The Kansas City Star – Jul 14, 2007 – Randy Covitz – “It gives them a connection they had with the game that perhaps they don’t feel anymore.
Author Pete Williams
Steve Bergman ushered in a delegation of about 50 people into CommunityAmerica Ballpark on Saturday night, including his son’s team of 10-year-olds.
They sought autographs, handshakes and smiles from the stars participating in the second annual Willie Wilson T-Bones Classic Legends Game. Even if Generation Y didn’t recognize Generation EX.
“Those guys are my heroes, but when you tell the kids about them, they don’t even know these guys too much,Ã¢â‚¬Â? Bergman, 42, said of the younger generation.
“But it’s a big thrill for the parents to see their kids meet the idols they had. That’s something we never had the opportunity to do, and when your kids can do it, it’s probably more special.Ã¢â‚¬Â?
While baby boomers may drive Beamers and Benzes, deep inside, they still pine for the classic Cadillacs and Thunderbirds with bright fins. They may have iPods, but they fill them with the beat of Elvis and tones of the Temptin’ Temptations from old 33 LPs.
And sports fans who grew up in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s cling to their memories of the soundtrack of summer Ã¢â‚¬â€? a baseball game late at night on a crackling radio or on a fuzzy black-and-white television that showed a Willie Mays basket catch or a Henry Aaron home run.
That’s why thousands crowded into CommunityAmerica Ballpark for the chance to interact with former Royals heroes Wilson, John Mayberry, Frank White and Amos Otis, among others Ã¢â‚¬â€? as well as baseball icons such as Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith and outfielder Tommy Davis, the National League batting champion in 1962 and 1963.
“Bringing back these greats of the game … is meaningful to people,Ã¢â‚¬Â? said Pete Williams, author of Card Sharks, a definitive work on the baseball card phenomenon. “It gives them a connection they had with the game that perhaps they don’t feel anymore.Ã¢â‚¬Â?
The granddaddy of all the old-timers games is played in New York, where 54,497 crammed into Yankee Stadium earlier this month for a tradition that began with Lou Gehrig’s immortal farewell speech.
But even a few weeks ago in Tampa Bay, which has absolutely no baseball tradition, the Devil Rays were smart enough to hold a Turn Back the Clock promotion for an interleague game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Transplanted Dodgers fans and those who remember visiting Dodgertown, the club’s longtime spring training home in Vero Beach, Fla., got to see idols such as Duke Snider, Johnny Podres and Carl Erskine. The crowd of 24,068 nearly doubled the Devil Rays’ average attendance and was the second-largest of the season to that point, trailing only opening day.
Davis, a native of Brooklyn who spent the first eight seasons of his 18-year career with his beloved Dodgers (and part of his last with the Royals), offered an easy explanation for the baby boomers’ connection to the game.
“Think of all the names you had in those times,Ã¢â‚¬Â? Davis said, rattling off the names of contemporaries Mays, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Willie McCovey and Maury Wills. “It was great baseball. Baseball was more of the thing at that time for the kids. There wasn’t as much soccer and other things kids got involved in. Baseball was big in the 1960s.
“Don’t forget, the people who are over 30, 40 and 50 are the ones who are spending the money, and those are the people who remember those guys. That’s why our names will always be out there. The kids nowadays spend their money on computers and computer games.Ã¢â‚¬Â?
Why can’t the boomers let go? Why do those fans of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s keep worshipping the heroes of yesterday instead of embracing the stars of today and tomorrow?
“The further away we get from something nowadays, the more value it has to us as a way of capturing something about that past that was magical, maybe even more in a nostalgia sense, than it really was at the time,Ã¢â‚¬Â? said John F. Murray, a Florida-based sports psychologist.
“People look back on the simplicity of the 1950s and 1960s and say that’s when things were solid.
“It’s a fascinating thing to hold on to that youth, to think that our Mickey Mantles will never get old or never are going to die. That hero who was on the cereal box became almost a life of its own, whereas today, you have Barry Bonds, who not many people respect.Ã¢â‚¬Â?
So the baby boomers, with more disposable income than their fathers and grandfathers, perpetuate their memories though the $2 billion-a-year sports memorabilia business, buying autographs, signed pictures, baseballs, jerseys and other collectibles.
And the former players, who missed out on the $1 million contracts, much less the $100 million deals, discovered a new livelihood in their post-playing days.
“When I interviewed Mickey Mantle in 1991, he said, ‘The reason I’m so popular right now is people who watched me play are now in power, and guys 45 to 55 have the money and prestige,’ Ã¢â‚¬Â? Williams said. “We map that out 16 years later, and a guy who is 50 years old missed Mickey Mantle for the most part. Who’s the next generation? That guy might have watched the Bob Gibson generation and Aaron and Mays in the 1960s.
