Baseball's post season still feels like Christmas in October
It is time for Christmas in October. That’s how the start of the baseball post-season feels to me – exactly the same anticipation and joy that I had as a young boy about Christmas Day.
I’m sure a lot of baseball junkies feel that way. But for my brothers and me it was even more special because it meant that for one month we’d get to watch TV.
The end of the TV
We had a TV for the first decade of my life, one of those monstrous console sets with a black-and-white screen. We watched Batman, Gunsmoke, Green Acres, Gilligan’s Island and many of the other shows now considered classics. We watched baseball as well. I remember watching as much of the 1968 and ’69 World Series as we could when school didn’t interfere in that era before night games.
Then one night in May 1970 the sound mysteriously disappeared from the TV. The next day, the picture vanished as well. Instead of rushing the TV to a repair shop, as my brothers and I believed was the best course of action, my father simply said, “That’s it, no more TV.”
He wasn’t kidding. He’d grown up without a TV and done fine without it. His sons could do the same. After a mourning period of a few weeks Dad loaded the television set into the back of his pickup and drove it to the city dump.
We adapted quickly and in hindsight, it was a brilliant decision on my father’s part. My brothers and I spent a lot of time outside, we played board games (especially baseball ones) during inclement weather and we read voraciously (including virtually every book written by Matt Christopher and John R. Tunis). In short, we learned to entertain ourselves.
Following baseball without a TV
But by this time we had become serious followers of baseball and had no way of watching the Game of the Week, which in those days was about the only chance to see a game. On Saturday afternoon we’d beg Dad to take us to Sears. Sears had a large area displaying their television sets (including color sets!) and on Saturdays many of those sets would be tuned to the Game of the Week. While Dad browsed the tool section we’d stand among the TVs drinking in as much of the baseball action as we could. If Dad was particularly distracted we might see three innings worth of action.
We sated our baseball cravings by listening to games on the radio. Growing up in Northern Indiana, we could pull in broadcasts from Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and Cincinnati. Some nights, if the weather was right, we could get static-filled games from Cleveland and St. Louis as well. We listened to a lot of Cubs games because a local radio station carried them, but as Yankees fans, we preferred the Tigers’ broadcast because they were in the same division. Plus Ernie Harwell was a spectacular announcer.
Although we had didn’t have much money to spare, Dad made the concession of subscribing to the Sporting News and Baseball Digest for us. Each week when the Sporting News arrived we’d spend hours lying shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor, the pages with the box scores spread out before us (our local paper didn’t carry daily box scores), deciphering the lines with all the enthusiasm of an archeologist reading ancient stone tablets.
The TV miracle
Then in October 1972 The Miracle occurred, an event nearly as momentous as the Virgin Birth – Dad came home with a TV.
It wasn’t our TV, though. Dad had stopped at a local rental store and rented it for the month of October so we could watch the baseball post-season. It was a cheap 17-inch black-and-white model but no large screen HD TV has ever looked better than that television appeared to us that day.
That started a tradition. Each October we’d rent a TV. We’d watch other shows of course – Mannix, Colombo, Happy Days and Gilligan’s Island reruns – but there was never any doubt that the TV’s primary purpose was for baseball. Except for those dreaded afternoon playoff games when we had school, we didn’t miss anything.
Fond memories of the 1972 World Series
Even though I’ve seen many World Series since 1972, including watching the Yankees win many times, I still have fond and clear memories of the 1972 Series. Oddly, my memories seem to be in color even though we saw the games in shades of gray.
The ’72 World Series was a classic matchup between the Oakland A’s and Cincinnati Reds. No one took the A’s seriously, even though they’d been in the post-season the year before. But for a couple of decades the A’s had been one of the worst teams in the American League. On top of that, they wore ridiculous gold and green tops on occasion, along with white shoes. Their owner paid them to grow outrageous facial hair and gave them nicknames like Catfish and Blue Moon.
