Legends of baseball bring back memories
By Ken Root
It was truly a “Field of Dreams” last Saturday as I watched 15 of major league baseball’s all-time greats emerge from the corn. The field and house, near Dyersville, Iowa, were the setting for Kevin Costner’s 1988 movie “Field of Dreams,” and the owners are now trying to live out the movie’s prophecy: “If you build it, they will come.”
It was almost too good to be true when I saw Johnny Bench and Reggie Jackson wave and walk in from right field to line up between first base and home plate. I was breathless as they kept coming: Ozzie Smith, “Doc” Gooden and Wade Boggs. Boggs is a part owner of the enterprise that plans to build 24 fields over the next few years.
Reality hit a little hard as I watched some of the players emerge as old men with white hair and a crippled gait. I had to read the names on their jerseys just to believe it was the same person who had embodied the game back in their youth: Bruce Sutter, Rod Carew. A few, like Ricky Henderson and Jim Palmer, still looked good, almost like they could start a major league game today. It showed the difference that body type, lifestyle and mindset yield as we move into our senior years.
Again, reality: Pete Rose was introduced to the crowd of 4,000, who rose to salute his playing career. He looked like every step caused pain as he shuffled across the field wearing cowboy boots and never smiling or waving to the fans. In this courteous Midwestern environment there were no negative words, but controversy follows Rose and opinion is divided on whether he should be allowed in the Hall of Fame for what he accomplished as a player with the stain of betting on baseball while he was a manager.
The softball game was an exhibition with commentary from Johnny Bench as he served as catcher and cajoled both teams. They merged the all-stars with locals called the “Ghost Players.” Some of the pros still had their trademark swing and were having great fun. Rose never batted nor fielded a ball.
Baseball is a part of the fabric of rural communities as any sport. It is a game that can be played with just a ball and a bat. Bases can be anything you can step on. The field can be a cow pasture with things in it you don’t want to step on, or in! The bat and ball can be as makeshift as the rest. All you need are a few participants and the game is on. You could play teams or “work up” with equal fun. Towns that didn’t have the money to put in a gymnasium or football field could still have a baseball team. My home town in Oklahoma converted a swamp into a field with no outfield fence. If you hit it into the trees and ran the bases before they threw you out, then it was a home run.
We connected our youthful play with that of the American and National leagues, especially when the World Series rolled around each fall. Either the superintendent was kind or the coaches and vo-ag teacher were persistent, but the black and white TV set was put on a desk at the front of study hall for those games that were on a weekday afternoon. You had the option of going in and watching the games so literally every boy did so. I remember, in 1963, Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers striking out 15 Yankee batters. The room was dead quiet as the announcer give the play by play with applause erupting with each strikeout. Even the Yankee fans, and there were plenty of them in Oklahoma due to Mickey Mantle, were cheering for Koufax.
Many of the games people remember most, they never saw. Most were heard on the radio or read about in the newspaper. Baseball was the ideal fit for a person who had three hours that they could listen to a radio broadcast while they worked, but it could also be relived in print due to the game’s obsession with statistics. On radio, announcers like Harry Caray and Red Barber were like old friends who detailed every pitch.
The PBS documentary “Baseball” by Ken Burns describes poor people who had to go to town to have any access to the outside world. Weary souls, just coming out of the Depression, needed some hope and began following Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941. They would ask at the cafÃ© or store, each time they got to town: “Does Joe still have it going?” Similarly in 1978, Pete Rose captured the attention of the nation as he hit in 44 games and TV shows would cut away to the Cincinnati Reds games when Rose came to bat.
John Grissom’s novel “A Painted House” mixed in baseball in the 1950s with a hard scrabble cotton farm in rural Arkansas. A 7-year-old boy and his grandpa would listen to the St. Louis Cardinals games outside under a shade tree. The boy set up bases and would run them as the Cards moved batters around the infield.
Baseball has been an escape, a pleasant distraction from daily life, for millions of Americans. We think of baseball as a national pastime back when the pace of life was slower. It wasn’t just for those who could go to the games but for those in cities, and out on farms, who had limited means but a great yearning to embrace a larger world. In the early 1900s, before radio but after the advent of the ticker tape, the daily newspaper in Kansas City erected a huge scoreboard where people could sit and watch the numbers and symbols as young men dashed across scaffolding, moving and changing the display, so progress of the game could be followed. In the 1930s, Ronald Reagan gave play by play of games on WHO Radio in Des Moines by reading the ticker and adding sound effects to simulate a hit or the cheering of the crowd.
There have been a lot of farm boys who became major leaguers. Many communities have great pride in a young man who made it in the “Big Leagues.” Johnny Bench is from the small town of Binger, Okla. Bob Feller was from Van Meter, Iowa. Feller’s pitching was so feared that even Joe DiMaggio said, “His curve ball isn’t human!” Words like that form legends and are passed down from generation to generation.
The best and worst part of baseball is the statistics. Some people are fanatics about scoring a game or keeping track of a player’s history at bat and in the field. I fear my writings may be found to be inaccurate so my email address is below.
Saturday’s Field of Dreams game was played in sunny early fall weather and under a sky so blue that heaven could have no better. Watching legends simulate the game was somewhat fulfilling but seeing them as they are caused me to see myself as I am. Although it was a charity event and funds did go to the wounded warriors, I also saw that they were signing autographs for $50 or more. I longed for more fantasy and less reality. I never saw Sandy Koufax except in his prime on TV. I think I like that memory better.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.