Return to innocence Tired of today's big business, fans drawn by remnants of baseball's past

July 11, 1991|By Stan Hochman | Stan Hochman,Philadelphia Daily News

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 rightfield 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 'Captain 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."

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.

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 pe

nurious 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.

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

There were only eight teams in each league back then. Jobs were scarce, farm systems were productive, big-leaguers had to hustle all the time, slide hard, challenge fences, bunt a man over, hit the cutoff man.

If they didn't, some young kid making the minimum ($6,500) would take his place. Which is why the players seem more skilled then, more competitive.

They were motivated by fear, which goes back further than Abner Doubleday, all the way to Abner Neanderthal.

Players played harder, were kinder to the media, gentler with the fans, because the alternative was pumping gas in San Bernardino.

There are just as many superstars now, but they are spread among 26 teams, surrounded by so many apathetic, unskilled journeymen.

The game on the field was better, livelier, in the old days. But The Game wasn't fairer, simpler or purer.

It was unfair, impure, corrupt and truly un-American. It survived and prospered because there were enough skilled, willing, charismatic ballplayers whom folks wanted to watch, up close, in cozy ballparks with odd angles that created bizarre, memorable plays.

Most of the old ballparks are gone. All of the old ballplayers are gone. The Game is very different now, cluttered with whimpering, simpering millionaires, ignorant of tradition.

Nostalgia, like justice, wears a blindfold. But this one has a logo and is for sale on the Home Shopping Network for $19.95, autographed by Bob Feller.

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