Of course, at the end of every calendar, there are those newspaper necrologies of those of whom, henceforth, we will speak using only past tenses.
For people my age who once collected their Major League images on bubblegum-scented cardboard rectangles, 2020 was surely a tough year. It has been said that when we lose the heroes of our youth, another piece of our childhood breaks off.
While not all of my baseball players of my late 1950s and 1960s were Hall of Fame caliber, to the boy I once was, they were indeed special. Their sanitary hose were once upon a glorious time overlaid by stirrup socks, both clearly visible beneath perfectly rolled baseball pants that broke at the knees, unlike the slovenly look so many of today’s players adopt with pant bottoms that almost drag in the batter’s box dirt.
On those most special days, days reserved for a father and son to sit on a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field or Detroit’s Briggs and then (by 1961) Tiger Stadium, I would see them in person. I marveled at the seemingly effortless way they hit line drives to all fields and the way their arms propelled baseballs at such speeds that I could hear the smack of the leather on the other end more than half way up the grandest of stands.
On other days, I followed my baseball gods on radio between the only TV regular season game each week on Saturdays, those broadcasted by Pee Wee Reese and Dizzy Dean. Of course, the leisurely pace of the only sport not governed by a clock has always been perfect for radio, especially to a boy with a transistor pressed to his ear after the lights of the day were extinguished as he strained through AM static to hear Harry Carey’s voice broadcasting the Cardinals game on KMOX.
And, of course I followed the action and the participants in my weekly issues of The Sporting News, priding myself in knowing week by week what all of my heroes were batting.
Of course, as we all know, death never takes a holiday, so on the very first day of 2020, I lost Don Larsen. While at just 5 years old in 1956, the year he became the only man in World Series history to pitch a perfect game, I can’t say I remember his feat, but I do remember his journeyman later years when he pitched into the mid-1960s for six different teams. I think Larsen continued searching for the perfection he exhibited but once in that Game 5 at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 8 when in just six minutes more than two hours’ time, he faced 27 Brooklyn Dodgers and retired them all. In a career when it was all said and done that saw him lose 10 more games than the 91 he won, I’m sure he clung to that one shining afternoon when he achieved perfection.
As the months went by, I read of the deaths of pitcher Johnny Antonelli and of Eddie Kasko and again of Dodger relief pitcher Ron Perronowski and yet again, of Houston Colt 45 outfielder Jimmy Wynn. Despite his being only 5’9” and 160 pounds, Wynn earned his nickname The Toy Cannon by hitting balls that stayed in the air long enough for — using the parlance of the 1960s — a stewardess to be aboard.
As the year progressed, my cream-of-the-crop childhood idols had reached the bottoms of their last innings. First, in April, there was Tiger Hall of Famer Al Kaline, who died knowing he was still the youngest batting champion ever, hitting .340 in 1955 as a 20-year-old. At 4 in ‘55, I wasn’t paying attention to Kaline’s youngest-ever feat, but I do remember him throughout the 1960s and into the ‘70s as a complete player with every tool in his baseball toolbox. For all 22 of his seasons, he wore only a navy blue ball cap with an Old English D.
In August, the great Tom Seaver, he of the envied nickname Tom Terrific, reached the end one year after he retired from public life with severe dementia. Like so many pitchers of his era and like zero pitchers of this era, Seaver believed in finishing what he started. In 20 years he won 311 games, and 231 one of his starts were complete games, a resume that easily earned him entry into Coopertown’s Hall.
With September came the passing of Lou Brock, the most accomplished base thief of his time. Shame on the Cubs for not realizing what they had when they traded Brock eight days after my 13th birthday on June 15, 1964. The Cubs said good-bye to a future eight-time stolen base leader and eventual Hall of Famer and hello to Ernie Broglio, who lost 19 of his 26 decisions in his three Cub seasons.
October was the worst for losing my idols as three players, Hall of Famers all, died — Cardinal fireballer Bob Gibson, who like Seaver, racked up complete game after complete game, 28 in back-to-back seasons; the Reds superb second baseman Joe Morgan; and my Yankees’ outstanding left-handed pitcher, Whitey Ford.
For some of my losses this past year, such as Kaline, Brock, Gibson and Ford, well, I still do have those rectangular cardboard images. Of course the rectangles no longer carry the scent of bubblegum, but the memories of what they gave me as a child remain as sweet as those pink slabs that we once chewed as kids until our jaws ached after we tore open our packs.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at email@example.com.