WORLD SERIES '80; THE NATIONS'S NO. 1 SPORTING EVENT
Baseball may no longer enjoy the virtual monopoly it once held among American sports fans, but the game's unique grip on the public at large remains intact. We see this in all the off-season talk about trades and free agent signings, and we see it again in spring training (no other sport has ever been able to generate interest in its practice games). Most of all, though, we see it each fall, when a whole nations turns its attention to the World Series -- as it is doing again now during the current fascinating matchup of the Kansas City Royals and the Philadelphia Phillies.Skip to next paragraph
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Other sports supposedly more attuned to today's faster pace have made inroads in recent years. One of them, pro football, even questions the older game's right to still call itself the national pastime -- and offers some impressive television ratings to back up its challenge. But all the statistics in the world can't change the fact that baseball alone is imbedded so deeply in the nation's folklore that it reaches out not only to serious and casual fans alike but to millions more who normally couldn't care less about sports. And the epitome is reached each October when the champions of the American and National Leagues meet in what has been for three-quarters of a century -- and still is -- the nation's No. 1 sporting event.
Why is this so? The answer is simple, really, as Tevye the milkman explains to another audience about another institution in that famous early number of "Fiddler on the Roof." In a word, it's tradition.
By the time the National Football League held its first championship game in 1933, baseball already had an entire storied past filled with "historical figures" like Willie Keeler, Christy Mathewson, and John McGraw, a recent history featuring names like Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson, a present-day galaxy of stars like Babe Ruth and Rodgers Hornsby nearing the end of their careers, and plenty of exciting young players coming along to take their places. As for the Super Bowl, it is still so young by baseball standards that it hardly even counts yet in the "tradition" league.
Baseball, though, has all that lore passed on from one generation to the next -- and of course it is the game's showcase, the World Series, that has the firmest grip on our collective memories.
Who hasn't heard the story of Babe Ruth's "called shot" home run in 1932 -- and who cares whether he really was or wasn't pointing to the stands to indicate where he was going to hit the next pitch? And of course there was the infamous Black Sox scandal in which some members of the Chicago White Sox were banned for life for their complicity in, or awareness of, a plot to"throw" the 1919 classic. Both of these events are part of that World Series lore with which all schoolboys -- and increasingly now, schoolgirls as well -- have grown up for so many decades.
And then for all but the most casual of fans are those dozens of other memorable moments and/or individual heroics -- the feats of all those Yankee sluggers from Ruth and Lou Gehrig through Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Reggie Jackson; the famous story of Grover Cleveland Alexander coming in from the bullpen to strike out Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded and stifle the same mighty Bronx Bombers back in 1926; Bill Mazeroski's dramatic home run that beat another great Yankee team 34 years later; those fabulous game-saving catches by Willie Mays, Al Gionfriddo, and Sandy Amoros; Don Larsen's perfect game in 1956 -- and the no-hit bid of Floyd Bevens a decade earlier that was broken by Cookie Lavagetto's game-winning double with two out in the ninth; the errors and mistakes, such as Mickey Owen's dropped third strike in 1941; the controversies like the noninterference call in 1975; one can go on and on.
Whenever a memorable pitching feat takes place, it inevitably recalls the most incredible mound performance of all -- Christy Mathewson's three shutouts in a space of six days to virtually beat Philadelphia single- handedly for the New York Giants in 1905. Whenever an underdog rises up to defeat a heavy favorite, the historians look back again to the very next year, 1906, when the term "hitless wonders" was coined to describe a Chicago White Sox team which had the lowest batting average in the American League (.230) but defeated its crosstown rival, the Cubs, despite the fact that the latter team was so great it had established a one-season record for victories (116) which still stands.