As the cold Wisconsin winter continues to dig in its heels with healthy rounds of snow and cold temperatures, I’ve been trying to immerse myself into warm-weather thoughts. The Pro Bowl in Hawaii worked for a little bit, and the Golf Channel – with all those lush greens down South – is good therapy.
However, I turned to something more tried and true – the verdant turf of the baseball field. Now that spring training has arrived, the warm thoughts of baseball do wonders for the soul. But I’ve taken it a step further of late and immersed myself in the baseball of days gone by.
This has occurred in a number of ways, from simultaneously reading Veeck As In Wreck and Leo Durocher’s Nice Guys Finish Last to having the privilege of editing George Vrechek’s “Super-Senior All-Stars” and interviewing John Baker about his friendship with Phil Niekro. As you might imagine, those topics cover quite a bit of baseball history, but it’s sure fun to read about how the game has changed and how many characteristics also remain the same.
Not everyone gets the chance to become close friends with a ballplayer, such as John Baker has become with Niekro (see the Mar. 8 issue of SCD). Often, our “insight” into a player’s life comes secondhand through a writer’s pen or an interviewer’s words. The questions asked during an interview or the angle taken in a column dictate certain answers, often leaving us wanting more and, usually, a more direct answer.
Today’s athletes have canned answers and seem to take great pride in trying to use as many clichés as possible. Even with exponentially more coverage of these players, you seem to know less about them than ever before.
That’s why the tales of older players are so much more fun. In decades past, much of the off-the-field commotion was not made public by writers. That’s why biographies of former players and executives are so much fun to read. You learn how teams managed with players who enjoyed nights on the town seven days a week and how certain ballpark attractions came into play because owners were frantically searching for new ways to make a buck.
Probably a reason these tales are so fascinating is because it shows how the game matured before our very eyes. (OK, not mine, but that’s why I’d much rather read about Leo Durocher vs. David Ortiz.)
When I was younger, I often wished I had a ballplayer living next door to listen to his stories and say to my buddies, “Guess who I know.” Years later, I’ve come to realize I might not particularly care for having a ballplayer as a neighbor. Ballplayers are people, after all, and not all of them are outgoing or friendly. Just because they played professionally doesn’t mean they’d necessarily want to sit on your porch, sip lemonade and tell tall tales.
That’s why Baker’s story is so intriguing, because his relationship with Niekro goes much further than simply wondering what it was like to play under Billy Hitchcock and Billy Martin.
SCD readers, do you retain relationships with athletes you’ve met over the years? Let’s hear about them. In the meantime, I’ll continue to sneak back decades in time to baseball’s past, adding a few more nuggets in my mind as to how the baseball foundation was laid.