Baseball's early days revisited HBO special offers much to see, hear


July 05, 1991|By RAY FRAGER

Sun columnist Mike Littwin has written that he likes the idea of baseball more than the game itself. Whether or not you share this feeling, if you have any interest in baseball, Home Box Office's "When It Was a Game" (Monday, 10 p.m.) is an all-star entertainment to precede the major-league All-Star Game.

Little sports programming can be called unique, but this show truly is. Though covering the major leagues' well-documented period of the 1930s through the '50s, the hourlong program is composed of color home movies, culled from sources tracked down by George Roy and Steve Stern of Black Canyon Productions.

Are there any revelations? Not really. (Though it is pretty neat -- see how baseball can make you sound like a kid? -- to see Wrigley Field before its outfield walls were covered with ivy and Fenway's Green Monster before it was green.) But "When It Was a Game," much like the sport, isn't about revelation, it's about revisiting. This program is about the idea of baseball, as Littwin wrote, how it connects across generations. Even if the show revisits an era that predates the fan, that hardly matters.

If you don't recognize the faces, then you recognize the uniforms. If you don't recognize the uniforms, then you recognize the names. If you don't recognize the names, then ask a friend or neighbor -- chances are that he does.

The images may be slightly out of focus and grainy, and maybe the color is a little off, but that probably adds to their charm. Anyway, the technical quality isn't so bad that a viewer can't recognize what he's seeing. And there is so much to see:

* Pepper Martin going through his ball-juggling routine.

* Jackie Robinson bunting and attacking the base paths.

* Ted Williams swinging that perfect swing.

* Joe DiMaggio sailing across the field.

* Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays looking so young and fresh.

In addition, there is much to hear, with old ballplayers (Bob Feller, Tommy Heinrich, Duke Snider among them) describing the game in their words and actors James Earl Jones, Jason Robards and Roy Scheider describing it in the words of noted writers.

Calling the program "When It Was a Game" is to imply that baseball today is not just a game. Though we know baseball was always a business for the people who ran the game and the rest of us were just a little slow to catch on to that, the title is entirely appropriate.

The baseball of our memory is solely a game. That memory can be of Stan Musial doubling at Ebbets Field or of Carlton Fisk waving a World Series homer to stay fair. Does Andy Messersmith's free-agent signing hold a special place in anyone's heart, save Marvin Miller's?

Among our sports, only baseball can put a lump in the throat. At the end of "Field of Dreams," would anyone have gotten choked up if Kevin Costner's character had tossed a football or shot hoops with his dad? No, they played catch.

My favorite image from "When It Was a Game" is of players departing the field for their team's turn at bat. As was the custom, they left their gloves on the field, to be retrieved in a half-inning. The gloves and the players seemed to float with the joy of baseball. For an hour, "When It Was a Game" lets you float along.


CBS will carry the All-Star Game (Tuesday, 8 p.m., Channels 11 and 9) with play-by-play announcer Jack Buck, analyst Tim McCarver, pre-game host Pat O'Brien and reporter Jim Kaat.

Kaat, like McCarver, played in All-Star Games during his career.

"As a player, you look forward to making it, because you always want to be recognized as the best," Kaat said. "The game itself -- and I see this more as a broadcaster -- is an exhibition."

Kaat will be interviewing players as they come out of the game.

"You catch them in a little more relaxed atmosphere," he said "You catch them being a little more like a kid."

Which is how it was for Kaat his first time picked for the game.

"Just being on the team in 1962, some of the players who were on the team, they were players I read about as a kid," he said.

* ESPN's All-Star programming Monday will include reports from Toronto during "SportsCenter," "All-Star Salute" at 8 p.m. and same-day tape of an old-timers' game featuring former All-Stars Brooks Robinson, Reggie Jackson and Ernie Banks. . . . Soccer must be entering the mainstream. CBS/Fox will release what it says is the first non-instructional soccer video next month. Tape of top soccer competition in "Goals Galore" will capture 100 goals in 20 minutes. Sounds like something to keep handy for the World Cup in 1994, when there might not be 100 goals in 20 games.

* With its tripleheader yesterday thrown in, ESPN will have televised 23 of the 26 major-league teams -- counting backup games -- during June 30-July 5. . . . On Wednesday at 10:30 p.m., ESPN will have a half-year best of "SportsCenter." A special guest will be wise guy David Letterman, who will provide his own top 10 list of "SportsCenter" highlights. . . . During Saturday night's Atlanta Braves-Los Angeles Dodgers telecast on TBS, a replay clearly showed an umpire's missed call that would have ended the game with the Dodgers winning (they ended up winning in extra innings anyway). After presenting the video evidence, TBS' Skip Caray said: "The replay shows he caught it, but don't tell anyone."

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