The Unspoiled Crack of the Bat
Like no other American institution, baseball has remained an unchanged constant
Thirty years ago this month, the St. Louis Cardinals finished baseball's World Series in Boston, defeating Carl Yastrzemski and the Red Sox after seven thrilling games. My family lived in St. Louis at the time, and my father and I went to the airport to welcome home the world-champion Cardinals. Dad put me on his shoulders while I hoisted into the air with my five-year-old arms a Cardinals pennant for Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, and all my other heroes to see.Skip to next paragraph
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I wore a Cardinals cap so worn from constant use that the felt had disappeared completely from the bill, leaving only cardboard.
1967. That year might as well be plucked from Roman antiquity, so fast do the currents of American history move. What hasn't changed since 1967? We've seen the rise of feminism, the civil rights movement, a major defeat of our military forces, and the end of the cold war. We've left powdery footprints on the moon's surface and watched the microchip affect virtually every aspect of our lives. We've helped develop the god-like power to clone animal life, and we've designed an IBM computer that can out-think the world's best chess player.
Does anything remain constant in our culture? The answer, quite simply, is no, with one exception: baseball.
With customary fanfare, the World Series opens tomorrow night in Miami with the rules - and esprit - of the game virtually unchanged since 1967. Whatever has happened outside our ballparks during the past 30 years, inside them, between the stripes, fleet-flying time has been a wasp in amber.
Virtually every detail of the game - from walks to balks to bunts to home runs - has remained exactly the same. Sure, the pitcher's mound has been lowered a few inches and the American League has adopted the designated hitter rule. But this is like changing a few wall paintings in a grand old house.
Maybe 30 years doesn't impress you. OK, let's go back further - way back - to 1903. That was the year of the very first World Series, with the Boston Beaneaters defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates behind the heroic pitching of Cy Young. The game you'll see played tomorrow night in Miami and the game played by Young in 1903 is the same game in virtually every way, from the suicide squeeze to the sacrifice fly. These championship contests are separated by 94 years. The US army still had a cavalry in 1903. Now we have nuclear weapons. And baseball's the same.
The amazing durability of baseball has been widely noted for years, of course. But like the game itself, this staying power is worth celebrating again and again - especially at World Series time, and especially as America's cult-like hunger for the new and different accelerates toward an uncertain 21st century.
Here's a question to ponder: Name a single major American institution that's gone virtually unchanged since 1903.
Name just one.
The presidency? Architecture? Farming? No, no, no. Music? Fashion? Medicine? No, no, no.
Perhaps another sport? No again. Modern football and basketball didn't even exist in 1903. The question stumps me.
My wife mentions Thanksgiving, but it's only one day. The timing of this holiday has changed in this century and a huge turkey certainly wasn't affordable to most Americans in 1903. Virtually no one could afford it then. And how about religion? Even tradition-bound Catholicism has dispensed with Latin in this century and the Second Vatican Council has brought other far-reaching changes.