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Los Angeles Times Special Report / Baseball : A Series Game Used to Mean Something

October 22, 1994|BOB OATES | Bob Oates is a Times staff writer

For millions of us, this is a special time. This is World Series time. Show time. If the players and owners hadn't killed it with their dispute, another show would have opened today, unless it rained, or the earth moved.

It has been like that for years.

Almost every October, from one decade to the next, the World Series has been a hit attraction even in America's small towns--where in the 1920s, far from any ballpark, the defining symbol was often a giant World Series scoreboard.

The inning scores were about a foot high.

If you were watching, you saw it in Ken Burns' baseball documentary. As an awestruck schoolboy, I saw it in Aberdeen, S.D.

Our scoreboard stood in front of the granite-faced building at Lincoln and Fourth that was home to the Aberdeen Morning American, my future employer.

That was before television. It was before radio. So, in South Dakota, we kept score.

The sports editor of the American, monitoring the telegraphed play-by-play report, worked smoothly with the scoreboard operator. And every half inning, there it was--another zero or maybe a one, a two or a three.

A man with a megaphone told us about the home runs.

Invariably, the intersection in front of the newspaper office was alive with baseball fans--many of them in from the farm, or off the train from Ipswich--and the roar of the little crowd as the numbers went up was a distant echo of the thunder in Yankee Stadium or Sportsman's Park.

By the 1950s, the downtown scoreboards were gone, radio was going, and live pictures of the action in Brooklyn or the Bronx were actually coming into my new house in Los Angeles.

That was the era of daytime, weekday World Series television. Every day was like an NFL Sunday now. And for students, preachers, writers and others with their own working hours, it was the best era yet.

On my street in the Baldwin Hills, after my friends left for work, I entertained their wives. And one day in the third inning, Jane Gaynor, a Yankee fan from across the street, predicted that her pitcher was on his way to a no-hitter. My wife, a Dodger fan, said you can't no-hit a World Series team--especially the Dodgers. But that day, as Gaynor ran screaming out the door, Don Larsen did.

It was three years later that the show came to California for the first time. The memory that lingers of that bright, sunny day in 1959 is simply being in a World Series dugout in Los Angeles before the game. Later that afternoon I talked with a dozen or more of the 93,000 spectators in a dozen sections of the Coliseum, which, we all concluded, was the best baseball park ever built. And because of its unique features--among them the fascinating left-field screen and so many thousands of unobstructed-view seats--I still think it is.

Dodger owner Walter O'Malley, the brightest man I've known in sports, once told me that he felt compelled to build a perfect Dodger Stadium to avoid comparisons with the Coliseum.

The light-hitting Dodgers survived an 11-0 blowout by the Chicago White Sox in the first game and won the 1959 Series in six games, but O'Malley didn't seem to enjoy it much. He didn't respect the opponent.

He knew the Dodgers had lucked into the championship in a rare down year for the New York Yankees, who in that era won 10 pennants in 12 seasons for Manager Casey Stengel.

From the '20s to the '90s, during the World Series of my time:

--Stengel was the most effective manager. An advocate of platoon baseball, he once used a record seven pitchers in one game--and won that Series, too. Turning 70 the year he won his last pennant, Stengel said most people his age were dead.

--The century's two most overpowering players were Willie Mays and Kirk Gibson.

Mays' over-the-shoulder catch in deep center--reminding Ram fans of Elroy (Crazy Legs) Hirsch's over-the-shoulder Coliseum catches--won the 1954 World Series for the New York Giants in the first game, demoralizing the Cleveland Indians.

Gibson's pinch home run--in the only at-bat he could make in the 1988 Series--won the championship for the Dodgers in the first game, demoralizing the Oakland A's.

--My all-time achievement award winner is Reggie Jackson of the Yankees, who in 1977 hit four World Series homers on four consecutive swings. After a home run in his last at-bat one day, Jackson, in the next game, walked on four pitches, then hit three more home runs with his next three swings against three Dodger pitchers.

No other hitter, not even Ruth, ever got in a comparable groove. Jackson's streak might have been the hottest in sports history.

--It was about that time that I first heard the best of the baseball stories, the one about the two old pitchers who gravely discussed the future one afternoon while seated side by side in the bullpen.

"Do you think they play baseball in heaven?" Lefty asked.

"I hope so," said Rip, who tragically died later in an automobile accident, but got in touch with Lefty again as soon as he could.

"Well, do they play baseball up there?" Lefty demanded.

"I'll give you the good news first," Rip said. "Yes, they do play baseball in heaven. The bad news is, you're pitching Sunday."

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