Face-to-Face

An element of the bourgeoisie in post-DiMaggio New York, the types that drank bourbon while basking in the refracted glory of Frank Gifford and, I don’t know, Woody Allen, in places like Toots Shor’s and Elaine’s, liked to tell a little joke. In between patting themselves on the back for their very own wit and wisdom—the masters of the universe may be in finance now, but in the early 1960s, writers, even those calling themselves journalists, knew where the sun rose and set—they’d inevitably bring up, “the topic”. It’d start with some variation on the theme of the three most vile people of the 20th century. Or since the dawn of the country. Or perhaps since Christ.

The assembled wise men — if there were women present, they certainly weren’t there to be heard — would quickly agree on the first two, before, well, agreeing that the third was the worst of all. Hitler? Yes. Stalin? Of course. And… well, how could we have forgotten Walter O’Malley??

O'Malley
well, he got a Time cover too…

 

Funny? Perhaps if you were an Italian or a Jew who grew up east of Manhattan in the mid-1930s. For the rest of us, self-indulgent is probably a better adjective.

My grandfather, from Flatbush, was a Dodgers fan of course. Maybe he’d chuckle at the joke, but I doubt that many members of his generation, the Jackie Gleason generation, the Depression generation, were shedding many tears when the team left for LA. No, the bellyaching came instead from those 20+ years younger, the Pete Hamills, the Larry Kings, and the, well, Woody Allens of the world. Somehow my father, who was of that time, rooted for the Yankees, despite growing up on Long Island, and I imagine O’Malley’s betrayal was met more with glee, an additional bludgeon to use against the enemy, one which certainly made up for, and more, the shock of Sandy Amoros and 1955

Amoros
it didn’t get late early in left field on this day…

 

Nevertheless, 30 or so years later, as a boy, mad about the game, in the summer, during family parties by the pool, we’d sit and talk about baseball… I’d ask questions. And, while I can’t say I recall ever specifically discussing the ‘57 exodus, the overall theme of our conversations was unmistakeable. They would end the same way. “We are sorry. The game is different. We can’t explain it. But it’s never coming back. You’re stuck…”

Stuck, that is, with night games, three (if only!)-hour marathons, the designated hitter, perennial “playoffs” for the pennant, 4 divisions, day-night double headers, and a 162 game season that starts and finishes in the snow. (As an aside, it’s clear that if Bob Costas and Bush 43 have one redeeming quality between them, it’s that they both opposed, virtually alone, the wild card. It’s almost enough to make up for the rest.)

And the beginning of the end, actually, the end of the end — it was that abrupt — came when an owner deigned to put his own interests ahead of the community, the elite and the proletariat alike. For generations, cities defined themselves as big league or bush. A baseball team is a public trust, is it not? No, O’Malley proved otherwise, crossed the rubicon, and we’ve yet to look back. You can bet that any idea in sports (in life?), no matter how bad, will be put into practice, if it improves the bottom line…

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I got the magazine Boys Life delivered to the house for a short period of time as a kid. Perhaps from my grandmother; she was good about giving me interesting subscriptions as gifts. The Classics in comic form. National Geographic. Some sort of index card encyclopedia. Things of that nature.

In any event, I must have been in the third or fourth grade when an edition of Boys Life showed up with a few articles on the coming Olympiad. I recall some words about cycling, possibly the velodrome. Some comments from an athlete on how long he’d been training to get there. That was enough for me. The colors, the flags, the medals, the exotic countries and sports. I was going to be an Olympian.

Well that wasn’t in the cards, but I was certainly hooked as a fan. A well-read one at that; I learned about the greats, boxers and the track stars mostly, but also the four-timers, like Al Oerter, from the town next door.

And Barcelona was the pinnacle. It may have been standard for his“Excellency” to declare each version of the games the greatest ever (well, at least until Atlanta) but Samaranch had every reason to say it in 1992. If you were born before 1980 and don’t recall Fermin Cacho winning the 1,500 m, then I don’t think you can call yourself a sports fan.

Already though, trouble was brewing.

When the peacocks wrested the games from the alphabet crowd, Bob Costas, hailing only a few miles down the road from Oerter, became the face of the Olympics. But that was a rouse; Costas quickly evolved into nothing but a shill. Whether you find his style grating or not is a matter of taste; even Costas’s critics must concede that the man had the chops to take over from Jim McKay and the rest of the giants at ABC. But if we’ve learned anything this century, it is that the old saw about television — everyone would do anything to get on it — is indeed true. Still, one could have hoped that Costas would have used his intelligence to take a stand against the circumcision of the games. His talent made the capitulation all the worse. At best, he became a latter day Wodehouse, writing radiograms from Berlin during the Nazi era. At worst, an enabler of the highest order.

Now of course, of course, this is not fair. Dick Ebersol, the man almost exclusively responsible for the mess the presentation of the games in this country has become, is no Stalin. And Costas is no Goebbels.

But Ebersol is more than just an executive who chased the buck. It would have been hard even for the Soviets to manipulate time and space in such a brazen way. No, Ebersol took his cues, and this is not an exaggeration, from Orwell. ‘We are at war with Eastasia, and it’s always been thus’, indeed. The truth is what I decide to tell you.

Ebersol, like Big Brother in the end, won. He pulled off the coup. Generations now believe the Olympics are made up solely of Americans swimming, sprinting, and diving, and the ratings for the games are monstrous. BMX biking is in and wrestling is out. No matter that no-one’s watching the denouement of these events at 11 pm or whenever the hell NBC decides to show them. They’re watching Costas play the country for fools at 8 pm, that’s for sure.

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I don’t know if any of the Toots Shor crowd ever came across Walter O’Malley. But the other day, driving around the Oaks Bluff section of Martha’s Vineyard, I saw Dick Ebersol. I did a quick loop in the car to confirm the sighting.

What to do? Jump out and thank him for destroying your personal Super Bowl? Ask why on Earth he thought it was a good idea to show Usain Bolt run 9.69 eight hours after the rest of the world celebrated? Drug and drag him back to a certain backyard on the number streets in Bethpage, the site where I found out about Linford Christie’s triumph in Barcelona (via a 1-900 scores number, of all things) hours before Americans were given the privilege of watching for a hastily conducted kangaroo court?bolt

Well, no. You let him go. He was a bit pitiable anyway, looking older than expected, slightly stooped, a bit disheveled. Money and power are no superpowers; he’d already suffered the greatest of tragedies, losing a teenage son. Besides, he’d been pushed aside himself, shuffling around an idyllic playground 5,000 miles away from the epicenter in Rio.

But still, it would have been nice to tell him what he’d wrought. After all, I’m a male between 18 and 49, lucky enough to make 6 figures. And I haven’t watched NBC, Johnny Miller exempted, in 20 years.

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