Franke: It’s Spring and Baseball Is Back
by Mark Franke
Okay, so I’m not young anymore and haven’t been for a long time. But I still experience that mystical excitement every April just like when I was a boy and a new baseball season took off.
My grandchildren don’t understand this, but we really did go through life back then without hundreds of TV channels to choose from. In fact I became a baseball fan before we even had a TV. Following baseball was a matter of reading the sports section every morning and carefully checking the box scores to see how my favorite team did.
Getting a transistor radio took my love affair with a baseball to a new level. It had an alligator clip antenna that I would connect to an iron fence in the back yard and listen to the Detroit Tigers. I should have become a Tiger fan but I didn’t, and here’s why.
We eventually got a TV and I discovered the Saturday Game of the Week with Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese. It seemed to me that the weekly game almost always broadcast either the New York Yankees or the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers. I should have become a Dodger fan since Carl Erskine from nearby Anderson pitched for them but Mickey Mantle seemed to hit a home run every Saturday and, after all, I was an impressionable youngster. I became and remain a Yankees fan, something quite out of the ordinary for northeast Indiana.
Even with a TV, though, the sine qua non of childhood baseball fandom was collecting Topps baseball cards. A nickel a pack and the absolutely worst bubble gum ever foisted on civilization, it was almost spiritual to make my weekly trip to the small grocery store a couple of streets over and spend my entire allowance on packs of pure joy.
I think I learned whatever math skills I had by memorizing, sorting and recalculating the statistics on the back of each player’s card. I sorted my cards by team but kept a checklist by card number so that I knew which ones I needed to trade for. That’s why getting doubles of a player was a good thing; there existed a free market of baseball card trading that would have done Adam Smith proud.
Some kids, obviously mental defectives, actually stuck cards between their bicycle spokes. It made a sound worse than fingernails on a chalkboard to my youthful capitalist ears.
Topps ruled the baseball card world back in the 1950s but there were other opportunities for collecting. One of the breakfast cereal companies printed player cards on the back of the box. My mother quickly learned that her rule of not cutting out the cards until the cereal was gone met defeat at the hands of the law of unintended consequences. I simply ate about a dozen bowlfuls on the morning the box was opened and stuffed as much as I could down my younger brother’s throat, then reached for the scissors.
I hear there are un-American subversives who claim that football has become the new national sport. Football? Are they serious? George Will, who is some kind of genius by all accounts, put it nicely: “Football combines the two worst things about America: it is violence punctuated by committee meetings.”
Where is the cerebral stimulation in football, apart from being clocked helmet to helmet? Where is the drama of one man, the pitcher, against one man, the batter? What in football equals the pure athleticism of hitting a 90-mile-an-hour spinning ball with less than a quarter second to decide whether to swing. Yale professor Robert Adair has written that the laws of physics prove it is impossible to hit a Major League pitch except by luck.Yet they do.
And the claim by football partisans that baseball is all dead time? A recent study showed that the ball is in play a greater amount of time in baseball (18 minutes of action over three hours) than in football (11 minutes over three and one-half hours).
Finally, baseball has a conciliatory effect on even the most contentious human relationships. Fathers and teenage sons who fight about nearly everything else can go the ballpark and root for the hometown team. A book by lifetime Cardinals fan Will Leitch tells how he took his Cubs-hating father to Wrigley Field only to discover that dad had become best friends with all the bleacher bums.
Even the Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who can be counted on to say the nastiest things about each other in front of a news camera, come together each summer on a baseball field and actually enjoy each other’s company, at least for one evening.
A final note about my Yankee obsession. My son, who lives in New Hampshire, got tickets to Yankee Stadium for the two of us last summer. In my 60-plus years of following the Yankees, I had never been there. Other than giving me my first grandchild, this was the best gift I have ever received from him.
Spring has returned, and I have my MLB.com subscription and season tickets to my hometown minor league team. I feel young again.
Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.