It took a full-scale, major-league strike to do it, but Washington is the center of the baseball universe this week.
While ballparks around the nation remain as silent as a loser's clubhouse, everyone from base-stealer Lou Brock to fast-baller Bob Feller, announcer Nat "The Cat" Allbright to Golden Glover Brooks Robinson is participating in a celebration of baseball lore at the Smithsonian's Natinal Museum of American History until Sunday. Baseball-wise, it's the only game this side of the Alexandria Dukes.
One glass-encased exhibit features a variety of basebal memorabilia: old-style, painted baseball cards of Mel Ott, Jimmy Dykes, Virgil Trucks, Bill Terry and, to taunt the city of Washington, an ancient, flannel Senators jersey, as well as baseball coins (remember those?) of Senators Don "Zip" Zimmer, Ed Roebuck, Claude Osteen and all-star outfielder Chuck Hinton, now a coach at Howard University.
Hinton talked about the life of an ex-ballplayer: "I feel all right for an old, fat, gray man."
Does he miss playing since retiring in 1971?
"No way. I miss the money."
Without a doubt, of all the stars -- Monte Irvin, Johnny Mize and Lou Brock among them -- former Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton drew the most autograph seekers. Ever since the publication of "Ball Four," Bouton's baseball season diary that debunked legends such as Elston Howard, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle, Bouton has been a celebrity everywhere but in baseball's inner circles.
"Mickey doesn't speak to me, Whitey doesn't speak to me, I'm never invited to the various baseball functions," said Bouton. "It's not a matter of feeling ostracized. I am ostracized. When I wrote the book, I knew there would be some negative response, but I never thought it would last 10 years."
Does Bouton enjoy all the attention?
"Sure, I love it. I've always found being a celebrity fun. I could never understand Mickey Mantle's argument that it was an imposition. Nobody knows who Mickey Mantle is in Europe," said Bouton, whose 1962 World Series ring continues to glitter on his pinkie. "You know, I still love the game, but I only go to the ballpark once or twice now."
Down the hall from the seminar, Nat "The Cat" Allbright was demonstrating Ronald Reagan's old profession -- re-creating baseball games. What Reagan did in his youth for the Chicago Cubs, Allbright did for the Brooklyn Dodgers -- "broadcast" games in the 1950s miles from the ballpark.
"We used to do it by Morse code, and later it went over to teletype," Allbright said. "A runner would bring in the reports as the game went along and I'd re-create every game as if I was there. I had a tape of crowd noise and I made a sound with my mouth that sounded like the crack of the bat. nThe runner would yell things like 'Peanuts!' or 'Cold Beer!' as he came in." Allbright's WEMA broadcasts of the Dodgers reached Cleveland and Miami and everywhere in between.
"One day the Dodgers are playing Cincinnati at Crosley Field," said Allbright. "The runner comes in and tells me the tape says 'Hodges up at bat XXXXXX.' The runner asked me what that meant, and I said it meant we're in a hell of a lot of trouble. The machine was busted. So I had to tell the audience a big thunder cloud had come over center field and it was raining. You know if you crumple a piece of cellophane up close to the mike, it sounds like rain, and so that's what I did for a half-hour until they finally fixed the machine."
Although there was much talk of money (by the ex-ballplayers who missed out on the big gravy train) and the strike (by the fans), occasionally the discussion centered on baseball, pure and simple. During a panel discussion, Bouton quizzed Buck Leonard, a star in the old Negro Leagues, on Satchel Paige's legendary pitching arm.
"I thought Satchel was a finesse pitcher," said Bouton.
Leonard laughed: "No how. Especially in the beginning, he could blow that ball right by you."
Bob Prince, the voice of the Pittsburgh Pirates for 33 years, was making a rare trip to an ex-American League city. "With the strike on, there's not a hell of a lot to do." Prince estimated that he has seen 6,000 games. "That's a lot of damn games, isn't it?" he said with a voice that sounded like hot coffee being poured into a cup.
Waiting to give a seminar on scoring runs, Brock, like most of the other ex-players and fans, talked about the strike. "The strike is a business decision wrapped up, in large part, with big egos," he said. Brock saw his old opponent, Hinton, standing behind a group of autograph seekers.
"You look like you can still hit 'em," said Brock.
"Yeah," said Hinton. "Golf balls, that's all I hit these days."