I SPENT hours as a child pondering the pictures in the baseball books that were my main reading fare. The thing that struck me was how old the players looked. Even now, I cannot quite fathom that Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri - members of the famed 1927 Yankees - were younger than I am now. Their eyes were dark and deep, their faces hard in a way that makes today's ballplayers seem kiddies by comparison.
The old black-and-white photographs were not the only reason. These players grew up hard, on Podunk farms or (like Gehrig) inner city streets. Yet for all that, there was an innocence, a sweetness, of which one hears echoes in the music of the era, and in the nicknames, such as ``Ducky'' Medwick and ``Dizzy'' Dean.
Today's overpaid athletes may look like kids. But with their phalanxes of lawyers, they think more like the gray-haired tycoons of the 1930s comic strips.
Innocence is a quality much undervalued, especially by those on the forefront of social correction. Take the movement to require politically correct viewpoints in school textbooks and daily speech. The University of Missouri School of Journalism has produced a list of expressions that enlightened journalists aren't supposed to use.
Among them: ``Dutch treat'' (``implies that Dutch people are cheap'') and ``ugh,'' said to be offensive to native Americans. School systems are scrutinizing their curricula, moreover, to insure that various ethnic and gender groups get due inclusion.
Of course, the language should be free of latent bigotry, and of course the various groupings in the ethnic mosaic deserve a fair shake. But fussbudgetry over expressions like ``ugh'' aside, let's not pretend that the Puritan approach to language and textbooks will produce a nation committed to social justice. Something more is needed.
It is curious - and significant - that the activism of the 1960s grew out of a postwar decade that today seems benighted. Reporters called women ``blondes.'' Jack Benny's Rochester represented blacks on TV. The '50s provided ``negative stereotypes'' aplenty. But there was also an innocence that made eventual outrage at these possible.
There are a lot of theories regarding when the '60s actually began. My own view is 1957, the year Walter O'Malley uprooted the Brooklyn Dodgers and took them to Los Angeles. The ``Bums'' of Flatbush were almost family to their diehard fans. They stood for loyalty and local tradition, compared with the rival Yankees, who dressed in pinstripes like the bankers who foreclosed on the family home. When O'Malley moved the Dodgers - for money - he ripped aside the veil, revealing the cupidity beneath the national game.
It is probably no accident that many '60s radicals like Tom Hayden were avid baseball fans. Nor that the outrage at the Dodger move prefigured in some ways the radical view of the Vietnam War as a corrupt crusade parading in vestures of high national purpose. Whatever. Before there could be revulsion, there had to be innocence first.
The naive flag-waving of the old American history texts didn't necessarily produce proto-Reaganites, as reformers seem to assume. A generation taught that America is the land of equality was outraged to learn that blacks had to sit in the back of the bus. Reared on the notion that America stood for democracy and freedom, the early baby boomers could feel disgust at the dictators our government was prone to support.
This is not an argument for racial stereotypes and jingoist textbooks. But turning tolerance into textbook piety doesn't help matters much. Kids rebel instinctively, which is part of the reason for the new campus racism today. Mere factual correction, moreover, is not enough. I saw this in students in my writing class last year. Their political instincts were not so far from the '60s. What was lacking was the kind of personal violation that comes from ideals trampled and values scorned.
I have to think that a generation that knew (or imagined) sports purity in Ted Williams, that recalled the sweetness of Johnny Mathis and the Platters, that believed the Declaration of Independence meant what it said, was prepared for activism and outrage in a way the textbook and language reformers don't quite understand.