The National Pastime just isn’t what it used to be
BY R.L. SCHREADLEY
“Where are the snows of yesteryear?
I didn’t see them disappear. ...
Where did they go? Nobody knows.
How did the time go by?”
— from the Broadway musical “I Do! I Do!” by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones.
January’s unusually warm spell this year is playing tricks with the calendar and Mother Nature. Pine pollen is painting cars left parked outdoors. Tulip trees are blooming. Golf course fairways are greening. Spring is still two months away. What’s going on?
I’ll tell you one thing that’s going on. Old men are dreaming about — what else? — baseball. The new season will be here before you know it. Gnarled, arthritic hands are being forced into antique ball gloves that have been squirreled away for years in closets cluttered with other sports relics of imagined triumph on now-vanished fields of play. Old hearts are pumping new blood. Half-forgotten times are returning with a vengeance. For a little while.
Ultimately, however, the ball gloves and the dreams will be returned to the closet, for perhaps the last time. So many memories. So many years.
One of baseball’s greats, one of its few surviving real ones, died last Saturday at the age of 92. Others have eulogized Stan Musial, some who saw him play in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, and some who knew of his remarkable career and life only by hearsay. (Cal Thomas wrote a particularly fine piece that was published on this page Tuesday.)
I saw Musial play at New York’s old Polo Grounds, home of the National League Giants before they abandoned ship and moved west to San Francisco.
The Polo Grounds’ short right-field porch (246 feet or thereabouts) was an ever-tempting target for left-handed hitters like Musial and the Giants’ Mel Ott.
Both had unconventional stances at the plate. Musial coiled his body like a tightly wound spring. Ott lifted his right foot and gave a little kick toward the mound when he swung at a pitch.
Even from the bleachers you could pick out these departures from the orthodox science of hitting a baseball. Both Musial and Ott hit a lot of balls out of the park. Fortunately, no batting coach ever got them to change the way they did it.
I also saw Musial play against the Philadelphia Phillies at Shibe Park, and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field (both ends of the Pennsylvania Turnpike). For some reason or other I never saw him play at the Dodgers’ Ebbets Field, where he had some of his greatest moments. He spent his entire major league career with the St. Louis Cardinals. In the early ’60s the Cardinals did their spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla. I saw him in uniform there, as well.
Looking back, a number of baseball greats were contemporaries of Musial, for at least some of his active years in the National League — Jolting Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, maybe a half dozen others. At Yankee Stadium, “The House that Ruth Built,” the beautiful one with the bronze facades, I saw DiMaggio set a record for most catches in center field.
Even in his last years, he had that graceful, unforgettable lope chasing down a fly ball. No wonder Marilyn Monroe married him.
At Boston’s Fenway Park I saw what I think was Ted Williams’ last home run. The Splendid Splinter is now frozen in a cryogenic jar somewhere.
Who knows? Some day, thawed out and resurrected, he might make a comeback. If anyone could, Ted Williams could.
If he did, though, he probably would not think much of what the game has become today.
And what has it become? It’s no longer the national pastime that it was when I was growing up, when I could name the starting lineups of the Yankees, Phillies, Athletics, Cards and Red Sox. When I had a picture of a favorite player or two thumb-tacked to my bedroom wall.
When I loved the feel and the smell of a new glove or a new ball. When I collected Louisville Sluggers bearing the names of my boyhood heroes. One of those heroes was Stan “The Man” Musial.
Where have all the heroes of the game gone?
There are so few today a small boy or an old man can look up to. I put a lot of blame for this on that great leveler, television. There is so much money in professional sports today thanks to television, so much pressure on players to rake it in, so much secret juicing, so much temptation.
Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets.
Oh, the old greats, some of them, were not squeaky clean. But I think most of them were. I think they played the game the way it was meant to be played. Today, I’m not so sure that still holds true.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.