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Twilight of the Gods

Once there were All Stars for all time.

By 7.13.09

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While I'm certainly not the baseball fan I was when I was a kid, I did catch a few innings of a Colorado Rockies (the team that competes with the Seattle Mariners for Idaho's major league allegiance) game on TV at a friend's house the other night. I realize that most major league players aren't tainted by the steroid scandals of the last few years, but to watch a game nowadays is to view an exhibition of brawn. There are few guys as skinny as "The Splendid Splinter" Ted Williams stepping up to the plate. With the annual Major League All Star game coming up, all this reminds me of another one of those dog-eared paperbacks on my shelves that I sometimes write about.

It's titled The Greatest in Baseball (titles like that are conspicuously absent in our contemporary anti-hero culture), and its author is Mac Davis, an old-school sportswriter who's meager trail on Google leaves me perplexed as to whether he's even alive. The book was published in 1962, and I got it through the "Scholastic Book Services" club in my Catholic grade school in 1967 at its third printing.

The Greatest in Baseball weighs in at a scant 96 pages, and is a thumbnail sketch collection (complete with black and white photos) of 32 men who, as of 1962, had either been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York (Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, et al.) or were likely to be after retirement and the five-year waiting period had elapsed (Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, et al.). It seems that because of editorial restrictions, Mr. Davis omitted dozens of great Hall of Famers. In the Introduction he writes: "Perhaps not all of the players I have chosen will stand unchallenged as the greatest of all time. But for today, at least, they are as great as any others who ever played the game."

As I read through the book I come across all those great statistics (baseball may be the only human endeavor with statistics actually interesting). Numbers that a kid in 1962 would have believed were etched in stone. Though 47 years show several hallowed records broken (Ruth's 714 home runs; Cobb's 4,191 hits; Gehrig's 2,130 consecutive games), while others remain untouched, if not untouchable (Cy Young's 511 pitching victories; Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak; Rogers Hornsby's .424 single season batting average).

A look at the photographs of some of the authors of those amazing numbers show guys that, well, probably didn't have personal trainers. George Sisler and Walter Johnson look scrawny in oversized uniforms that must have flapped in the breeze. Eddie Collins weighed 150 pounds. James "Rabbit" Maranville  at 5'5" was the size of a modern junior high school athlete. Babe Ruth's picture is out of context in that it was taken at Yankee Stadium on a day designated in his honor not long before his death in 1948. He walks toward the camera grinning and swinging a bat, but those Yankee pinstripes hang on his cancer-ridden body like a scarecrow. Two decades earlier in his prime Ruth certainly filled out his uniform, as old newsreels show the high-living, pot-bellied home run king trotting around the bases on stick-like legs.

Some photos display a grinning American optimism sorely lacking today. Lou Gehrig actually looks like Gary Cooper, who handsomely and tragically played him in the film biography, The Pride of the Yankees. "The Yankee Clipper" Joe DiMaggio confidently swings the bat as he approaches home plate in what looks like a rural, spring training setting. Jackie Robinson smilingly does the same, and looks off intently into the distance as if wondering what the future significance of his being the first black man to break into the major leagues will be.

Then there's the money. We're all familiar with the astronomical salaries earned by an Alex Rodriguez or a Derek Jeter. Joe DiMaggio at the height of his career made $100,000 per year. Others far less. It was common for off-season major leaguers in the 1940s-'50s to have second jobs. Their athletic fame made it possible to be associated with nightclubs, restaurants and car dealerships, and to spend much time glad-handing customers. I remember as a kid watching those amusing animated Yoo-Hoo television commercials, where a cartoon Yogi Berra hawked that tasty chocolate drink ("Me Hee for Yoo Hoo"). Yogi was not only a great catcher, but a pioneer in the endorsements game. (He's one of Mac Davis's "greatest" still with us, along with Mays, Bob Feller. and Stan Musial.)

In his classic New Yorker baseball piece on Ted Williams' last at-bat home run at Boston's Fenway Park, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," the late John Updike tells us that "The Splendid Splinter" didn't tip his hat to the crowd, nor come out of the dugout. This was because "Gods do not answer letters." It was a different time. "The Yankee Clipper" used to smoke cigarettes in the dugout. In his spare time, Willie Mays played stickball with neighborhood kids on the streets of New York. The Greatest in Baseball informs us that Williams, Mays, Warren Spahn, and Bob Feller all served in the U.S. military. Pitcher Feller, when elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962, was asked by a reporter who he had to thank for a career that saw 266 victories and 2,581 strikeouts (despite a four-year hiatus for World War ll service). "My father," he simply said.

My God, what happened to all those baseball cards?

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.