In the era of Mantle and Maris, of the Duke and Pee Wee, of Willie Mays and Larry Doby, major league baseball was a thrilling component of a boy’s life. It was a ferver that encouraged imitation, a passion not to be taken lightly. It played out across America on the dusty fields of farm towns, the diamonds in city parks, the sprawling plots of suburbia – an affection, an appetite that held fast for player and fan through the generations.
Come spring in my town, baseball – equipment-laden, expensive – was not part of our school’s sports schedule. Athletes had fewer options, and at Lincoln High it was track or golf; for some athletes, both. Tennis had been scratched, wrestling would wait for many years. The girls watched; in that era, the state High School Activities Association ignored them for participation in high school sports.
For boys, organized baseball practice could not begin officially until participation in KSHAA events ended – late in May. At a hint from our great coach, Paul Flaherty, we practiced when we could, evening or weekend, with him nowhere around. We needed to work out kinks quickly, for the American Legion season began in early June, and coach Flaherty had big plans for us. A couple of seasons earlier, in the younger K-18 Cookie league, most of us had played our way to the state championship game against Haddam (we lost, 4-3); Flaherty believed that with work we could continue our competitive ways in the more demanding environs of Legion ball. We were not without talent, if still raw.
And we were not without the pros we idolized. Delwin Rathbun was as fearless at third base for our team as Eddie Mathews was for the (Milwaukee) Braves. Jimmy Pearce, a lanky catcher, was as solid behind the plate as the Yankees’ Elston Howard, and he hit like Maris. Mike Donabauer, at shortstop, could hit and field like the Cubs’ Ernie Banks. Or so we imagined.
For all the baseball we played, it’s doubtful that any of us thought much about the sponsors. Our uniforms were wool, white with royal blue trim and with Quartzite Stone Co. on the back of every jersey above the player’s number. Others as well gave time and money; the ball field didn’t maintain itself, the lights weren’t free, and the public address and scorekeeper weren’t ghosts; two and three days each week dozens of clothes lines bowed in the wind with uniforms washed again and out to dry, the signal-flags of devoted mothers.
Equipment then was basic, the bats of wood and vary- ing size, each player with a personal preference. Some players wore sliding pads over their underwear to protect scrapes and bruises that otherwise would never heal. We experimented with something new, a plastic beanie with a short brim – a helmet that fit beneath our regulation caps. They were uncomfortable, ill-sized, and we wore them on the base paths only if we’d forgotten to take them off. Later came helmets that fit over our caps, contraptions that only added to the discomfort. Helmets alone, especially with an ear flap, were considered gauche and unwieldy, even unfashionable. “Put it on!” (We did.)
New and improved equipment today offers safer com- petition; helmets, ear flaps and more, are required for hitters, and catchers can be outfitted like a hockey goalie. The heady crack of solid hickory against a ball has been replaced by the feeble clink of metal, a sign of prudent – if less pleasing – times. Pitch counts are to limit wear and tear on young limbs. Cleats are no longer the sharpened steel incisors that could pierce the hard firehose canvas of a base. Or slice the leg of an infielder.
In the big leagues, statistics seem to expand daily with line items for percentages of a player’s every movement; televised games offer the instant graphics of launch angles, ball speed, bat velocity, route efficiency and more. (Coming soon: players’ hand-eye coordination ratios.) A pitcher’s repertoire may have at least a dozen variations on what was once the curve, the screwball, the fastball. The players, freed of the steroid era, are now subject to the incantations of diet gurus, the barks of performance coaches, the call of workout schedules, the demands of bi-coastal travel, the fine print of contracts, the large print of free agency, and more. At that level and intensity, baseball can be work but the professionals still manage to have a lot of fun.
We are reminded of a Time Magazine cover story on baseball – 42 years ago – a review of the many changes and show biz gimmicks brought to the sport even then. A reporter asked the all-star pitcher Tug McGraw (Mets and Phillies) what he liked most about the game’s newer for- mat. Tug thought about this for a moment, then replied.
“The shape of the ball,” he said. “We must never change the shape of the ball.”