Sport's good old days weren't really that great

July 10, 1991|By Stan Hochman | Stan Hochman,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- Wooden bats and woolen hats and shirts bearing the names of dead teams, out of America's attics and into its stores and into the eager arms of kids who will never, ever know the joy of watching a line drive screech toward right-center in Ebbets Field on the chance it might clatter off the Abe Stark sign at the base of the scoreboard, the yellow sign with the pledge, "Hit Sign, Win Suit."

"People," explains sports psychologist Joel Fish, "are looking back at simpler times, fairer times, purer times, times when the game was a game.

"It's so blatantly obvious that baseball is a business now."

So that's why they're building a new ballpark in Baltimore designed to look old. A ballpark with real grass and brick walls and a warehouse out beyond the right-field fence.

And why sales of wooden Louisville Sluggers rose 50 percent last year.

And why caps with the old White Sox logo are selling like crazy, along with Brooklyn shirts and Mickey Mantle autographs.

"Part of the beauty of the game," Fish says, "is its oral history. The game is communicated from father to son.

"People have a soft spot for tradition. A kid puts on an old uniform and it gives him a chance to relate to what his father, his grandfather knew.

"People tend to remember the best things about the past. Particularly in times of change, in times of turmoil.

"Right now, there are so many mixed feelings, built around the money, around the attitude players seem to have.

"The fans are interested in remembering the way things used to be. When the game was much more pure, more basic."

"There are no sports heroes today," says Ellen Hollin, marketing director for MVP Specialties. "The heroes are of yesterday.

"Sports today seems tainted. Nostalgia is everywhere. Kids are buying wooden bats because they like the sound the bat makes.

"Why are they playing so many Beatles songs? Why do my kids want me to rent 'Captains Courageous' from the video store?"

"We gave away 29,000 of those [1957] caps," says Phillies promotions director Frank Sullivan. "More than we've ever given away.

"Next year, it's going to be the '48 cap, the blue cap with the red 'P' outlined in white, with a red bill.

"We'll keep going back in history. People want to relate to the past, when it was pure baseball."

"It's a fashion statement," says Jeff Stevens, merchandise director for the Hall of Fame. "Teen-agers want unique caps, not the one they see Jose Canseco wearing on television.

"They want that old Philadelphia A's cap, blue, with the ornate white 'A.'

"The purist wants wooden bats and grass fields and no designated hitter. People seem turned off to the high salaries. They long for the times when baseball used to be baseball."

Lemmings, all of them lemmings, stampeding toward the edge of a cliff in their haste to get away from crime and violence and the homeless sleeping on steam vents.

Lemmings, hurtling back to the future, wearing new-old Brooklyn shirts and new-old White Sox caps swinging new-old Joe DiMaggio bats, longing for a time when baseball was pure.

Aware of only the smallest, simplest, sunniest piece of baseball history.

Who is behind this nostalgia craze, the ghost of Walter O'Malley, who abandoned Brooklyn for the Elysian fields of Los Angeles?

Or is it the spirit of Charles Comiskey, the penny-pinching owner of the White Sox, whose players dumped a World Series?

How far back do you want to go? The game reeked of bigotry 50 years ago, white as cotton.

Forty years ago, sure, finally integrated, but still run like a plantation.

It wasn't until 25 years ago that the field hands gained some

control over their fate, their working conditions.

Baseball has always been a business, never just a game. The owners ignored the Constitution, with the blessing of the Supreme Court, shackling the players forever with the reserve clause.

The owners were a selfish and greedy bunch. The writers were selfish and greedy, too, unwilling to risk blowing six weeks in Florida and the best assignment on the newspaper by throwing darts at skinflint management.

The lemmings had to love that sentimental show on HBO Monday night, all that 16mm footage of the Gashouse Gang and Joltin' Joe, the baggy uniforms and the Abe Stark sign and Willie, Mickey and the Duke.

If you listened closely, though, you heard Enos "Country" Slaughter moan about having to buy his own sandwich between games of a doubleheader, and whine about the long, dusty train rides to play an exhibition game scheduled by penurious Branch Rickey.

If "Country" hadn't been so country, he might have gotten into the Hall of Fame a lot sooner, but that's another story.

And so is his twangy description of knockdown pitches, remembering how he'd get even, when a pitcher had to cover first base and he'd "cut the legs out from under him."

When the lemmings get misty-eyed watching that old film, and ZTC then line up for those old hats, is it the hat they want, or the memory of the guys who wore the hat?

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