Sunday, September 20, 2015

Watching the World Series During School: As Good As it Gets When You're Ten

"I'm talking about the World Series Nurse Ratched. . . I haven't missed the Series in years. Even in the cooler. When I'm in the cooler they run it in there or they'll have a riot."
---R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

 As the baseball postseason approaches and I anticipate once more the struggle to stay awake well past my bedtime, fearful of missing a memorable moment just because I need to go to work the next day, I look back longingly to the 1971 World Series. That Series will always hold a special place in my heart, not because I had any affection for either of the two teams, but because of the memory of watching it and because it fell at a time in my life in which things would never again be the same--for me or for the game. That was the year they started playing World Series games at night.

You see, by 1971, despite the fact that major league baseball games had been played at night for 36    years, the games of the World Series remained exclusively daytime affairs. Baseball owners, rigid in their old-time ways, were indeed myopic in not noticing how much money they could make with primetime television World Series games--that would soon change.

In 1971 I was ten years old and in fifth grade. It was a period in which baseball was an all-consuming passion. My friends and I could scarcely fathom a time or place in which anything would ever be more important to us than the game of baseball. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Mauck, was a woman of ponderous size and indeterminate age. Even before the start of the year, her reputation proceeded  her--and filled us with dread--as she ruled her class with an iron fist.

The day of the second game of the World Series, which fell on a Monday due to a rain out the day before, I was surprised and pleased to no end when my best friend Kenneth produced a small hand-held transistor radio shortly after lunch and confidently announced that he was going to listen to the game. He popped the earplug in, turned his head slightly to one side to hide it from Mrs. Mauck and tuned in to postseason baseball in the back of our classroom.

Several other guys learned what was going on and slowly gravitated toward our seats. Suddenly, there was Joey May and Tony McKinney and Alan Ravenscraft; it was a gathering of a who's who of the Morehead Little League. We had been enemies during the season, but now  we worked together for the common good. Kenneth gave us a running play-by-play account on small scraps of paper slipped forward while we watched to make sure Mrs. Mauck's back was turned.

Of course it was too good to last. We were soon busted--caught red-handed in all our glory. But then, an amazing thing happened. Instead of meting out the expected assortment of cruel and unusual punishment, Mrs. Mauck seemed to soften and become--dare I say it?--human before our very eyes. She even mentioned some of the players in the Series and amazed us by using their names appropriately in sentences. I immediately gained a new appreciation for the teaching profession as a whole.

Perhaps influenced by thoughts of red-white-and-blue bunting hanging throughout the stadium, Mrs. Mauck announced that maybe this could serve as an exercise in civics. She would let the democratic process decide: we would put it to a vote and if we could get a solid majority, we could forego our planned math class and watch the game.

I quickly estimated that the vote would be close. The guy-vote was solid. Most of the boys in our class were staunch baseball fans and our immediately appointed campaign manager and influencer-of-opinions, Rocky, would take care of the rest. Rocky was older than us by at least a year, maybe two. He sported the definite beginnings of a real mustache and had smoked since second grade. Few non-athletic guys wanted to risk Rocky's disapproval in an open show-of-hands vote.

The girl-vote was a different matter, however. The problem was that since there were more girls than boys in the class, they held our fate in their hands. Few of them cared about baseball and they were just wily enough to vote negatively as a block for the sole purpose of driving us crazy, not an altogether unprecedented move. But surprisingly the vote passed unanimously. I immediately became a convert to the idea of democracy--is this a great system of government or what?

 Mrs. Mauck walked down to the library and pushed back an ancient black-and-white television perched on an enormous rusted-metal rolling cart. We all scooted our desks as close to the front of the room as possible and watched the glorious grainy image of the second game of the 1971 World Series on the tiny screen. I can't seem to remember a single play from that day but I'm certain it was a classic--courtesy of the toughest teacher Morehead Grade School had ever known.

While we watched the game, our heads bursting with the euphoria of unexpected good luck only a ten-year-old can appreciate, we had no idea that nothing would ever be the same. Two days later the teams met in Pittsburgh for the first night game in World Series history. Future generations of kids would never know the joy we had experienced in our classroom that autumn afternoon.

We didn't know it, but in the not-too-distant future we would change also. Thoughts of baseball cards and games of hotbox would somehow and improbably become less relevant, replaced by thoughts of girls and other things. And we would never have time to wonder how the heck it all happened.

Sometimes I look back and think that maybe Mrs. Mauck wasn't as tough as she tried to let on. Maybe she knew all along what the outcome of the classroom vote would be that day 34 years ago. Maybe the American college education system had produced a teacher who truly understood young boys and the value of priceless memories. Just maybe.

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