Wednesday, April 6, 2016
I Remember Them Well
The death of Joe Garagiola last month, brings us closer to the end of the era of iconic baseball players. Not that Garagiola was a great player himself (though he was better than he pretended to be later on), but he belonged to the last generation of ball players who played when baseball was the national pastime and its practitioners were the princes of the sports world.
As a member of what may be the last generation to widely and seriously collect baseball cards, I feel the passage of that time. The first ten years of my life, baseball was the American sport. Ten years later it was supplanted by football. Baseball still does well as a niche sport, but it probably will never be the national game again.
Probably the turning point came in 1959, the year after the famous NFL championship game (no Super Bowls back then) in which Johnny Unitas led the Baltimore Colts to a comeback win over the New York Giants. That game drove the NFL forward, and it never looked back.
Growing Up In Between
In 1959, I was nine years old and beginning to seriously follow baseball for the first time. The great players of that era, nearly all gone now, are the ones I remember fondly. Ted Williams and Stan Musial were nearing the end of their careers, as were two of my Dodger heroes, Duke Snider and Gil Hodges. Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were in their prime. It was in 1959 that Sandy Koufax struck out 18 San Francisco Giants on Aug. 31 and gave us a glimpse of what was to come.
My father took me to Dodger games in Los Angeles, but he liked football more. Probably that had something to do with growing up in the South. In 1959 there might be one college football game on TV each Saturday and a pro game on Sunday. It was a condition today’s sports fan can barely comprehend.
Radio broadcasts of baseball held more sway then than they do now. When the Dodgers came to Los Angeles, they were on KMPC radio the first couple of years. They then moved to KFI, a 50,000-watt clear-channel station with a signal so strong we once picked it up after dark in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and caught the tail end of Koufax’s first no-hitter.
Last Man Standing
Think of the Hall of Famers who were stars in 1959, and you realize that few are still alive. Mays and Aaron, for sure, and Frank Robinson. Among pitchers, only Whitey Ford comes to mind, unless you count Koufax, who hadn’t really hit his stride yet.
Whenever I see an obituary of one of the great ball players of that era, a piece of me dies along with it. Those passings are still big news because there are a lot of people who remembered seeing them play at a time when Major League Baseball was the big thing in sports. We mourn not only the players, but the primacy of the sport they played as well.
When the Hall of Famers from the 1970s onward begin to die in significant numbers, they will no doubt get decent obituaries in The New York Times (assuming the Times is still around), but it won’t feel the same. They’ll be mourned as the superb athletes they were, but not as American icons. They played the wrong game at the wrong time for that.