October 23, 2004

IF ONLY JACK BUCK WERE CALLING THIS ONE... (via M. Ali Choudhury):

'I've waited for this moment for 50 years': A sublime pleasure, a stately game . . . Bill Bryson has loved baseball since childhood. Now his team, the Boston Red Sox, are in the World Series, starting tonight. Better still, he has a ticket (Bill Bryson, 10/23/04, Times of London)

Like most people brought up in the 1950s or before, I was taught to regard baseball as the pinnacle of human contrivance, a game in which every distance has been perfectly (one might almost suppose divinely) calibrated to provide a constant, unimprovable balance between pitcher and batter, fielder and runner, offence and defence. Uniquely among American team sports, baseball has no clock, and thus no conspicuous urgency. So baseball is elegant and intelligent and composed. And the games are played nearly always on exquisitely groomed lawns in stadiums of colossal beauty in the open air on warm summer evenings when the world seems nearly perfect anyway. Watching baseball is one of life’s sublimest pleasures, and once upon a time virtually everyone in America knew it.

In those days, baseball dominated the American sporting psyche in a way that can scarcely be imagined now. Professional football and basketball existed and were followed, but essentially as minor spectacles that helped to pass the colder months until the baseball season resumed. The Super Bowl was years from its invention. The only sporting event that gripped the nation — the one time in the year when even your Mom knew what was going on in the sporting world — was the World Series, the patently over-named (but we don’t care) annual showdown between the top teams in professional baseball’s two leagues, the American and National.

My father was a sportswriter for the Des Moines Register, a newspaper in Iowa, and every year for 35 years, from the 1940s to the 1970s, he got to go to the World Series. It was, by an immeasurably wide margin, the high point of his working year. Not only did he get to live it up for two weeks on expenses in some of the nation’s most cosmopolitan and exciting cities — and from Des Moines all cities are cosmopolitan and exciting — but he also got to witness many of the most memorable moments of baseball history: Al Gionfriddo’s miraculous one-handed catch of a Joe DiMaggio line drive in 1947, Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956, Bill Mazeroski’s series-winning homer of 1960. These mean nothing to you, I know — they would mean nothing to most people these days — but they were moments of near ecstasy that were shared by a nation.

In those days, World Series games were played during the day, so you had to bunk off school or develop a convenient chest infection (“Jeez, Mom, the teacher said there’s a lot of TB going around”) if you wanted to see a game.

Crowds would lingeringly gather wherever a TV was on display. Getting to watch any part of a World Series game, even half an inning at lunchtime, became a kind of illicit thrill. And if you did happen to be there when something monumental occurred, you would remember it for the rest of your life.

Now World Series games are played in the evening when everyone can watch them, but comparatively few do. Almost five times as many people watch the Super Bowl each year as watch any game of the World Series. Even the Super Bowl post-game show — a fiesta of exuberant inarticulacy — attracts 30 million viewers more than the final, climactic game of the World Series. So if something really big happens in a World Series game, it will never be a universally shared experience again.

My father disdained football and once memorably described it as a game played and watched by people for whom the invention of Velcro fastenings was a godsend.


Swine, baseball, unique among sports, is best enjoyed on the radio. The kids, who don't get to stay up for the games yet, were stunned this week when I told them that games used to start while we were still in school and you'd have every boy in class trying to hide the transistor radio in his desk at the pink earpiece snaking out of it. There's a special place in Heaven for the teachers who ignored the obvious and seat at His right hand for the ones who brought their own radio to class.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 23, 2004 3:50 PM
Comments

In the late '60s early 70's, Teachers in Hawthorne, NV (then appx. 4500 population) put televisions in the classroom and allowed us to watch the games during class. Looking back I find this absolutely amazing, and I am certain kids don't believe me when I tell them about it. Now they only get Farenheit 9/11.

Posted by: Pat H at October 23, 2004 4:09 PM

With an exception for the World Series games, my 14 year-old is not allowed any video on school nights. This forces him to listen to games on the radio the way I was forced to listen to the hated Dodgers' Vin Scully when I was a kid in Phoenix, home of the Giants' farm team. I secretly admired Scully's total surgical ease with our language and the game of baseball. My son gets to hear the great Jon Miller, best announcer in baseball, while pouting about the injustice of my arbitrary decrees. Yes, baseball was made for radio.

Posted by: JimGooding at October 23, 2004 4:11 PM

Jim:

we used to be able to pick up Miller when he did O's games--he's awesome.

Posted by: oj at October 23, 2004 4:15 PM

OJ: we finally agree on something having to do with baseball! Miller even has a perfect though unpretentious pronunciation of Spanish names and phrases. Though the Giants have played only six meaningless games in the last seven years, their greatest move was getting Miller to help out with many of their TV games.

Posted by: JimGooding at October 23, 2004 4:21 PM

Of course Miller has the advantage over Scully because of steroidal throat sprays.

Posted by: oj at October 23, 2004 4:23 PM

OJ: no doubt, Miller gets an asterisk

Posted by: JimGooding at October 23, 2004 4:34 PM

OJ, who ya pickin tonite?

Posted by: AllenS at October 23, 2004 4:36 PM

Allen:

I don't think there any knucklers other than Steve Sparks in the NL these days, so Wakefied can not just win but really screw them up for a few days if he's on.

Posted by: oj at October 23, 2004 4:43 PM

oj: A nicely Senatorial reply, dodging the question and leaving a huge 'if' for the very end.

Posted by: brian at October 23, 2004 4:53 PM

By the way, Bill Bryson has written a number of extremely funny books about his travels in Europe, England, the U.S., and Australia. There are some moments of snooty leftism, but I highly recommend him nonetheless.

Posted by: PapayaSF at October 23, 2004 5:17 PM

brian:

betting on baseball is a sucker's game.

Posted by: oj at October 23, 2004 5:20 PM

Mr. Judd--

If, as there surely is, there is "a special place in Heaven for the teachers who ignored the obvious," are you not risking your immortal soul by not letting the kids stay up for the games yet? For both your sake and theirs, please let them watch the games.

Posted by: John Thacker at October 23, 2004 5:40 PM

John:

School's a waste of time, sleep vital.

Posted by: oj at October 23, 2004 6:09 PM

Seems to me that the inability for the kids to watch playoff baseball is a pretty major drawback to the time zone rule.

Posted by: brian at October 23, 2004 6:47 PM

In '95, when the Mariners were on their amazing late-season tear, I was in Jr. High. Games started after school, and as soon as they did, they went on over the intercom.

Posted by: Timothy at October 23, 2004 10:59 PM

The high mound and advent of the larger size-stadiums that created low-scoring games of the mid-1960s contributed to the advent of the night game problem, since the "experiment" with one game of the 1971 World Series, since it was an attempt to stem the tide of declining ratings for the afternoon Series games (even though the mound had been dropped back down in 1969, leading to an increase in scoring). But it wasn't until MLB took the baseball contract away from NBC exclusively and split it between that netowrk and ABC that the night playoff game glut ensued (along with ABC's placement of Howard Cosell on it's playoff and World Series broadcasts, Roone Arledge's version of the Black Sox scandal).

Posted by: John at October 24, 2004 9:37 AM

Those transistor radios were a godsend, all right. And I agree, as well, that there is a special place in Heaven for those teachers--in my case, nuns--who ignored all the kids with wires snaked up under their shirts. But there's an exceptional place reserved for the nun who would ask, in a whispered voice as she wandered the aisles between the desks, "What's the score?"

But then, as now, politics kept interfering, though then is was Ike v. Stevenson.

Posted by: John at October 24, 2004 1:58 PM
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