Tim Woodward: The old ball game: When the ‘national pastime’ really was

woodwardcolumn@hotmail.comOctober 27, 2013 

It was fitting that the old card surfaced just in time for the World Series.

I was looking through a little-used file, and there it was — a Baseball Hall of Fame postcard mailed to me from Cooperstown, N.Y., in 2001. I was writing a column called “Lunch With Tim” in those days. Each week I took someone to lunch and wrote about the resulting conversation. The person who sent the card was Kay Doty of Kuna.

“Would you like to hear about my recent trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame over lunch?” she wrote. “It was a lifetime dream come true!”

Three things struck me in re-reading the Doty lunch column in the Statesman’s archives. One was that the great Lou Gehrig tousled her hair at the first Big League game she attended at age 6. She said she felt like she’d “been anointed by God.” The others were the “reverence” she felt at the Hall of Fame and her comment that baseball, unlike football or basketball, is “a gentle game” and was the one constant in her life.

A lot has changed since then. Football has become more popular, baseball less. Is football now the national pastime? A majority of fans would say so.

Will baseball be all but irrelevant in another generation or two? I tried to find Doty to ask her what she thought about that, but the phone number she’d written on the postcard belongs to someone else now, and online searches for her came up empty.

But I have a pretty good idea what she’d have said. We were from different generations, but she and I both grew up when baseball was without a close second among sports. The country all but stopped during World Series games. Kids watched at school on TV (games were always in the daytime then), with the blessing of their teachers. Class was one thing; the World Series was, well, the World Series.

How many people will watch today’s World Series game, and how many will watch regular-season NFL games instead? If you’re a diehard baseball fan, you probably don’t want to know.

That said, there’s no denying that baseball still has a lot going for it. Doty was right that, comparatively speaking, it’s a gentle game. There’s something to be said for a sport in which season-ending injuries aren’t weekly occurrences. Baseball is slower, but more cerebral. Its venues, generally speaking, are prettier. There are reasons why they’re called parks. Baseball follows the natural cycle, beginning with the first hint of spring and ending with the first chill of winter. And there’s an almost mystical quality about it that is comforting, even restorative.

Last summer at an outdoor concert, a friend walked up and for no apparent reason handed me a baseball. My first thought was that it had been signed by one of his heroes and he wanted me to see the autograph, but that wasn’t the case. Then I thought he wanted me to keep it, but a few minutes later he came back and asked for it. I was mystified until he explained:

“The healing power of baseball.”

Of course. For those of us who love the game, there’s something about holding a baseball — the way it fits and feels in your hand — that simply makes you feel better. I don’t think the same can be said of a football or a basketball.

When I was young, most boys’ and some girls’ lives revolved around baseball in the summertime. There were only two things that my father and I regularly did for fun together — fishing and baseball. We played catch, went to Boise Braves games together, listened to Braves games on the radio of his ’55 Buick over drive-in burgers and root beer.

The Braves played at a beautiful little ballpark not far from where I live now. My hero was a standout player named Bobby King. Along with their major-league idols, he was the hero of every kid in the neighborhood. Some of us attended Braves games for free by working in the stands, hawking peanuts and popcorn and soda pop. (Grownup vendors got the more lucrative hamburgers and hot dogs.)

The most famous player to wear a Boise Braves uniform was Bob Uecker, who went on to play for the Milwaukee Braves and is best known today as the whisky-swilling announcer in the “Major League” movies. He signed a catcher’s mitt for me. I still wince over its eventual loss.

Kids in our North End neighborhood gravitated, like lemmings, to the playground at Lowell School on summer days. Not a playground with swings and slides, but a sprawling expanse of lawn big enough to accommodate multiple games. Nothing else was like spending a summer day there playing baseball — the crack of the bat, the satisfying sting of a ball hitting a well-oiled glove, the incomparable feeling of connecting with a good pitch — said to be the most difficult thing to do in all of sports.

Years ago, I wrote a column about that. A few weeks later, a letter arrived with a Cleveland postmark, thanking me for describing what baseball meant to all of us as kids. Its author was Bob Feller, one of the greatest pitchers ever. He was passing through town and happened to see the column. I saved his letter for years, but, like the mitt Uecker signed, it has disappeared. I still wince over that, too.

Now football has surpassed baseball in popularity, which in today’s society isn’t surprising. It’s faster, more violent, more continuously exciting. A lifelong baseball fan, even I spend more time watching college football than Big League baseball these days.

But that doesn’t mean that what went before wasn’t great. No other sport can rival baseball’s history, its traditions, the hold it once had on the nation. Football may be our national pastime now. But those who missed the golden age of baseball missed a beautiful thing.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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