During the Summer of 2006, a few members of the Cleveland Sports Media were sitting in the Jacobs Field press box, before a midseason Indians game. A friend, and colleague, Justice B. Hill who works for MLB.com told me he was doing an article on the inaugural class of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Without much thought, I started spouting off the names as if they were members of my family. "Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, and Babe Ruth" I said matter of factly. Justice looked taken aback, that I, had so easily listed the players. His eyes grew big with surprise, and he told me that he was very impressed. I may have been more surprised than he was! Those names were ingrained in my head, long before I learned my multiplication tables. Who didn't know of Honus Wagner, the Flying Dutchman, whose huge paws scooped up pebbles as he fielded grounders at shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates? Ty Cobb, maybe one of the most vicious, yet equally talented players to ever take the field. A man who sharpened his spikes before every game in order to intimidate opponents. Christy Mathewson,"Big Six" who along with his manager, John McGraw, made the Giants the first New York powerhouse, back when the Yankees, were known as the Highlanders. Mathewson, a cultured gentleman, back when most ballplayers were known as "hooligans" suffered from the effects of mustard gas back in World War One. He returned from Europe, a shell of his former self, and passed away long before his time. Walter "The Big Train" Johnson, one of the most dominant pitchers of all time, who played for the hapless Senators, when Washington, was "First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League. And of course the man who saved baseball, The Bambino, George Herman "Babe" Ruth, the man who set the standard for the modern sports superstar. A man who did everything on a grander than life size scale, he lived his life obsessed by the three "B's" booze, broads, and baseball. If Ruth played today in the Bronx, his off field exploits would be plastered each day on the back page of the New York tabloids. But not back in the twenties, and thirties, when there was a more simpatico relationship between the press and the players. Ruth literally changed the way the game was played. To put things in perspective, lets look at the game's first power hitter, Frank "Home Run" Baker. Home Run Baker's largest home run production was 12 round trippers!! Ruth eventually hit 60 in one year, five times the amount!!
My Childhood, was filled with reading of the exploits of early baseball players. Rabbit Maranville, the slick fielding shortstop, who might have been the Omar Vizquel of his day. Tris Speaker, the consummate athlete, both at the plate and on the field. Legendary managers, like the Giants' McGraw, a former player who was one of the toughest competitors to ever walk the planet. His polar opposite Connie Mack, who managed and owned the Philadelphia A's, looked like a bank president. Each day he took the field in a formal black business suit and tie, the baseball patrician. Pitchers like Cy Young and Grover Alexander, (who was portrayed on the screen by Ronald Reagan, probably the best piece of acting that Dutch ever did.) The Dean brothers, Dizzy, and Daffy, the "Gashouse Gang" from St. Louis, which featured Tinker, to Evers, to Chance, one of the greatest infields of all time! Guys like Mel Ott, Hank Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx, Rogers Hornsby, and Pie Traynor.
Reading about the color line finally being broken thanks to Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey,and maybe the bravest player to ever lace them up, Jackie Robinson. Robinson, agreeing not to allow the denigrating behavior from Caucasian ballplayers to get under his skin, opened the door for the mass exodus of great African American players to enter the game over the next few decades. Players such as Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, currently the game's leader for most home runs in a career. The starcrossed Roy Campanella, who had the potential to become the most prolific catcher of all time, seeing his career end playing for the Dodgers, when he was crippled in an auto accident.
The New York Yankees could populate an entire wing of the Hall of Fame just by themselves. Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Joe Dimaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Mickey Mantle, just to skim the surface. The Cleveland Indians, with players like Lou Boudreau, Mel Harder, Larry Doby, Al Rosen, and a man I actually have the pleasure of knowing, Mr. Bob Feller. The man from Iowa, pitched his rookie season in the Bigs as a high school junior!! The great Latin players, who started to come to the majors in the fifties. Athletes like Cookie Rojas, Louie Aparaicio, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Perez, Juan Marichal, the flame thrower from the San Francisco Giants, who almost ended Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro's career, when he hit the backstop upside the coconut with a Louisville Slugger.
My first time in a major league ballpark was in 1961. It was a Sunday afternoon doubleheader (yes they actually SCHEDULED doubleheaders back then, believe it or not!) My beloved Boston Red Sox were hosting the Kansas City A's. Neither team was good, the Bo-Sox would end up in sixth place that year in the American League. The A's mired in tenth (yes, one division, ten teams, no playoffs, boy how times have changed!) I didn't care about the standings, I was about to see my heroes, up close and in color, as opposed to the black and white image we saw on TV. I remember like it was yesterday, going into the bowels of the stadium, which reeked of stale beer, tobacco, and peanuts. At first I was disappointed, this dump was Fenway? That feeling vanished within seconds as I left the tunnel and approached the field. At that moment, I would experience for the first time what would occur each and every time I went to the place. Author John Updike,in a quote that has become immortal,put it best, "Fenway Park, is a little lyrical bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus like the inside of an old fashioned Easter Egg." His description was perfect, it literally took my breath away, and still does, when ever I approach the field. I never get that experience in any other ballpark, maybe like with love it's because it was my first.
