It’s World Series time.
That calling used to bring goosebumps of anticipation to sports fans across the land.
There was nothing more important when October rolled around.
The World Series, for crying out loud. Say no more.
Well, no more does it have the effect on the sports audience it once had.
It still has meaning, but it’s not the same. Especially in this crazy, upside-down year.
It hasn’t disappeared from fan interest, to be sure. But it’s not what it used to be.
I’m reading a book about the incomparable Willie Mays.
I hope today’s youth have some kind of recollection of how sensational the former centerfielder was, as a thrilling performer who could do the five things, the greats could do.
Hit, hit with power, run, field, and throw.
Willie Mays’ catch
We all know, athletes in every sport become bigger, faster, more talented as time goes on.
But in my time as a youngster and years after, Willie Mays was considered the greatest ever.
There are always arguments, of course, but it was difficult to argue to the contrary.
This isn’t about Mays. But it’s about sports many, many decades ago.
In the book, it’s revealed, that in the year 1951, ticket sales for baseball (we’re talking about 16 teams in the major leagues), totaled over $55 million. That number was more than the ticket sales of ALL the other pro sports combined.
We’re talking pro football, basketball and hockey.
I know, times change. Especially when you’re considering nearly 60 years.
But it shows how big the national pastime, as it was known, was to the American sports public.
So, we circle back to the World Series.
The 2020 version matches the Dodgers and the Rays.
But I reflect this week, on the World Series when I was a kid.
It was in 1951, when my father introduced me to the game. He was a Giants fan. A New York Giants fan.
That’s where they played before they moved to San Francisco in 1958.
Joe was in the printing business. But he loved sports, played handball well, and taught me everything about all the games.
But baseball was number one. By a wide margin.
He’d take me to the Polo Grounds, in Manhattan, on 155th street and 8th avenue.
That was the Giants home park, and it was shaped like an oval. They never did play polo there, but it was the most unusual ballpark in baseball. The distances down the left and right field foul lines were less than 260 feet.
But to centerfield, the bleachers were 480-feet away.
Only four home runs were ever hit to center.
The year I started following baseball, happed to coincide with the perhaps the most dramatic season ever.
My Giants were 13 1/2 games behind the hated Brooklyn Dodgers on August 13th.
My Giants caught the Dodgers and then captured the pennant in the 9th inning of the third and deciding game of the playoffs.
A Scotsman named Bobby Thomson, hit a three-run homer to win the pennant, 5-4, after the Dodgers carried a 4-1 lead into the ninth.
I was in school as the game was played, and when I got home, the Giants were coming to bat in the ninth.
They were trailing, and I was crushed. But I was able to view the ultra-dramatic rally with the great Ernie Harwell on the mike for TV.
I missed the iconic, and oft-repeated call by Russ Hodges on radio, but my Dad did not.
When he got home from work, he presented me with two tickets to the third game of the Series.
The Yankees were awaiting the winner of that game. They would host the first two at Yankee Stadium.
But we went to Game 3 at the Polo Grounds, with the Series tied 1-1.
The Giants won that game. But I got to see Joe DiMaggio play in one of the final games of his incredible career.
He went 0-4 in that one, and his successor, the great Mickey Mantle, who was a rookie did not play.
The other rookie of note, Willie Mays, was the only Giant with two hits, and drove in a run.
The Yankees who were in the midst of capturing five consecutive world championships, won the ’51 encounter in six games.
But I was not dismayed. Beating the Dodgers the way the Giants did, was monumental.
The next World Series I witnessed was in 1954, the first pennant the Giants won after 1951, and their last in New York before the move west.
As it turned out, it featured a play that would live forever in baseball annals.
It was game one, and the catch made by Willie Mays that saved two runs is one of the game’s lasting images of all time.
With runners on first and second, score tied in the 8th inning, Cleveland Indians power hitter Vic Wertz belted a deep drive to center that would have been a home run in any major league park.
But remember, it was the Polo Grounds, and the spacious center field. And Willie Mays roamed there.
Mays turned, with his back to home plate, ran down the ball running full speed. He made an over-the-shoulder catch, whirled and fired the ball back to the infield, losing his footing in the process. The runners, thinking the drive would be over Mays’ head began to run, only to be forced to scamper back to their bases.
The Giants won the game on a home run by pinch-hitter Dusty Rhodes, 5-2 in the 10th inning.
Rhodes delivered on two other occasions in his role, and the Giants swept the Indians in four straight.
Cleveland had won 111-games, an American League record, and the sweep by the Giants represented one of the greatest upsets in Series history.
I have never forgotten the moment of “the catch”.
When the ball left Wertz’ bat, my dad quickly urged me to stand on my seat. I was 12 at the time. Everyone else stood. I never would have seen the catch had he not had the presence of mind to react the way he did.
So, I saw the play. One of the most memorable.
We both saw two more World Series games together. The seventh, and deciding game of the 1957 Series at Yankee Stadium when the Milwaukee Braves beat the Yankees. And the third game between the Yankees and Braves a year later, when the Yankees won 4-0.
In that battle, the Yankees became only the second team, at the time, to win the Series, after trailing 3 games to 1.
I was glued to the TV for every World Series from that time I was 8 years old, through my years in the profession.
For the early years, the Fall Classic was different than it is now.
For one thing, there were no days off for travel. The seven game schedule was played on consecutive days.
Of course, many of those games were between the New York teams, so days off weren’t necessary.
But even when New York and Cleveland were matched up, there were no travel days. It changed when the Yankees and Braves played in 1957.
The other feature of note, was that all the games were played in daylight. Now, they’re in prime time. And I wonder how many kids 8 years old get to see the World Series?
My World Series experience did not turn out to be limited to being a pure spectator, of course.
This week, 45 years ago, I was blessed to call one of the premier happenings in World Series history.
Oct 21, 1975, I was fortunate to describe Carlton Fisk’s dramatic 12th inning home run in the sixth game of the Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds.
That moment, remains by number one career moment.
So, for me, the World Series will always be something special.
Now, a reflection on two other subjects.
Last week in the NFL, two quarterbacks came back from sub-par outings to lead their teams to big victories. Two weeks ago,
Jimmy Garoppolo of the 49ers, coming back from injury, was relieved of his duties in the second half, after a poor first half, in a beat-down by the Dolphins.
Sunday night, he came back strong to lead the Niners to an important division triumph over the Rams.
Tom Brady, who seemingly lost track of the downs in his previous game, a loss to the Bears, outplayed Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, in routing Green Bay.
It’s not surprising that decent NFL quarterbacks, following games that might be considered an embarrassment, bounce back the following week and redeem themselves.
That’s why I’m watching the Browns’ Baker Mayfield this week.
Lastly, Mike “Doc” Emrick announced his retirement from broadcasting.
Doc was not only the finest hockey commentator of his time, in a field of many outstanding colleagues,
but he ranked as one of the best announcers in any sport.
Emrick sounded like a musical instrument as he described the ebbs and flows of a difficult sport to call.
His vocabulary and story-telling were superior.
But more important, he was a wonderful and humble human being.
If it sounds like I’m describing the retired baseball icon Vin Scully, I probably am.
That’s why the two stand alone.