PODIUM

Pitch from a fan in the outfield

'You submerged incipient elitism and gloried in the antics of "dem bums”' ’

Rita Christopher August 3 1981
PODIUM

Pitch from a fan in the outfield

'You submerged incipient elitism and gloried in the antics of "dem bums”' ’

Rita Christopher August 3 1981

Pitch from a fan in the outfield

'You submerged incipient elitism and gloried in the antics of "dem bums”' ’

PODIUM

Rita Christopher

My playing days ended way before the courts decreed that girls could join the little league. And so, unaware of the deformity that such blatant sexism could inflict on my subsequent development, I happily played baseball with the neighborhood gang on a pickup team known only as “Our Side.” Our perennial opponents were the “Catholic Kids.” Not, you understand, that this was a replay of the 17th-century religious wars. It was just that the nuns at the local parochial school had made no provisions for physical education. As a result, even with the minimal co-ordination I contributed as a butterfingered outfielder, “Our Side” creamed the “Catholic Kids” nine times out of 10.

When we didn’t play baseball, we watched it on the flick-

ering screen of a black-andwhite TV set as we huddled in basement playrooms, sticky with orange Kool-Aid. (Network programmers gave you little choice in those days.) We listened to honey-throated Mel Allen describe the arc of a home run. While he never gripped the adolescent psyche like the Fonz, Allen, with his bow tie, his bug-eyes and his inexhaustible explanation of the infield fly rule, had quite a following in those days. In a nation that willingly submits to Howard Cosell, it’s hard to believe that the Yankees fired Allen (so it was rumored) because he talked too much.

Allen’s departure was sad,

but real tragedy struck when Walter O’Malley moved the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles—an act that many New Yorkers regarded as traitorous. In this town you were born a Yankee or a Dodger fan, an allegiance you inherited like religion or nationality and one that, save some formal recantation, you could renounce only in death. (New York’s third team, the Giants, had a following thanks to Willie Mays. But they never inspired the same depth of emotion.) Which team you rooted for was more than a matter of baseball. It was a matter of self-image. Yankee fans were, as advertising men might put it, up-scale and upwardly mobile folks. We always figured kids who rooted for the Yankees were incorrigible snobs. To root for the Dodgers, you submerged incipient elitism and gloried in the antics of “dem bums.” Who but a Dodger fan could love Pete Reiser, an outfielder who bashed his head into the wall so often jumping for fly balls that everyone figured his brain had achieved the consistency of cottage cheese?

Even in those days New York baseball petered precariously on the brink of soap opera. But instead of tuning in tomorrow to see if the owners and players had made any progress, we hung on such provocative questions as: “How dumb is Mickey Mantle?” “Can Carl Furillo talk and think at the same time?” “Can Walter Alston mumble more than five words a minute?” There was buoyant hope at the

beginning of every season that this would be the year the Dodgers would win the World Series and wrenching heartbreak as they blew it once again. In an interview after throwing the legendary home-run ball to Bobby Thomson that gave the Giants the pennant in 1951, Ralph Branca admitted he went to confession after the game and forgot his troubles. I have never forgotten. My childhood memories of baseball remain stored for instant retrieval. They are both uniquely mine and part of a shared information system that unites complete strangers in the innocent remembrance of a fly ball on a muggy summer day.

New York without baseball this summer is like a summer without sweat. It just isn’t natural! No less eminent a fan than Yale University President A. Bartlett Giamatti, an avid Boston Red Sox rooter, appeared on Good Morning America to bemoan the current strike. The negotiations are

mentioned nightly on network news in the same lugubrious tones that were used to enumerate the number of days the American hostages spent in Iranian captivity. The impasse, in fact, regularly receives more press coverage than high interest rates and auto industry layoffs. The problem isn’t only that there is no baseball, that desperate television stations have been reduced to running grade Z movies every night, that city streets have fallen strangely silent without the buzz of ball strike counts from passing transistor radios.

The tragedy is that the lustrike has destroyed the care-

fully nurtured notion that baseball has remained a guileless tribute to youthful dreams. Admittedly, the huge sums of money free agents have been pulling down should have signalled, even to diehards, that the game they love has changed radically. The strike strips away whatever illusions remain. The players and owners long ago traded nostalgia for profit-and-loss sheets. Today’s baseball is a game played by lawyers for the benefit of accountants. Ironically, baseball’s crashing loss of innocence comes at a time when nostalgia for less complicated days seems to have gripped the American public.

Didn’t that old sports announcer who broadcast games as “Dutch” Reagan capture us with his vision of a simpler America? Dutch, of course, is learning that simplicity is never so simple. Maybe, to break the tension of dealing with Congress, he really needs time out to take a swing at settling the baseball strike. With his strong feelings about keeping America’s moral defences solid, the president could proclaim a national emergency. That would open the way for a federal judge to order players back on the field for an 80-day cooling-off period. Now that really would be a winning one for the Gipper.

Rita Christopher is a Maclean’s contributing editor in New York.