Few things in life thrilled little David Hardiman more than the pinstriped wonders known as the New York Yankees. I was a lovelorn 6 year old Little Leaguer when I first fell under the Yankees Big League spell. The New York Yankees were a legendary and scarce commodity in Syracuse; the club being located 200 miles to the southeast in the teeming metropolis of Gotham – home to the Empire State Building and Batman. My fanatical bond and romantic sentiments for the Yankees were fed by neighborhood friends, by cataloguing their exploits in scrapbooks (now thoughtfully displayed deep in a Syracuse landfill) and by listening to them on the radio or watching them on TV. Well, not exactly on traditional TV.
For some reason the Yankees weren’t available on local TV, but they were occasionally broadcast (no cable yet) on WUTR TV-20 located in Utica, about 40 miles to the east. Watching a Yankee game on the static-y UHF band (channel 20) in 1970 was like watching a game in a blinding snowstorm. The screen was filled with little baseballs all vying for my attention. I must have looked like a crazed cat following a laser pointer. The clarity of this archaic and rickety line-of-sight broadcast was dependent on random sunspot activity and the amount of aluminum foil I so strategically placed on the antennae. If I was lucky I might be able to determine which team was batting. It didn’t matter though. It was the Yankees. And they were on TV! Why they weren’t carried on local TV I’ll never know. Perhaps it was their absence that made this little boy’s heart grow fonder.
True, I could tune them in on the radio (WSYR-AM, 570 on your dial). But seeing them on TV, gee willikers (yes – gee willikers), that was a special treat. Special treat as in; come home for lunch in the 5th grade knowing that the Yankees are on TV, convince mom I’m sick and then settle in with a Hostess Ho Ho or two to watch the 1 p.m. first pitch – how great was that? Real great. So when the Yankees made their annual sojourn to play their Triple-A farm team affiliate (the Syracuse Chiefs) in a mandatory exhibition, I was sure to buy a ticket to witness my major league heroes go through their perfunctory motions in the minor league backwater of MacArthur Stadium in Central New York. For just one evening the little podunk hamlet of Syracuse was elevated to the status of Gotham City.
And while these were the “lost” Yankee years (after their last World Series appearance in ’64 and before George Steinbrenner bought them and forcibly willed them into the World Series in ’76), I would thrill to see them tied for 1st place in early April after winning their opening day game, only to see them inexorably sink in the standings throughout the summer. At the tender age of 10, I was completely flummoxed by Joe Pepitone, Curt Blefary and Mike Kekich underperforming against the likes of future Oriole Hall of Famers Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer. It made no sense to me.
Didn’t the Yankees know little David Hardiman was imbuing them with his own special telepathic sports moxie? A force so compelling it could transform a pedestrian journeymen into a superhero all-star. Case in point the acquisition of veteran outfielder Johnny Callison (a fading Phillie retread). If only Johnny availed himself of the awesome powers I so generously reserved for him, he’d sock 30 home runs and knock in 95 instead of the meager 9 home runs and 34 RBIs he managed to eke out in 1972? My vast reservoir of energy was his for the taking. Why didn’t he use it? Furthermore I couldn’t understand how the once peerless pitcher Stan Bahnsen could go 9-16 in 1969 when surely he knew I needed him to revert to his 1968 Rookie of the Year form of 17-12 thereby enabling us (notice how I use the pronoun “us” like the Yankees were aware of me) to vault past the stellar Baltimore Orioles and (heart be still) into 1st place in the American League East.
Alas it was not to be as my baseball mojo was ignored by those who needed it most. I took Bahnsen’s drop-off in production personally, and wondered why the Yankees would so conspire against my happiness? My parents’ dysfunction I could understand – they were an emotionally stunted set and managed to make my life miserable sometimes. But the Yankees? They were a professional organization and should know better. I held the Yankees to a higher standard than my parents. So when second baseman Horace Clarke led off a game with a double and was brought around on a homer by Bobby Murcer; well right there it was self-evident that there was a pathway to god and an avenue to eternal happiness. If it happened once, it could happen every time and that brought me immeasurable comfort even though this heavenly behavior was the exception rather than the rule.
