IT TOOK the television industry to fill the void left when major league baseball went out on strike. For a time it seemed we would not be able to watch that most agonizing of all dramas being played out -- the summertime slump -- but the other day NBC sent Fred Silverman to the showers. He had, it was clear, lost his stuff.
Silverman was a hard worker, tireless and enthusiastic, we are told, and he undoubtedly was smart and a good planner. But what he did well, what made him worth a million bucks per annum, was what he did with his stomach, his guts -- his instincts. Once they were golden. Now they appear to be gone.
He followed his instincts at CBS and brought Norman Lear's "All In the Family" to that network. At ABC, he helped create or fostered such programs as "Charlie's Angels," "Laverne & Shirley, "The Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island." These programs are not worth writing home about, but they made lots of money for the network, sold soap or whatever, and that, after all, is what Silverman was paid to do.
Silverman, of course, is no ballplayer. He was the president of NBC, having come to that network after working wonders at CBS and then, later, at ABC. In recent years, though, every time he was mentioned in the papers, every time someone said Silverman would be fired or he would resign, the name of Gil Hodges came to mind. Hodges played first base for the old Brooklyn Dodgers. One year -- 1952 --- he went hitless in 21 at-bats during the World Series.
Gil Hodges is in the record books for that little bit of October agony. He suffered through seven games, never once getting a hit. Hodges was a beloved ballplayer, a warm and generous man, physically very strong, but he was humbled when his talent suddenly deserted him. The fans prayed for him and they sent him religious amulets, but neither crucifixes nor stars of David could help Hodges get any wood on the ball.
Every summer some ballplayer goes into an epic slump. It always is an awful thing to see, because the essence of the slump is that you are no longer the person you used to be. A ballplayer can change bats and he can choke up on the bat and change his stance -- he can apply all manner of science and craft to what he does -- but he knows, just knows, that this matter of hitting a ball is mystical, something you either can do or cannot do.
This is the way with Silverman and programming. He was the contemporary version of the old movie mogul. Many of them were immigrants or first generation Americans. They lived in big cities in the east and then went to California. What they knew of Middle America could be put in a thimble, yet they "programmed" its entertainment. Somehow a Louis B. Mayer could tell his studio executives what Americans wanted in a movie -- how, for instance, in one Andy Hardy movie it was wrong for Andy to stand at the doorway while his mother was dying:
"Andy's mother is dying, and they make the picture showing Andy standing outside the door," Mayer once told Lillian Ross, a writer for The New Yorker. "Standing. I told them, 'Don't you know that an American boy like that will get down on his hands and knees and pray?' They listened. They brought Mickey Rooney down on his hands and knees . . . The biggest thing in the picture!" Mayer was born in Minsk, Russia.
It is that "touch" that we are talking about -- in baseball, the difference between getting a hit and popping up. I suppose you could call it talent, but there is another dimension to it -- a sense of how uncontrollable and fleeting it can be. We all know something of this. We all have days when we are "off," when the words don't come out of our mouths right or the rhythm is gone from our step. To have that happen over a long period of time, to have that happen publicly for all the world to see, must be awful.
This is all I could think of as Fred Silverman failed to work his magic at NBC. The network remained mired in third place. The great programmer had lost his touch. The wizard at scheduling could schedule no more. He was Gil Hodges at the plate, swinging, swinging, swinging, but hitting nothing.
The other day, they put him on waivers and he must have felt miserable. So did Hodges -- and the next year he hit .302. Silverman will be back. In television, as in Brooklyn, there's always next year.