Taking a Swing at the Century

For the twentieth century, it's suddenly the bottom of the ninth with two outs, and that fact has unleashed a wave of nostalgia in the nation's baseball fans unmatched since, well, since Big Mac hit number 70.

For instance. Prior to last week's All-Star Game in Boston, current players from both teams mobbed Ted Williams's golf cart to wish the ailing Red Sox slugger well and to collect his famous tips on hip turn, timing and hand position. Like Freud at a convention of psychiatrists, Teddy Ballgame still packs in the acolytes (even those riding a cloud of andro fumes), and the Fenway Park infield was said to be sprinkled with big-league tears by the time Williams lobbed the ceremonial first pitch at Carlton Fisk and was wheeled off to the box seats.

On the living-room couches of America, the Williams Effect was likely no less pronounced. At least four or five twentysomethings got choked up because the TV told them to, but even Yankee fans who detested Ted in his playing days and native Beantowners who booed him for his cool distance were transformed the other night by the man's presence via orthicon tube. Their lives, too, are almost spent. They, too, have got dewlaps and tremors and a clear view of the sunset. But how many of them dream, as Williams recently professed to have done, of facing flamethrower Randy Johnson and eventually stroking a line-drive single up the middle?

As for the ghost of Joe DiMaggio, well, fans close to his vintage aren't about to get over that one...

But before everyone's carried off to the boneyard with "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" warbling away on a lone violin, there's some unfinished business that needs tending. Everybody's favorite corporate baseball fan, MasterCard, in conjunction with Major League Baseball itself, has just compiled a list of a hundred players from which voters (alias You and Me) are instructed to choose two at each infield position, two catchers, nine outfielders and six pitchers. These twenty-five players will then be declared the All-Century Team, and everybody will go home.

Naturally, The List has already started expletive-hurling, bottle-smashing arguments in thousands of the nation's saloons. If there's one thing the pride-blinded, belligerently-inclined American sports fan likes to get hot and bothered about, it's any cockamamy list of the Best This or Most Outstanding That. Joe Budweiser, who last played ball in the seventh grade, may agree with his old pal Tommy Pabstblueribbon that Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron both belong on the All-Century Team. But don't ask them to debate the merits of Wee Willie Keeler versus Ralph Kiner unless you want a visit from the paramedics.

As if to inflame the current argument, the guardians of statistical truth at the Society for American Baseball Research, wormlike creatures who believe baseball is played in a library carrel, have come up with a Top 100 List of their own, beginning with Ruth and ending with Joe "Ducky" Medwick. The Lists don't agree, of course. For starters, the MasterCarders have Cub standout Billy Williams and such Negro League stars as Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston and Satchel Paige on the ballot, while the SABR-maniacs, who insist that Negro League statistics are unreliable, have simply excised Cool Papa (who ran so fast, they say, that he could flip off the light switch and be in bed before the room got dark) and opted for fellows like Hoyt Wilhelm, Willie Stargell, Ryne Sandberg and Ferguson Jenkins.

Not only that, both lists include the names of the great Cincinnati Red Pete Rose (the all-time hits leader, brought low by a gambling scandal) and Chicago Black Sock Joe Jackson (brought low by an earlier gambling scandal)--despite the fact that Rose has been excommunicated from baseball and both players have been barred from the Hall of Fame. Shoeless Joe's case is under review; Charlie Hustle's is not.

In any event, as fans gaze through the mists shrouding their own fields of dreams, they probably see Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig and the Bambino out there. Isn't that Nolan Ryan on the mound, throwing heat, or is it Walter "Big Train" Johnson? And if we're not mistaken, that's Pie Traynor over at third--although in this light he starts to look a lot like Mike Schmidt. Is the old eyesight failing, or is that really Grover Cleveland Alexander warming up in the bullpen, throwing strikes to placid Roy Campanella? Oh, yes, and that husky guy leaning on the top dugout step with the weight of history on his back would certainly be number 42, muscled-up in Brooklyn Dodger white and blue. Jackie. If there are a hundred great players in the century, then damn the numbers, because the numbers are suddenly and forever insignificant: Jackie's heart and Jackie's burden make him as number one on anybody's team.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo

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