Ted Williams once said, “They invented the All-Star game for Willie Mays.” More than any sentence, any statistic, or any phrase etched on his plaque in Cooperstown, this statement outlines the substance of Mays and captures his essence so perfectly as to render all of the numbers accrued over the 22-year career as mere accessories to the historical storyline. More than the Polo Grounds, Seals Stadium, Candlestick Park or Shea Stadium, I think of the All-Star game as the truest and most definitive home for The Say Hey Kid. Willie Mays manned the biggest and most eye-catching booth in a traveling carnival known as the Midsummer Classic on 24 separate occasions, and hit, ran and slid his way beyond the imaginations of the thousands of fans who saw his star take center stage and command the brightest spotlight among a troupe of iconic ballplayers. The All-Star game indeed was made for talents like Willie Mays, for on one special day each summer, this baseball genius found a singular home for the expression of the exceptional, the magical, and the everlasting. In ballparks, stadiums, and fields, the Giants’ centerfielder settled into whatever city was lucky enough to host his abilities, and left behind an encyclopedia of images, memories, oohs, and aahs which comprised a collective experience known as watching Willie Mays.
The Midsummer Classic, like Opening Day or the postseason, offers a concise and impressionable tablet onto which baseball etches its storyline. Once a year, the game’s best challenge each other and measure themselves against their peers – the results can often carry on in our memories and mythologies in a manner that sometimes subtly and sometimes directly encapsulates the past and present. Pedro Martinez’ performance in the 1999 All-Star game, in which he struck out Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire in succession to begin the game lies beside Carl Hubbell’s mastery in the 1934 Midsummer Classic, when he struck out five future Hall of Famers – Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin – in a row. Just this past week, Josh Hamilton capped a fairytale first half with his jaw-dropping display in the Home Run Derby. With home plate in Yankee Stadium his stage, with 50,000 fans on their feet chanting his name, Hamilton rocketed and moon-shot ball after ball into the upper deck, into the black seats in center, and even flirted with that Holy Grail of home run hitting – knocking one completely out of the stadium. Hamilton’s turn under the spotlight made me think back to the All-Star game in 1941, when another left-handed batter with prodigious talents symbolized an iconic season with a single swing of the bat. That year in Detroit, Ted Williams won the game with a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth. For Williams, whose two-for-four-day was not a part of his .406 batting average in 1941, that home run always stood at the apex of his accomplishments on the ballfield.
Reggie Jackson hitting the transformer in the 1971 game and Bo Jackson going way beyond yard off Rick Reuschel in 1989. Curt Schilling daring Alex Rodriguez to try and hit three fastballs in 2002 and Ted Williams swatting Rip Sewell’s eephus pitch into the stands in 1946. A 1-0 game in the year of the pitcher in 1968 (in which the only run was scored by Willie Mays, who led off the game with a single), and a 13-8 slugfest at Coors Field in 1998. Hank Blalock’s two-run home run against a previously untouchable Eric Gagne in 2003 (it was Gagne’s only blown save the entire year). Babe Ruth hitting the first home run in All-Star history in 1933. The 1934 game in which 17 of the 18 starters eventually were inducted into the Hall of Fame (Wally Berger is the only outsider). Terry Steinbach – hitting .217 in the first half of the season – winning the MVP in the 1988 game with a two-run home run that accounted for all the AL scoring in their victory. Each moment stands alone in our All-Star scrapbook, while also claiming a place as an important block in the ever-expanding timeline of baseball. The All-Star game serves as a microscope, into which we peer, examine, and celebrate the nuances and elements that separate good from the great.
As a space in which to shape, witness, and impact an amazing tableau of achievement, Yankee Stadium has stood atop the baseball mountain for the better part of nine decades. Yankee Stadium is the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore, and Washington Monument rolled into one. People come to its gates to sit atop the baseball world – always cognizant of what has played out on the field in the past; and always hoping to witness one more iconic moment. Few have ever walked away disappointed.
The iconic and the grand – Babe Ruth christening the Stadium with a home run on April 18, 1923, Lou Gehrig’s speech on July 4, 1939, the perfect games twirled by Don Larsen, David Wells, and David Cone, two ninth-inning, game-tying home runs on two consecutive World Series nights in 2001, Roger Maris’ 61st home run in 1961, Mickey Mantle Day in 1969, All-Star games in 1939, 1960, 1977 and 2007 – have permanently lifted the ballpark to a singular position in the national pastime. But the intimate has also thickened the space with ghosts, constricting the vastness of Yankee Stadium to a deeply personal set of diary pages. We all have our own moments at the Stadium: the small gestures, accomplishments, connections and performances that have melded and contrasted to construct innumerable homes that we each call our own. These are the elements that give life to any ballpark, for the ghosts have no animation without our memories or stories. The ballpark holds onto each and every one of our recollections – protecting, burnishing, storing safely until we sit down in a seat, look out to the field, and say, “I remember when.”
