Hearing that another baseball Hall of Famer died strikes me as a macabre metaphor for the sport I love.
This has been a year of isolation, lockdown, fear, and death. The daily obits (“the Irish Sports Pages”) have been required, lengthy reading for old-timers like me. And October 2020 feels like the month of death.
In the darkness, we have a Cooperstown carnage. Joe Morgan died Sunday. Last week, it was Whitey Ford. The week before that, it was Bob Gibson. In September, Lou Brock. In August, Tom Seaver. In April, Al Kaline.
Those are just the Hall of Famers. Baseball this year has also lost Eddie Kasko, John McNamara, Claudell Washington, Mike Ryan, Jay Johnstone, Carroll Hardy, Damaso Garcia, Horace Clarke, Frank Bolling, Ed Sprague Sr., Ron Perranoski, Don Larsen, Matt Keough, Ed Farmer, Johnny Antonelli, Mike McCormick, Hal Smith, Jimmy Wynn, Tony Taylor, Tony Fernandez, Glenn Beckert, and Bob Watson. Forgive me if I missed any others.
Any of these names remind you of something from your childhood?
If you are a baseball lifer with ties to the 1950s, the golden 1960s, and ’70s, a lot of your memories have been buried this year. For folks in the last generation of people who truly love and care about baseball, the Worst Year Ever has carved away a sizable chunk of our formative years.
Every one of the lost legends reminds me of something.
Bob Gibson beat the Red Sox three times in the 1967 World Series, including Game 7 when he hit a home run next to the flag pole in center. Lou Brock destroyed the Red Sox in that Series, hitting .414, scoring eight runs with seven stolen bases.
Tom Seaver, the greatest New York Met of them all, graced the Boston sports scene after he was acquired for Steve Lyons (Cy Young for Psycho) in the middle of the 1986 Red Sox season. “We got to go to the University of Seaver,” said Sox lefty Bruce Hurst.
Whitey Ford anchored the pitching staff of the steamroller Yankees of the 1950s and early 1960s. I saw Ford on "The Ed Sullivan Show” along with Mickey Mantle, Eddie Fisher, and Al Hirt in September of 1962 when I was 9 years old.
Al Kaline? He wore No. 6 for the Tigers, and I watched the back of his jersey for 18 innings at a Friday Tigers-Red Sox Fenway doubleheader in 1963. I hit my first Little League home run with a powerized Hillerich & Bradsby Al Kaline Louisville Slugger, purchased for $6 at Moison’s Hardware in downtown Groton.
There is simply no way to explain how much baseball meant to me in those days. I can say without exaggeration that it was a 24/7 immersion, more important than family, school, church, or food. I still can’t believe my sister got married on Aug. 19, 1967, momentarily taking me away from the Red Sox' four-game weekend sweep of the Angels.
All these years later, baseball mind games test my memory. My dreaded daily jog goes by faster when I attempt to come up with all 27 members of the 500 home run club. (Gary Sheffield is a toughie.) Can you recite the World Series participants from every year you’ve been alive? I can. But it’s harder than it used to be. And I am jealous of the great Bob Ryan, who can list every Fall Classic matchup back to Boston Pilgrims vs. Pittsburgh Pirates in 1903.
In 2020, I spend nights watching the televised playoff games staged at neutral sites with few or zero fans. I watch a procession of launch-angle whiffers flailing at 98-mile-per-hour fastballs flung by an endless line of 6-foot-5-inch relievers who have been trained to produce only three outcomes: Strikeout, walk, or occasional homer.
The result is a lot of standing around. Nothing happens. The ball is rarely in play and the games take forever. We have no more Gibsons or Seavers going nine innings. No 5-foot-10 Whitey Fords inducing ground balls. No room for a guy like Joe Morgan, who fanned only 41 times when he was NL MVP in 1976.
Small wonder that these baseball playoffs are virtually invisible here in Boston. Almighty football is the only sport that matters anymore. Let me know the next time you hear any baseball talk on local sports radio.
No sense baying at the moon. It’s evolution. It turns out that the gods of baseball are not truly immortal. Men in their 70s, 80s, and 90s die natural deaths. Understood. But still sad.
This late-season surge of mortality pains those who grew up when baseball was king.