"Somebody tell 'em to make sure they get enough ambulances and keep 'em runnin'. And don't forget the oxygen and blood." --Richie Ashburn
In the center of the Hyatt Regency ballroom last night stood a statue of a baseball pitcher--a statue made of ice. It was melting.
Around that symbolic statue, chatting and munching at a charity reception for tonight's Cracker Jack Old Timers Classic at RFK Stadium (8 o'clock), was one one of the most impressive collection of baseball celebrities ever assembled.
Certainly, your average Washington Senators game from 1901 to 1971 never offered Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Warren Spahn, Roy Sievers, Camilo Pascual, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Richie Ashburn, Robin Roberts, Bob Feller, Lou Brock, Alvin Dark, Bill Mazeroski, Don Larsen, Bobby Thomson, Hoyt Wilhelm, Mickey Vernon and a couple of dozen more.
Gentlemen, synchronize your pacemakers.
It's doubtful that even All-Star games, World Series and White House fetes that, over the years, brought baseball big names to Washington, ever gathered this many Hall of Famers in one place at one time. When the count is in--with folks like Brooks Robinson, Whitey Ford, Willie Mays and Harmon Killebrew reportedly on the way--the scorecard may reach such proportions that it will be necessary to decide when baseball ever got this many aristocrats together.
Some who can't be here are actually chagrined. Last week in the Mets dugout in Shea Stadium, Coach Frank Howard voluntarily lamented, "Jeeez, I'm sorry I can't get to that game in D.C. We're playin' on the West Coast that night. I just can't see flyin' out and back."
Six thousand miles, Frank? For a five-inning, half-speed exhibition?
This game, which has already sold more than 20,000 tickets, has had an almost unaccountable magnetism.
As 23-year Dodger Manager Walter Alston put it, "I've been to quite a few of these Old Timers games, but none of this caliber. This is the elite."
In recent years, baseball has developed a sort of old-timers circuit, all of those games being preludes to major league games. This Cracker Jack Classic appears to be the apotheosis of the genre--a top-dollar ticket for a game in which the oldsters are the sole attraction.
"A nice way to break up a summer and see some old friends," says Reese. "Also, it's for a good cause--a fund for retired ballplayers who have fallen on hard times. I think that's why you see the DiMaggios and Aarons here. We all came along before the real pension fund and we all probably know guys from our time who need some help."
"It's a good chance to kill yourself," says Ashburn, 55, a grandfather this week. "I've been beaned twice in these old-timers games--by Ryne Duren and Bobby Shantz. Robin Roberts nailed me in the side. I've pulled muscles.
"You tell yourself you're going to take it easy, but you get out there and say, 'If I run a little, I might have a hit here.' We're competitive people. We can't help our natures. That's the only trouble with with these games. The fans don't care. They accept our limits. But it still bothers us players."
"You know you can't do anything anymore, and everybody else knows it," says Reese. "They're saying, 'Look at this old goat.' But you still say to yourself, 'I'm gonna show these people what I can still do.' "
The powerful pull of these games is camaraderie; old-timer games are, pure and simple, baseball's equivalent of college reunions.
Illustrations are everywhere.
Smoky Burgess says, "I'm looking for Bob Friend, Bill Mazeroski and Dick Groat. This is a reunion of the (world champion) '60 Pirates."
Burgess gathers with Roberts, Ashburn and Lew Burdette to recall the greatest game ever pitched--Harvey Haddix's 12-inning perfect game. "I caught it," says Burgess. "Must not have been such a lousy catcher . . . (Burdette) was the opposing pitcher and every time he came up--third inning, sixth, ninth, 12th--he kept saying, 'Watch out, Smoky. I'm gonna break it up.' "
Sievers and Pascual recall the day that the Hollywood folks from "Damn Yankees" came to film the lowly Senators against the Yankees.
Sievers, now gray and distinguished looking, picked that one day to hit "two homers and a double." That, by luck, made him Joe Hardy in the film. "Every time that movie's on TV, the guys in my office (in a truck company in St. Louis) razz me . . . I wish I had a print of that movie."
Pascual, unfortunately, picked that day to have Mickey Mantle go deep against him twice. "I'm in that movie three times," he said, "and I'm always spinning around, looking over my shoulder to watch Mantle's drives."
At this reception, it is the fans--attending at $50 a pop, proceeds to charity--who wear the name tags, while the players are incognito and in many cases unnoticed, their camouflage the most impenetrable of all--age.
"A lot of these guys miss the celebrity part of the game. They act like they really miss it," says Ashburn, now a Phillie broadcaster. "Like Bill Bradley said in his book, when you retire from sports, you leave the cocoon. It's almost like you're preparing to die. You get all your affairs in order. The young come to you for advice."
That element of pathos is undeniable. Yet Larry Doby sees the other side clearly: "These games make me feel good because so many of your old friends are healthy and in decent shape and doing well."
A recent retiree, former Senator and American League ERA champ Dick Bosman, senses both sides of this coin of age. He looks at the middle-aged men around him, the few old men, not one of whom recognizes him as one of their own--he's too young.
"When you judge," says Bosman, speaking of the gathering in general, "be kind."
That's easy. True, the ice sculpture in their midst is melting fast, accelerating the aging process even more dramatically than their game. But, even as the features drip away, it remains recognizable.
Anybody can tell it's still a ballplayer.