Howie Rose photo by Kevin Ryan

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Of Red Birds, Red Scares, A Couple of Paisans, Evil Empires & Yankees Going Home

     My folks were never big baseball fans. In fact, they were never even little baseball fans. A night at the opera, a MOMA sojourn or a martini lunch at La Fonda del Sol were more their speed. Anything other than being subjected to the riff-raff inhabiting haunts like Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium or the Polo Grounds. Yes, their noses were defiantly pointed upwards, making sure to take in air somewhat more rarified than that enjoyed by the rest of the human race.

    To be fair, they took me to the odd game and allowed me to obsess over my growing baseball card collection, all the while shaking their heads as my shrine to "The Mick" took form on my bedroom bulletin board like some kind of neo-Tibetan sand mandala. But when it came to whiling away my dwindling youth watching baseball games in front of our increasingly temperamental black-and-white Sylvania... uh-uh. That, my fellow diamond mystics, was barely—and I mean barely—negotiable.

     I think the deal went down something like this: if I watched an hour of channel 13 (that's PBS for all you non-New Yorkers) for an hour a day and/or no other television for a week, I was permitted to watch one game on the tube over the weekend. Mr. Rogers, here I come! Generally, this payback occurred on a Friday night as I was able to extend my bedtime and because I was often otherwise occupied on the weekends at least during game time. I do recall figuring out that if I picked a Sunday as the designated "game" of choice, I was able to seriously game the system as those were the days when Sunday almost always meant doubleheader and the 'rents seemed to remain forever clueless as to the extent of my very long PM baseball revel.

     Another silver lining of the imposed Draconian statutes was that they chased me under the bedcovers to commune with my little RCA transistor radio where the voices Phil Rizzuto, Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy and all the city's baseball radio guys of the era (and occasionally Tommy James and the Shondells' "I Think We're Alone Now") danced like summer sugar plums in my head while Morpheus did a slo-mo soft shoe on my eyelids.

     The house rules also extended—rather cruelly I might add—to the World Series through 1964 even though my beloved Yankees were in a tussle for baseball's crown that brilliant autumn. My memory of much of that series is—admittedly but understandably—a little vague. Game 3 was played on a Saturday afternoon and I must have seen at least part of the game as I can still capture Mantle's bottom of the ninth walk-off blast off Barney Schultz majestically sailing deep into the right field caverns of the big ballpark in the Bronx. Though, who knows, maybe that's a memory merely captured from multiple viewings of the film highlights over the ensuing years. I do know that I memorialized the hallowed HR by drawing this pencil rendering off of the following season's batch of Topps baseball cards.

     And I remember catching radio snatches of the '64 Series and most especially its seventh game between breathers as I romped with my candy-assed, Upper East Side private school krewe in Central Park that crisp weekday afternoon. Some old guy (he was probably like 50) was sitting on a park bench listening to the game as we checked in with him, finally gathering in a solemn circle as the Series tilted to St. Lou and season slipped away like so many of the fiery autumn leaves blowing across the park's Great Lawn.

For a link to a recording of Game Seven of the 1964 World Series, click here (selection #13):

     Boy, did that sting and would have stung worse if we knew then what we know: that the balance of our youth and fleeting adolescence would be comprised of an era of Yankee mediocrity. Twelve years would pass before the Bombers ever made it to another World Series plus a lucky thirteenth until they danced again in baseball Shangri-la. We're talking a lot of Horace Clarke here, dig?

     Revisiting the broadcast of the seventh game of the '64 Series all these many moons down the pike, I am quite impressed with the artifact on several counts. The game itself turns out to be a pretty good one: the Yanks never say die and, despite being in the hole 6-0 by mid-game, make a proud, if fruitless, run at victory. And, even more pleasantly, our word painters du jour— Monsignors Rizzuto and Joe Garagiola—leave a veritable masterwork hanging on the plaster of this cyber Louvre.

For links to video from the 1964 World Series, click here:

     Even after a little bit of research, I'm a little fuzzy on some of the broadcast particulars here. Rizzuto was in 1964, of course, part of the regular Yankee team of radio and television voices. Garagiola was as best as I can figure emerging as a national voice of some stature who would join the Yankee trio of broadcasters the following season replacing the famed Mel Allen. Maybe there was a home feed on the Yanks then-as-now WCBS flagship station that did not include the Scooter but I'm guessing that he was paired with Garagiola for the Series on this network 'cast and that was that. After three seasons with the Yanks, Joe G. would snare a very cherry longtime gig as one of NBC's Saturday afternoon Game of the Week go-to guys paired with Curt Gowdy which, for me anyway, was an interminably long stretch of pretty ho-hum chatter.

Joe Garagiola Wikipedia entry:

     At a remove of some decades, my impressions of Garagiola as a TV baseball announcer, Mad Ave. pitchman, Today Show personality, Tonight show guest, and Gerald Ford booster are still not particularly pleasant ones. Always trying a little (or even a lot) to hard to be funny, he rarely was. And as far as any insight or baseball lowdown might be concerned, forget about it. Though sometimes spot-on, his rap too often and too quickly devolved into mindless drivel. I remember he wrote a book with the memorable title Baseball is a Funny Game that I read on the back of a Greyhound bus en route to summer camp in '66 and thought it was pretty stupid even at age nine, so that he would make a career or verbal inanity is not a particular surprise. An omnipresent Saturday irritant whose banal shtick overwhelmed any of the glib, beat reporter behind the mic skillz he exhibited earlier in his broadcasting career and which are in top shelf form here.

