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Tom Watson

Tom Watson

Posted January 4, 2009 | 11:50 AM (EST)

Amidst Global Meltdown, 52-Year-Old Baseball Brews a Cup of Winter Warmth


When times were tough and people were tougher, media came in two flavors: black and white, all shadows and light with a clear line between good and evil (or so we thought). In another two weeks, we may all receive a massive inoculation of optimism in full, living color as our new president calls a generation or two of us to national action - but at the tail-end of this endless cloistered holiday in winter quarters, the flickering shadows call us. From his perch high above the West Side, Jim Wolcott looks east across the city of another era, to the epic struggle of another generation:

Every citizen-deadbeat in this country should be instructed to watch The World at War, an epic, riveting demonstration that, historically speaking, we have nothing really to whine about, not that that will stop us. Skip the episode on U-boats and wolf packs (too many tedious talking heads) and watch the Stalingrad and Red Star (siege of Leningrad) episodes back to back, and prepare to shiver. Laurence Olivier's narration--it's like listening to the eternal voice of the sea, if the ocean were noble and wise and had its own dressing room.

Personally, I preferred a gingerbread cookie to the horsemeat death grind of Stalingrad and so this weekend, I luxuriated in the sweet narration of "the Olivier of 161st Street" - aka Mel Allen - in the brilliant, full-game black and white cinescope rescue of Don Larson's perfect game in the 1956 World Series, featured this New Year's week in the canny from-the-archives debut of the new MLB network.

The voices of Allen and his smooth Flatbush counterpart, young Vincent Scully, wash over the proceedings at the old Yankee Stadium like cool and sudsy vendor-poured beer in those long October shadows. This is the time of year when we're farthest from those familiar baseball patterns, deepest into the winter sports freeze, and the fascinating full-body baptismal immersion that is the experience of watching this 52-year-old bit of black and white sports media spreads a most welcome warmth.

In the fifth inning, Gil Hodges - the 32-year-old Brooklyn veteran and should-be Hall of Famer - rips a long drive to left center, headed toward the 457 sign to the left of the Monuments to Huggins, Ruth and Gehrig. Allen's voice rises with the liner: "There's a line drive to left center! Mantle still going, still going - great catch! How about that!"

So many details from the production and setting. No instant replay. No names on the uniforms. The single television sponsor: Gillette's new three-track razor, available with a pocket version of the Baseball Encyclopedia for a buck. ("Not a bristle!" marvels Casey Stengel, running a gnarled hand over his chin in the locker-room ad with Allen.)  Coats and ties in the stands. Uniformed ushers in peaked caps patrol the aisles. At the end of the game, the fans in the box seats simply walk onto the field and stream towards the exits in the outfield along River Avenue.

And the great baseball names. There's Jackie Robinson charging a grounder by Bobby Richardson and firing to Hodges for the out. Sal Maglie, the ancient Giant pitching in his last Series game for his old rivals in Brooklyn, nearly matches Larson in excellence - indeed, his breaking stuff looks phenomenal even on the cinescope wash. There's Carl Hubbell, a ghost from another era, visiting the broadcast booth to chat with Mel Allen. Frank Crosetti, teammate of Ruth and Gehrig, coaches third for the Yankees. Late-season pick-up Enos "Country" Slaughter, famed for his St. Louis dashes, patrols left for New York. The massive Roy Campanella faces Larson with a menacing open stance. Centerfielder Duke Snider is noticeably faster than Mickey Mantle, and smashes a rocketing upper deck shot - just foul - in the fourth inning. Mantle's own line-drive homer inside the foul pole in right puts the Yankees on the board in the next inning, followed by an incredible diving catch in left-center by Snider of a sinking smash by Yogi Berra.

The unparalleled feat of Larson, pitching with no wind-up, is almost secondary - at least to me. It's the great tableau of baseball history unfolding in a single game that works its magic of escape and entertainment and curiosity.

Simpler times, some will mutter - the 50s of Ike and Mickey Mantle, post-Korea and pre-Vietnam. That kind of wishing cultural whimpering is just too easy. Better to simply appreciate the sound and the form and those shadows.

Besides, baseball ghosts are being turned out into this winter's wind by the dugout-full. Out in Corona (not Flushing), that beloved steel and concrete dump of my youth, Shea Stadium, lies like a decommissioned warship, the ribs of its once-proud hull - coated with generations of LaGuardia-bound jet fuel and watery Rheingold - lie bleaching and exposed in the thin January sun.

In the Bronx: the grossest epithet of non-preservation by a city that undervalues culture and its own history. A facsimile rises. The real thing, the broad and green playing field below the courthouse where the greats wrote the story of the game, is abandoned with a wave of churlish ignorance. Abandoned to the luxury boxes and restaurants that make up the new sporting playground designed for very rich men. Abandoned to an era of lavish accommodation and a criminal's gambling leverage that is very plainly coming to its stunning and impoverishing end.