Guy’s Time: Of Bygone Baseball Days

littlecaseyatthebatWritten by Carl Danbury, Jr.

In the 1960s, baseball was king! From April to October, I scrutinized box scores in the daily newspaper, trying to determine how the previous day’s games played out. Once a week, upon the arrival of The Sporting News in the mail, I pored over statistics and feature articles like hot syrup over pancakes with the simple goal of knowing more about the players and the game than my peers. At night when I was supposed to be asleep, I tuned in the transistor radio, hoping to pick up a ball game somewhere on the dial. Luckily for me, I grew up in an area where on clear evenings I was able to pick up games from Boston to Baltimore, and New York to St. Louis and Chicago.

My night school teachers were Jack Buck, Bob Prince, Chuck Thompson, Marty Brennaman, Ernie Harwell, Byrum Saam, Bill Campbell, Richie Ashburn and Phil Rizzuto. I received a master’s degree in baseball jargon at the age of 9, and a Ph.d in picking up each night’s play-by-play through static. Now, 45 or so years later, to me the game may have become unwatchable on television and unbearable in person, but I can still listen to a game, particularly on a car radio, with no problem.

I filed for a divorce from my first love due to irreconcilable differences — on the field, in the grandstand and in the airwaves. On the field, the National Pastime, which was once my Cinderella, has become Lady Tremaine. In the grandstand, Anastasia and Drizella have replaced the well-meaning Jaq and Gus, while some of television’s Prince Charmings have revealed themselves as Lucifers. Thus, the fairy tale has become film noir. Where are the fond memories we once shared?

OF CASEY

On Sunday, June 3, 1888, the San Francisco Examiner managed then by William Randolph Hearst, published an innocuous, rather unnoticed poem by “Phin.” Phin, short for Phinnias, was a nickname for one of Hearst’s Harvard College classmates, Ernest Lawrence Thayer. Thayer, who was summoned by Hearst from Paris, agreed to become a humor columnist for the Examiner a year after graduating magna cum laude in philosophy from the esteemed Ivy League school. Hearst, who was banished from Harvard for perpetrating a few too many pranks played upon some of its stodgy, aristocratic faculty, had enjoyed Thayer’s work on The Harvard Lampoon. Thayer, heir to a thriving Worcester, Mass., textile business, delayed following in his father’s footsteps, and was paid $5 for his published works. He remained in San Francisco for about 18 months, but the climate didn’t agree with his delicate constitution and Thayer returned to the East Coast.

Thayer’s ”Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888” is to American poetic ballads what The Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” is to suggestive songs for steamy midday trysts. Actually, Thayer’s insightful characterization of Casey’s exploits in Mudville have been more important to American culture than the idealistic convention of “rubbin’ sticks and stones together makes the sparks ignite,” yet that debate might be better argued over a few cold beers.

Thayer admitted his poem had no basis of fact, except that he had borrowed the slugger’s name from a former bully he had once encountered, and parodied, who “was a big dour Irish lad of my high school days.’’ The poem received little notoriety after it was published, however, fate had something else in store for Thayer’s Casey.

New York comic actor, William DeWolf Hopper, was handed a copy of Phin’s work, and he performed it magnificently for his audience, which included players from both the New York Giants and the original Chicago White Stockings (who would later be renamed the Cubs in 1907).

The work became Hopper’s quintessential segment, which he first performed on Thayer’s 25th birthday, Aug. 14, 1888. Hopper once claimed to have performed it for more than 10,000 live audiences during his career, the recital of which took 5 minutes and 40 seconds, on average. Thayer, on the other hand, was a bit sheepish about the poem’s iconic stature and didn’t lay claim to it for more than a decade. He even refused royalties from its use, despite its captivating storyline.

After witnessing one of Hopper’s performances of Casey, the New York Evening World published the following review: “Texas longhorns couldn’t have made more noise than those humans present in the theatre, and the howling continued throughout the entire recitation, breaking out into indescribable loudness at the end of each verse.”

Baseball fans everywhere identified with Casey’s eventual failings at the plate. Cocky, confident Casey, like all of us who have played the game and experienced its humbling pitfalls, struck out on three pitches with the game hanging in the balance. That’s why batters with career averages over .300 are so revered, because more than 70 percent of the time, failure is inevitable for most. Sure, “The Natural” Roy Hobbs hit a three-run homer to win the pennant for the New York Knights in author Bernard Malamud’s fanciful tale of the quintessential comeback kid, but Thayer’s Casey was our very own reality.

