At a party over the Fourth of July weekend, a friend of ours–who is nine years old–was entertaining us by aping the deliveries of a few notable pitchers. The identifiable characteristics of the pitching motions were all there–Dwight Gooden with his straight, over-the-top movement, Mike Bielecki with his low delivery and his lunge toward home plate–so that any committed baseball follower could have picked them out in a second even if our friend hadn’t announced each one beforehand. In fact, when he said, “This is that guy, that relief pitcher for–I think–the Braves,” and he turned his back to us, and came sidearm with a phantom pitch, we knew right away it was Gene Garber (if not Louis Tiant, but that would date us, and besides he never pitched for Atlanta). And when he did Mitch Williams, falling off the mound (“I pitch like my hair’s on fire,” Williams has said in a famous quote), it prompted us to stand up ourself, saying, “You know who else pitched like that”–at which point we did a slow-motion Bob Gibson, pumping, kicking (glove pointed down, ball curled in right hand, left leg relaxed in the stride, shoulder high and shadowing our face–just as in that old Sports Illustrated subscription fly card), and then lunging in the direction of first base, left arm out in the manner of a CTA straphanger who has somehow missed the strap. And the kid looked on as if he wondered what the hell it was we were doing.
Boys–and, we imagine, girls these days–have an immense capacity for the minutiae of the game of baseball–from statistics to the slightest physical gestures and facial tics. The game is so centered on the individual–from moment to moment–and our focus so intent on the players as they appear in the spotlight, that everything from Ernie Banks’s finger-twitching to Bob Dernier’s compulsive glove-tightening registers. Young fans–not yet distracted by other pressing concerns–absorb even more; there are friendly neighborhood contests to see who does what pitcher better, what batter more correctly–in effect, who has seen the most detail or most succeeded in putting him- or herself in the place of a major-league player. Another friend of ours–a contemporary–tells of such contests taking place in a college dormitory, semiadults standing around going, “Who’s this?” And then striking a pose, twitching the fingers, going into a pitcher’s motion. This is the sort of detail baseball fans–and especially young baseball fans–are continually filing away, perhaps for later use, more likely for personal satisfaction. Eventually, it becomes a part of the fan’s very personality.
‘Llow an old-timer to tell a partic’ly tragic tale, which I mought’ve told afore–it’s getting so I can’t rec’lect so well. My family moved to the suburbs of Chicago from Maryland and, before that, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, in late 1967. I discovered sports about the same time, and my discomfort with Chicago was reflected in a persistent attachment to the Baltimore Orioles and the Baltimore Colts. An avowed American League fan, I nevertheless rejected the White Sox when they lost the first several games of 1968. (The young fan is avid to the point of obsession, and for that reason may not be particularly loyal.) Then, in early 1969, the Colts lost the Super Bowl to the New York Jets, opening the door for the Chicago teams. Later that year, I sold myself to the Cubs in the way only young fans can; anyone may say what he or she desires about those Cubs–as far as criticizing their depth, their lack of a bull pen, the deficiencies of Don Kessinger as a leadoff hitter, Ron Santo’s funkish slumps–but they were a team of characters a young fan could grow attached to. What joy they brought me! There was something almost haunting in their failure to finish first, year after year. It was as if they were writing a new chapter to Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces–the story of the band of warriors who, despite their trials, their suffering, still were never allowed the prize. Imagine an Odyssey in which Odysseus is killed at the end: what a dreary, realistic tale. That was the story of the Cubs. As for 1969, first the Cubs faded against the New York Mets–a crushing blow–and then not even the Orioles could uphold the honor of one displaced Chicago baseball fan. They lost to the Mets in the World Series in a mere five games. People often forget how important the game and its players become to young fans; that year warped my personality forever.
