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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

Sox > Hoops or Football
by Hal Vickery

“How did we ever get so emotionally involved with a bunch of guys who are just playing a game?” That was one of a series of questions that came up late the other night (or was it early in the morning) in a conversation with a fellow WSI member. “And why baseball more so than the NFL or NBA?”

I thought it was an interesting question worth exploring. Obviously I can only speak for myself, but you might find your answers to be similar.

Baseball seems to be a game that gets under people’s skin more than any other. You don’t hear anybody writing of the beauty of the pro set offense or the triangle offense, but you hear people wax poetic about baseball. Sure, I know it’s the National Passtime and all that, but exactly why is it that?

I think in order to answer these questions you have to go back to when you first encountered the game. Most of us did sometime before the age of ten. I happen to be on the early side of that curve. I became absolutely enthralled by the game at the age of five. It’s the first game that a lot of us really understand. Why exactly is that?

Two things come to mind: the number of games played and the season in which those games are played. During the six months of the regular season, your team is playing almost every day. When you’re a kid, summers seem to go on forever, and that’s a lot of baseball. And it’s a lot of baseball played without things like schoolwork intervening during the height of the season.

By contrast your local NFL team plays one game a week. At least most of the games are on Sunday, so you can watch without a problem, unless mom commits the unpardonable sin of calling you to the table for Sunday dinner during the fourth quarter. Still that’s not the total immersion you get with baseball.

The NBA is closer to baseball in games played, with a schedule about half as long as baseball’s over the same time period. But most of those games are played on school nights when most kids should be told by their parents to do their homework or there will be no TV. But then there are all those school activities that interfere with your watching the NBA.

So baseball has more games played during a season when kids can actually watch the games. Do kids still play outdoors anymore? When we were growing up, we’d play a pick-up game in the morning, or at least a couple of us would play some whiffle ball and go in for lunch.

During the heat of the afternoon, we’d stay in and watch the game on TV, and then head outside again after the game and play until supper time. Night games started at 8:00, so we’d get in a full evening of play. Of course in those days, they were only on the radio, so you’d have to imagine the game as it was being described.

That’s another thing baseball has over the NFL – local announcers. The NFL games are national. They’re called straight down the middle, or at least they’re supposed to be. In Chicago and many other cities, the announcers are pronounced homers. When I was growing up, Chicago had two of the biggest and best homers, Bob Elson on radio and Jack Brickhouse on TV.

A radio announcer has to paint a picture of the game. He has to create suspense with his because you can’t see what’s going on there on the diamond. He has to describe every play so you can see it with your mind’s eye. Elson may not have been the most scintillating announcer in the world, but he could paint a picture with words as well as anyone and better than most.

Nearly forty years after he left Chicago, I can still hear Elson’s voice, telling me that Mickey Mantle is wearing a big “7” on the back of his white pinstriped uniform. Or when Billy Pierce let go a fast ball, “There’s a swiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnng…andamiss.”

Of course I grew up in the first TV generation, so my guy was Jack Brickhouse. Okay, he loved the Cubs, too, but I lived sixty miles away from the city. It didn’t make as much difference to me then as it does now.

“Everybody up! Time for the seventh inning stretch. We’re gonna stand up and stretch with the rest of the folks, and when we come back we’ll bring in our old rally specialist Vince Lloyd (or Harry Creighton before Lloyd) to see if he can get the Sox a couple of runs.” Pure Brickhouse. Or at the end of the top of the ninth, “Any old kind of a run can win it for the Sox.” Those phrases stick with me after all these years because we heard them day in and day out during the endless summer days and nights.

Our summer days revolved around the games. Before I entered first grade (there was no kindergarten where I went) I could read the baseball listings in TV Guide.

1:00: Batting Practice. The cameras would show the Sox taking infield practice (a practice long since discontinued) while Brickhouse would go through the day’s press guide.

1:15: Lead-Off Man. Harry Creighton, and later Vince Lloyd, would interview either a Sox player or one of the visiting players. Meanwhile, over at WCFL they’d switch over from their programming of “Good Music” to the Dugout Show where Elson would interview another player, the field announcer would give the starting lineups, and Elson would come back for “more dugout dope.”

