It may not have been a total return to Eden, but innocent pleasures of the primal past were being provided by athletes old enough, it seems, to be at the creation. On the field for the first annual Cracker Jack Old-Timers baseball game at Robert F. Kennedy stadium were Joe DiMaggio, Stan (the Man) Musial, Bob Feller, Ewell (the Whip) Blackwell, Pee Wee Reese, Hank Aaron, Charlie (King Kong) Keller, Handy Andy Pafko, Johnny Vander Meer, Enos (Country) Slaughter, Johnny (the Big Cat) Mize and some 50 other stars who once knew the thrill of playing but now are giving us fans the thrill of reminiscing.
I get to about two dozen baseball games a year: three or four in spring training in Florida, six or so of college ball and the others of little league action where the kids seem to have made my back porch--across the street from the playground--their clubhouse.
But this game was a dream for a midsummer night. Even the Cracker Jack came alive. The boxes now carry the large-lettered announcement: "All Natural, No Additives, No Preservatives." I embrace the fantasy. If Cracker Jack is "all natural," I'm Babe Ruth.
Americans are a summer people who raise their children around a summery game. In other sports, aging athletes uniform themselves in euphemisms. Runners over 40 call themselves "masters." Golfers play in "senior" tournaments. But ex-ball players cut the baloney and holler from their dugouts that they are plain old old-timers.
Baseball abjures fakery. Eugene McCarthy, the poet and first-baseman now staging a comeback for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota, writes in his captivating new book "Complexities and Contraries": "Baseball teams do not carry chaplains, as do some football teams. They do not gather, kneeling or standing, in a group to pray or hold hands before the game, as basketball teams do, but proceed decently from locker room to dugout to playing field."
Most of the athletes at the game the other night, which the American League won 7-2, including a home run by 75-year- old Luke Appling, were men I once idolized when I saw them play at Ebbets Field, Yankee Stadium or the Polo Grounds. As a boy, I was Kelly-green with envy at the life of a big-leaguer. Now I'm not so sure. I have talked with enough of them to know that the time on the field was only the peak moment amid all the downs of bumping through the season in cheap hotels, grubby diners and fumey bus rides. Appling wasn't nicknamed "Old Aches and Pains" only from what he went through at shortstop for the Chicago White Sox from 1930 to 1950.
I remember Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s. He rose to the top as one of the team's black artists, along with Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. Newcombe, a pitcher, blighted batters with a fastball he delivered from a sweeping overhead motion of brute power. For a decade, Newk was celebrated. Then he vanished from the majors. Only years later did I learn that his career ended because of alcoholism. He ended up a has- been playing in Japan.
But that was only Newcombe the thrower of baseballs. He was to do much more with his life. As a human being, he fought and defeated his disease. He returned to full health. He returned, too, to baseball by joining the Dodger organization where part of his duties included counseling younger players on the dangers of drinking. Three years ago, he gave help to the young Dodger, Bob Welch, an alcoholic in his early 20s who was about to go under. With Newcombe's counsel and example, Welch recovered and is now having a good year.
At the Cracker Jack Old-Timers game, Newk took his turn on the mound. I had gone to the seats by the bullpen behind third base to watch him warm up. His fastball still had hum. It didn't have all of the old speed, but it did have maturity. Newk was throwing as a man, not a boy.
With the other legends on the field, he was one of those Robert Fitzgerald had in mind in his poem "Cobb Would Have Caught It": Talk it up, boys, a little practice. Coming in stubby and fast, the baseman Gathers a grounder in fat green grass. Picks it stinging and clipped as wit Into the leather: a swinging step Wings it deadeye down to first. Smack. Oh, atta boy, attaold boy. . . . Innings and afternoons. Fly lost in sunset.
Throwing arm gone bad. There's your ball game.
Cool reek of the field. Reek of companions.