Rocky Nelson and the ball game


“When old Rocky Nelson shuffles up to the plate the ball comes in and the sound of wood, and the ball rises up like a hunted thing and the outfielders run, but it’s no use at all, another one over the right field wall, and as Rocky trots slowly around the bases, happiness lights up twelve thousand faces,” wrote Raymond Souster in 1959.

We know Souster’s poem as, “The Ballad Of Old Rocky Nelson.”

Baseball has been around for a long time. The romantic notion is that Abner Doubleday, the former Civil War general with the unruly hair, invented baseball in Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1839.

It’s an appealing story watching soldiers playing a game of baseball, relaxing, and laughing during some of our country’s most difficult days. Many baseball historians refute this story, saying it isn’t true.

According to the historians, Doubleday was never in Cooperstown during the year he is said to have created baseball. Instead, he was at West Point, N.Y. attending the United States Military Academy.

More likely, they say, the game was invented years earlier in New York. Records document that one of the early players, volunteer firefighter and bank clerk Alexander Joy Cartwright, had codified a new set of rules that formed the basis for modern baseball. Cartwright also abolished the dangerous practice of tagging runners by throwing balls at them, which may have been too bad. The practice may have enlivened the game.

Who knows for sure whether it was Cartwright or Doubleday who invented the game, but we do know baseball was in the air this past week. We heard the umpire yell, “Play Ball!” as the players took the field for the 89th annual Major League All-Star Game at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.

I have been a baseball fan all my life, but when the players took the field, I quickly read the names emblazoned on the jerseys.

To my dismay, I could not associate any of their names with the teams they represented, with the exception of two Cincinnati Reds players and Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals. I knew Harper for being the author of a quote in response to a reporter’s question – “That’s a clown question, bro” – as much as for his baseball prowess.

I had never heard of the majority of the players.

It used to be you recognized the names of Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews and Al Kaline, and their teams.

Jim Murray, a Los Angeles sportswriter, kept the game in proper perspective. When he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, Mr. Murray said he thought the winner of the prize had “to bring down a government or expose major graft or give advice to prime ministers.”

He added, “Correctly quoting Tommy Lasorda shouldn’t merit a Pulitzer Prize.”

Vin Scully, the Dodger radio announcer, described what he called “single-file baseball.” He explained, “We used to do things together. So did the team. We went by train, but even when we moved West, on the days off, the whole organization got together for a golf outing.”

“Now, the players arrive in single file. They get dressed in single file. If they do get on the team bus, they get on one by one. They sit behind each other on airplanes. Sometimes you think it’s a clubhouse of strangers,” he continued.

There was a time in America when millions of baseball fans went to the game, not because of bobblehead giveaways or to be on Kiss Cam, but they went to root for their home team.

A reporter once asked Joe Nuxhall what had happened to team loyalty. “There was a time, not too long ago, when even the third-grade student who had flunked spelling knew how to spell Ted Kluszewski,” the Old Lefthander responded.

A special era in Cincinnati Reds baseball was memorialized this weekend when the Big Red Machine — Bench, Rose, Perez, Morgan, Griffey, Foster and Geronimo — came together once again to witness Adam Dunn, Dave Bristol and Freddie Norman being enshrined into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame.

There was magic in the air. When the crowd roared and the light wind blew, you strained to hear Marty’s familiar refrain, “And this one belongs to the Reds!”

Magical words.

“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” sang the poets Simon and Garfunkel.

Where have you gone, indeed.

Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner and former sheriff of Clinton County.

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