Happy New Year! You know, life exists in full, vibrant color. NBC didn’t introduce its famous peacock logo in the mid-‘60s for nothing: it brought you quality television “in living color!” Looking at grainy, monochrome images, sometimes you forget that aspect of life. That’s why the HBO “When It Was a Game” specials from awhile back – featuring color home movies shot at major league ballparks in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s – were so startling. Well, sometimes, your intrepid columnist is a little dense. For the longest time, he thought the Polo Grounds only existed in black and white. Isn’t that ridiculous? It was only photos like the one accompanying this article that woke him up.
Anyway, it makes you wonder what it was like to watch a game there. The Mets were born when New York sportswriting was in the midst of a quiet revolution. There were a few titans of the keyboard still around – Red Smith, Dick Young, Jimmy Cannon, to name a few – but the flowery prose of Grantland Rice and the street-tough, rat-a-tat racetrack dialogue of Damon Runyon had long passed into American literary lore. There was a new generation of writers taking over New York – a New Breed, if you will – one that didn’t take things at face value and simply tell us that the Giants had beaten the Dodgers 3-1. And while they still kept players’ personal foibles out of the limelight as their forebears had – nobody knew Mickey Mantle was an alcoholic until he was long retired; there was no social media or TMZ – they gave a greater insight into the goings-on of a major league clubhouse like no one before. These were guys that could be nothing but themselves and had names to go along with it. Leonard Schechter, Maury Allen, Phil Pepe, Steve Jacobson, Joe Gergen, Ira Berkow, George Vecsey, Joe Durso… These were names you wouldn’t find on a by-line at the New York Herald Tribune in the ‘30s. This wisecracking bunch – dubbed “The Chipmunks” for their constant chatter and for Pepe’s toothy grin – arrived just in time for the birth of the hapless original Mets. This was the perfect marriage of time, team and telling. The club was terrible at baseball, but oh, what a story…
What better arena to hone your craft than with a makeshift ballclub playing its games in a rickety old ballpark? You’d have to go in every day expecting the team to lose, wouldn’t you? They did that day after day. You’d have to come up with a new way to convey it. These guys did. They saw the humor in the team – they were helped out greatly in that area by manager Casey Stengel, of course – and created folk heroes out of thin air. There were only so many plays Marv Throneberry could screw up before he became Marvelous Marv. Elio Chacon and Richie Ashburn had to collide a few times before “Yo la tengo!” entered the lexicon. And on the few occasions when the Mets commenced to be Amazin’, they gleefully reported that, too. The public ate it up and the Polo Grounds attendance rivaled that of the all-conquering Yankees across the Harlem River. Heck, even Jimmy Breslin had to get into the act, writing a classic book called Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? based on a week covering the team. And when the team moved into its shiny new stadium out in the suburbs of Flushing and finally got good…well, that was the best story of all, wasn’t it?
And it was all presented in living color.
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