Long before stone tablets, before theater, before Netflix, there was the night sky.
Through the eons, man filled his nights pondering the heavens, mapping patterns, inventing heroic stories to explain the infinite nonsense.
Then, along came science — and that was that.
Today, each week brings another
discovery to unravel celestial mysteries that had entertained mankind for ages.
It’s a little sad to see mysteries I
marveled at as a child lose their intrigue.
Who among us doesn’t long for those good old days when television had three channels and Coke was 5 cents a bottle?
Which brings me to baseball.
I have written before about the historic year 1968, about the events 50 years ago that rocked the world.
One such event was the World Series.
The 1968 Fall Classic was the last time baseball carried with it the same mystery painted on the heavens. Unlike the night sky, however, baseball’s mysteries were all man-made, and I miss them.
The beauty back then was that everything unknowable remained perfectly unknowable – until two perfect strangers met on real grass to compete in a best-of-seven series.
Here’s how it all collapsed.
First, 1968 was the last year the World Series guaranteed a matchup between the two best teams from each league. The following year, 1969, baseball instituted the “playoff system,” whereby the National and American leagues divided themselves into two divisions, an East and a West. Under this new system, at season’s end, the team with the best record in the East Division played a best-of-five series against the top team from the West for a berth to the World Series.
Within the first 10 years of this playoff system, six teams made it to the World Series without posting the best record in their own league. The 1973 Mets barely won half their games, posting a season record of 82-79. Yet, they punched their ticket to the World Series by winning the National League Division Series against Cincinnati, which had finished with a 99-63 record on the year.
More ridiculous still, these Mets weren’t even the second best team in the National League. Their record placed them fourth in the overall National League standings at season’s end.
It’s only gotten worse. Now, we have three divisions within each league and a “wild card” team vying for the pennant.
Second, in 1968, there was no free agency.
Players won the right to shop their skills to various teams in the early 1970s. Up till then, a player pretty much remained with the same team their entire career under what was known as baseball’s “reserve clause.”
There are plenty of good arguments for allowing players the freedom to follow their fortunes. On the other hand, free agency diluted the distinctiveness of each team, of each league, by allowing a player to sign a contract with any club in any league.
How would Mickey Mantle have fared against San Francisco fireballer Juan Marichal?
I’ve no idea because it never happened. The Yankees never faced the Giants in a post-season game at the time. A Mantle vs. Marichal matchup remains a mystery to this day.
Had they met in the World Series, though, imagine the buzz! Imagine the speculation!
Which brings me to the third element in baseball’s decline: inter-league play.
This travesty, introduced in 1997, eroded the distinctiveness of each league further by scheduling teams from the American League in matchups against National League teams during the regular season.
Today, we have some idea how a slugger from the American League, say Mike Trout, would fare against a National League star pitcher like Clayton Kershaw in a World Series.
Trout has batted .153 against the Dodger ace in 13 at bats during meaningless inter-league play over the past five years.
Imagine the anticipation if the two had never met and faced off for the first time in the Fall Classic. That’s how it used to be. That’s what the World Series once was all about.
It’s for these reasons, I took a hard pass on last year’s World Series, opting instead to watch full recordings of all games from the 1968 World Series. I watched one game – not highlights, the complete game – per night.
I had never actually seen the 1968 series which pitted the St. Louis Cardinals against the Detroit Tigers. Back then, World Series games were played in the daytime, so I had to follow it at school on a transistor radio I had hidden in my pocket with an earpiece wired under my shirt.
Take away all the “innovations” of the past 50 years, and you have the best World Series of my lifetime.
It was Ali vs. Frazier. It was Batman vs. Superman.
It was, in fact, Gibson vs. McClain – two pitchers with season records unmatched to this day.
The Cardinals’ Bob Gibson had a record of 22 wins-9 losses, and an earned run average of 1.12, a modern day record no one has come close to matching since.
The Tigers’ Denny McClain posted an ERA of 1.91 and a record of 31-6 on the season. No pitcher had compiled 30 wins in a season since 1934, and no pitcher has approached that mark in the 50 years since.
Beyond that titanic duel, the series was riddled with drama, excitement and, best of all, a hero who appeared out of nowhere.
If you haven’t read about it, don’t. Call it up and watch it with the blissful ignorance of your ancestors.
For me, it’s still the greatest sporting event under the heavens.