“For a lot of these players, they enjoy coming back into the limelight, and let’s face it, it can be profitable. For a lot of these guys who are probably comfortable, but not ridiculously rich, it’s a nice source of income, whether it’s an autograph show, a fantasy camp or a combination of things, it can make for a nice retirement income.Ã¢â‚¬Â?
Just about every major-league baseball team conducts a fantasy camp in January and February, and they cost from $2,900 to $4,495 for weekend warriors to cavort on a big-league field and receive five days of instruction from former players.
The Royals will embark on their fifth fantasy camp Feb. 4-8, and unlike some teams who import former players from different teams, the Royals employ 18 former Kansas City players Ã¢â‚¬â€? and three trainers Ã¢â‚¬â€? for 72 campers each year in Arizona.
“It was one of the highlights of my life,Ã¢â‚¬Â? said Pete Zevenbergen, 61, of Kansas City, Kan., who attended the Royals’ fantasy camp in 2006.
“It was a wonderful experience. Not the ball playing so much, but being around and listening to the stories, not just about who they played with, but players they played against.Ã¢â‚¬Â?
Zevenbergen hoped to renew acquaintances Saturday night with Mayberry, who was his favorite coach at the fantasy camp.
“I said John Mayberry, ‘If there is a worthy successor to Buck O’Neil, and I don’t know that there is, Mayberry is the kind of guy,’ Ã¢â‚¬Â? Zevenbergen said.
The players of yesterday don’t let go easily, either.
Davis said he plays in at least two celebrity golf tournaments a week, mostly in California, and appears at one or two card or memorabilia shows per month.
It’s not always about the money, but the memories.
“Guys come up to me and ask me about things that I forgot about,Ã¢â‚¬Â? Davis said.
“They’ll say, ‘Do you remember you stole third base against so and so and ended up winning the game?’ I don’t remember that, but they do.Ã¢â‚¬Â?
During last year’s Willie Wilson event, Otis ran into a man who as a youngster was stranded after a Royals game during the Kansas City flood of 1977.
“There were about 10 young people who couldn’t get home, so they stayed at my house,Ã¢â‚¬Â? Otis recalled.
“I called their parents and took them home the next day. One of the guys showed up here last year. I hadn’t seen him in all those years. He wanted to remind me how I helped change his life that night. That’s one of my favorites.Ã¢â‚¬Â?
Mitch Adelstein, president of Mounted Memories, a sports-memorabilia company in Sunrise, Fla., that arranges shows, said the former players like to hear fans talk about the good old days.
“The players from that era are more approachable than the players are today,Ã¢â‚¬Â? Adelstein said. “A lot of the guys who played ball in the 1950s and 1960s had to have offseason jobs.
“The current players demand not only more for their autographs, but it’s reaching a point, they don’t want to do a memorabilia show, because in their minds, the time is too valuable. They’re making such enormous money that to ask a player to get on a plane and travel across the country, and make X number of dollars, that for you or me sounds like a fortune, they’d rather have that five hours to themselves.Ã¢â‚¬Â?
The baby boomers’ love affair with sports is not limited to baseball.
Two years ago, when Jack Nicklaus made his last U.S. tournament appearance at the Bayer Advantage Champions Tour event at Nicklaus Golf Club at LionsGate in Overland Park, fans flocked to watch him play, even hanging from tree limbs and peering from rooftops for a glimpse at the golfing legend, then 65 years old.
No doubt many baby boomers warm more to memories of Arnold Palmer hitching up his pants before making a shot than watching Tiger Woods pump his fists after sinking a putt.
Most prefer the sight of Johnny Unitas, in his high-topped shoes, calling his own plays over Peyton Manning’s line-of-scrimmage histrionics.
Just last weekend, Richard “The KingÃ¢â‚¬Â? Petty drew a huge response when he drove the pace car at the Pepsi 400 in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Two days before the race, 22 of the 24 living Daytona 500 champions gathered in the same room in kicking off NASCAR’s promotion of next year’s 50th running of the Great American Race.
But when it comes to baby boomers, baseball and pro football provide the most special memories.
“Baseball is built on history and historical numbers,Ã¢â‚¬Â? Adelstein said. “That’s why the steroids thing is such a big issue. Football players wear helmets, while baseball players you know by number and face. Major-league baseball teams played 154, now 162 games, and football only 16. The person on the couch has a much closer relationship with a baseball player than any other sport.Ã¢â‚¬Â?
Perhaps no organization has closer ties with former players than the Old Timers Baseball Association of Chicago, which has quarterly meetings and dinners that honor former Cubs and White Sox players.
“We tell them, â‚¬ËœI remember you,’ said Mark Braun, 54, the organization’s executive director. Its hero worship. Now theyre on a level that you can get to them and say, ‘I was there, and I remember what you did.
Its a wonderful experience revisited, and you can go back and say, Thank you.
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.