PROUD PAPAS

Prior to his long career in the Senate, Kentucky’s Jim Bunning was a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers. His Hall of Fame career included 224 wins versus 184 losses, and an earned run average of 3.27 during his 17 big league seasons. Although he won 20 games in just one season (1957 for Detroit), he won 19 in four seasons, and 17 in three others. Sadly, he never appeared in any World Series or playoff games along the way. The Phillies sidewinding righthander captivated 32,000-plus fans at Shea Stadium in Flushing, N.Y., and thousands of others watching the first game of that day’s doubleheader on New York’s WORTV, with an incredible feat on Father’s Day, June 21, 1964.

That day, the father of seven (and eventually nine) took the mound on a sweltering and humid day against Casey Stengel’s New York Mets. The Mets franchise was but three years old at the time, and the players were neither adept afield and a-plate. The Mets stood 20-45 entering play, and the team’s most valuable player and rookie-of-the-year that season was organist Jane Jarvis. Her Hammond organ provided an upbeat mood at the newly opened ballpark, where Stengel’s players incited acrimony among the fans. Had it not been for the World’s Fair that opened on the other side of Roosevelt Avenue five days after the stadium did, concessionaires likely would have outnumbered the paying customers that year.

My father and I tuned in to the game on TV that day and watched Bunning perform his magic against the overmatched Mets. He faced the minimum number of batters that day on his way to pitching the first perfect game in the National League in 84 years. He threw a no-hitter for the Tigers a little less than six years earlier against Boston, but had allowed three runners to reach base. But Bunning was perfect on Father’s Day tossing but 90 pitches with only 21 of them outside the strike zone. He even hit a two-run double in the sixth inning that day. The Mets faithful were so eager to witness something neat happen at their home field, they began to cheer wildly for the opposing pitcher as he approached the final outs of the game. Even at age 5, I knew I was watching something special, because my dad wasn’t a big baseball fan, and he was enjoying this game as much as the cold beer in his hand.

There were 32,026 in the stadium and many years later Bunning said, “If everybody who told me they were in Shea that day were actually there, the attendance would have been 320,260.” His special day was made brighter because his wife, Mary, and oldest daughter, Barbara, who had driven up from their in-season home in Cherry Hill, N.J., were in attendance. Bunning credited the World’s Fair for the pair’s unlikely three-hour trek.

Baseball is best anecdotally. For me, that includes Bob Horner’s four home-run game on July 6, 1986, Billy Martin’s return appearance at Old Timer’s Day, and one of the best pitcher’s duels I have ever witnessed between Jim “Catfish” Hunter and Jim Palmer at Yankee Stadium. I’d also add one of Willie Stargell’s prodigious home runs at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium which left me in awe, and a Richie Allen dinger against the San Francisco Giants at Connie Mack Stadium that cleared the left field upper deck like a jet. Bearing witness to the Braves last two wins of their 13-game win streak to start the 1982 season certainly ranks highly as well. The beer seemed colder then, the hot dogs a bit more tasty, and the conversation a bit more audible, intense, humorous and definitively more strategic in nature.

I can’t abide the constant noise and the so-called entertainment between pitches, batters or innings these days. I long for visiting with other fans like Mr. Inouye, whom I met during my first of many trips to Dodger Stadium, or my friend Mike Porcaro’s gang before, during and after Cubs games at Wrigley Field. The ballpark and the game itself were once wonderments for a young boy, allies for a high school or college athlete with hopes of playing on that field, and links to the past for a father or mentor that one day our children would appreciate the experience as much as we once did.

Today, ball games are nothing more than an extension of pandering or marketing, interrupted by some baseball during the 210-minute spectacle. Apparently, $192 for four seats in Section 224 and $80 in concession sales simply can’t make ends meet for ball clubs these days. So, they inject us with the same kind of noise that’s on our handheld devices, except we can mute those.

For me, the entertainment is the game on the field, not what’s on the video screen or the Kiss-Cam, the annoying contests between innings, or the Tomahawk Chop. Please just let me watch the game, have a conversation with my friends or fellow fans, have a sip of cold beer between pitches and let me enjoy the talents of the ball players on the field. I truly don’t believe it’s too much to ask. One day in the not-so-distant future, when the faux stadium organ plays “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” the 2-minute interval will be part of the Cialis® Seventh Inning Stretch. Try to explain that one to your Little League shortstop!