My unrequited love of the subpar Yankees (again, the post-Mantle and pre-Reggie Jackson era) was earnest and I’d go to great lengths to root, root, root for the home team. For example when the Yankees made their West Coast swing to play the California Angels, a weekday night game would start at 8:00 pm PDT in Anaheim or 11:00 pm my time in Syracuse. And there I’d be. All 9 or 10 years old of me on a school night at 11 pm wide awake in my room, under the covers with the radio pressed directly to my ear on a volume level so low, dogs and owls couldn’t hear it – only a besotted Yankee fan could. As long I could hear it and my mother couldn’t hear it from the hallway, I was safe at home.
Since instant gratification apps didn’t exist in the early 70’s, I would have to search something called a newspaper to find a Yankee game listing. After mom pulled the entertainment section from the evening edition of the Syracuse Herald-Journal, she’d neatly fold it to expose that evening’s TV listings for the three TV networks (NBC, CBS and upstart ABC) and set it on the coffee table in the living room. I’d promptly unfold it and anxiously search the “Radio Highlights” section for a Yankee game broadcast. And there I might find this listing: 10:55 pm Yankees vs. Angels from Anaheim with announcers Bill White, Frank Messer and Phil Rizzutto. A 10:55 start time meant there was only a 5 minute pre-game show, unlike today’s protracted pre-game shows which are more like overly long colo-rectal exams instead of a brief and entertaining lead-in. There’s a firehose of unneeded information and gratuitous branding these days. Back in 1970 five minutes were all you needed to set the lineups and proceed to (as in this case) an 11:00 pm first pitch. Games could afford to start at 8:00 p.m. locally because they were on average only 2½ hours long, as opposed to today’s lengthy MLB game coming in at a funereal 3 hour 8 minute pace. In the old days going to a game was like going to a movie – an inexpensive and entertaining way to spend 2½ hours. Nowadays it’s like going to the cleaners – and having your wallet pressed for 3+ hours (ticket, food, merchandise and parking…oh, and convenience fees).
When the game started I’d listen to these informative grown men (announcers Messer, Rizzutto and White) discuss the Yankees in mature and sometimes humorous ways. I didn’t quite realize they worked for the Yankees. I thought maybe they were fans who traveled to see them and then just broadcast the game while they were there. That spitfire Rizzutto was by far the most unintentionally funny – kind of like Yogi Berra with whom he played. During the height (or heighth, if you use the word supposevly instead of the word supposedly) of the big hair days in the 1970’s popularized by “The Dry Look from Gillette,” Bill White might ask Phil Rizzutto to comment on what the tolerance level would’ve been for ballplayers with big hair in the Yankee clubhouse during Phil’s playing days in the 1940’s and 1950s. Phil might shoot back, “Are you kidding me White?” He affectionately called him “White” even though the former Phillie 1st baseman Bill White was black. “Holy Cow, if any of us were caught with a hair dryer in the clubhouse back then like they’ve got today, we woulda been run out of town on a rail. If some huckleberry so much as used talcum powder we were suspicious.”
In the late 60’s and early 70’s, as I was beginning to understand and internalize all the trouble in the world, baseball was a sanctuary of mighty batsmen, wily twirlers and tidy geometry. Life might not be fair, but a ball hit between third and first base sure was. The world might not be safe, but getting to first base was. And all this drama was played out on an easily understood and perfectly sensible diamond-shaped field of green. The baseball diamond was a place where fleet centerfielders might chase down and snare a seemingly surefire triple belted into the power alley. This event inspired such superlative sports quips as, “While water might cover 75% of the earth’s surface. Willie Mays covers the rest.”