1967 was the "Summer Of Love" in San Francisco. Bostonians, were on a different kind of high, this one was caused by inhaling horsehide fumes. It was the year of "The Impossible Dream" a song from the play "The Man From La Mancha" a play that was sweeping the country, just like the boys from Fenway were sweeping the Bay State. The Red Sox who had been non-factors in the American League since the early fifties, were battling for the pennant. The same team that had finished one game out of last place the year before, was led by a fiery young manager named Dick Williams, and two players. Jim Lonborg, won over twenty games that season and was the ace of the Boston pitching staff. But the man who carried the club on his shoulders, was the team captain, Carl Yastremski. Yaz as he was universally known around New England, had the single greatest season that I have ever witnessed. He won the league's triple crown, the last player in either league to accomplish it, and was the A.L. MVP. Yaz, along side young players like centerfielder Reggie Smith, second baseman Mike Andrews, and the "Boomer" George Scott, the first baseman who was always looking for "Taters" his euphemism for home runs. This scrappy charismatic team took the region by storm, and made Boston the baseball crazed city that it remains to this day.
The Sox won the pennant clinching on the final day of the campaign against the Minnesota Twins. But they actually had to wait and see if they would advance to "The Show", or would have to play a one game playoff against Detroit. If the Tigers, defeated the California Angels, a showdown would be forced. But the fates were kind to New England, and the Tigers went down to defeat. Boston would take on the St. Louis Cardinals, ironically their opponent the last time they went to the series in 1946. The Sox had lost that battle, leaving them without a World Series championship since 1918. I experienced the type of excitement only an eleven year old seeing his team in contention for the first time could feel. However my elation increased tenfold when my dad, told me that he had tickets for the two of us for Game Six. The next few days were a blur, I wasn't guaranteed to be going to any game. If either St. Louis, or Boston won in five games or less, all I would have was a useless ticket as a memento. But again the fates smiled upon me as the two teams took the field for game six, with my dad, and me, sitting on the first base line. The Sox sent Gary Waslewski to the mound, a journeyman, who was getting his fifteen minutes of fame. Waslewski did not get the victory, but the Sox did, by the score of 8-4 with reliever Johnny Wyatt getting the "W". I was higher than a kite, convinced that my club would win the final game and the series.
In the next 24 hours, my eleven year old heart was broken for the first time. Hall of Fame Legend, Bob Gibson, the nastiest right hander I have ever seen on the mound, was pitching for St.Louis, the Sox went with the guy that brought them to the dance, Jim Lonborg. Unfortunately, Lonborg's magic had started to run out (it vanished completely that winter when he broke his leg in a skiing accident, he was never the same pitcher.) Gibby and his team sent Boston to defeat, and I had to learn about keeping a stiff upper lip, and being a gracious loser. Concepts that were completely foreign to an eleven year old.
Boston would be in contention every year for almost the next decade, but never getting back to the big dance. Instead the American League was dominated first by the Detroit Tigers, who won it all in 1968, with 30 game winner Denny McClain setting the pace. The Orioles were the big boys the next few years, with the the Robinson Boys, Frank, and Brooks, the man who looked like a wall with a face first baseman Boog Powell, and the most dominant pitching staff in the last 40 years. Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson, Dave McNally, and Jim Palmer were a virtual machine mowing down all American League foes in their path. They lost the series, in 1969, to the Miracle Mets. However they won it all the next year, defeating the Cincinnati Reds. Although, I had liked the "Birds" earlier, by the time they went to the series in 1971, I wanted to see them go down to defeat. Pittsburgh Pirates superstar, Roberto Clemente, almost single handily kept me from being disappointed. The most graceful athlete, I have ever seen on a diamond took his club to the promised land, defeating the Orioles in seven games. Unfortunately, Roberto would not grace the planet much longer, dying on a humanitarian aid trip to Nicaragua, his plane crashing on New Years Eve 1973.
Boston had let Dick Williams go as manager, and he resurfaced with the Oakland A's. For the next three years, that team not only dominated the game, but American culture also, as guys like Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter, Blue Moon Odom, Reggie Jackson, and Joe Rudi became household names. But the A.L. East would come back to win the pennant in 1975, as none other than the Boston Red Sox, still led by Captain Carl, but now augmented by young stars like Freddie Lynn, Carlton Fisk, and Rick Burleson brought back "Pennant Fever" to Boston. The Sox took on Cincinnati, and again made it to the seventh game, before losing what many baseball historians call the greatest World Series of all time.
Although I have a different perspective of baseball now then as a child, or even as a young man, I still love the game. Being a member of the Sports Media, I try to remain at least outwardly unbiased. I, have learned first hand that baseball is a business first, and seeing behind the scenes has taken away some of the glamour that I had earlier believed to be there. But, to me it is still the perfect sport. Yes, the NBA is like a video game, where as Baseball is more like a chess match, but don't we have room for both? Yes we have found out recently that some of our so called heroes, have feet of clay, but that has been going on since the days of the Black Sox scandal. The game is bigger, than any one player, or for that matter any one era. In some ways baseball has come a long way between the times of Rabbit Maranville, and Omar Vizquel. In some ways it hasn't changed at all.
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