'I CAN STILL SEE THAT BALL, A WHITE ROCKET CLIMBING HIGH THROUGH THE SMOKY LIGHTING INTO THE BLACK SKY’
'I CAN STILL SEE THAT BALL, A WHITE ROCKET CLIMBING HIGH THROUGH THE SMOKY LIGHTING INTO THE BLACK SKY’
Alone among the big team sports, baseball's all-star game gives fans a partisan element that lasts. And lasts and lasts. What National League fan can forget, for instance, that Carl
Hubbell, with his famous screwball, struck out sluggers Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin—all in a row? Yet that memory is now 57 years old.
This partisanship is what provides so many unforgettable moments in the annual game that this year comes along for the 62nd time on July 9 to Toronto’s SkyDome, the Taj Mahal of downtown parking garages (for $15 you can leave your car in the basement during a game).
In other sports, who remembers anything? Did Wayne Gretzky ever score the winning goal in hockey’s all-star game and, if so, did he play for the Campbell Conference or was it the
Prince of Wales? How about Michael Jordan, the Wayne Gretzky of basketball—did he ever sink a winning basket on the all-star floor? Or Johnny Unitas, the prince of quarterbacks, the Michael Jordan of football—did he ever fling a winning touchdown pass in his all-star game?
But baseball has these two leagues, the American and the National, and they’re as different as Quebec and Ontario. In the American, there’s the designated-hitter rule, the one that keeps the pitcher in the dugout where he belongs and lets a guy go up and hit for him who does not regard a bat as being as loathsome as a coiled boa constrictor.
The National League does not have a DH rule but it has umpires who call a higher strike zone than AL umpires do. That is, chest-high pitches that are called strikes in the National are called balls by AL umpires. This matters. One time in 1984, when Tom Seaver came over to the Chicago White Sox after 17 seasons in the National League, I asked him if it took a while to learn the hitters in this other league (“learn the hitters”—that’s baseballspeak). He looked up from a stool in front of his locker and spoke earnestly. “No, not the hitters, the umpires,” he said.
“I’m still learning the umpires.”
Foul: Speaking of Tom Seaver and memorable moments, there was the all-star game of 1977, when the newly hatched Toronto Blue Jays sent Ron Fairly to Yankee Stadium as their very first allstar representative. Fairly was a stocky fellow with red hair and a calm demeanor who had survived nearly 20 years with the Dodgers and the Montreal Expos and had agreed to put in a year with the Blue Jays as a favor to a friend of his from Dodger days, the Toronto front-office boss, Peter Bavasi.
Fairly took his three young sons, Steve, Mike and Pat, and his wife, Mary, to New York City with him and brought his mother in from California. They were there in the seventh inning when the AL manager, Billy Martin, sent Fairly to the plate as a pinch hitter. The American League was trailing 5-3 and had two runners on the bases.
Fairly was exactly one week past his 39th birthday, but he still had some sock in his bat (he hit a career-high 19 homers for the Blue Jays that summer). So here he is facing Seaver, the incandescent former Mets star (that’s how they get in New York, where the scribes are a trifle enthusiastic), with a chance to deliver the lead run for his new league. The count goes to two balls and two strikes and now Fairly anticipates a fast-
ball, gets a fastball, and drives it deep into the third deck in right field. The mob in the stands comes up yelling and banging hands. I can still see that ball, a white rocket climbing high through the smoky, brilliant lighting into the black sky and now descending and curving towards the yellow foul pole, the people’s mouths wide and their expressions fixed back of the pole, and then the ball twisting past it, just foul. On the next pitch, Fairly struck out. Mighty Casey. Maybe because baseball is slow-paced and is all laid out in full view, enabling tens of thousands of fans to second-guess the manager’s every move instantly, and because it’s a summer game where a person can think a thought while watching, and carry on a conversation, and eat a meal, maybe because of this leisurely ambience people are encouraged to write about it. Ernest Hemingway wrote about it, Marianne Moore wrote about it, H. L. Mencken, James Thurber, Sherwood Anderson,
Atwood wrote about the Blue Jays after they won their first division title in 1985, and Margaret, by her own admission, is no Joe Fan. “If someone had told me 35 years ago,” she wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail, “that I’d be paying any attention to a baseball team of any kind, anywhere, in 1985, I’d have reacted with sullen disbelief. Thirty-five years ago CANAPRESS Jackson at the 1982
THE GAME OF BASEBALL IS REMARKABLE IN ITS RESISTANCE TO CHANGE
when there weren’t enough boys of my brother’s age to go around, younger sisters were coopted. I was one of those. I stood as a rule on third base, where everyone, including me, thought I would do the least harm.”
And the French-born historian, Jacques Barzun, summed up matters succinctly. “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,”
Grunt: Accordingly, almost anyone in the game with something to say is courted by scores of essayists, political pundits and other deep thinkers, far more of them than pursue the heroes of any other sport. Malapropisms, often embellished by imaginative authors, get enormous distribution. Yogi Berra’s one-liners are as famous as the sayings of Chairman Mao:
“This is like déjà vu all over again.” “Nobody eats there anymore, it’s too crowded.”
“It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Red Smith, the former king of sportswriters, once told of Berra leaving Toots Shor’s restaurant in New York, where Shor was dining with Hemingway. Shor introduced them. Near the door, a baseball scribe named Tom Meany stopped Yogi as he was leaving.
“So now you’ve met Papa Hemingway,” Tom said.
“What did you think of him?”
“Quite a fella,” Yogi said.
“What does he do?”
‘‘He’s a writer,” said Meany.
“Yeah?” said Yogi. “What paper?”
