Why are fans, as well as the greatest of former players, so attracted to baseball old-timers' games?
In an age saturated with sports, how can a cheerful nonevent like the Cracker Jack Old Timers Classic draw 30,000 people to Washington's RFK Stadium, as it did last July and probably will again on Monday night?
In recent years, an oldsters' circuit has developed, with retired players building their summers around visits to various cities for reunions, charity work and goofy games.
Two weeks ago in Chicago, more than 26,000 fans paid to watch an old-timers' game on the eve of the 50th All-Star Game. Plenty of modern stars like Bill Madlock and Willie McGee thought the oldsters game outshone their own.
There's no one answer to this mini-phenomenon. Perhaps Americans are merely celebrity-struck and can't resist a marquee with names like Aaron, DiMaggio, Killebrew, Kaline, Banks, Wynn, Spahn, Marichal, Drysdale, Feller, Roberts and Brock. In all, 63 instantly recognizable names are lined up for this year's Cracker Jack. Old Timers aren't no-shows.
Also, it's possible that names like Kell and Rizzuto, Kluszewski and Kiner, Ashburn and Dickey conjure up an innocent age when players didn't threaten to go free agent unless they got a $10-million contract.
Enos Slaughter never demanded a bonus for not being overweight. Vinegar Bend Mizell never said, "I don't give interviews." Allie Reynolds never charged a fee for his autograph. Mickey Vernon never missed a month so he could get a drug monkey off his back and then, when his pay was docked, had his union file a grievance to get what he never earned.
However, it's unlikely that mere star-gazing or nostalgia is at the root of the '80s old-timers revival. Last July at RFK Stadium, the seats were filled with fans of all ages and descriptions. Memorabilia nuts and bizarros in Washington Senators batting helmets mixed with senior citizens who could remember Joltin' Joe as a rookie. But, for the most part, that crowd resembled any other mass sports gathering--heavy on young married couples with small children and teen-agers on dates. That night, it seemed possible that many, perhaps most, in the crowd were seeing these players for the first time.
Every sport has its sense of tradition, its revered former stars, but nowhere is that affection for what is past and passing so strong as in basebal.
It's one of baseball's blessings that the game can be played at half-speed with little distortion. Of con Warren Spahn tossed a pitch to Luke Appling last year, everybody knew a 10-year-old could have caught the ball barehanded. But tidn't detract from the sight of the 75-year-old Appling hitting the ball into the left field stands.
In Spahn's delivery and Appling's swing, all the lineaments of their youth wecause baseball isolates its players on the mound and at the plate, we become intimately familiar with each man's face and form. When Spahn kicks now, we can see enough to remember the rest. When Aaron cocks his, or Brooks Robinson goes into his preparatory crouch at third, we are thrilled. Something we thought had disappeared still exists.
Old-timers games are, as much as anything, abration of a particularly American individualism that stands at the core of baseball. We often say baseball is "an individual team game" andtend that teamwork and the fate of the group is what concerns us primarily. But that's not true.
Baseball draws forth the exceptional manom the group, celebrates his uniqueness, glorifies his deeds and makes indelible even his casual gestures.
We are moved by these old hero partly because of our soft sorrow at seeing them grow older, but it's just as true that we are pleased to see them, at last, in p human proportion. Once, perhaps, we wanted them to be myths but, before we say goodbye, we'd like to see them simply as our fellow men.
A 55-year-old Hall of Famer looks much like any other middle-aged man. And he's much less forbidding, and usually more gracious, than a current star. Thdsters appreciate their public, having been denied it by retirement. Even those like Aaron and DiMaggio, Maris and Brock, who, in their prime, grew disgusted with the public eye, now find that gaze warm and easake.
Those fans who come to RFK on Monday will not, for the most part, be there to pine for a better age. Baseball has seldom been in such good health. The modern gameits own against chronicles of the Roaring '20s or memories of the '46-'59 Golden Age. The cheers on Monday evening will have another source.
An old-timers game is one long commuing at all our commonly held memories.
When Stan Musial, who is convalescing from an ulcer, comes out for his introduction at such games,ve; he goes into that coiled stance which, 'twas said, looked like a kid looking around a corner to see if the cops were coming. The crowd l year because it is one of our ways of reasserting that a man can leave his signature on his world. Such a signot be erased from the pages of our memory by so powerless a force as age.
Yes, powerless. For one night, we insist that arthritis and fannot damage the record a man has left beside his name. If we once found his work good or even if he met the sters and grandfathers, then that measure of him stands for all baseball time.