     Like Rizzuto, Garagiola must have made a pact with some demon, The Devil and Daniel Webster-style. Like Stephen Vincent Benet's most memorable creation, both the Scooter and Garagiola seem to have changed before our very eyes and ears—and not for the better—transforming from really on the ball illustrators of the great game into lukewarm, half-baked concoctions that stay in the back of the fridge for years. But way back when and on this 1964 World Series seventh game recording, we are treated to two consummate pros as at the top of their game as they'd ever be.

     I'm assuming one reason NBC paired the two had something to do with their shared histories on the opposing league champs: the Scooter as a star shortstop for the Yanks and Garagiola as perennial, second string catcher hanger-on for the Cards in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Not only that, but the two were born and raised in the very towns where they made their pro baseball mark—Rizzuto from in Brooklyn and Garagiola born and raised in the same Italian-American St. Louis neighborhood that produced Yogi Berra, a friend to both men who that very day was about to manage his last game as a Yankee for quite a number of years. And while one can well imagine that Phil was pulling for the Boyz in Pinstripes and Joe G. for the Cards, nary a hint of allegiance is ever exhibited. And, even though as I mentioned Garagiola wouldn't become a full-time Yankee voice until the following spring, it already feels as though the two had been working together for at least a few spins of the Earth on its axis.

     If I've been a bit of my usual vague or too coy self, allow me to be real clear here: this is one of the best extant broadcasts yet reviewed on Painting the Word Picture. And part of the strength lies in the shared banter between two paisans. This was around the time when the radio booth began to be shared by a couple of cats who, instead of merely trading play-by-play duties with each broadcaster essentially flying solo for 4.5 innings, would partake in a genial repartee and a genuine bull session was allowed to flourish.

     The duo are all over this game. Each and every pitch, fielding alignment, bounce off the faraway centerfield wall, high chopper, Texas Leaguer, pickoff move and attempt, mound visit, style of home plate umpiring, and mustard squirt are observed and described with just the right amount of detail.

     The game itself is a keeper, developing from taut pitchers' duel to blowout to fraught nail-biter that more or less adheres to my not-so-strict definition of what at least comprises a good contest: a tying run left on deck when the final out is recorded. And the Cards do it in a style that has more or less marked their narrative arc as a franchise, with speed, guile, solid pitching, flashy leather, and just the right amount of power when most needed. While not quite the Gashouse Gang of the 1930s or those hive-inducing 1980s Ozzie Smith/Terry Pendleton squads, this '64 edition of the Cardinals featured two of the more nervous-making speedsters: Curt Flood and the legendary Lou Brock.

     Starting hurlers, rookie Mel Stottlemyre for the Yanks and St. Loo's Bob Gibson, match each other early on, pitching in and out of trouble before the Cards break through for a pair of three-run frames in the fourth and fifth with what would ultimately prove to be an insurmountable lead on the strength of timely hitting, a double steal in which Tim McCarver scored from second base, a Brock solo shot, and sloppy Yankee fielding. Mantle got the Bombers back into the game with a three-run homer, a long shot to left-center for his 18th and final World Series dinger—a record that has stood and might well stand the test of time. Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson always seemed to be a clutch and consistently productive World Series performer and his record-setting 13th hit in a seven game series is duly noted an celebrated in the course of affairs. But Gibson, pitching on but two days rest, hangs tough and though he tires down the stretch, he rewards manager Johnny Keane's faith by going the distance inducing Richardson to pop up to second baseman Dal Maxvill for the season's final out.

     A key play in the game occurs in the Yanke's top fifth when right fielder Mike Shannon robs Phil Linz of a hit with a diving snare, jumps to his feet and doubles Tom Tresh off second for a rally-killing DP that might well have steered the course of events quite differently. Shannon, it must be noted, is one of at least five players from both rosters who would go on to establish longstanding and respected second careers as broadcasters: Tony Kubek, Bob Uecker, Bill White, and Tim McCarver.

     Something else that struck me as I listened to the recording was the generally muted Sportsman's Park throng. Considering this is the deciding game of World Series, the first series appearance by the Cardinals in eighteen seasons, and the culminating moment of a season that saw the Cardinals snatch the NL crown in rather miraculous fashion (aided, of course, by the Phil's fatal final week swoon), the sellout crowd of 30,346 rarely budge the decibel meter much above its mid-range. Without prior knowledge or reminder of the game's import, this could be just about any lazy mid-summer afternoon confab. They get loud as the hometown team piles on the runs and notches the big out. And it's fun to hear them get on Joe Pepitone's butt the day after the Yankee first bagger parked a late inning, game-breaking grand salami onto the yard's right field pavilion roof. But the crowd's relatively subdued nature owes more I think to a more genteel era when there was still a dearth of—despite what Dylan was scribbling at the time—"Advertising signs they con/You into thinking you’re the one/That can do what’s never been done/That can win what’s never been won/Meantime life outside goes on/All around you." In other words, a time of reduced hype and bombast.

     Baseball (and popular culture in general) so often feels as if it exists in its own little bubble, untouched by the divine tragic comedy of "real life." When it is impacted—with a steroid scandal, say, or, more consequentially, a 9/11—it tends to be a fleeting happenstance. But peppering this recording and puncturing the make believe bubble we so often insist on enclosing ourselves, is the breaking news from Moscow that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was being pulled from the Kremlin mound in favor of a long man with a rubber arm: Leonid K. Brezhnev. I dimly recall this turn of international events though not in relation to the '64 Series. My parents, I remember, were concerned, discussing the matter in rather alarmed tones, this less than a year following the JFK hit and other matters of anxiety-provoking global concern. That my mother's parents both recorded their final at-bats around this time might also color my memory of this tumultuous patch of early life.

     Rizzuto and Garagiola predictably make no mention of the big Red power shift but the recurring newsroom updates underscore the imminent demise of another baseball season, the onset of colder weather and the threat of a hard rain.

For Box Score of 1964 Seventh Game Click Here:

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