LAST WEEK, after Bob Costas produced a segment critical of Barry Bonds on Costas Now, Bonds called him a "little midget man who absolutely knows [expletive] about baseball." Costas responded a few days later by saying, "I'm 5' 6 1/2" and a strapping 150, and unlike some people, I came by all of it naturally."
There was a time, though, when sluggers and straitlaced broadcasters could carry on a civil conversation. Specifically, 1959, when the game's biggest stars happily descended on Wrigley Field in L.A. to swing for the fences in an empty stadium and be peppered by banal questions from a genial man with a microphone. The show was Home Run Derby, and MGM has just begun rolling episodes out on DVD.
Each week two stars—Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks were among the competitors—went head-to-head for a $2,000 prize. (The games were nine innings long, with anything that stayed in the park counting as an out.) It's hard to imagine Bonds rolling out of bed for 10 times that, but it's even harder to imagine him sitting next to Mark Scott in between innings.
Scott, who bore a striking resemblance to Robert Wuhl, was the play-by-play man for the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League. While the baseball action is exciting—there will always be a thrill in watching the Mick take a huge cut at a fat pitch—Scott's interplay with the sluggers is the best thing about Derby. Sitting at a desk, Scott calls the action while the competitor who's not at the plate sits next to him. Occasionally there's a genuine baseball conversation, such as Harmon Killebrew explaining how his from-the-shoes swing is subtly different from Rocky Colavito's. But for the most part, it's just two guys making small talk. (Sample exchange: "That looked like a low pitch." "Yeah, real low.") It's like observing strangers seated next to each other at a dinner party or two men waiting for the same bus, only one of the men is one of the greatest home run hitters who ever lived.
Seeing athletes in such candid situations is rare—most interviews feel like just that: interviews—and revealing. Banks really was that chipper, while the supposedly wild Mantle comes off as surprisingly shy. Derby shows how supremely talented Mantle and his cohorts were on the field, but it's also a reminder that in some ways, superstars are just like everyone else.