Cepeda and Stretch were back to back
Rookies but I'll tell you Jack
Sanford led the way in '62
Marichal kicking high
Willie's cap would fly
Nothing could match his basket catch the legend grew
-- From Talkin' Giants Baseball by Terry Cashman
“Mays is up.” It might have been me saying it to my dad or my dad saying it to me. In either case the message was received. We'd stop what we were doing and sidle over to the radio.
When I was growing up baseball season was the time when the radio, either the big one in the house or one of the transistors, was always turned to the San Francisco Giants’ game. Unless we were in the car in which case the car radio was tuned to KSFO 560, then the Giants' flagship station. This was in the '60s and the only time the Giants were on TV was when they traveled to LA. There was also no internet to stream games on. But the radio was fine.
We listened to Giant broadcasters Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons and boy were we lucky, they were future Hall of Famers. Having also attended many a Giants home game (the first game I specifically recall going to was Game One of the 1962 World Series though I’d been to several before that) it was easy enough to picture the ball park, the stands, the field, the individual players (baseball cards were a big help) and to visualize the action as it took place. Russ and Lon's mellifluous voices, baseball wisdom and easy wit made the joy of following the Giants doubly pleasurable.
Of course the crack of the bat and the sound of the crowd often told the story as much as the excited voice of Russ or Lon. In the long moments between action you could hear the steady buzz of the crowd and even pick out the occasional sound of a vendor hawking his wares. It was a comfort. It was home and hearth to listen to a ball game. The Giants were our team. We knew all the players (actually, knew of them, but it sure seems like you get to know the individuals on your favorite club, they become like family) and the manager and coaches and most of the opposing players and many of the umpires. Listening to a game had the comfort of the familiar. The steadiness of three strikes and your out, three outs in an inning and nine innings a game unless there were extras. But there was always the unexpected, the pinch hit home run, the spectacular catch, the clutch double play, the slugger legging out a triple. Everything old was new again, but some of the new never got old.
Baseball was part of the fabric of my dad and my relationship. It was odd his being such a fan considering he grew up in Northern Finland and didn't settle in the US until he was in his early 30s. But love the game he did. And we loved it together.
Being a Giant fan felt special. No, there weren’t a lot of championships when I was growing up. In fact there were none. The Giants didn’t even make it back to the World Series until 1989 and didn’t win it until 2010 (it was one helluva a long wait, but well worth it). But it was still special to follow the team because we had such great players. Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry and Orlando Cepeda are all in the Hall of Fame. The Giants also had great supporting casts with the likes of Mike McCormick, Jim Ray Hart, Jose Pagan, Jim Davenport, the Alou brothers and my favorite player, Cap Peterson. Okay, Cappy Peterson was not a star in any way shape or form — in fact, he rarely played — but he was my favorite player. His baseball card was one of the great treasures of my life, as was my memory of being at the ballpark in one of the rare games in which he played. He did cause two great heartaches of my youth. The first was in a game at which I saw him get a couple of at bats. His last time up he cracked a high fly ball to left field that was on its way to the bleacher seats. But St. Louis Cardinal superstar Lou Brock ruined what would have been unspeakable joy for me by leaping above the fence and catching the ball, robbing Cappy of a homer. The other heartache was on the off season day when my hero was traded. (For the record Cap Peterson played 244 games for the Giants over the course of six seasons, cracking seven home runs — shoulda been eight — and batting a modest .235. He played three seasons in the American League and was out of baseball at the ripe old age of 26. He died at 37 from kidney disease. I’ll never forget him.)
Baseball is a cruel game. A team has had a terrific season and likely made the post season by winning 100 games. But that’s out of 162 so the fan — in a really good year — will have to endure 62 or more — often many more — defeats. Many of the defeats are heart wrenching. The yielding of late inning home run to give up a lead, someone striking out in the 9th inning with the bases full, a costly error that opens up the flood gates for the opposition. Baseball has all manner of ways to break a heart — if only for an hour or two. But there is a flip side to tragedy. Late inning heroics, come-from-behind victories, masterful pitching performances, prodigious home runs. The game taketh away but it giveth too and can lift the spirts — if only for an hour or two.
