"Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."
Jacques Barzun -- a Frenchman -- wrote that, in 1954. That was two years after I was born and two years before Don Larson pitched the only perfect game in World Series history. They say that professional football has surpassed baseball as the National Pastime, but when I turn the calendar page and March pops up I still get a strong urge to rub Neatsfoot oil into my 46-year-old glove. Anybody want to play a little catch?
Baseball and I go way back. The first game I actually remember was the aforementioned masterpiece by Don Larson. I was 4 years old and all I wanted to do that day was sit under the house and run a little straw round and round in a doodle bug hole.
My daddy had other plans for me that October afternoon. He made me come in the house and sit down in front of our tiny black-and-white television set and watch grown men play a game I knew nothing about. Every time I complained he explained that something special was happening and kept insisting that I would thank him one day.
All I really remember is that I didn't want to be sitting on the living room floor when the doodle bugs were biting and that when the game was finally over one of the grown men jumped into the arms of one of the other grown men and rode him off the field.
That would have been Yogi Berra jumping into the arms of Don Larson, of course, and I have thanked my father many times for making sure I didn't miss one of the most historic contests in the history of the game I would come to love -- and hate.
What I love is the perfection of the game, as remembered in black-and-white from the 1950s and early '60s. There were eight teams in each league. Each team played each other team an equal number of times during the year. The best team in each league played one best of seven series before the weather turned bad in the fall to determine the champion.
Every player played in the field and every player took his turn at bat. The home team wore white and had their nickname or logo across the front of their jersey. The visitors wore gray and had the name of their city on their chest. Everybody wore stirrups and their pants just below the knees, the way God and Kennesaw Mountain Landis intended.
I was an American League guy because Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese brought the New York Yankees into my living room every weekend. I knew the starting lineup of every team in the league. I could buy 10 baseball cards -- and 10 pieces of rock-hard bubble gum -- for a dime at the drugstore. I could get a dime by picking up 10 Coca-Cola bottles.
Although I worshipped Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra I appreciated Stan Musial and Willie Mays and Duke Snider enough to covet their cards.
Every morning I scoured the box scores. I kept the statistics of my team -- the Yankees -- in a Blue Horse notebook and hated when they played in Kansas City because those boxes didn't make the morning paper and threw my batting averages off for an entire day.
I looked forward to Sundays because they listed all the stats for all the players in the paper and for Mondays because there were no Sunday night games and the standings were always up to date on Monday morning.
Baseball was perfect in 1958.
Then came expansion and more expansion and the designated hitter and double knit uniforms -- and Curt Flood got the reserve clause outlawed, which led to free agency and made gypsies of almost every player. They eventually broke the leagues into divisions and added wild-card teams to the playoffs and I am glad Jake Westbrook got a World Series ring but I hate that the games aren't over until midnight.
Now we only see the Dodgers twice and have interleague play and steroid use has made an entire generation of statistics suspect and the record book irrelevant. The complete game has been virtually eliminated and we have setup men and closers and seventh inning guys and eighth inning guys in the bullpen, and I don't think they even put bubble gum in baseball cards anymore.
Did I mention how much I hate the designated hitter?
But it is March and the Yankees still wear pinstripes and you still have to get 27 outs to register a win. I have made it to another baseball season -- and as long as there is baseball hope will spring eternal.
Play ball. In fact, in the immortal words of the great Ernie Banks, "It's a great day to play two."
Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.