The Times West Virginian

Sports

July 14, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: MLB All-Star game biggest celebration of top athletes

MORGANTOWN — You will pardon me if I find something else to do when the Pro Bowl rolls around, or if I try to find a “Three Stooges” marathon when it’s time for the NHL All-Star game. As for the NBA All-Star game, I’d rather watch a replay of a four-year-old Uruguay-Ethiopia World Cup soccer match in which I knew the outcome.

See, while all these sporting events can offer moments of great individual performance, it is almost as if it were being done the night before in the dunk or skills contest, for there really is no team relevance because it matters not who wins or who loses.

In the end, that is what sets apart major league baseball’s All-Star game, which will be contested tonight in Minnesota, the key word being “contested” rather than “presented,” as there remains in the sport not only a deep pride in the league you represent but home field advantage in the World Series.

You can argue whether a midsummer’s exhibition should carry so much weight, especially when many — or most — of the players know they will not end up in the playoffs, let alone the World Series — but what you can’t argue is that it takes baseball’s celebration of its greatest athletes beyond other sports.

Two moments, in particular, ring out just how meaningful the game is — even if they come from eras before home field advantage was the prize to the winning league.

The first came in the 1941 All-Star game, when we still lived in a carefree world, five months before Pearl Harbor changed that, and it involved perhaps the most unlikely of players to be emotional over his All-Star performance — Ted Williams.

Williams was the game’s greatest hitter at that moment — and maybe ever — a 22-year-old in the midst of becoming the last .400 hitter the game would ever see, finishing the season with a .406 batting average, 37 home runs, 120 RBIs and 1.287 OPS.

All that with but 27 strikeouts, may I add.

But he was in the process of becoming known as baseball’s most cantankerous of performers, unwilling to tip his cap to the crowd after home runs, apart and aloof and less than a media darling.

Yet there he was in the batter’s box, two out, two on in the bottom of the ninth, his team down, 5-4, when he sent one soaring into the seats, eliciting a celebration unlike any other he ever put on public display, literally skipping around the bases in almost child-like glee.

Then, on the other end of the spectrum came the moment in 1970, Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium just three games old when it hosted the All-Star game, a game that would drag on tied into the 12th inning when the Chicago Cubs’ Jim Hickman singled to centerfield.

Pete Rose, the hometown hero in Cincinnati, was on second base and it was going to be a bang-bang play at the plate, but it was Rose who possessed the Big Bang Theory in this one. Amos Otis’ throw came to catcher Ray Fosse, who was up the line blocking the plate as Rose hit him the way West Virginia’s Owen Schmitt used to hit linebackers, knocking Fosse one way, the ball another.

It was an awesome collision, one you would never see in the Pro Bowl ... or, for that matter, in baseball with the absurd new rule banning catchers blocking the plate.

Pete Rose was playing the game the way he had learned to play it, but Fosse never again could play the game the way he learned, his shoulder badly injured. Thirty years later he would admit it still would bother him at times.

Right or wrong, to hit a fellow professional in such a manner in an exhibition game, that is the way they play baseball’s All-Star game and, because of it, it magnifies the magnitude of the accomplishments that have come out of the game over the ages.

Indeed, could anyone but Babe Ruth have hit the first home run in All-Star Game history, as he did on his second at-bat in the very first All-Star game in 1933, a two-run shot off Bill Hallahan in Comiskey Park in Chicago?

And could anyone but the flamboyant Reggie Jackson hit the most memorable home run that I have ever seen, a shot worth watching on YouTube, coming at the expense of the Pirates eccentric right-hander Dock Ellis in Tiger Stadium?

The ball was launched like a line drive into a transformer in a light tower atop the roof of the upper deck in right field, a ball that had not yet reached the apogee of its journey.   

ESPN recently projected that had the ball not hit the transformer and been allowed to fly on its way it would have traveled 539 feet, which is nearly two football fields.

But not all All-Star game heroics have come via the home run. Quite the contrary, for in the second All-Star game, a now much-forgotten Hall of Fame left-hander named Carl Hubbell, a New York Giants pitcher who specialized in throwing a screwball and used it so often that when he retired and stood with his hands at his side, the palm of his left hand faced away from the body, wrote his name into the legends of the game.

All Hubbell did in this game was strike out five straight batters, an amazing feat considering each was an All-Star, but much more so when one realizes that all five of the batters were elected to the Hall of Fame. Hubbell fanned Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx — a trio that hit 1,741 career home runs — in one inning and then struck out Al Simmons and Joe Cronin in the next inning before Bill Dickey snapped the incredible five-batter strikeout fest with a single.

The only thing more incredible than that would be a blocked shot in an NBA All-Star game.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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