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Distant Heroes

I remember when the spitball was legal and when Three Finger Mordecai Brown had five fingers and when the 1929 Seals had a club that could have beaten most of the majors and when the White Sox wore socks that were really white except when they turned black in 1919 and a little urchin looked up at Shoeless Joe Jackson, accused of taking a bribe, and allegedly whinnied, "Say it ain't so, Joe," and…

Well, never mind. I'm not parading my age and devotion, I'm simply establishing my bona fides as a long-time follower and admirer of the great old game of inches, baseball.

This requires a certain nuttiness. And to be a nut about baseball you have to be an old nut, for baseball is an old man's game, even when the old man is young. Put a kid in a monkey suit and he immediately becomes an ancient, adopting a grave and sober mien, chewing reflectively on his tobacco cud and occasionally spitting with tremendous dignity. There is no room for youthful hijinks in baseball, and the "showboat" is regarded with suspicion (hence the coolness toward the Charlie Finleys and other stuntmen).

I remember when I got my first uniform as a member of the Sacramento American Legion club. As soon as I put it on my manner changed. When I played in sweatshirt and jeans I was just another sandlot joker, a true busher. But once in uniform, I became a man, gazing out over the field with steely eyes. Undue laughter was out. Life, which was baseball, became a serious matter and we all aged overnight. Cops and ballplayers are very much alike: out of uniform they look ten years younger, a discovery that always comes as a surprise.

There are two major reasons why I believe today's youngsters cannot truly appreciate baseball. The first is the westward move of major league teams, and the second is television.

When I was a kid big-league ball was played exclusively in the far-off, mysterious East. We read about it, dreaming impossible dreams, but we never saw it except maybe at World Series time in the newsreels which showed the players performing with incredible speed and agility. We didn't learn until much later that this was because those primitive cameras tend to speed up the action. Big leaguers were all supergods in a distant Olympus, possessed of a genius beyond mortal capabilities.

My first trauma came when Stanley Hack, a kid I had occasionally played sandlot ball with in Sacramento, was purchased by the Chicago Cubs. I knew he was good, but no superman, and I figured privately that he would last maybe a week in that rarefied company. Well, he not only lasted for years, he became one of the great Cubs, to be ranked alongside Kiki Cuyler, Hack Wilson and Gabby Hartnett. That was a shock.

Then — oh, the awful propinquity of it all — everything began to cave in. Television, the great leveler, began showing us weekly that major leaguers — at least those of today — were all mortal and that a big-league game can be every bit as tedious as the kind we had grown up with. And when the major leaguers came to town in person the reality became stark. These are good ballplayers, to be sure, but were they fit to shine the shoes of George Sisler and Eddie Collins and the Big Six and the Big Train and all the other heroes who had strode through our childhood imaginations? Growing up is always painful and never more painful than this.

That's why I say you have to be an old man of whatever age to enjoy baseball — and how are the kids of today to get the message when it no longer exists? To them, Candlestick Park is just Windlestick Park and those guys out there are just guys out there. To us who refuse to let the dream die, we are sitting in the Polo Grounds and we are watching Davy Bancroft and Freddie Lindstrom and Frank Fitzsimmons and Mel Ott with his foot in the air as he swings and Heinie Groh advancing to the plate with that crazy bottle bat of his.

We have to squint a little to get away with it, but squint we do to bring a little of the glory back into focus. I can well understand why most of the shaggy haired beautiful kids of today couldn't care less about baseball. It comes as a pleasant surprise that so many of them still do, when they can't see the ghosts in the infield and the angels in the outfield, playing the dream game that we old-timers are forever watching from out of the past.

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