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January 1, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Another year for the history books

MORGANTOWN — Living in a college town, you sometimes wonder if there are any benefits to being old, and argue though I might, my Social Security check and driver’s license insist that I am old.

I have come to learn that there are some benefits, though.

• I can eat at the “Early Bird Special” for $4.

• I can sing along with the elevator music.

• I can pretend I didn’t hear what you were saying about me.

• My joints tell me it’s going to rain before the TV weatherman even has an inkling of it.

• There’s nothing left to learn the hard way.

Most important are the things I have lived through that other people must learn from history books and that is what makes New Year’s Day such a wonderful thing, especially this one because the year’s which end in a 1 seem to hold special meaning.

It started back there the day before World War II began when a lady living in midtown Manhattan thrust upon an unsuspecting world a child — me.

My memories, of course, are not particular strong of 1941, for I was there for only the final 25 days of it, but the history books tell me it was a rather special sports year, a time when Ted Williams became the last major league player to hit .400, batting .406, and the year when Joe Dimaggio batted safely in 56 consecutive games.

But Pearl Harbor changed the focus of the world for everyone as Williams went off to war along with so many other athletes to forever put an end to evil.

The War to End All Wars didn’t, for 10 years later we were at it again in Korea, but 1951 would prove to be a spectacular sports year, one in which Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle came in the front door as the great Dimaggio was going out the back door.

He got the best of it — Marilyn Monroe.

It was so long ago then that the NFL had just gotten around to banning centers, tackles and guards as eligible receivers and the NBA was playing  its first All-Star game. It was the year that Satchel Paige, banned from major league baseball because he was black, became a “rookie” at age 45 and the year that Bobby Thomson hit “The Shot Heard Round the World.

Quite a year, that 1951, for it was also when St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck, looking for a crowd, sent midget Eddie Gaedel up to pinch hit in a major league game, crouched over so he had about 3-inch strike zone to draw a walk; and it was a year when umpire Frank Dascoli cleared the Los Angeles Dodgers bench, ejecting 15 players from a game.

Sadly, it was the year Rocky Marciano knocked out an aging, washed up Joe Louis to end his wonderful career.

Another decade passed and 1961 came upon us, bringing that tragically heroic figure, Roger Maris, who hit 61 home runs the hard way — sans steroids — to break Babe Ruth’s record while being run over by the pressures that built on him day by day.

Maris could not possibly imagine that 40 years later — in another season ending with a 1, 2001 — a player named Barry Bonds would strike 73 home runs and worry not a whit about the pressure or whether or not whatever chemical he may have been using would eventually destroy his physical and/or mental existence.

By the time it became 1971 there was a new world being born, a world in which a plane crash in southwestern West Virginia would wipe out Marshall’s football program, leading to a glorious, heroic return to the sport with an emotional victory over Xavier that would become a motion picture.

If nothing else, 1971, too, was the year of Ali-Frazier I, the fight Frazier would win before Ali came back and became the symbol of an entire generation.

Along about 1981 things were beginning to happen up this way, for that was the year that a second-year Mountaineer coach named Don Nehlen and a quarterback named Oliver Luck would humiliate a heavily-favored Florida team in a game dubbed “The Lock of the Year” by a betting service, winning the Peach Bowl, 26-6.

So shaken by that was the Florida coach, Charlie Pell, that he burned the game film rather than letting his team view it.

Nehlen and Luck, we suspect, still have a copy.

It was a year, too, when Bobby Knight won his fourth NCAA championship over North Carolina in a game delayed until it was known that President Ronald Reagan had come through surgery successfully after an assassination attempt and it was the year when Robert De Niro won the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull.”

By 1991 we were feeling old but got a boost when Nolan Ryan, at age 44, threw his seventh and final no-hitter, only to have that boost deflated not much later when it was revealed that Magic Johnson had tested positive for HIV.

And so it went, decade after decade, until now we enter 2011, the second decade of the 21st century, a time when WVU, with a new athletic director and new football coach, will write another chapter into the history book we are all living.

So we will wait and see what this New Year holds. Right now, though, it’s time to go because I have a feeling that on this New Year’s Eve, I might get lucky …

And, when you get this old, getting lucky means you remember where you parked your car in the parking lot.

Happy New Year!

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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