A Means of Coping

Even in baseball’s absence, it’s still here.

Everything’s out of whack. You don’t need to be mainlining CNN to know that. Maybe you haven’t spoken to another flesh-and-blood human being for days. Possibly, you’re working from home, or worse, find yourself without a job entirely. Almost certainly, if you’re reading this, you’re missing baseball. If you use baseball to mark the seasons, these longer days would, under normal circumstances, portend the last few stress-free days of spring training and the imminence of Opening Day, the moment of deliverance from our long period of privation. 

But these aren’t normal circumstances.

No live baseball and no hope of it anytime soon has me filling the void any way I can. I’m reading about baseball, of course. Not the daily output of the beat writers, mind you, because there’s no news to report, no matter how hard they’re digging. Instead, books (some old and some new) help soothe a bit of the ache in these moments. But they can’t replace the way baseball, when all is going as it should, fills in the cracks that emerge throughout the day, which I typically soundtrack with a background game. Making dinner, cleaning the dishes, whatever. The TV’s reassuring glow, the announcers’ voices, the crowd’s reedy murmur, the sweet, utterly ignorable presence of it.

In the absence of anything resembling the commonplace, I find myself reaching into my bag for the trick that gets me through winter’s coldest, darkest, most remote days: plumbing the depths of YouTube for old ballgames to watch, listen to, ignore. That there is no live baseball on the horizon only lends the act a greater urgency.

To get you started, type “NBC GOW” into YouTube’s search box to unlock a few decades’ worth of Game of the Week broadcasts, distant Saturday afternoons encased in digital amber.

“…and that’s in there,” says Vin Scully of a Jack Morris fastball to Carlton Fisk. It’s April of 1984, early in the Tigers’ incredible run at the beginning of their championship season. Morris is just beginning to no-hit Tony La Russa’s White Sox. Big Greg Luzinski (“Here comes a butter and egg man,” says Vin) puts his weight behind a Morris offering and knocks it toward center, only to have the Chicago breeze nudge it down where it settles into Chet Lemon’s glove.

Or jump back a few years to watch the South Siders in their goofy collared uniforms take on Jim Clancy and the Blue Jays in August of 1980. Harry Caray on the call, sharing Marine Corps jokes off air with his color man, Jimmy Piersall, the two chuckling knowingly when they return from 90 seconds of Miller Lite, Oldsmobile and Sears commercials, theirs a private, jocular conversation viewers only happen to hear.

An instalment of ABC’s Monday Night Baseball from June, 1976 has Billy Martin and the Yankees in Detroit to face the Tigers behind their eccentric rookie and sudden pitching star Mark Fidrych. Near the top of the broadcast, the Yanks introduce themselves.

Roy White, left field, Wayne, New Jersey,” says the leadoff man, looking straight into the camera.

“Uh, Oscar Gamble, right field, Montgomery, Alabama,” says the man with the most famous afro in baseball history.

“Billy Martin, manager,” says the embattled skipper, “Born: Berkeley, California. Died: New York.”

On the other end of another link, the Seattle Pilots steal one on a Sunday afternoon at Fenway, thanks to eight-plus strong innings from Mike Marshall. It will be one of the 64 wins the Pilots will collect in their only season of existence.

To hopscotch over the videos on offer is to trace eras of announcing (Red Barber’s southern loquaciousness, Bob Prince’s stern verbal stenography, Caray’s lubricated looseness, and Vin — timeless Vin), the history of fashion (Tony Kubek doing pregame interviews in a riotous sports coat), and changes in the game (gone are the exuberant windmill delivery, bloused pants, the extended stirrup with tight pants and pullover jersey, the ponderous ritual of the intentional-walk pitchout).

For all its prideful stubbornness, baseball has evolved, but in the virtual stream it becomes an ahistorical soup, the ’77 Yankees rubbing up against the 2001 Mariners and the ’68 Cardinals. We Are Family and the Big Red Machine and the Cardiac Kids and the Amazin’s and Nos Amours. Exhibitions, early-season snoozers, All-Star Games, World Series nail-biters. In YouTube’s chronological blender, Ken Griffey Jr. is always chugging around third on Edgar’s double to beat the Yankees, Mark Fidrych is always a goofy, charismatic rookie phenom on the rise, and Ichiro is always delivering a long-distance precision strike to nab Terrence Long at third. Picture quality careens from black-and-white abstraction to grainy videotape—but it’s all baseball, and at this moment that’s all I need it to be. 

