Remember the golden years of baseball?
This time every year, when solid summer sets in and my kids start reminding me that our house is the only one in Washoe County without air conditioning, I wish I were still a baseball fan.
I was 12 when the New York Giants and the Hated Dodgers moved west, the perfect age to be captured. In the Giants’ first season, I was transformed from an awkward right-handed first baseman playing under duress to a stone fanatic. For a few years, I could quote batting averages, strikeout percentages, RBIs and extra-base hits in late innings on nearly every player in the lineup.
Partly, I’m sure, that was because baseball represented my first taste of freedom: From our house to Seals Stadium, where the Giants played initially, was a 50-cent bus ride. Bleacher seats were 90 cents. The games were so popular that we often ran into friends with their parents, so we could catch a ride home and pocket the extra half-buck.
I’d stay to the end, then wait impatiently for the next morning’s Chronicle so I could check the box scores. There was something magical about seeing a game I’d witnessed pared to a couple of inches of agate type. It was spare, even sparse, but if you knew what to look for—or had imagination—the drama was there.
More than the games I saw, though, I remember the ones I didn’t see, the ones I listened to with my dad or my Uncle Joe, a once-promising shortstop who played a couple of years in the minors before admitting he couldn’t hit big-league pitching.
Sporting events on the radio make me impatient these days. I may tune by a football game to catch a score, but I’ve lost the ability to construct the game in my head from an announcer’s description.
Not then, though. Television wasn’t ubiquitous, so for millions, baseball was a radio game. Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons carried me to Seals Stadium and later to Candlestick Park as no announcer before or since. (Nevada trivia: Simmons, voice of both the Giants and San Francisco 49ers for a generation, started his radio career in Elko.) A phrase like “pop-up to center” brought an image, a literal mental picture, of Willie Mays trotting almost casually in, somehow being under the ball when it arrived.
In some ways, at least in memory, the radio games were better than those I saw in person. My dad was almost never idle—he’d listen as he pulled weeds or rewrapped the guides on a fly rod or repaired the stitching on his lineman’s boots. ("No sense in throwing out a $25 pair of boots.") He didn’t drink in front of his children, but he’d bring out a pitcher of Kool-Aid and pour it into frosted aluminum tumblers, so cold it hurt your teeth. He was there, holding the pitcher, in the eighth inning of a game in 1961 when Mays went deep for the fourth time against the Milwaukee Braves.
“Remember this day,” he said. “You may never hear that again. He’s going to be one of the greatest players ever.”
My dad lived another 42 years, and we shared thousands of experiences, larger and smaller, until just a few days before his death. Many should be more memorable than that single game.
This time every year, though, when solid summer sets in, I think of sitting on the patio in the shade of the mulberry tree, hearing the crack of Mays’ bat and my father saying, “That could be gone,” and I wish I were still a baseball fan.