As a boy and now as a wizened older gent I can brush off defeat while still savoring victory (in my middle years it was a tougher task). But I withstood the disappointments as a child. Hope sprung enternal and abounded and every time the Giants played I anticipated victory. (Cynicism came later.) The radio was rarely the focus of our attention. It was there while I played in the yard and while dad puttered in the shed and while we had dinner and while we played cards. We’d even check in during commercials while watching TV. We listened idly to the tedium of another foul ball or a pitching change or lazy fly ball to center field or a pitch in the dirt or an intentional walk. But the instant there was action our focus was on the game. “There are two men with no one out,” one of us might say. Or, "Fuentes just tripled," or "one out to go and Marichal has a shut out." And of course we always paid attention when Mays came to bat. He was special. One of the greatest if not the greatest player of all time and a home run hitter par excellence. There was too great a chance of missing something if you didn’t pay attention when Mays batted. When he came up there was hope, there was anticipation. Also Mays was immediately followed by McCovey so that if the first Willie failed there was a second chance with the power hitting Stretch up.
All of this came to mind when I watched a 1964 documentary about Mays on You Tube. It recalled all the magic of Mays, the Giants and the game of baseball. It is a wonderful time capsule, showing Russ and Lon in the broadcast booth, the press box (comprised of white males wearing hats and suits) and Candlestick Park ( I remember it now as a dump, but as a kid it was a golden palace of baseball). It recalled the smell of hot dogs with Gulden's mustard, the cold Candlestick winds, the SF-LA rivalry and eternal summers of playing, watching, listening to and talking about baseball.
Baseball was the same back then. Played the same with the same rules. But boy is it different. All the bells and whistles of modern ballparks, for one. When I was a kid I went to the ballpark to watch a game, now there are all manner of distractions for children and older fans alike. Scoreboard and sound systems bombard the senses, never giving one time to think, let alone talk. It wasn’t until 1962 that Mays, for one, wore a batting helmet, now players go to bat looking halfway between ball players and knights in armor. Ticket prices have skyrocketed. It was a simple enough matter in high school to go with friends to a game with the price of a ticket quite reasonable. Now you have to take out a second mortgage to afford a decent seat. In my youth ballpark’s offered hot dogs, beer, soda, peanuts and a few other concessions. Now there are all manner of offering from pizza to sushi to crab sandwiches, to salads to barbecued meat to well, the list goes on and on. The variety is nice but the prices would challenge a sultan’s budget and yet some fans make endless trips from their seats to fill up on over priced and mostly unhealthy fare. Another distraction.
Like so much else baseball has been corporatized over the years. It’s a gold mine for fat cats and the players reap rewards, many making millions (yes, plural) of dollars a year. In 1963 Mays made just over 100 grand for the season which, even with inflation is less than a million today. The games take longer, there are many more pitching changes for one thing. Many of the fans are there for the spectacle and know or care only a little about the game. We didn't have to endure the Kiss Cam or between innings quizzes or the incessant blaring of music when I was a kid. But we got to says Mays in centerfield making his patented basket catch.
I don't listen on the radio anymore. For one thing every single game is on TV. Also I have less time for baseball what with books and movies, English soccer, my own family and the like. Plus I can always get up to the second updates on line whether at home or commuting or out running errands. I go to less games what with exorbitant ticket prices and games lasting three hours. The Giants added to their World Series with two more so the desperation to see them win is significantly less (but I wouldn't turn up my nose to another title or three if the baseball gods see fit).
I still love baseball but it is no longer the backdrop of my Spring and Summer. One of the pleasures of the sport is its connection to my youth, to my dad and to old friends who I've gone to games with or just talked baseball with. I passed my love of the game in general and to the Giants in particular to my oldest daughter and my nephews are fellow travelers too, so the family connection is strong. The game is forever in my heart. Baseball abides.
I'll tell you one thing I do miss though -- when Mays came up. That was special.
Affectionately dedicated to my good friend Phil who sent me the above mentioned video and with whom I share similar memories of the Giants in the '60s and Russ and Lon and of course, Willie.