We went out to Comiskey Park last Sunday, where the ’69 Cubs were reunited in an old-timers game against the South Side Hit Men, the White Sox team of 1977. The ’77 Sox were a delight to watch, but they didn’t have the same effect on us as the Cubs had. Bill Veeck had just saved the Sox from Seattle or some such place, and he had revitalized the franchise, making Comiskey a gloriously goofy place to come out to. We remember going out with a high-school friend on Music Night (all fans holding musical instruments get in for half price) equipped with a harmonica we would never learn to play, our friend–who was an intellectual, rebellious sort–brandishing a comb and a piece of paper, and we bought tickets just before the game that put us in the third row behind home plate. Veeck held down the team’s payroll by the revolutionary technique of bringing in would-be free agents in the final year of their contracts. The ’77 Sox won 90 games, held first place into August, and set a franchise record for home runs, but they were never really threats to win the division. And Veeck’s emphasis on holding down salaries made them a sort of shifty bunch; from 1977 to 1978, only four of the nine offensive starters remained to hold their positions on the team, and the ’78 Sox finished in fifth.
This point was pounded home during the introductions last Sunday. The ’77 Sox seemed pleasantly surprised to be seeing one another again, but the ’69 Cubs were delighted, like brothers at a family reunion, slapping one another on the back, taking one another aside for the retelling of old tales. That Cubs team was together a long time–too long, many people said–and like a family they tended to allow their problems to fester, from year to year, until they were too great to be easily treated. The Cubs, also, were looking a little old, a little gray. They all remained in pretty good shape (it was the White Sox’ Carlos May, Lamar Johnson, Jim Spencer, and Wilbur Wood who didn’t grow up but out), but they were gray around the temples, rusty in their movements. Ferguson Jenkins’s kick wasn’t as fluid as before, and his arm rose rigidly behind him to deliver the baseball so that he appeared to be imitating not himself but Johnny Unitas. (“Save it, Fergie,” Glenn Beckert had yelled as Jenkins threw hard fastballs in batting practice.) When Billy Williams hit a home run off Bart Johnson in the first inning of the exhibition game–not far from where he had homered off Hoyt Wilhelm in the 1983 old-timers game during the All-Star festivities–the pages of history began flapping backward and forward, and we fell to musing.
All in all, it was a much more pleasant experience than our last encounter with old-timers–last year’s semitragic appearance by Britt Burns. We were genuinely delighted to see the old Cubs back on the field, and their being really old–not, like Burns, cut down by physical problems in the middle of a career–helped, no doubt about it. To see the old gestures–Santo with his one-handed practice swing toward the pitcher, Williams with the smooth uncoiling of his arms and body, Kessinger making a throw from deep in the hole at shortstop–no matter how rusty, was enough. The Cubs took a 2-0 lead, then blew it by allowing a six-run third; and there was something comforting even in that, a testimony that nature is undying and persistent and overcomes all, even talent and desire.
There are dangers to old-timers games. We were thinking, specifically, of our young friend, with his eye for detail. What are the ’69 Cubs to him? Just another in the long line of testimonies to the natural-born ineptitude of the franchise. When Beckert fielded a slow roller and then overthrew first base (!), we smiled through a grimace because we remembered what a smooth fielder he had been and what range he had to his left. For anyone not familiar with Beckert in his prime, however, there would be no smile, just a grimace. About the time those ’69 Cubs were in their prime, Lou Boudreau played in an old-timers game. What a fat old bozo he was: he fielded ground balls the way he spoke English. When we went back, a few years ago, and looked up Boudreau’s numbers to see just what he had done to deserve a place in the Hall of Fame, we were astounded. There’s something sad in having such a poor mental picture as the only keepsake of a player who was obviously one of the greats. Attendance at old-timers games, therefore, should be limited to people familiar with the stars in their primes–although there should be some small comfort in taking our child to another one, a few years down the road, and watching Billy Williams put another one in the right-field seats. Perhaps we’ll even point out how he used to spit and hit it with a practice swing while coming to the plate–and he’ll do just that.
Comiskey Park is a lovely place to spend time these days. The mood is calm; the ratio of families to fans is much higher than it is at Wrigley. The old-timers motif was continued as Richard Dotson took the mound for the White Sox in the real game that afternoon. Newly returned after being cast off by the Yankees, the 30-year-old Dotson is a bit plumper than before. His kick is no longer as high or as brisk. He showed an excellent fastball, however, which set up his change-up just as it had in the gloried past, as in the 1983 season when he won 22 games and the Sox finished in first place by about the same amount. He shut the Milwaukee Brewers down, taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning and combining with Bobby Thigpen on a shutout victory. There was something there for everybody: for the Sox fans who remember 1983 and for those so young that even that recent past is unreachable.