1:25: Baseball. The game itself with Brickhouse doing the first 6½ innings, Creighton (later Lloyd) the bottom of the seventh and the eighth, and then Brickhouse would take the rest.

3:15 (time approximate): 10th Inning. A player would be brought up to the booth while Brickhouse would give the totals while the camera showed the line score of each game on the United Airlines or HFC scoreboard. The Brickhouse would interview the player.

And so it happened nearly every day. You couldn’t help but get to know the players and the game. Before I became a sophisticated six-year-old who knew all the nuances of the game, I didn’t realize there were days when no game was played. I remember one day crying as my mom walked me all the way to the barber shop at 1:00 because I just knew I was going to miss the game.

My barber, Glenn Mulligan, who happened to be something like a second cousin, laughed and turned on the TV in the barber shop to show me that there was no game on. I think that’s when I decided I’d learn how to read the TV Guide.

And then there was grandpa and dad to tell you about the players of their generation of growing up. By the time you were twelve, you knew where the Sox finished every year in the standings from 1901 to the present.

The faces and voices might be different nowadays, but at least the Sox have had some pretty colorful announcers in recent years for kids to latch on to, particularly Hawk Harrelson. Name one young Sox fan who can’t repeat at least a half-dozen “Hawkisms.” Even Cubs fans know “He gawn!”

When that local color disappears, baseball will have lost something, and it could just be a generation of fans. I know lots of NFL fans and lots of NBA fans around town, but I don’t know very many MLB fans. Nope. You’re either a Sox fan or a Cubs fan. A lot of them might be able to give you a complete rundown on the NFL scores, but if you ask them during baseball season what the Reds did against the Pirates last night, you’ll just get a shrug. Ask them what the Sox did, and you’ll get a complete report, including commentary, of the game.

Then there is that first trip to the ballpark. I still remember coming out of the entry and seeing the green grass, the light brown dirt, the green walls, the huge scoreboard. The only word to describe it is “awe.”

I guess that about sums it up. Oh, that and the fact that the basics of baseball are easy for any kid to understand. “You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” What could be simpler. After a few weeks, you have the infield fly rule memorized and can calculate your batting average. (How many kids learned division of decimals that way?)

It’s a game with a long history, but one not so long that my son, who is twenty-seven, has a father who talked every day with a person who remembered the earliest days of the White Sox. It’s the game that links the generations more than any other, and links them to one particular team. Some of my fondest memories of my dad were just tossing a ball back and forth with him, sometimes on the same day my grandpa told me about what a great third baseman Buck Weaver was.

It’s a game you have time to follow as a kid because it’s played when you have time to follow it. It’s more of a local game than any other with local announcers who may have been with the same team for decades.

As a kid I ate, drank, and slept baseball. Most of us did. Where I grew up, there were probably more Sox fans than Cubs fans, but there were enough to get into arguments about whether Aparicio was a better shortstop than Banks or whether Pierce was a better pitcher than Bob Rush.

When you’re around the game that much, how can you not carry some of that strong emotion with you into adulthood? And then you have kids, and they pick it up from you. Somehow they discover the game, maybe by watching you reacting to it on TV. They ask you questions, and they’re hooked.

And so it goes. Baseball is a huge part of your life. For most of us, it was part of bonding with our dads, our grandfathers, and later in life our sons. There were hundreds if not thousands of hours spent as kids watching and playing the game. There’s a huge emotional investment there.

How can adults get so emotional about a bunch of guys playing a game? A better question might be, “How could they not?”

______________________________________________________________________

Editor's Note: Hal Vickery has been a White Sox fan since 1955 when he was five years old. For much of that time he also had a secondary rooting interest in the Cubs, which he has shown the good sense to abandon. When not cheering for or writing about the Sox, Hal teachers chemistry and physics at North Boone High School, in Poplar Grove, IL. Hal commutes there daily from Joliet, where he lives with his wife Lee, and their dog, Buster T. Beagle. Hal's opinions are not necessarily those of North Boone High School, his wife, or Buster T. Beagle. You can write Hal at hvickery@svs.com.

More features from Hal Vickery here!

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