to an invitation into the announcers' booth, slung below the upper-deck stands. There I look across the field to the giant Schaefer sign that dominates the tip of the scoreboard.
To Red's right is a board he invented-baseball diamond layout about 2-feet square, with a toggle switch at each playing position. He sees things director Ralph Giffen cannot see, for Giffen is sitting blind in a control-room trailer on the ground, seeing only what his three or four cameras pick up.
Maybe Red notices that Jackie Robinson, after stealing second, is scuffling back and forth with false starts toward third, doing his best to rattle the pitcher. Red switches on the second-base toggle. A light blinks on Giffen's matching board. Giffen uses an intercom to ask a cameraman for a shot of the action at second. Red describes Jackie's distracting effect on his opponents. All in a matter of seconds.
By 1955, Walter O'Malley has upped his price so high for the rights to broadcast the games that Schaefer invites a co-sponsor to share the expense. Now every other commercial will be for either Schaefer beer or Lucky Strike cigarettes.
Planning the season, we schedule a weeklong shoot in Vero Beach, Fla., during spring training because the production budget now includes reel after reel of film. The Dodgers players will appear in the testimonials for Lucky Strikes but the beer industry forbids them to speak on behalf of Schaefer. No rule, however, says their wives may not appear in Schaefer commercials.
I lug my beat-up Underwood portable to Vero. At their sunny rented homes, I interview Dodger spouses, discovering their hobbies, favorite recipes and special interests. Facing the wall in my motel room, I put together scripts.
We shoot Mrs. Pee Wee Reese telling how, over a Schaefer beer, she and her friends share her scrapbook of her husband's career. Mrs. Gil Hodges, loading picnic gear into the family fishing boat, makes sure plenty of Schaefer is aboard. In her kitchen, Mrs. Preacher Roe cooks up chicken and Spanish rice to serve with Schaefer. Mrs. Jackie Robinson, Mrs. Duke Snider, Mrs. Roy Campanella-through them, I meet their husbands and get an inside look at Dodgers at home, not in uniform.
The ballpark heroes, I find, are just nice guys who are awfully good at playing baseball. There isn't a swelled head in the crowd.
Things change. Preacher Roe retires some time after spring training, and we retire Mrs. Roe's testimonial. Red Barber, sensing the itchy feet of Mr. O'Malley, and swearing he will never move to California, moves to the broadcast booth at Yankee Stadium, and we record a commercial announcer's voice-overs interviewing the Dodger ladies.
Two more years and the Dodgers and their great little ballpark are gone. Today, Ebbets Field, Red Barber and Schaefer beer are but memories to a few people. And not even memories to most.
Bernard Ryan Jr. retired as Senior VP-Public Affairs at the American Association of Advertising Agencies. He has written or ghost-written 26 published books and