I’m not sure how many of -
Yogi’s lines belong to him or to someone like his boyhood sidekick, the announcer Joe Garagiola, who has been known to try out his own stuff by attributing it to Yogi. I do know that when Yogi used to arrive at Toronto’s old Exhibition Stadium as a coach with the Yankees, I’d stand near him as he batted ground balls to infielders in pregame practice and ask him questions I hoped would ignite his celebrated philosophy. But all Yogi ever did was grunt or burp and impassively bat ground ball after ground ball towards second base. Maybe they were lousy questions.
A remarkable thing about baseball is its resistance to change—the National League’s reluctance to accept the DH rule, for instance,
the only league in all of organized ball without it. Sometimes the game even resists truth. Documentation has been produced many times that Abner Doubleday did not invent the game, nor was it invented in Cooperstown, N.Y. Among the debunkers was the respected American Heritage magazine in June, 1983. Doubleday and Cooperstown, as the father and
birthplace of baseball, “is a double-barreled historical falsehood,” wrote author Victor Salvatore in a piece titled “The man who didn’t invent baseball.”
Bonhomie: Salvatore wrote that organized baseball committed itself to the Doubleday myth during the Great Depression doldrums when it accepted the offer of a Cooperstown booster, Stephen Clark, to build a baseball museum in the upstate New York town and decided to stage a baseball centennial in 1939.
“Doubleday left 67 diaries—not one of them mentions baseball,” Salvatore wrote. Indeed, in 1839, the future U.S. Civil War general “was a cadet at West Point and had been since Sept. 1,1838.” The real promoter of the Doubleday
myth was Albert G. Spalding, the sportinggoods magnate who in 1903 declared that the game was purely American and owed nothing to English rounders and cricket, from which it likely evolved.
Baseball’s showcase, next to the World Series, is the all-star game. As a sports scribe, I got to four of them—1977 in New York, 1981 in Cleveland, 1982 in Montreal and 1985 in Minneapolis—and for me the most memorable was Montreal’s, at a time when baseball interest was soaring there, so different from today.
Nearly 60,000 people turned up in Olympic Stadium for the 53rd all-star game, the first time it had been staged outside the United
States. Earlier, in the afternoon, the long lobby of the Bonaventure Hilton Hotel, where the teams stayed, was dense hour after hour with fans seeking a glimpse of a ball player, any ball player. The sense of excitement and bonhomie was remindful of political conventions, people straining to see people, rushing to surround a famous face, hot television lights suddenly illuminating a milling comer, shining for a moment, then popping up moments later in another corner.
Everyone wanted autographs and the players were resigned to the ritual. All except Reggie Jackson. When anyone shuffled paper under Reggie’s nose, Reggie shook his head. “No, I’ll shake your hand,” he’d say. And he did, scores
upon scores of times. “Autographs are meaningless,” Reggie said. “When you shake hands, you can make eye contact. That’s meaningful.”
The star that day, though, was not a ball player—it was Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The Prime Minister welcomed the players at a luncheon. He said he was a fan from way back. “My dad was a vice-president of the Royals in the old International League when I was a boy growing up in Montreal,” he said. “So I saw lots of ball games.”
He added that his father would be glad if he could see him now amidst all these famous people, though of course making a great deal less money than they. He said Canada’s principal exports to the United States were hockey players and cold fronts. He said Canada’s bestknown imports from the United States were baseball players and acid rain. He said baseball was a test of excellence and that color was secondary. In this, baseball had given the world a lesson in tolerance and humanity.
Venom: An illustration of the message had been forthcoming in New York five years earlier on the 30th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s arrival in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. The major leagues’ first black player had put in a season in Montreal with the Royals in 1946. In 1977, the game in Yankee Stadium was dedicated to his memory.
At the inevitable luncheon, the then commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, introduced some of Robinson’s old Brooklyn teammates and Robinson’s serene and slender widow, Rachel, who had launched a Jackie Robinson Foundation to help youngsters in minority races in educational and recreational pursuits.
Then Kuhn presented Pee Wee Reese, the white kid from Kentucky who had thrown his arm across Robinson’s shoulders at a time in 1947 when rival benches—and many of his own teammates—were ripping Robinson with terrible invective and threatening to cut him to
ribbons if “the damn nigger” and the “s.o.b. watermelon eater” wasn’t tossed out of baseball.
Pee Wee, lean and fit-looking in a green sports coat, said that he didn’t think he’d done all that much to help Jackie. “When I started to
appreciate him,” Pee Wee said, “was one day when I put myself in his shoes and tried to imagine being the only white guy in an established black league surrounded by black fans and customs, and I realized I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
As Reese was sitting down, the commission-
er introduced the former great Dodger catcher, the permanently crippled victim of an automobile crash, Roy Campanella. As I remember it, it was about then that the usually contrived sentimentality of these affairs began to give way to the real thing, to a lump in the throat, to a little chill along the spine.
Because with Campanella a cripple in a wheelchair, the microphone had to be moved from Kuhn’s stand-up six foot, four inches along the dais to a little Campy sitting maybe four feet high, wearing a black moustache and a brightly checkered sports jacket and mentioning that in the hospital he’d been lying on his stomach for many months and now it felt nice to be sitting again.
Then Campy said: “Oh, Pee Wee, you don’t know how much you did. You did so much, Pee Wee. Gee, you may not realize what it meant....”
Along the table, a dozen
0 people away, Pee Wee was
1 sitting with his chin tucked í into his palm, just staring at S the white tablecloth, and it 5 seemed that he was thinking ^ of those days on the Dodgers
when Robinson was climbing above the slurs and the venom and the spikes, and Pee Wee reached up not once but three times as Campy talked so quietly, and what Pee Wee was doing was taking the tears with his forefinger, not moving his chin from out of his palm.
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