John Grindrod: Among those we lost in 2020, my baseball heroes

John Grindrod: Among those we lost in 2020, my baseball heroes

Of course, at the end of each calendar, these are the newspaper ecologies that we will talk about in the past only in the future.

For people my age who once collected their Major League photos on bubble gum-scented paper tongs, 2020 was certainly a tough year. It has been said that when we lose the heroes of our youth, another part of our childhood breaks down.

Although not all of my baseball players from the late 1950s and 1960s were Hall of Fame caliber, for the boy I once was, they were truly special. Their sanitary hose was once a glorious time overlapped by tights, both clearly visible under perfectly rolled baseball pants that broke on the knees, in contrast to the dull appearance so many of today’s players adopt with pants bottoms that almost pull in the dirt of the pipes.

On the most special days, days reserved for a father and son to sit on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field or Detroit’s Briggs and then (by 1961) Tiger Stadium, I would see them in person. I marveled at the seemingly effortless way they hit line drives to all the fields, and the way their arms drove the baseballs at such high speeds that I could hear the taste of leather at the other end more than halfway up on the nicest racks.

Other days, I watched my baseball gods on the radio between the only TV season game each week on Saturdays, those broadcast by Pee Wee Reese and Dizzy Dean. Of course, the leisurely pace of the only sport not controlled by a clock has always been perfect for radio, especially for a boy with a transistor pressed against his ear after daylight went out when he tightened through AM static to hear Harry Carey’s voice broadcasting the Cardinals game on KMOX.

And of course, I followed the action and the participants in the weekly issues of The Sporting News, and I was proud to know week by week what all my heroes beat.

Of course, as we all know, we never take a vacation, so the first day in 2020 I lost Don Larsen. While he was only 5 years old in 1956, the year he became the only man in World Series history to throw a perfect game, I can not say that I remember his achievement, but I do remember his friend later years when he settled into mid-1960s for six different teams. I think Larsen continued to look for the perfection he showed, but once in Game 5 at Yankee Stadium on October 8, when in just six minutes more than two hours, he met 27 Brooklyn Dodgers and retired them all. In a career where everything was said and done that made him lose 10 more games than the 91 he won, I’m sure he stuck to the shiny afternoon when he achieved perfection.

As the months passed, I read about the deaths of pitcher Johnny Antonelli and Eddie Kasko and again of Dodger relief pitcher Ron Perronowski and once again of Houston Colt 45 outfielder Jimmy Wynn. Despite being only 5’9 “and 160 pounds, Wynn earned the nickname The Toy Cannon by hitting balls that stayed in the air long enough for – using the language of the 1960s – a flight attendant to be on board.

As the year went on, my cream-of-autumn childhood gods had reached the bottom of their last round. It was not until April that Tiger Hall of Famer Al Kaline died, knowing that he was still the youngest batting champion ever, hitting 340 in 1955 as a 20-year-old. At 4 in ’55, I did not notice Kaline’s youngest achievement ever, but I remember him through the 1960s and into the 70s as a complete player with every tool in his baseball toolbox. In all 22 seasons, he only wore a navy blue ball cap with Old English D.

In August, the great Tom Seaver, he with the envious nickname Tom Terrific, reached the end one year after retiring from public life with severe dementia. Like so many jars in his day and like zero jars in his day, Seaver believed in completing what he started. In 20 years he won 311 games, and 231 one of his starts was complete games, a resume that easily gave him access to Coopertowns Hall.

With September came the passing of Lou Brock, the most skilled base thief of his time. Shame Cubs for not understanding what they had when they traded Brock eight days after my 13th birthday on June 15, 1964. The Cubs said goodbye to a future eight times stolen base leader and possibly the Hall of Famer and hello to Ernie Broglio, who lost 19 of his 26 decisions in his three Cub seasons.

October was the worst time to lose my idols when three players, Hall of Famers all, died – Cardinal Fireballer Bob Gibson, who, like Seaver, acquired full game after full game, 28 in back-to-back seasons; Reds superb second baseman Joe Morgan; and my Yankees’ excellent left-handed pitcher, Whitey Ford.

For some of my losses over the last year, such as Kaline, Brock, Gibson and Ford, I still have the rectangular cardboard pictures. Of course, the rectangles no longer carry the smell of chewing gum, but the memories of what they gave me as a child remain as sweet as the pink plates we once chewed as children until the jaws ached after we tore up the packages.

John Grindrod: Among those we lost in 2020, my baseball heroes

John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and author of two books. Reach him at grinder@wcoil.com.

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