Periodically, sociologists complain that we are becoming a nation of watchers instead of doers. "Spectator sports are undermining our society," they say. Wrong. As I and, I'd guess, most any other true fan knows, watching sports helps to keep us sane.
My childhood, for example, wasn't the high point of my life. In fact, I probably could have used a psychiatrist, except I didn't know what one was, and no one around me did, either. The closest thing to a shrink I had was the St. Louis Cardinals and their announcer, Harry Caray.
Any summer Sunday afternoon would find me in my family's farmhouse in Illinois, impatiently waiting by the radio. I could be in a blue funk, but once I heard "This is Harry Caray from Sportsman's Park in St. Louis," I forgot all my problems. For a few hours I lived in a world where color and pageantry, heroics and heartbreak, excitement and tension flourished, and if things went wrong there was always "next year."
The Redbirds were a perennial source of comfort and enjoyment. It didn't matter that only the barest descriptions of the away games were sent by ticker tape to St. Louis, where Caray recreated—made up, if you will—the action in the studio. To me, he sounded as if he were right on the field. When Stan Musial came to bat and a few seconds later Harry yelled, "Holy Cow!" I knew Stan the Man had done it again. And I'd make that old farmhouse shake, rattle and roll.
If the Cards won, I was high on the world. If they lost, it was obvious the umpires had conspired against them. I felt I knew each player personally. If one was traded, I grieved. And I gathered each new rookie to my heart, exulting with him if he made it, and agonizing with him if he was sent back to the minors. In the six years when I was 12 to 18 I managed to get to St. Louis to see the Cards twice. Each visit was something of a disappointment because the players didn't seem as real to me on the field as they did when Harry Caray brought them to life on my old radio.
Later, when I moved to Los Angeles, I quit following baseball because I couldn't switch loyalties. How could a Cardinal fan root for the hated Dodgers? Why, that would be far worse than defecting to that other league!
So for several years I was not interested in sports. The teams played on, not missing me, and I was busy with a family. If anyone had asked what had become of my love for the game, I would've said that I didn't have time for it anymore, that I had grown up, taken on responsibilities and left my youth behind. But I would have been wrong. I was haunted by a vague feeling that something was missing from my life, although exactly what it was didn't dawn on me until one night in 1962. I was idly flipping the TV dial and happened on a basketball game. Some game: it was the final night of a Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers playoff series. I thought I'd watch for just a moment or two. Five minutes later I was on my knees yelling, "Go, Elgin, go!" What got me so enthused so quickly was the expert and dramatic announcing of Chick Hearn, who could incite a riot while broadcasting a game of checkers.
Once again I had a team. I followed the Lakers' progress on radio and television for seven seasons without ever seeing them in person, because with a growing family my husband and I couldn't afford the price of both a baby-sitter and the tickets. One night, after listening to a particularly exciting game, I wrote Hearn a letter to thank him for the pleasure his broadcasts gave me. In it I mentioned that though I'd never seen the Lakers play, the team was an important part of my life.
Two days later I answered the phone and heard that familiar voice say, "This is Chick Hearn." I tried to stay cool, but the best reply I could manage was, "Chi-Chick Hearn?" When I regained my composure, he explained that he was sending me free tickets for a Laker game, because "anybody who has been such a loyal fan for so long certainly deserves to see them at least once." I was thrilled.
It was a wonderful game. The opposing team was Cincinnati, so I got the bonus of seeing Oscar Robertson play, too. Thus, Chick and the Lakers considerably brightened up a year in which one of the more trivial things I endured was brain surgery for an aneurysm.
Sports undermining our society? Nonsense. They not only provide an acceptable outlet for our aggressions, but in a world where there is little permanence, they offer stability, constancy. As a young man said to me recently, "It's reassuring to have at least one reliable thing in my life. If a basketball game is scheduled, I know it will be played. It's not contingent on whether I've been living right or on what the stock market does."
At a time when justice often seems to elude us, we can find it in sports. If the pitcher commits a balk, the runner moves up a base. We may grumble if the pitcher is playing for our team, but deep down we feel good that the rules have prevailed.
I'm no longer a rabid baseball fan. Yet, if I'm driving and heavy traffic is making me irritable and anxious, I will search for a baseball game on the radio. The announcer may not be the Harry Caray of my youth, but he offers me that same "God's in his Heaven/All's right with the world" feeling. The words "the count is one ball and two strikes" are better than any tranquilizer.