When it was more than just a game

There’s a baseball diamond in the rough NFL playoff season. Major League Baseball has its own network — and for fans of the game it’s must-see TV. For baseball purists, it’s a sight for sore eyes — especially when you consider what the MLB Network aired late last night: New York Yankees pitcher Don Larsen’s perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1956 World Series — in its entirety.

There it was in all its black-and-white kinescope glory. You almost expected to see Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and Fred and Ethel Mertz in the grandstand.

It had to be a great time in October 1956 in uncomplicated America: Ike was about to be re-elected president; John Wayne was at the top of his game starring in his best performance in the best Western ever made, John Ford’s “The Searchers”; and people were driving in solid American-made cars like Studebaker, DeSoto and Packard bought at car dealerships that had unlimited futures. Oh ya, and some guy named Elvis burst upon the scene. The future king of rock ‘n’ roll’s crowning achievement that year was down at the end of lonely street called “Heartbreak Hotel.”

And baseball was the great American pastime — the perfect leisurelysport for a meat-and-potatoes nation snug as a bug in a rug with its peace and prosperity. The Golden Boy of that era was unquestionably Mickey Mantle, the heir apparent to the Sultan of Swat. The Yankees were truly America’s team — long before the Dallas Cowboys hijacked the phrase and falsely laid claim to it. Larsen’s main claim to fame was El Perfecto — he didn’t achieve much before or after his history-making pitching performance. Didn’t have to. He was kind of like the Orson Welles of baseball — Welles made a perfect movie in “Citizen Kane” and not much after that. Didn’t matter; he didn’t have to. No one’s done it since in either baseball or in the movies.

But Larsen’s feat was truly outstanding: he faced 27 Brooklyn Dodgers and succeeded at getting bupkiss from a team that featured greats like Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Junior Gillam, and Roy Campanella.

As domineering as the Yankees were at that time (Brooklyn won their one and only World Series in 1955 against the Bronx Bombers), its been “Dem Bums” of Ebbets Field who are the subject of a renaissance of romanticism in baseball lore of recent years. The Yankees that year, along with Mantle, had the affable and often misquotable Yogi Berra, who called a heck of a game catching Larsen that day, and Billy Martin, who would go on to become a controversial and often despised manager of the Yankees in the 1970s.

You couldn’t tell by that World Series game how good the Dodgers were, but it was worth seeing for the first time — even though you knew beforehand what the outcome was going to be. With it came the bittersweetfeeling a baseball puristgets when he realizes that in one year’s time the beloved Dodgers of Brooklyn would move to L.A. So whobroadcast the perfect game that day? Who else but the once and future voice of the Dodgers, Vin Scully. Mel Allen had the first few innings and Scully finished the game. What was apparent was Scully was doing the play-by-play and only the play-by-play. Not like now with all that annoying wall-to-wall information that his army of researchers feed him, and he in return babbles every little detail about every player in the ballpark that day.

Between innings, the omni-present Bob Costas interviewed Berra and Larsen about making baseball history. The two gentlemen of the game, now in their 80s or close to it, still had that gleam in their eye when talking about that day. They were kids again, and brought out the kid in all of us.

For an extra added attraction, the MLB Network ran some of the commercials that aired during that game. Most prominent was Gillette razor blades: “Look sharp, feel sharp, be sharp.” Real guy stuff — not like the cynical and sarcastic commercials of today that literally question a guy’s manhood and specifically air during sporting events. For example, this is being written while the Miami Dolphins-Baltimore Ravens Wild Card Playoff Game is being televised. During a commercial break — low and behold — up pops an ad for Viagra, which rip-offs the music of Elvis’ “Viva, Las Vegas.” Talk about your foul balls.

Anyway, like the song says, it’s all in the game — and the MLB Network is a sweet addition to the Time-Warner Cable system, which hit a grand slam with this selection.

One can almost forgive them sacking the NFL Network. Almost.

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