America’s favorite pastime

14

Evans “Buddy” King

The Major League Baseball All-Star Game was this week. Since I am a huge baseball fan, you might think this is a great thing, that this would be a special week. My week.


But all the way back to my childhood, this was one of the worst weeks of the summer. Even now it’s a downer. Four days with only ONE game! Thankfully, when I was a kid, it was only a three day break, but still that was three days too many without baseball.

This comes from a guy who probably lived in the era of the greatest All-Stars ever – the National League team had an outfield of Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.

Frank Robinson, one of the greatest players of his era, couldn’t even make the starting lineup! Pete Rose and Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal were on the NL squad too. The American League had Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and Roger Maris and Carl Yastrzemski and Harmon Killebrew. I could go on and on.

These names may not mean much to some readers, but rest assured these are some of the best players ever to play this wondrous game. And even with that, I hated the “interruption” brought about by the All-Star game. No games that meant anything for three whole days!

A single day of the greatest stars ever on one field at one time couldn’t fill the void in my 11 and 12 year old life brought about by the All-Star break.

You might think from reading thus far (I hope I haven’t lost everyone) that I missed the games on television during this break. But no, in this era, the early and mid-60s, there were no televised weekday games in a place like Christiansburg.

We were not in any local team’s market. In fact, I am not even sure where the closest team was – maybe Washington, maybe Cincinnati or maybe Pittsburgh. After the Braves moved to Atlanta; maybe that was it.

Who knew? People who don’t know where Christiansburg is, but know it’s in Virginia, would assume D.C. or Baltimore. As a persistent and worldly crow would fly, that was probably right.

But, given the roads out of southwest Virginia at that time, Washington and Baltimore were distant cities too. To this day, I have been to D.C. fewer than 10 times I bet, which is 10 times too many. As my friend Hank (a devoted Red Sox follower) says about Yankee Stadium, “I didn’t lose anything there, no reason to go.”

I simply missed the games on the radio, the box scores in the paper, the caring about whether my team won that day and the discussions with my Dad.

Yes, I was the classic “transistor radio in the bed at night kid,” listening to the artists of baseball broadcasting like Harry Caray and Mel Allen and Harry Kalas and Bob Prince.

Sadly, in the mountains of Virginia, reception was sketchy at best and we couldn’t pick up West Coast stations airing the Pavarotti of baseball announcers, the inimitable Vin Scully of the Dodgers.

Most nights, listening to baseball on my tiny radio was like eating a bowl of Rice Krispies – snap, crackle and pop. But you gleaned what you could and hoped for enough static-free moments to catch the score at the end of the inning.

Sometimes my Dad would come in my room and check on me, telling me I needed my sleep, to turn off the radio. But he always asked the scores.

You might think baseball was my favorite sport to play – and I did love it. But football was my first love in school. Some of the most “alive” moments of my life were Friday nights, playing for the Blue Demons.

Baseball is a game of skill; football (at the high school level I played at) was a game of desire and effort. I was a decent football player, certainly not great, but I could pursue and tackle through sheer desire. All the desire and effort in the world could not make me a good hitter, could not help me hit a curve ball. It made me respect baseball all the more.

It wasn’t just the sport itself that fascinated me, that made me a captive. Part of the allure of baseball was that the games were played in the major cities of our country. Exotic places like New York and Chicago and Boston and Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The games were played in “ballparks” for the most part, not “stadiums.” I found, and find it comforting, that Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice and Manny Ramirez all stood in the same spot of grass in left field at Fenway Park from 1939 to 2008. There were many such cathedrals of the game when I was a child.

The few televised games on weekends gave me glimpses of America that I had no other way to know about. There were the nuns (nothing you saw in Christiansburg) in the right field bleachers at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, the beautiful bay behind the fences at Candlestick in San Francisco, the rooftops at Wrigley, the hills and palm trees in LA, the Citgo sign in Boston.

There was excitement that the games were played on emerald green pastures smack dab in the middle of bustling city streets.

There was also a broader worldview that baseball brought to me. In the early 60s, I didn’t have much experience with people of color. Integration of our schools was a few years away. But baseball gave me the Willie’s – Mays and McCovey, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente and Bob Gibson.

In fact, I was so fascinated with their skills and audacity that I dropped Mickey and the all white Yankees, much to my father’s pleasure (a lifelong Sox fan), for the LA Dodgers – the team of Maury Wills, John Roseboro, the Davises (Tommy and Willie), Jim Gilliam and Lou Johnson.

I became so devoted to the Dodgers that I would walk downtown to Miller Drug to buy the afternoon paper just for the Dodgers score, the games from the West Coast ending too late to make the morning edition.

So baseball has always been the background music of my life. A connection to family and friends, a gateway to a larger America. I know the issues that fashionable sports writers like to raise with the game today. I understand many think that it’s too slow, that there is not enough action, that the traditions are not in keeping with the way the world is now, etc.

I will offer a rebuttal to those arguments another day. This column is just about how important the game was to a small town kid in the 60s.

Plus, what’s so wrong about a game that gives you a rhythm to your summers and your life?

Evans “Buddy” King grew up in Christiansburg and graduated from CHS in 1971. He lives in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where he practices law with the firm of Steptoe and Johnson PLLC.