Baseball’s appeal in general and the Yankees attraction specifically, were adrenalizing elements to a boy susceptible to athletic prowess and numerical analysis. All of which is just a legalistic way of saying I was crazy-go-nuts for the damn Yankees and MLB. Every Sunday morning when the paper arrived, you could find me rifling through it to scour all the major league batting averages printed in the sports section. Baseball was catnip and I was a big pussy rolling in it – once again, not exactly what I meant to say, but the underlying notion here is my unalloyed passion for baseball.
Except for the greatly anticipated All-Star game, the 2 major leagues played in completely separate universes until the end of the season when the American League pennant winners would play the National League pennant winners in a “World Series” involving only teams from the United States – who doesn’t love American Exceptionalism? The leagues possessed all that Jim Crow Laws lacked – a well-executed example of “separate but equal accommodations.” Which leads into my favorite baseball joke dealing with the discrimination heaped on Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Neikro and his slightly less successful brother Joe Neikro. When they were youngsters the Neikro brothers weren’t allowed to play in the Major Leagues. Instead they had to play in the old “Neikro Leagues.”
Baseball possessed a hallowed and romantic history. First of all it wasn’t really a sport. It was a pastime. And secondly, the American League was referred to as the “junior circuit” since it began operating in 1901, 25 years after the National League – the “senior circuit.” Heady stuff for a 10 year old to digest – to think something 70 years old was referred to as “junior” was bewildering. The jaunty sobriquets associated with baseball are beautifully homespun and absolutely infectious – The Babe, The Red Sox, Mordecai “Three-Fingers” Brown, Blue Moon Odom, a Grand Slam – and I contracted the disease. Baseball also possessed some endearing and quirky characteristics not usually found in other sports. For example, in baseball there’s no clock, the defense has the ball and the managers wear the team uniforms. This is Old School at its best.
As I listened to a late night Yankee game on the radio, my imagination took hold. I’d experience satisfying drama in wondering whether all-glove and no-bat shortstop Gene “Stick” Michael would advance leftfielder Roy White over to 3rd base. The entire play was going on in my head, with each at bat a vital scene and each half inning an important component of this 18 act play. During the scenes I might pause to consider why Gene Michael’s moniker was “Stick,” because he was the opposite of that nickname. He was a feeble hitting shortstop whose lifetime batting average was .229 – barely above the Mendoza Line. No “Stick” he; and invariably he’d strike out or ground out, stranding White at first. The Yankees wore me down with their losing ways back then. I was like a long-suffering Cubs fan – nothing but scar tissue. In those days the Yankees had to be at their best just to achieve mediocrity. It didn’t matter though, I loved them just the same. That is until things began to change for me when I got my first pubic hair. And never mind how I got it or whose it was. The point is I had one now, and my attention was diverted away from the Yankees by the eternal call of the other “old ball game.”
But meanwhile, there I was on a school night, snug in my bed at 1 am, harboring dreamy sentiments of a child’s game that lent itself to heroic description. I listened reverently to the games searching for the echoes of a bygone era, while the broadcasters described the action of an immediate event. The “action,” such as it was, was minimal and very sporadic. However, to hear the crowd roar in the background and realize something was afoot, prior to the announcer’s full-throated account of what just transpired, was exhilarating. I reveled in that synapse – the magic time between hearing the crack of the bat and the result of the play. Its unknown possibilities moved me to no end.
It was all so idyllic, silently listening in the inner sanctum of my bedroom, tucked into the warming confines of my welcoming bed and squeezing my sweet Radio Shack transistor tightly against my ear while I thrilled to the thunder under the covers. I still experience this thrill in bed today except I’ve traded in the sweet radio for an even sweeter wife. Baseball, thank you for being my first love. A love fully flowered when my son Taylor made the Livermore High School Varsity Baseball team in 2014 after overcoming much adversity to do so. The kernels of my baseball joy were to be found in listening to a far off game at 1:00 am, cozy in my bed while the beloved Bronx Bombers were playing the game in a distant land called California some 3000 miles away. A distant land I’ve come to call home for the last 30 years. Still and all, between the chalk lines, the game remains the same; a constant companion in a sea of tumultuous change.