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Here, on offer at all hours, to anyone with internet access, resides the shapeless, casual joy of time-hopping between events of no great consequence. These days, there’s decadence to be found in triviality.

Some of the videos were posted by an arm on MLB’s vast organizational chart, but most seem to have been uploaded by individual hobbyists operating under clunky pseudonyms. There’s a sense, when sifting through this archive, that the videos all rest on precarious ground. MLB is concerned primarily, I don’t need to tell you, with protecting its property and profits. Surely only anonymity or scale—the puniness of those responsible for uploading these converted VHS dubs to YouTube’s limitless body has led them to be overlooked by the massive and ungainly body responsible for the ownership and steerage of big-league baseball—protects them. Whatever the cause, whether legal lassitude, corporate benevolence, or pesky contractual loophole, let’s agree it’s in our collective interest these artifacts persist free of charge for as long as possible.

Mel Allen narrates the action during Game Seven of the 1952 Series, Brooklyn vs. New York, the Yankees up 4-2 in the bottom of the seventh. This is the earliest World Series for which we have complete preserved TV broadcasts, and it’s a treat. “The grim determination on Billy’s face, the seriousness of the situation, exemplified and revealed beautifully by our fine cameras,” says Allen as Dodgers third baseman Billy Cox stands in against Vic Raschi. Cox slaps a base hit to right, moving Carl Furillo to second, and bringing up Pee Wee Reese — “spark plug of the Dodgers,” Allen calls him, “the captain, the little colonel” — with Duke Snider waiting in the on deck circle.

With one out and the count at 3-1, home plate ump Larry Goetz calls Raschi’s rib-tickler a strike. Reese was ready to take his base. “Got the inside corner,” says Allen charitably. “Man alive, this crowd is ready to roar.” The next pitch is low—low enough even for Goetz—and the bases are loaded.

Casey Stengel strides out to the mound and gives Raschi the hook, bringing in the lefty Bob Kuzava, whom Allen describes with almost taxonomic precision: “From Wyandotte, Michigan, a 6-foot-2, 200-pounder, blue eyes, blond hair.” All this to fill air time while Kuzava throws his warm-up pitches.

Late afternoon shadows envelop the pitcher and batter. Snider works the count full. The sun draws Ebbets Field’s roof in a wavy crenelated line between the mound and second, the silhouette of a flag flaps near the shortstop’s position. Snider swings mightily but pops weakly to Gil McDougald at third with the infield fly rule in effect, and no runners advance. Jackie Robinson comes up with two out.

These are my scruffy efforts to maintain something distracting, something pointlessly beautiful and human, as the world seems to crumble around us. But the world has crumbled before, and baseball is still here, just as it will be when all this settles down.

Robinson fouls the first pitch off. “And the Dodgers in the dugout, tense with anxiety,” says Allen, “and in the Yankee dugout they’re tense with anxiety.”

At 2-1, Robinson pulls a fly ball that lands up on the ballpark’s roof, but foul, moving the count to 2-2. Stengel springs out of the Yankees dugout to follow the ball’s path, marveling at its distance. After fouling off the next pitch, Robinson swings at Kuzava’s next pitch and sends the ball squibbing into the Flatbush sky. It appears set to fall into no-man’s-land behind the mound, despite the charging efforts of every New York infielder. But at the last second, a lunging Billy Martin streaks in from second and catches the ball at his shoetops. “And how about that!” says Allen, utilizing his trademark phrase. “Man, it’s been a great Series,” he continues, “it still is. We’ve got two more innings at least to go,” which are about the most comforting words I can imagine right now.

Andrew Forbes is the author of the story collections Lands and Forests (Invisible Publishing, 2019) and What You Need (2015), which was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and named a finalist for the Trillium Book Prize. He is also the author of The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays (2016), as well as the forthcoming The Only Way is the Steady Way: Ichiro, Baseball, and the Rest of It (3/2021). Forbes lives in Peterborough, Ontario.
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4 years ago

Awesome article. Thanks!

4 years ago

This is great. And that list of players who appeared in the ’52 World Series is really something.

4 years ago

Loved it!

4 years ago

Baseball has never been cancelled before. Not even during the Spanish Flu, which makes covid-19 look like the common cold. These are unprecedented times