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WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BASEBALL?
Stanley Frank
August 27, 1962
The pension plan, television and lucrative endorsements have transformed today's ballplayer—the best in history—into a harmless drudge
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August 27, 1962

What Ever Happened To Baseball?

The pension plan, television and lucrative endorsements have transformed today's ballplayer—the best in history—into a harmless drudge

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All the perspective conducive to a true appreciation of esthetic values is ignored in the predigested pap TV feeds the fans. Announcers bombard us incessantly with figures suggestive of a contest between electronic computers. We are informed of changes to the third decimal point in a batter's average each time he steps to the plate. We are glutted with trivia ranging from a team's cumulative total of stranded pinch runners to its consumption of towels during a doubleheader. If a man is making a pass at an obscure record that has not been broken since last Wednesday, it is repeated with the insistence of a hurricane warning. Monotonous commentary is made more tedious by TV's taboo on anything vaguely controversial.

Analysis of strategy that backfires is verboten. It has overtones of second-guessing the manager and exposing him as something less than a genius. Baseball's rich fund of droll anecdotes is off limits; females who have crushes on players may object to funny stories that depict their dreamboats as chowder-heads. Comparison of players, a subject that intrigues fans, is a hot potato. One man's opinion is another crank's gripe. Statistics can't be challenged. They offend no one except people driven out of their minds by the gibberish.

Small wonder baseball is losing appeal for boys. It has all the earmarks of a conspiracy to teach them arithmetic. Another deterrent to their understanding of the sport is the togetherness bit parents foist on them. Kids no longer save allowances to go to ball games. They are taken by indulgent fathers and treated to grandstand seats on the theory that the best is none too good for the manly little fellows. A boy can't acquire an appreciation of baseball from the carriage trade. He hears only rehashed newspaper comment from occasional fans. His proper place is in the bleachers, where he can learn the refinements of the game from dedicated students who have made baseball their life's work to the exclusion of other gainful employment.

The best tutor I ever had was Louie the Fishman, long the resident oracle in the bleachers at the Polo Grounds. Louie's vocabulary and lung power indicated he was descended from a long line of auctioneers, but he had a rare gift for sizing up a situation. I recall a game in which Shufflin' Phil Douglas, a pitcher noted for his exploits at night long before lights were installed in ball parks, was locked in a 1-1 tie with the Cubs. Douglas opened the eighth inning by walking the opposing pitcher, whereupon John J. McGraw, the Giants' manager, summarily yanked him. Louie's disciples asked why McGraw was so riled up over a measly base on balls.

Louie explained how the walk loused up the delicate balance between offense and defense. Gaps were opened in the Giant infield, with the first baseman holding a pinch runner close to the bag, the shortstop and second baseman shading toward second to get the jump on a double-play ball and the third baseman playing shallow for a possible bunt. The reliever couldn't use his best pitch, a knuckler, because it was tough for the catcher to handle on an attempted steal. The lesson took less time than a TV commercial and was a good deal more educational. Sure enough, two cheap hits through the drawn-in infield helped lick the Giants 3-1.

I've been listening to broadcasts for 35 years, and I have yet to hear an announcer analyze, as Louie did, a subtle turning point that makes baseball so fascinating. Maybe the business can survive without a hard core of addicts who understand strategy and all that fancy stuff. But it will continue to wither on the vine without the rapport between players and fans that once gave baseball a cachet possessed by no other sport.

When I was a boy, players made an effort to cultivate the interest of kids in the bleachers. The great favorite at the Polo Grounds was George Burns, the Giants' left fielder, who held court before the game under an ad on the fence that read: LAST YEAR GEORGE BURNS CAUGHT 357 FLIES. TANGLEFOOT CAUGHT 4,700,000,000. Burns introduced us to such esoteric secrets as throwing a curve, playing a fly ball sidesaddle to avoid the glare of the sun and shifting the feet to hit the ball in a given direction. We never mastered the tips, of course, but they were the more precious for having come from a living, breathing big leaguer.

Dave (Beauty) Bancroft, the shortstop, would grin and hold up his glove when we yelled, "Let's see the doughnut!" He cut out the palm of the glove and caught the ball on the meat of his hand, a trademark of toughness in those days. Beauty's Spartan example helped us endure the sting of the ball, the bane of small boys through the ages, until we learned to "give" with the throw and ease its impact.

Today players in uniform are fined for talking to kids, and both leagues post umpires in the stands before games to report violations of the rule. Sometimes it seems the easiest way to get a hero's autograph is to buy a TV show. He will be very happy indeed to give you his signature on the back of a check for plugging your product in a commercial.

I'm an alarmist, of course. The situation is not as bleak as I've painted it. After all, live ballplayers will be seen in contention during the upcoming World Series. Things could be worse. Remington Rand could be priming Univac to battle the IBM Robots for the championship. That's far off in the misty future. A good five, 10 years.

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