I watched the movie “The Babe”, with John Goodman as Babe Ruth. It isn’t a
great baseball movie; while I like John Goodman, I thought he wasn’t the best
choice to play Ruth, and the movie takes an unacceptable amount of creative
license for my taste. It’s a shame, because Babe Ruth’s life could
unquestionably make for cinematic greatness.
But that aside, I had a thought while watching the scene near the end of the movie, when Ruth, as a Boston Brave, hits the last three home runs of his career in Pittsburgh, the last one towering over the Forbes Field fence. Watching this, I remember thinking, I wish I had been at that game.
Imagine being in the stands as the crowd loudly verbally pummels Ruth through the game, relishing his decline being in full view of the world. Then Ruth clouts one. And then another. And then hits a historic shot all the way out of the ballpark. It was one last moment of glory, a reminder of what a larger than life figure the Babe really was. From what I’ve read, by the third home run, the Pittsburgh crowd had turned, and cheered his every step around the bases.
That is goosebump material.
Many historic moments in baseball, like that game, become even larger in retrospect. No one knew at the time that the last mammoth shot would be the last home run for the Babe, who retired five days later.
So that is one game I would have loved to have been present for…to tell my daughter details about the game that only people that were there knew. Thinking about it, I’ve come up with four other games that I wish I could have seen live…and I’m sure I’ll think of 20 more. I’ve seen a few historic games: Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit, Eddie Murray’s 500th home run, one-hitters from Curt Schilling and Anibal Sanchez, Randy Johnson passing 300 strikeouts for the fourth straight season. Three Opening Days and an All-Star game.
So in no particular order, here are four more games I wish I could have seen in person.
1) September 6, 1995, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore: Cal Ripken’s 2,131st Consecutive Game. It’s a no-brainer, this one—he’s my favorite all-time player, and it’s one of the greatest moments in baseball history. But as moving as the lap around the ballpark to the 22 minute ovation was watching on television, I can only imagine the energy level at Camden Yards that night: flashbulbs popping constantly, John Tesh’s “One Day” and Whitney Houston’s “One Moment In Time” playing on the PA, and zero dry eyes in the place. The evening was everything it should have been, with Joe DiMaggio saluting the breaking of his teammate’s record, Brooks Robinson presenting the title of “Mr. Oriole” to Ripken, and the star of the evening giving a humble and appreciative speech at the end. I would have taken the worst seat in Camden Yards that night.
As an aside, it would have been pretty cool to be at Yankee Stadium that night too…when the record became official, scoreboards at every ballpark in North America let the fans know, and the crowd at Yankee Stadium gave a standing ovation to the news flash that the famous Yankee’s record had been broken. It was a wonderful show of respect from otherwise relentlessly partisan fans.
2) September 9, 1965, Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles: Sandy Koufax’s Perfect Game. It would have been great to see Sandy Koufax pitch, period. I’ve always admired Koufax for many reasons—his putting his faith over baseball, his retiring from the game rather than wreck his arm further, and that for his short prime he was as great a pitcher as any that ever threw a ball.
Jane Leavy’s excellent biography of Koufax tells the story of the perfect game, with each inning told in every other chapter. The amazing thing about this game was that as masterful as Koufax was—the Society of Baseball Research called it the greatest game ever pitched—Cubs pitcher Bob Hendley put on a pretty impressive performance himself. Hendley held the Dodgers to just one hit and an unearned run, a performance that would win 95% of any pitcher’s starts. The final score was 1-0. Right down to the last out, the outcome of the game even, let alone the perfect game, was in doubt.
There is nothing like that kind of tension to bring fans to a near coronary for nine innings, but afterward they’re always ecstatic that they were there.
3) October 21, 1975, Fenway Park, Boston: Carlton Fisk Waves The Ball Fair. The climax of Game Six of the 1975 World Series, with Carlton Fisk caught on camera willing the ball fair by a cameraman too distracted by a rat to keep track of the ball, is of course the shot everyone knows. But this game was a nail-biter from beginning to end, with spectacular defensive plays from Fred Lynn, George Foster and Dwight Evans, the game-tying three run homer from Bernie Carbo in the eighth, and Rick Wise getting out of a scary jam in the top of the 12th before Fisk’s improbable shot.
The Red Sox lost the 1975 World Series, extending their championship drought at the time to 57 seasons. But that night Fenway Park was filled with delirious jubilation, a happiness of winning the greatest game ever played that made Game 7 seem almost inconsequential. And if you were there, you could see Fisk waving the ball fair for yourself, and Fenway Park exploding the moment the ball struck the foul pole.
Fenway Park has seen some electrifying baseball, but this one may still be the ballpark’s finest hour.
4) May 26, 1959, Milwaukee County Stadium: Harvey Haddix’s Perfect Loss. Near the end of his life, before he died in 1994, Haddix said that every day of his life, someone asked him about the night he pitched a perfect game for 12 2/3 innings and lost it in the 13th. That’s 35 years, so he was asked about it almost 13,000 times.
If there was ever a story of heartbreak in baseball, of the sometimes brutal nature of the baseball gods, it was that night for Haddix. The game was in Milwaukee, so what were Braves fans to do? Cheer on what is still today unprecedented history, a pitcher taking a perfect game into extra innings? Or stay true to your team hoping that they pull out a miraculous victory against a pitcher who was more unhittable that night than any pitcher has ever been?
I can’t imagine what I would have done if I was there. I imagine all I would have been able to do would be to shake my head in total, utter disbelief. A once in a lifetime, once in baseball history pitching performance, and he didn’t even get a win. People in attendance had to have known even then that would be Haddix’s defining game, despite a more than respectable pitching career. (Haddix was the winning pitcher in relief in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, the game with Bill Mazeroski hitting the Series-ending home run.)
Well that’s five. And as soon as I finished writing these, I thought of more…the Mazeroski home run game; Bobby Thomson’s pennant winning shot; any of the last four games in the 2004 ALCS; Game 7 in the 1991, 2001, or 1945 World Series; Game 6 of the 1993 World Series that ended with Joe Carter’s home run; Ripken’s last All-Star game; Babe Ruth’s called shot. The list goes on.
To be in attendance for such historic games isn’t just a bragging right. It’s a chance to experience everything, to be a part of an event without being removed by the distance of television or the sound of an announcer’s description. We see history unfold in front of us on TV every day; we rarely consider it special. It becomes difficult to separate a memorable baseball game from a movie with an assured ending, when viewed through the same medium.
To be present for earthshaking ballgames brings a sense of reality to them—that it really did happen, because you witnessed it.
So get to the ballpark.
Tags: the baseball geek