Perhaps the second most famous World Series homerun of all time (after Bobby Thompson’s Shot Heard Round the World) is Carlton Fisk’s extra-inning walk-off in Game 6 of the 1975 match between the Red Sox and the Reds. I gave my son a DVD collection containing all seven games several years ago. (The Red Sox, of course, found a way to blow the series.) He never watched any of it. His generation doesn’t particularly care about the past, in regard to baseball or anything else. We live in a time of instant irrelevance, when the latest gismo is outdated before the paint dries on it. What the heck—who even watches DVD’s any more!
So, with his having escaped us to attend college a thousand miles away, I finally decided to watch my son’s collection surreptitiously all by myself. It proved interesting in numerous ways that rather surprised me. Never mind that the intricate camera angles and immediate rerunning of every play so routine to us now are absent: I’m ignoring the technical angles here. I don’t even really want to dwell on the umpiring, which was incredibly poor at moments. (It always is, even today. At least then, umpires appeared to put up with a lot of guff without tossing guys out. Our modern prima donnas would have suspended and fined everybody on both sides by the end of the second game, even though—with replay and almost routine appeals—they murder fewer calls.) What I have in mind is the quality of actual play. Atavist that I am, I’d like to testify that those boys of yesteryear would have tied today’s ripped, tattooed, arrogant studs into granny knots on the field… but I just can’t get there. It’s not true. I will hasten to add that Cobb and Speaker and Collins—or Mays and Mantle and Williams—probably could send our boys home whimpering with their tails between their legs. In other words, I do not find it plausible to say categorically that we have gotten better and better. What I’m saying is that the players of the Seventies were disturbingly weak in skills, taken as a whole. The ’75 Series was supposed to have been one of the best ever staged… but it was a close affair largely because two matching mediocrities had a hard time getting and keeping the upper hand one over the other.
Now, Pete Rose was what ballplayers call a professional hitter. I’d pause to watch one of his at-bats if I were running from a tornado. Same for Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench. It’s fun to watch guys like that make adjustments and respond to situations. But most of the others… the Red Sox, in particular, were unhinged whirlybirds (speaking of tornadoes). Carl Yastrzemski must have gotten most of his 3,000 hits by sucking the ball into the vacuum created behind his furious barrel. Fred Lynn couldn’t keep his foot out of the bucket or his helmet out of the on-deck circle… and Cecil Cooper should carry an R rating: unsuitable for impressionable young boys to watch. Fisk—he of the Homerun—seemed the most in control of his AB’s, along with no-names Denny Doyle and Rick Burleson.
I grew curious, and went to the record books. How were other guys making out in the mid-Seventies? Pretty much the same. Up and down the standings, teams might have ONE hitter at .295 or above and ONE slugger with 25 or more homeruns. Otherwise… definitive mediocrity. In the American League, the second-place Orioles boasted of a single starter (Ken Singleton) who reached .300, and another loner (Don Baylor) who landed exactly upon 25 four-baggers. Cellar-dwelling teams Milwaukee and Detroit had no everyday players batting in the .290’s and one a piece reaching 25 homers—Willie Horton on the button and George Scott sailing past the mark to lead the league with 36.
The Scott achievement is indicative of another trend. Even abysmal teams tended to have perhaps one standout. Rod Carew was a batting champ for the miserable Twins with a celestial .359 average. The National League’s top hitter was Bill Madlock at .354—but the Cubs were next-to-last in their division, and only one other Chicago teammate with regular at-bats managed to squeak above .300. The three worst teams in the Western Division featured just one starter above .300: Bob Watson, who was comfortably above at .324. They could claim not a single slugger who had topped 25 homers. An aging Willie McCovey had struggled to 23.
If the pitching in 1975 had been overpowering, then the crop of outliers would have been much thinner. A superstar like Mike Schmidt would raise no brows after homering 38 times… but a gigantic strikeout machine like Dave Kingman would never have been allowed to log 36. Carew and Madlock collected multiple batting crowns at astronomical percentages… but how does Ed Kranepool hit .323 if the Year of the Pitcher had returned?
What I’m seeing in the stats is what I saw everywhere in life as I came of age in the Seventies. Most people were goofing off, phoning it in—having their own version of a good time without putting too much thought into it. The few who had survived the Sixties with an intact work ethic proceeded to sparkle like the Evening Star. For others, the overhang of their shaggy hair and the flair in their low-waisted trousers were of as much importance as anything else in life. Visions were narrow and hampered by blunt hedonism. Egos were large and unfed by real accomplishment. If you were paid big bucks, it was because you swaggered along the sidewalk like John Travolta looking for action on Saturday night and had a garish chain flaming from your three-inch, wide-open collar: it wasn’t because you had to produce any labor beyond being your cosmofabulous self.
If this sounds like our own time in many respects… well, say hello to the parents of today’s thirty-somethings. We’ve used up all the more conventional varieties of drugs and sex, however, and are looking with famished pants for something with a stronger buzz. We’re less namby-pamby and more into blood sport. As athletes, we play warthog-crazy rather than poppy-field high (like Bernie Carbo, who was wasted wacky when he clubbed the game-tying homer that set the stage for Fisk’s clout). I certainly won’t say that we’re any better morally. But, you know… at least we seem to crave something out of life. Something that the next twenty-four hours can’t satisfy.
I didn’t see much of that in the Seventies.