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.
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.
There were the so-called "Miracle Braves" of 1914 (the Boston Braves) and those "You Gotta Believe" New York Mets of 1969, both of which won surprising regular season championships and then knocked off favored opponents in the World Series. Ironically, though, the biggest such comeback team of all -- the 1951 New York Giants -- lost to the Yankees in a relatively uneventful six games, perhaps drained of too much physical and emotional strength through its famous stretch drive and eventual playoff victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers on Bobby Thomson's home run.
Some World Series turn out to be a lot more exciting than others, of course, and there's really no way to predict things in advance. Thus the 1975 matchup between Cincinnati and Boston, with little advance billing, turned into one of the all-time great classics in terms of sustained drama, while the 1978 matchup of those arch-foes, the Yankees and Dodgers, was a far cry in excitement from many of its fabled predecessors.
So no one really knows what this year's Kansas City- Philadelphia battle will produce, but all the ingredients are certainly there: household names like George Brett and Pete Rose; plenty of other big stars such as Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton; and a pair of teams that have shown themselves to be second to none in their determination and fighting spirit.
Brett captured the imagination of the public this past season with his assault on the magic .400 batting figure, and although he fell short in the end, his .390 final average was the highest in baseball since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. He will almost certainly be this year's Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the American League.
Rose, of course, needs no introduction after leading those great Cincinnati teams of the 1970s to glory both with his play and his fiery leadership, and now he is trying to do his thing in Philadelphia. He has another great cast to work with, too, headed by major league home run king Schmidt, the probable National League MVP, and 24- game winner Steve Carlton, who seems a cinch for the Cy Young Award as the league's top pitcher.
Then there are so many other outstanding players on both teams -- lesser known, perhaps, but all eager and very capable of rising to the occasion and outshining the big stars in a short series.
This phenomenon, personified over the years by such lesser lights as Bobby Richardson, Billy Martin, Gene Tenace, and Bucky Dent, has given rise to the myth that it happens regularly -- that the big stars usually fall on their faces while some .240 hitter or second-line pitcher steals the show. The fact is, though,that while it does happen on occasion, such heroics are really the exception rather than the rule.
It doesn't make as good a story this way, of course, but the truth is that the vast majority of times it is indeed the big stars who turn in the big performances -- as the list of World Series MVPs over the past two decades clearly shows. Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, and Reggie Jackson have won the award twice each, while single winners include such names as Whitey Ford, Frank and Brooks Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, and Willie Stargell. Not exactly a group of nonenities!
Of course big stars -- especially hitters -- do fail at times, and for some obvious reasons. Not only are they likely to be the objects of special attention by opposing pitchers, but a man who has carried his team through much of a 162-game season may well be both mentally and physically tired by World Series time and thus not at his peak form. And conversely, of course, a lesser player who has not shouldered such burdens -- and who perhaps has not even been worn down playing every day -- may find everything going right at just the proper moment.
But these things happen all the time during the regular season as well. Baseball is a game of streaks. It's just that the importance of the World Series so magnifies everything that a very normanl occurrence (players running "hot" or "cold") is sometimes given a significance in the mind of the public that it doesn't really deserve.
Finally, all of these players -- including those who don't have that many press clippings -- are excellent professionals capable of superior play. So of course it is perfectly possible that someone like second basemen Manny Trillo of Philadelphia or his counterpart Frank White of Kansas City may emerge as the top performer (these two were, in fact, named the Most Valuable Players in their respective playoffs). But it is equally possible -- or actually more likely in view of past history -- that despite all their season-long burdens, Brett, Rose, Schmidt, Carlton, or some other big name star will get the honors. And either way, it is likely to be an exciting week or so for the players as well as serious and casual fans alike throughout the nation.