I grew up in Greenville, Ohio, a thriving metropolis of 14,000, and spent many a hot summer night listening to the Cincinnati Reds games which featured Joe Nuxhall, Waite Hoyt, Ken Coleman, Marty Brenneman and even Wes Parker and Al Michaels. However, on nights the Reds didn’t play, I tuned in to Detroit radio station WJR (which didn’t come in as good as “The Big One- WLW” – the most powerful radio station in the Midwest – it was always rumored that they boosted their wattage beyond what the FCC allowed) and listened to the Voice of the Tigers Ernie Harwell.
Ernie Harwell was cut from the same mold as Vin Scully. Just as there will never be another Vin, there will never be another Ernie Harwell. I will never forget those word pictures painted on hot summer nights by Mr. Harwell and the stories he made come alive in my mind. Willie Horton, Gates Brown, Al Kaline, Don Wert, Norm Cash, Mickey Lolich, Bill Freehan, Denny McClain, Jim Bunning and Dick McAuliffe were all heroes in my young mind.
It’s the big league pitcher who sings in nightclubs. And the Hollywood singer who pitches to the Giants in spring training.
A tall, thin man waving a scorecard from his dugout-that’s baseball. So is the big, fat guy with a bulbous nose running out one of his 714 home runs with mincing steps.
It’s America, this baseball. A reissued newsereel of boyhood dreams. Dreams lost somewhere between boy and man. It’s the Bronx cheers and the Baltimore farewell. The left field screen in Boston, the right field dump at Nashville’s Sulphur Dell, the open stands in San Francisco, the dusty, wind-swept diamond at Alberquerque. And a rock home plate and a chicken wire backstop-anywhere.
There’s a man in Mobile who remembers a triple he saw Honus Wagner hit in Pittsburg forty-six years ago. That’s baseball. So is the scout reporting that a sixteen year-old sandlot pitcher in Cheyenne is the “new Walter Johnson.”
It’s a wizened little man shouting insults from the safety of his bleacher seat. And a big, smiling first baseman playfully tousling the hair of a youngster outside the players’ gate.
Baseball is a spirited race of man against man, reflex agaisnt reflex. A game of inches. Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered-or booed. And then becomes a statistic.
In baseball, democracy shines its clearest. Here the only race that matters is the race to the bag. The creed is the rulebook. Color is something to distinguish one team’s uniform from another.
Baseball is Sir Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin, asking his Brooklyn hosts to explain Dodger signals. It’s player Moe Berg speaking seven languages and working crossword puzzles in Sanskrit. It’s a scramble in the box seats for a foul-and a $125 suit ruined. A man barking into a hot microphone about a cool beer, that’s baseball. So is the sportswriter telling a .383 hitter how to stride, and a 20-victory pitcher trying to write his impressions of the World Series.
Baseball is a ballet without music. Drama without words. A carnival without kewpie dolls.
A housewife in California wouldn’t tell you the color of her husband’s eyes, but she knows that Yogi Berra is hitting .337, has brown eyes, and used to love to eat bananas and mustard. That’s baseball. So is the bright sanctity of Cooperstown’s Hall of Fame. And the former big leaguer, who is playing out the string in a Class B loop.
Baseball is continuity. Pitch to pitch. Inning to inning. Game to game. Series to series. Season to season.
It’s rain, rain, rain spattering on a puddled tarpaulin as thousands sit in damp disappointment. And the click of typewriters and telagraph keys in the press box-like so many awakened crickets. Baeball is a cocky batboy. The old timer whose batting average increases every time he tells it. A lady celebrating a home run rally by mauling her husband with a rolled up scorecard.
Baseball is the cool, clear eyes of Rogers Hornsby, the flashing spikes of Ty Cobb, an overaged pixie named Rabbit Maranville, and Jackie Robinson testifying before a congressional hearing.
Baseball? It’s just a game-as simple as a ball and a bat. Yet as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. It’s a sport, business-and sometimes even religion.
Baseball is Tradition in flannel knickerbockers. And Chagrin in being picked off first base. It is Dignity in the blue serge of an umpire running the game by rule of thumb. It is Humor, holding its sides when an errant puppy eludes two groundskeepers and the fastest outfielder. And Pathos, dragging itself off the field after being knocked from the box.
Nicknames are baseball. Names like Zeke and Pie and Kiki and Home Run and Cracker and Dizzy and Daffy.
Baseball is a sweaty, steaming dressing room where hopes and feelings are as naked as the men themselves. It’s a dugout with spike-scarred flooring. And shadows across an empty ballpark. It’s the endless of names in box scores, abbreviated almost beyond recognition.
The holdout is baseball. He wants 55 grand or he won’t turn a muscle. But it’s also the youngster who hitchhikes from South Dakota to Florida just for a tryout.
Arguments, Casey at the Bat, old cigarette cards, photographs, Take Me Out to the Ball Game-all of them are baseball.
Baseball is a rookie-his experience no bigger than the lump in his throat-trying to begin fulfillment of a dream. It’s a veteran too-a tired old man of thirty-five, hoping his aching muscles can drag him through another sweltering August and September.
For nine innings, baseball is the story of David and Goliath, of Samson, Cinderella, Paul Bunyan, Homer’s Iliad and the Count of Monte Cristo.
Willie Mays making a brilliant World Series catch. And then going home to Harlem to play stickball in the street with his teenage pals-that’s baseball. So is the voice of a doomed Lou Gehrig saying, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
Baseball is cigar smoke, roasted peanuts, the Sporting News, winter trades, “Down in front”, and the seventh-inning stretch. Sore arms, broken bats, a no-hitter, and the strains of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Baseball is a highly paid Brooklyn catcher telling the nation’s business leaders: “You have to be a man to be a big leaguer, but you have to have a lot of little boy in you too.”
This is a game for America, this baseball!
A game for boys and men.