Gil Hodges was the first to go. Then Jackie Robinson. Next after our brief remission from death, Billy Cox. And suddenly there stood a journalist asking Pee Wee Reese, ''How does it feel to be the last person alive from the great Brooklyn Dodger infield?''
I gasped. I was not the one who asked that wicked question. Reese stood his ground and said, in the full flower of his poise: ''I don't think about things that way. If I did, I might go crazy.''
Carl Furillo's death commands such memories to mind. Even as it does I cannot believe Carl Furillo is dead. He was so skilled, so handsome and so strong, I thought he'd be throwing out base runners, some smart, some dumb, until he passed his 100th birthday. Furillo was granted 66 birthdays, that was enough time to brighten life for everyone who took the time to know him.
Quite simply, he was a great player. Some write about his arm, the human cannon. He was not the man you'd first ask to join you in a casual game of catch. Or how he played the right-field wall at Ebbets Field. That wall, a mystery of dead spots, bounces, angles and planes, was a wonder of baseball before the dream-destroyers wrecked it. Furillo never attended high school. Plane geometry remained a mystery to him. But he knew every angle, every carom. The way Furillo played the wall describes an art form.
Carl Erskine says he was a ''Bible hitter.'' First pitch, anywhere, in the dirt or at the eyes, Furillo took his mighty swing. Why was he, then, a Bible hitter? Erskine says, ''Thou shalt not pass.'' (Numbers 20.) Furillo gathered 1,910 hits in 15 major league years. He pulled the ball sometimes, or went to right. No one ever banged a baseball harder up the middle. If Furillo ever misjudged a fly I never saw it.
In the whispering rush of memory I hear my father saying: ''We'll go out to the ball park early, son. They have a feller who can throw.'' And so the Dodgers did. A young center fielder. Others came out, thousands of others, long before formal competition started, to watch the warm-up throws. You could hear gasps at Ebbets Field and sometimes, an hour before game time, bursts of applause.
The Dodgers moved Furillo into right field, making him yield center to the exuberant grace of Duke Snider. Where a dandelion could not grow - right field in Brooklyn -Furillo flowered.
George (Shotgun) Shuba said last week that when Billy Herman would hit fungos in warm-up, he would tell Herman, ''You better hit to left field first. I'm not going to throw after that guy.''
Doing a retrospective radio program with Roy Campanella I said, ''Campy, how did you like that throw off wet grass?''
Campanella remembered certain moist nights. ''You know,'' he said, ''I had to go to Carl one time and tell him: 'Please bounce the ball closer to first base. No one in the world can handle that one-hopper the way you're giving it to me.' ''
So there was, I suppose, an element of awe. Beyond that, there stood an extraordinary person. I knew Furillo for 37 years. I do not believe he was capable of telling a lie.
Early on he had a hard time accepting the integration of baseball. He grew up in all-white country and was never schooled beyond the eighth grade. But Furillo changed and grew, a quiet man learning from his times. In 1953, the Dodgers added Jim Gilliam to the roster and a few players complained about another black in an ugly way. I wrote a story using no names, and Buzzy Bavasi, running the Brooklyn Dodgers, said, ''Who talked to you?'' ''We don't work that way, Buzzy.'' ''I'll find out,'' Bavasi said.
By this point Furillo was warming up each night by playing catch with Campanella. He had surpassed his boyhood and grown color-blind.
Into the clubhouse I went and Furillo called me over. ''That stuff was years ago,'' he said. ''I was wrong. I got nothing against the colored playing ball.''
''I didn't write that you had anything against the colored.'' ''Bavasi says you did.'' ''Carl, I swear I never wrote that. I'll show you the story.''
''You don't have to swear and you don't have to show me the story, just giving me your word is good enough.'' Such seems to be the stuff of friendship, even love. Long afterward, a career later, he mentioned that he was afflicted by chronic leukemia. ''Some of the tests are bad,'' he said, ''but you know I never made real money playing ball. So what can I do? I always worked. I got to work.''
When I last saw this elegant gentleman, he was putting in four nights a week as a night watchman, fighting off leukemia and not complaining. Hell, Carl said, we all have to work, even writers.
In 1987, I lost a gifted son to heroin. Roger Laurence Kahn had just passed his 22d birthday. The telephone rang a few days later and the caller said: ''This is Pee Wee. You remember I was captain of the team.'' I do remember. ''I just want to say,'' Reese said, ''for all the fellers that we are very, very sorry.''
Our turns come and go. I mean only to say, for all the fellers, Carl, may you walk in green pastures.