Tom Terrific & Annus Horribilis

You would have thought it couldn’t get much worse. You would have thought a pandemic, riots, recession, and–at least in California–rolling brownouts and wild fires were enough. You would have thought cardboard cut-outs serving as fans in the stands represented the ultimate in kitsch. You would have thought all of this, but you would have been wrong. It did get worse.

How worse? Queen Elizabeth II described 1992, in which she celebrated her 40th anniversary on the British throne, as “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.” During that “annus horribilis,” three royal marriages ended, a fire broke out in Windsor Castle that destroyed a hundred rooms, and Fergie (aka the Duchess of York) was involved in a toe-sucking scandal that made all the tabloids. That’s how worse.

To wit, Tom Seaver died this week at the age of 75. Seaver, known as “Tom Terrific,” was a Hall of Fame pitcher who appeared in twelve All Star games and won three Cy Young Awards during a career that lasted from 1967-86. He led the “Miracle Mets” to their first and most improbable World Series victory in 1969 against the Baltimore Orioles.

Seaver’s overall record was just as improbable. He was rookie of the year in 1967 and led in wins and ERA in the National League three times. He led the league in strikeouts five times. By the time he retired, he had won 311 games and struck out 3,640 hitters. That’s a lot of “Here, batter, batter…swing, batter, batter!” Then, playing for the Cincinnati Reds, he pitched a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals on June 16, 1978.

But I happen to know that New York fans loved Tom Terrific not only for his skill and determination on the mound. The Fresno native also represented the values of middle-class America at a time when society was in turmoil, traditional values were being questioned, and people began to mistrust their own government.

Cities, New York among them, became the stage of race riots and violent anti-war protests. Newark and Detroit burned in the summer of 1967. Chicago exploded during the Democratic convention in 1968. Rev. King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated that year. The Kent State shootings occurred two years later. And May 1968 marked the start of the student protest movement that spread across the globe and influenced a generation of scholars, politicians, and institutions, not necessarily for the better.

Tom Seaver and the Mets didn’t offer a solution to any of this. They couldn’t have, but neither did they distract people from the reality around them. Instead, they offered fans something to be proud of and a way to come together regardless of political persuasion or ideological bent. The 1969 season, in particular, gave people permission to acknowledge their good angels and celebrate the things they loved about the country, the American pastime being one of them.

That year even had a transcendent feeling to it. Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon in July, and the Mets, Jets, and Knicks all won their respective titles. The euphoria people felt balanced the social and political upheaval outside the ballpark; in this case, Shea Stadium, which was torn down in 2009 in favor of Citi Field.

That euphoria extended to my grandmother, who, to my amazement, phoned our house to share the joy of the World Series win over the Orioles. They were still jumping onto the field when my mother handed me the phone in the kitchen. “It’s grandma,” she said. “She wants to tell you she’s watching Channel 9.” Channel 9 carried the Mets, Channel 11 the Yankees. You could have knocked me over with a Wiffle Ball.

Sadly, given the similar upheaval today, baseball doesn’t seem capable of providing the same kind of balm in people’s lives. Social distancing, face masks, and cardboard cut-outs don’t cut it. In addition, rather than offering a refuge from the turmoil outside the gates, baseball has invited it in by changing the ritual and taking explicit political stands. That won’t endear it to fans. And without fans the game loses its power to capture people’s imagination. It becomes just another video game. In effect, it is now a game of players by players for players.

I can’t say I look on any of this with undiluted pleasure.

Image credits: feature by Call to the Pen; “Sign Man,” Karl Ehrhardt, by AP/REX/Shutterstock (6615969a); field by USA Today. This post is dedicated to my grandmother, Mary DeStazio Brancatelli.

For more, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”

9 comments

  1. In addition, one cannot watch some of these games due to membership television. Don’t have that channel? No baseball for you.

  2. I remember an interview with Nancy Seaver in some magazine. She was interviewed over lunch. She ordered a Ceasar salad. When she was done and the waiter removed her plate, she said: “Bye-bye salad.” That was part of the interview. As a young woman, I was in despair. So yeah, Tom represented “the values of middle-class America”–but not all of us were thrilled with that normal. Even with the problems, I’ll take “now.”

    1. Interesting. I was actually impressed that they were married for 50+ years. Whether or not it was a happy or egalitarian marriage, I don’t know. I think I’d have more of a problem with the interviewer than Nancy Seaver.

  3. Yes, Robert, the passing of Tom Seaver…his life, accomplishments, reputation, and passing were noted in several of the news and interview shows this week. I agree that sports seem to have stumbled down another path, rather than being an opportunity for us to come together to celebrate the joy of the game and the talents of the players, our sports have been taken into other kinds of arenas of division.
    It is not surprising to me because our times appear to demonstrate growing divisions within many areas of society that previously fostered celebrating the best of what brings us together, such as religious institutions, the purpose of education, and cultural institutions that support museums, entertainment, and the arts.
    One interesting development during these difficult times is the emergence of people making and sharing their music: people are playing from their roofs, patios, and living rooms for their appreciative neighbors. With concert halls, churches, museums, and many libraries closed, people are finding ways to come together to play and enjoy music. Performing groups and single musicians are joining online to play together as well as enjoy all kinds of music, poetry, theater, and the visual arts, and in their homes.
    This is a sign of hope because people are creating the desire and space for celebration and coming together. It is hopeful because this is exactly how the arts functioned from the beginning. The Arts were for everyone to participate and enjoy. And this cause for rejoicing.

  4. Friends, one more comment: I may be jumping into the frying pan, but I wondered whether anyone noticed the continuous and widespread public beating taking place in newspapers, magazines, books, and television these last two weeks?
    As a life-long teacher, psychologist, and advocate for persons exhibiting or identified with handicapping conditions or disabilities, I am becoming extremely uncomfortable with the public shaming and verbal beatings taking place, both the actions and words, and the example being set for how a human being, in obvious trouble, and lack of capacity is being treated. I believe we don’t have to agree or like the actions of anyone, but how we treat persons is an important responsibility.

  5. Unfortunately, you are so right. Social media, including the blogosphere, can be a toxic place. Some people hide behind vicious comments and attacks. Anonymity shields them. As I see it, there are two ways of dealing with these people: develop a thick skin or disengage…It’s kind of like riding the subway…

  6. 1969 was JHS51, things were alot different than now. Still cannot believe the Mets won, but we had alot of fun playing baseball in those days.
    We actually spent much of our lives outside. imagine that , no cell phones, computers, cable tv. some how we survived.

    Rich

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