OXFORD — I don’t follow major league baseball like I once did, back in the days when Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin were playing for the New York Yankees.
It’s October, the playoffs are underway and the World Series is slated later this month. But I have little interest in which teams win, and I can’t name many of the players on the rosters.
Not sure why I lost interest. There was a time when I followed the game closely on radio and television after we got one.
Baseball, then known as the “national pastime,” was the only major sports league to follow in the summer months.
Sure, it coincided with football in the fall, but not like this year when, thanks to COVID-19, professional basketball, football and baseball were all being played at the same time until the National Basketball Association finals last week.
As a kid, I could name the players on my favorite team, the Yankees, as well as several of the others.
Maybe when they started expanding the leagues into divisions, adding franchises and moving old ones around is when I began to lose interest.
Or maybe it’s because the game is too slow when compared to football and basketball.
I don’t know. I just find it hard to concentrate on a full game on television.
But I still like stories about the characters of the game — people like Yogi Berra, Casey Stengel and Dizzy Dean — even if some of those stories do lack moral clarity. I guess you can say the same thing about politics.
Whitey Ford died last week at age 91 — rekindling stories of his escapades with Mantle and Martin.
Their manager, Casey Stengel, called them the Three Musketeers because of their late-night shenanigans.
The New York Times, in Ford’s obituary, noted that Mantle, at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, “was asked about the chemistry behind the friendship between him, the country boy from Oklahoma, and Ford, who grew up on the streets of Queens.” Mantle replied, “We both liked Scotch.”
Obviously, Ford was better able to handle alcohol than Mantle, given Ford’s longevity. Mantle died of liver disease brought on by alcohol at age 63.
Billy Martin died at age 61 in an alcohol-related crash when the pickup truck in which he was a passenger skidded off an icy road in upstate New York and tumbled 300 feet down a gully.
You wouldn’t want Stengel’s “Three Musketeers” as role models for your kids.
Ford, a left-hander who had a variety of pitches with remarkable control, admitted in later years that he cheated, After retirement, Ford acknowledged he sometimes doctored the baseball, creating “mud” balls by mixing saliva and dirt. He used a concoction of baby oil, turpentine and resin to make his fingers sticky, and he had a ring made with a specially attached rasp to cut baseballs, all to make a pitch break unexpectedly and produce strikeouts or ground balls.
Ford wasn’t the first or the last baseball player to cheat.
In a 2006 article in the “Bleacher Report,” Michael Bell wrote: “Cheating in baseball has existed as long as the game itself. From spiking opposing players to stealing signs, doctoring balls and corking bats, cheating has become a part of the game. And it is entirely acceptable, as long as you don’t get caught. Often times, opposing teams do not know it is occurring (see the 1951 New York Giants). Other times, everyone knows it is going on, but are unable to prove it (see Gaylord Perry in the 1970s). There are also many incidences where everyone is clueless until the evidence shatters directly in front of them (see anyone who has ever been caught corking a bat). However, any way that you look at it, it’s cheating. And it sucks.”
What has changed since the playing days of Ford and Mantle are the salaries.
In 1963, Mantle earned his top salary of $100,000, equivalent to $845,309 in 2020 dollars.
Although that certainly was enough money to go out on the town, it’s a pittance compared to the more than $30 million earned by some of the stars today who aren’t nearly as gifted as Mickey, even after he’d been out all night.
Charles Dunagin, who lives in Oxford, is a retired longtime Mississippi newspaperman.