Friday, July 10, 2015

1971: When the Baseball Stars All Came Out Together

In general, I hate to be one of those guys. You know, the grouchy curmudgeons who insist that virtually everything was better back in the old days.

But, sometimes, I can't help it. As baseball's All-Star break approaches, I feel a sadness for the loss of the way things used to be. The All-Star game used to mean so much.

Part of the feeling is because nothing about baseball is ever as good as when you were 10 years old. But the more I think about it, the more I think there is a valid argument on this one, All-Star games were better back then:

---There was no interleague play; players and fans only saw the other guys during the spring and during the magical time known as the World Series. So there was the exotic chance to spy the guys from the "other" league.

---Players spoke openly of playing for pride and for their league. The American League was in the midst of a long losing streak that went back to 1962. Later, National Leaguers like Hank Aaron would admit that guys like him and Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente always wanted to play a little harder because of the American League's relative lack of African Americans. They felt they had something to prove.

---There was no need to attach artificial significance to the game, such as the ridiculous home-field-for-the-Series rule. Want to know how hard guys played to win All-Star games back then? Ask Pete Rose; or Ray Fosse.

--Very few players would even consider skipping the All-Star game to rest. Old-schooler Carlton Fisk said it best in the late 1990s when, as the game's honorary captain, he called out one of the American League's leading sluggers who begged off with the lame excuse that he was tired: "You can rest when you're dead."

But the best thing about the game was that, back then, it was truly a showcase for the game's greatest stars. The All-Star manager had little trouble filling his roster with at least one participation-trophy player from each team since there were only 12 teams in each league--that left plenty of space for the true superstars, the guys everyone wanted to see every year.

So, yeah, the All-Star games were better back then. And there was never a better showcase than 1971.

First was the venue: venerable Tiger Stadium in Detroit; a venue full of character, with it's double-decker porch in right field. And it was packed that night--over 53,000, an All-Star game record at the time.

A look at the roster from that game still gives me chills: Bench, McCovey, Torre, Aaron, Mays, Stargell, Carlton, Jenkins, Marichal, Seaver, Brock, Santo and Clemente for the NL. The AL trotted out Carew, Brooks and Frank Robinson, Aparicio, Yaz, Palmer, Killebrew, Jackson and Kaline.

There were 22 (that's twenty-two) future Hall of Famers on the field, and almost all of them were no-doubt-abouters at the time. Also on the roster were Tony Oliva, who barely missed induction in the Hall of Fame last year, and Pete Rose.

The managers? Sparky Anderson and Earl Weaver. Even the managers were Hall of Famers for crying out loud. This contrasts greatly with recent games, such as, for example, the 2009 game which had Jeter, Ichiro, Rivera and Pujols; along with the maybes Molina, Beltran, Hoffman and Verlander--that's eight, at the most.

And then the game started.

The previous fall, Brooks Robinson had tormented Johnny Bench and the Cincinnati Reds with a dizzy display of unbelievable plays, robbing Bench alone of three hits.

The first time up in the All-Star game, in the second inning of a scoreless game with a man on, Bench hit the ball where Robinson couldn't get it--into the left field seats. His second time up, he tempted fate and hit a shot toward third. Before Bench could drop the bat and take one step, he saw that the ball had found Robinson's mitt. He threw up his hands, as if to say, "You again?"

Oh yeah, the home runs. There would be more. The NL added a run in the third on a home run by a guy named Aaron, who had hit a few others in his career. The AL took the lead in the bottom of the third, the first two on a jack by Reggie Jackson, and then two more on a shot by Frank Robinson.

The most memorable, of course, was Jackson's epic shot off the light tower on the top of the stadium. Reggie was an up-and-coming slugger, but was still a few years away from becoming "Mr. October." The awe-inspiring blast was his introduction to a generation of fans and served notice that he was a guy to watch.

The AL added two more runs later, on a tater by Harmon Killebrew, and then Roberto Clemente closed out the scoring with a solo dinger.

It was great players, playing great in a great game. There were no flukes, no one-year-wonders, no happy-to-be-here guys getting lucky.

There were six home runs in all; and they were hit by Aaron, Bench, Clemente, Jackson, Killebrew and Frank Robinson--a who's who of the best of the best.

So call me a curmudgeon if you will, but I'm sorry, things really were better back then.

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