The Reds, on the other hand, were the Big Red Machine with Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez, plus a solid pitching staff and a genius manager in Sparky Anderson. The A’s had good pitching but their best player, Reggie Jackson, had been injured in the playoffs. He and the A’s starting catcher, Dave Duncan, would both miss the Series. The Big Red Machine would roll over them, probably in four straight.
As Yankee fans we naturally rooted for the American League team, which was bolstered by our already intense dislike of Pete Rose for what we thought was a dirty play in the 1970 All-Star game. Much to our delight, Oakland won the first game when backup catcher Gene Tenace homered in each of his first two at bats. Then they won the second game.
The Reds came back, of course, forcing a Game 7 that the A’s won. All but one game was decided by a single run. Tenace belted four homers. It was an amazing victory. Ironically, that matchup could happen again this season and it would probably seem as one-sided in the Reds favor as it did 40 years ago.
Many October memories
Because Dad rented that TV for us, we got to see a lot of big post-season moments, like Carlton Fisk’s game-winning homer in the 1975 Series, and Chris Chambliss’ walk-off shot in Game 5 of the AL Championship Series that put the Yankees into the World Series. (It also fostered my hatred of Notre Dame football. One year, I believe it was 1973, the local NBC affiliate decided to pre-empt the Saturday afternoon World Series game in favor of Notre Dame football. Fortunately, the CBS affiliate picked up the feed and we didn’t miss the game, but I’ve never forgiven them for that.)
By the 1977 World Series I was in college, watching the Yankees beat the Dodgers, behind Reggie Jackson’s three-homer game, on my roommate’s color TV, while my brothers viewed the game on the rented black-and-white. The following summer I scrimped and saved to buy my own 12-inch black-and-white TV. When I left for college that August, my brothers pooled their resources and bought their own black-and-white set, the first TV in our household in 8-1/2 years.
The magic Bucky Dent moment
We did share one more October memory, though. In early October 1978 my college had a four-day fall break from Friday through Monday. I’d caught a ride home with another student and since neither of us had early morning classes on Tuesday, we decided to return to college on Tuesday morning. It was a fortuitous decision.
On that Sunday the season ended with the Yankees and Red Sox tied. There would be a one-game playoff to determine the division winner on Monday afternoon. That meant I could watch the game. My brothers, who were still in high school, wanted to watch the game too. So at noon my mother drove to the school. Making up some excuse, pulled my two brothers out of class and brought them home.
Once more we sat together through all the tension of the game unfolding in black and white. We groaned as Boston took a 2-0 lead. Then in the seventh inning Bucky Dent came to bat with two runners on. He fouled a ball off his foot and hobbled around the batter’s box. A week earlier we’d seen Cliff Johnson foul a ball off his foot and then homer on the next pitch. So my brother, taking that as an omen, astutely predicted that Dent would do the same.
And he did. For years there was a mark on the ceiling of my parents’ living room were my fingers scraped the tiles as we all leaped and screamed like banshees when the ball cleared the Green Monster. Even today I can still vividly recall Carl Yastrzemski’s foul ball settling into Graig Nettles’ glove for the final out of the game.
It still feels like Christmas in October
Since 1972 I’ve rarely missed a World Series game (except for 2004 – I could not root for a National League team in the Series but there was no way I could bring myself to cheer for the Red Sox that season), and I haven’t missed many playoff games either.
In the late 1990s-early 2000s I got to share the joy of watching the Yankees in the World Series with my kids. Even my daughter watched the games, cheering especially loud on those rare occasions when her favorite player, Luis Sojo, entered the game.
While my three children don’t share my passion for baseball’s post-season, we still have many fond memories of those years watching the games together. And they still watch sometimes. In 2009 my daughter was in college, living in a house with three other girls. One night a roommate entered my daughter’s room and found her glued to the TV, watching the World Series. Her roomie wondered incredulously, “Why would you watch it if you didn’t have to?”
So, yes, Christmas in October is very real to me. I’m as excited as a little kid today thinking about the start of the post-season. I can’t wait to see what presents baseball will give me this year.