Love envelops Clint Hurdle’s voice as he ponders the list of the recently gone – the childhood gods who became teammates and opponents, teammates and opponents who became acquaintances, acquaintances who became dear friends.
The 1970s are quickly reminiscent of the man who has spent his entire adult life in baseball, playing and managing. Bob Watson, whom he first met as a batboy for the Class-A Cocoa Astros. Claudell Washington: “We just used to laugh.” Bob Gibson, as nice off the field as he threatened it. The peculiar way Joe Morgan pumped his elbow into the bat: “I watched him as a child. I used to try to restore the chicken wing to beat. ”
All are members of a list that is disturbing in the long run – those from the ranks of the 1970s baseball lists that have died in the last year alone.
The list: Perhaps it is no longer than any other list of those who died at other moments in the history of baseball. But against the background of the past year’s background – of pandemic-bent complaint, of baseball withering and returning less, of a shortened season and diverse stands – it feels radiant.
Watson. Washington. Gibson. Morgan. Al Kaline. Lou Brock. Don Sutton. Hank Aaron. Dick Allen. Jay Johnstone. Phil Niekro. Tom Seaver. Beef Pocoroba. Lindy McDaniel. Billy Conigliaro. Tommy Lasorda.
And now, three weeks ago, from COVID-19 complications: Grant Jackson, who won the last Major League Baseball game of the decade when the Pittsburgh Pirates won the 1979 World Series.
Their names were etched on the Topps cards. The names that crackled from plastic, fruit-colored transistor radios. The names that cried out from the pages of Baseball Digest and the hometown newspapers in a moment in the game’s history that may seem like yesterday, but driven by the loss of the past year, begin their relentless fading.
“I like to say, ‘Hey, I grew up in the greatest era of baseball,'” said Gary Matthews, who played in the major leagues from 1972 to 1987, one day, having just returned from the funeral of his friend Henry Aaron in Atlanta. – one of the toughest baseball losses of the last year.
Pete Rose, one of the decade’s greatest players, agrees. Do you want to know the truth? I met 19 Hall of Fame pitchers in the 1970s and 1980s, he says. “I do not know if the guys today face 19 Hall of Fame pitchers.”
In the 1970s, baseball opened up and let its hair down. It was an era of the downright idiosyncratic – glowing uniforms and orange baseball and orange-striped mittens and synthetic fields, Reggie! bars and attached Stargell stars and mustache on carefully cultivated mustache.
It was also a time of material change. The designated hitter took root. The reserve clause ended, free agency began and the players’ association found its voice and set the table for the high salaries today. The number of players in color grew when they finally went into a complete spotlight, although one still pointed with ugly obstacles.
And even though games took place in some of the most impersonal stadiums ever, baseball was still – perhaps for the last time – played on a human scale.
“If you put a DVD in a 1970s game, I think a 15-year-old would be very surprised,” says Cait Murphy, who wrote an early 1900s season in “Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Tissues, rogues, bone heads and magnates created the biggest year in baseball history. ”
The players of the 1970s also felt more accessible. They would come home and run a supermarket or open a beer distributor or sell insurance. For many, this second career was not a choice; baseball’s salary then created a standard of living that was very different from today.
“The younger people who are in this age, they wonder how MLB players from the 70’s, they look like they could have been your math teacher or the guy who worked down at the auto parts store,” says Dan Epstein, author of “Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s.”
However, there is a contradiction there. At the same time, the players in the 1970s felt more accessible, they felt that too. There were none MLB.tv offers every game live, with permanent HD playback. The players did not come back and forth in real time with fans – for better or worse – on Twitter. The 1970s were without a doubt the last decade where the illusion of baseball could largely thrive unchallenged.
“Sure, now you can get tweets directly from the players, but everything seems to be in a very smooth context. It does not have the same intimacy of a dirty broadcast or a card outside the center. And I think that was the key. It was part of how we approached the game, says Josh Wilker, whose book “Cardboard Gods” examines the lives of 1970s players and his own childhood through the lens of contemporary baseball cards.
The 2020s will mark the 50th anniversary of so many milestones in baseball in the 1970s. The inevitable retrospectives will reveal a decade still close enough to seem recent, but different enough to feel completely foreign. And the distance grows every time a voice from that decade – a big arm, a formidable bat, a distinctive personality – becomes silent.
“It’s like I lost all my baseball cards again,” said Clint Hurdle, whose debut year was 1977.
“I was one of the children who collected each card. And somehow all my cards were lost, he says. “Well, I was lucky enough to live and love and play against and meet these people and have dinner and lunch and have a conversation with or be struck by a pitch from or be knocked out by them. It was an accumulation of hopes and dreams that were set in real time, and now they are being taken away again. “