Turn Back the Clock, Please
Paul Dickson, whose book on Bill Veeck makes him an authority, said that the old master would be appalled at what passes for marketing gimmicks at today’s baseball games. But the Washington Nationals did such a wonderful job on “Turn Back the Clock Night” last week. I kept thinking that it would have all made Veeck the great showman proud.
The participants were the San Francisco Giants and the Washington Nationals, but for the evening we were asked to imagine that the Giants had not moved to the land of milk and honey, and hence were the New York Giants, vintage 1924. The make-believe included not just uniforms true to the 1924 era: no names, no numbers, nothing except the team insignia on the sleeves of the jerseys; but a score board that displayed no electronic enhancements of any kind. There was no jumbotron, just an electronic depiction of a green and white scoreboard as it would have appeared at old Griffith Stadium in 1924.
To begin the game Henry Thomas, the grandson of Walter Johnson, threw out the first pitch. His biography of his grandfather is one of the better baseball books in the last few decades and he has been a consultant to the Nationals on things such as the Walter Johnson statue that adorns the Center Field Gate at Nationals Park. For a game that sought to recreate the atmosphere of the 1924 World Series, a touch of “Big Train” was certainly in order.
Replacing the usual overdone player announcements was Phil Hochberg who was the PA announcer for the old Senators in the 1960’s and went on to a career as an announcer at numerous sports stadiums in DC after baseball left town. His quiet and professional manner was such a welcome contrast to the current practice. Today’s announcers scream the names of the players before each at bat. They place particular emphasis on a long drawn out last syllable of the players name, as if no one was paying attention to who was coming to bat and everyone needed to be awakened from a bad dream to the reality of the action.
There is of course a modicum of truth to that notion. At today’s ballpark there is so much going on that one does need to be slapped up side the head and reminded that the central organizing principle for the event is “baseball.”
The first and most obvious difference between the reproduction of 1924 and 2012 was the silence. The phrase, “silence is golden,” never had a sweeter meaning. There was no music between innings. There was no music between batters. There were no cheerleaders on top of the dugout dancing to whatever inane selection the marketing genius has chosen.
There was no pump-up music either for the players or the fans. And yet no one left the stadium. There was almost total quiet except for the sounds of the crowd as they cheered the players and the action. There was organ music–not a real organ of course–but it was understated, true to the way it once was at the park.
There was a noticeable contingent of San Francisco fans and their cheers were obvious at times during the game. But their cheers did nothing to disturb the peaceful nature of 41,000 fans having a quiet evening at the ballpark. There were no chants by fans as they tried to make themselves park of the action. There was no attempt by the cheerleaders to start the wave.
One could almost imagine fans keeping score along with the action, talking at normal levels about the game as they followed the action. One did not have to wait for the music to end to talk to an adjacent fan. There was no other distractions, no blaring music, no dancing fans trying to get on the jumbotron, no corny jumbotron games with a corporate tag attached.
It was just the game of baseball presented about as purely as you can imagine in today’s world of electronic overkill.
I began taking my two daughters to baseball games probably too early in their young lives. But slowly they came to understand the game. My oldest played softball into high school, but even then it was the social nature of the event that interested her more than the game itself. She hardly cared who won or lost. And that is how she goes to a game to this day. She loves the party atmosphere that is created by the music, the drinking, and the dancing. And I am glad she likes it.
My other daughter was more of a competitor who took her sports seriously and she watches the games. But she does not know how to get into them. She has never kept score, which was my mistake. She once brought her entire basketball team to a game and before hand they had made a long sign on butcher block paper that they paraded around the stadium to get on the jumbotron. It did not work, but they had fun and it is a memory they all share to this day.
So while I do not eschew the modern marketing of the game completely, it is certainly a welcome relief to be spared it all for an entire evening. I cannot help but think that I missed the boat, as did others, when I failed to train my children on the basics of the game like keeping score play-by-play as the action unfolds. I let my kids become conditioned to pay attention more to the action at the park around them than to the game itself.
That is the state of the game today, however. Today the better minds of baseball spend much of the almost three hours it takes to play a game apologizing for its inability to command the fan’s attention. There is an inherent apology to the fans in all the foo-frah presented during the modern game: the music, the dancing electronic games and clowns.
And yet no one left the “Turn Back the Clock Night” game. There was just a very competitive game played out on a beautiful summer night. Get up and go for a beer at your own risk? Hurry, you might miss something. Thank god they have those electronic screens near the bar so you can follow the action while you buy a beer; thank god they have the radio commentary pumped in the restrooms. That is the kind of modern electronics that improve the game.
Yes, we were all into the game all night long. The Nationals won, as they should have since it was the ’24 World Series.
I suppose it is only natural that someone my age would want to turn back the clock. But the next time they have an old-timers game like that, I am making certain my girls attend with me. I want to see how much of that foo-frah they really need, or can they get into the game the way their dad does, one pitch at a time, each half inning a distinct memory recorded in my score book before flipping the page to record another.
Every one needs to turn back the clock sooner or later.