On September 26, 1981, in the bottom of the ninth inning of an Orioles-Yankees game on a Saturday afternoon in the Bronx, a pinch-hitter walked to the plate. The Yankees, trailing 4-3, had the tying run on second and the winning run on first with one out. The pinch-hitter on this early fall afternoon strode to the plate, heard the volley of cheers cascading down from the nearly 31,000 fans in the seats, and took his place in the left-handed side of the batter’s box. The pinch-hitter had been in this spot many times before, and was accustomed to being the epicenter of great expectations and hopes. 16 years earlier, the pinch-hitter had made his debut for the New York Yankees against the Washington Senators. On that day, he was a 19-year-old shortstop from Oklahoma whose hometown, powerful left-handed swing and original position on the diamond necessitated comparisons to a baseball legend, Mickey Mantle. Although the 19-year-old never did match the career of Mantle, he carved out a memorable and long-lasting entry of his own. For a time, when the Yankees were suffering their worst World Series drought since their first pennant in 1921, Bobby Murcer gave fans a reason to hand a ticket over, walk through a turnstile, and take a seat at Yankee Stadium: three consecutive Top-10 MVP finishes from 1971-1973, five straight All-Star berths from 1971-1975, a Gold Glove in 1972, a few positions atop the leaderboards in various categories, the most runs driven in and scored in the AL from 1971-1974. Bobby Murcer also provided a link – he had not only been compared to Mickey Mantle, Murcer had played with him, and had eventually taken Mantle’s spot in centerfield. And so the legacy continued – from DiMaggio to Mantle to Murcer. And if that connection was interrupted by a trade to San Francisco after the 1974 season (Murcer was traded for Bobby Bonds, who had come to the big leagues saddled with comparisons to that other centerfielding legend, Willie Mays), the separation and eventual return in 1979 only reaffirmed
how much Bobby Murcer meant – as both ballplayer and symbol – to the franchise and to the fans who had grown up with tales of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle.
On September 26, 1981, with the crispness of autumn issuing a soft reminder of what was to come, I sat and watched pinch-hitter Bobby Murcer walk to the plate. Whatever chants Murcer was hearing were drowned out by a singular voice to my right. For above my right shoulder, my mother stood, hands clasped in front of her, smiling, intoning “BobbyBobbyBobbyBobby……(pause)……. BobbyBobbyBobbyBobby…… (pause)……. BobbyBobbyBobbyBobby.” And then, somewhere in the moment between a pause and the intake of more air, Bobby Murcer swung and hit a ball into seats in right field to win the game.
As I watched Brooks Robinson, Ernie Banks, Bob Feller, Willie Mays, and all of the other Hall of Famers standing at their positions before this year’s All-Star game at Yankee Stadium, I thought about Bobby Murcer for a moment. Once upon a time, scouts, fans and writers saw this lefty from Oklahoma and felt enough excitement and hope to compare him to Mickey Mantle. Other comparisons to Mantle had been heard the night before the All-Star game, when Josh Hamilton stood into the left-handed batter’s box during the Home Run Derby and launched majestic home runs to very part of Yankee Stadium. And then when four Yankee legends – Reggie Jackson, Yogi Berra, Goose Gossage, and Whitey Ford – took their baseballs from George Steinbrenner and made their graceful and deeply personal gestures of a hug or a kiss on the cheek, I again thought of Bobby Murcer and all the deeply personal images I have witnessed at the Stadium. Don Mattingly walking from third to first after the last out in the bottom of the third inning on September 23, 1995, when the fans rose as one and gave him a standing ovation for everything that he had represented; a chant – in order to express all of those same sentiments – for Paul O’Neill in Game Five of the 2001 World Series; Tom Seaver retiring Don Baylor on August 4, 1985 to record the final out in his 300th win; Bernie Williams crushing Randy Myers’ flat slider in the bottom of the 11th inning in Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS; sitting with a friend down the left field line and watching Andy Pettitte beat the Orioles in a prelude to his wonderful 2003 playoff run; taking my own personal walk through Monument Park to gaze at the plaques. And of course, listening to my mother chanting BobbyBobbyBobbyBobby and watching a connection to the past introduce himself to a new generation.
We never know when a moment will arrive and hand us another tile for our ever expanding mosaic. Sometimes – like waiting anxiously for the moment when Mariano Rivera was going to enter this year’s All-Star game – we anticipate and hope and sweat out the proceeding moments. Sometimes – like Josh Hamilton’s awe-inspiring performance in the Home Run Derby – we consider but hold our hopes in check. Sometimes – like the pregame ceremony before the All-Star game – we are content to sit back and absorb. Sometimes – like Fernando Valenzuela striking out five straight batters in the 1986 All-Star game – the moment instantly connects to a different era and moment and seamlessly bridges generations and decades. And sometimes – like a pinch-hit home run by Bobby Murcer in 1981 – a moment lies beneath the surface, waiting for the proper amount of time and context to reveal its hidden meaning and importance. But always, our ballparks welcome us, patiently offering us the chance to witness and connect to the game and the men who assemble the shapes and memories that we know as baseball.
Thanks to baseball-reference.com and retrosheet.org for information that helped with this piece.