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Boomer Bytes #41: Play Ball

Editor’s Note: Below is another column in Steve Canipe’s series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.

Play Ball

By Steve Canipe

Oct. 24, 2014. Do you remember watching or playing a game and that iconic yell of “Play Ball” was heard? This is the season of the World Series; the pennants for the American and National League have been decided. Once again supposedly the best teams are meeting in this contest that has been going on since 1903. There have been changes to the way teams are chosen to participate in this classic sporting event, but still it is watched by millions of fans.

Lots of statistics surround the first series, the first boycott (1904) and lots of other happenings over the 111 year history. The first series was between the Pittsburgh Pirates of the National League and Boston Americans of the American League. (Note: the Americans were referred to as the Red Sox beginning in 1907). That first series was won by the Boston Americans behind the pitching of Cy Young. (Yes the same guy who has his name on the Cy Young Award that now is given to the best pitcher in each league.) In the earlier days there was only one award given. It was recognizing the best pitcher in baseball.

Many boomers grew up with baseball, particularly the male boomers. We had our favorite team and players. Some of us were such rabid fans that we could quote statistics like batting averages, RBI stats, stolen bases, etc. of our favorite players and teams. Some, like me, became so enamored of teams that we dreamed and pretended to be those players.

The team that I was so fond of was the New York Yankees. I know lots of the readers probably liked other teams, including the Red Sox, Brooklyn Dodgers (now Los Angeles), New York Giants (now San Francisco), and others. If you remember, I was born in 1946, during the first year of the boomer babies. This meant that I was of prime baseball watching and playing age during the 1950s and 1960s. If you look at the Yankees of that era you discover that beginning in 1949 the Yankees played and won five consecutive World Series titles. Casey Stengle was the manager during these years. If the Yankees had stopped with those 5 wins, I might have liked another team. But they did not stop. From 1955 through 1964 (except for 1959), the Yankees were in every World Series and won five times.

Perhaps more amazing for this franchise is the record of playing in 40 World Series and winning 27 of them. They have not played or won since 2009. A really long time for the Yankees to be cold.

As a kid, I was very lucky to live in a neighborhood where there were lots of guys nearly the same age. Since we all loved baseball it was not at all unusual for us to get together in a local cow pasture and play the game we loved. Of course playing in a pasture where there were cows, did involve the necessity of stepping carefully in the outfield and, if needing to slide into a base or home, needing to watch carefully. As some of my pals can attest, this did not always happen successfully and going home smelling of cow manure was not an uncommon occurrence!

In elementary school at Howard’s Creek near Lincolnton, we were not allowed to play baseball. Too dangerous we were told so we played softball. The softball being larger provided a much larger target to hit or catch, so we did pretty well. I was fairly athletic and ended up playing mostly first base but sometimes getting to play centerfield like my hero – Mickey Mantle. I could hit the ball pretty well as we played slow pitch softball and I could run very fast so got on base a lot and stole second regularly! Oh those were the days.

Once I reached 8th grade, we were allowed to actually play with a baseball. It was fun to play and I still could hit and run well. By the time I was in the 9th grade, however, my love affair with baseball as a sport had begun to seriously wane. I didn’t stop being a Yankees’ fan because it was in the 1960s that stalwarts like Ford, Mantle, Maris, Berra, Richardson, Boyer, Howard, Kubek, Skowron, Blanchard, and others were idols.

I adored watching my heroes but I enjoyed playing the game myself and pretending to be like Mantle or Skowron. Hitting the winning run or making the fantastic catch to retire the side was a great make-believe.

Every fall this classic game has become the quintessential sport in the United States, although American football and basketball may be displacing the fan loyalties. There have been some scandals in baseball from the 1919 Black Sox scandal surrounding Joe Jackson, known more commonly as “Shoeless Joe,” various betting scandals like Pete Rose in the 1980s, and more recently the drug use like the 1985 cocaine issue and more recently the steroids like HGH.

What would make a player who is making millions of dollars risk health, reputation, and career? Perhaps it is the desire to be better and stronger than anyone else. Perhaps it is to push the envelope and hope not to get caught. Maybe it is the attitude that players are above societal rules….this could be debated infinitum. Baseball is not the only place drug usage has occurred. From cycling and Lance Armstrong to NFL football and even high school players use has been documented. It used to be only males who used the enhancing drugs but now females are also taking these performance enhancing pills.

Recent revelations of cheating or at least turning the blind eye to misbehavior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill causes me to wonder at what cost do we have this ongoing love affair with sport. The name of the game is winning but do we need to do this at any cost? When the reputation of a fine academic institution like UNC-CH is drug through the gutter, all apparently in the name of winning, it is, in my opinion, too much. What happened to the student-athlete? Maybe it is impossible to compete on an even playing ground unless you get marginal students who happen to be blessed with athletic prowess. Should they have to be kept in school at any cost to be able to shoot, run, pass, whatever, or the alumni will not support their alma mater?

The allegation is that everyone else is doing it and while that may be true, in my opinion it does not make it right. What do you think, either about the baseball and World Series or the collegiate scandal rocking our state university? Not sure there is an easy answer – certainly from the upside of 68, the game I loved is not as simple as it was when I was 10!!

Share your thoughts either in the space below or send me an email at boomerbytes@yahoo.com I am very interested in hearing your thoughts on this topic.