Sunday, July 12, 2009

Baseball Royalty in the Queen City: A Young Fan’s Trip to the 1970 All Star Game

With the recent news that President Obama will be throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at this year’s Major League Baseball All Star game, it took me back nearly four decades, when as a 14-year-old baseball enthusiast I was lucky enough to attend the 1970 All Star game in Cincinnati, one of the few (in addition to this year’s) in which a President has thrown out the first pitch. That year it was Richard Nixon, some four years before he would resign the office in disgrace and shame.

How did I end up in Cincinnati for the All Star game? Primarily through persistently hounding my dad. Having attended several games at Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium as a youth, I hatched the idea of going to an All Star game. After all, what could be better for a kid who loved the game, both the playing (as a mediocre Little Leaguer and Babe Ruth Leaguer) and the watching, especially my beloved Red Sox.

Therefore, during the winter before the 1970 season I asked my dad if we might try to get tickets to the game, and then arrange our summer vacation around it. Like many American families, we took an annual summer trip, and were looking for a new destination, having visited Florida and Canada in the preceding years. Cincinnati? Not much of a vacation spot, but for me it would be hardball heaven, so I periodically raised the idea to my Dad. Perhaps it was the opportunity to visit the famed Churchill Downs horse racing track in Louisville (right across the river from Cincy) that persuaded my dad to consider my request, as he was a big racing fan.

In any event, in order to placate me he penned a letter to the Cincinnati Reds, asking how one might go about getting tickets, thinking it a long shot at best. Amazingly, they wrote back, saying the tickets were on sale for ten dollars each, should we be interested. Ten dollars! That seemed a fortune back then. That would be 50 dollars for five of us, much more then we paid at Fenway, where grandstand seats to a Red Sox game could be had for two or three dollars each.

Then again, it was a once in a lifetime chance (or so we thought back then), so why not? The game would be played at the brand new Riverfront Stadium, so it would be historic in that regard, one of the first games ever played in the park. Riverfront was one of the first “cookie cutter” concrete bowl type stadiums, with Astroturf, equipped to host both baseball and football, almost always more suited for the latter. These parks would become reviled by both players and fans in later years, to be replaced by the more friendly “old time” parks, ushered in by Baltimore’s Camden Yards in the early 1990s. In fact, Riverfront would last only 32 years before it was imploded, replaced by the Great American Ballpark.

There were some other firsts as well for the 1970 game. Major League Baseball had instituted fan voting for the first time since 1957 that year, and I was thrilled that my idol, Carl Yastrzemski, was voted in as a starter for the American League and would be batting second. In addition, there was the hope the American League might actually win, something they had not managed in the previous seven years. It would not be easy, however, as the National League lineup was star-studded, featuring Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente (not a bad outfield!), as well as hometown heroes Johnny Bench and Pete Rose, as well as other future legends and Hall of Famers. Backing up Bench at catcher was a little known St. Louis Cardinal named Joe Torre. The starting pitchers were the Mets’ Tom Seaver and the Orioles’ Jim Palmer.

Carl Yastrzemski, circa 1970

So five of us piled into our 1967 Buick LeSabre and headed from West Hartford Connecticut for the 800-mile trip to Cincinnati in mid July of 1970. When we got there it was hot—very, very hot—and the sweltering conditions lasted into game day. I remember my Dad sending my sister out to find him a beer once we got settled into our seats. Few concession stands were open in the new stadium, so it took her ages to come back with his beer and Cokes for the rest of us. At 18 she was under the legal drinking age, but beer vendors were far less strict back then.

Just before game time a helicopter landed in the parking lot outside of the stadium. Nixon, a big baseball fan, and his family arrived in the stadium to thunderous applause. This was not exactly a politically-minded crowd.

Nixon, flanked by wife, daughter, and National League Manager Gil Hodges, lets fly.

The game was pretty well played and I was loving it, since Yaz had banged out three hits and the American League took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the 9th inning. But the National League would not go quietly. A late rally off of the Oakland A’s pitcher Catfish Hunter tied the game and sent it into extra innings. Oddly, while Aaron and Mays went hitless, light-hitting National League shortstops Bud Harrelson and Don Kessinger each had a pair of hits.

Yaz got his fourth hit, an All Star game record, but neither team could plate any runs in the extra frames. That was until the bottom of the 12th inning, when the Reds’ own Charlie Hustle, Pete Rose, came barreling around third base toward home on a single by the Cubs’ Jim Hickman (off of the Angels' Clyde Wright, who had pitched a no-hitter two weeks earlier). The play was very close, as the throw from the Royals’ Amos Otis and Rose arrived at exactly the same moment. Displaying his trademark no-holds-barred style, Rose went flying shoulder first into catcher Ray Fosse of the Indians, knocking the ball loose and Fosse head-over-heels as he scored the winning run. We were disappointed to see yet another National League victory, but as the years passed by that play would go down as perhaps one of the most memorable and historic in All Star game (and baseball) history.

The defining moment of the game: Rose barrels into Fosse

In fact, the play inflicted a career-altering injury upon Fosse, who fractured and separated his shoulder, and never approached his previous level of performance. Rose expressed no remorse, saying it was all part of the game. Of course, he would go onto great fame (setting the all-time Major League hit record with 4,256 and winning two World Series titles with the Reds’ “Big Red Machine”) and infamy (when he was banned from the game for life for betting on games as a Reds’ manger a decade later).

In an odd footnote to the game, Yaz was named the game’s most valuable player, the last player from a losing team to earn the honor. The next day he presented his award as a gift to Nixon, whom he greatly admired. Like Rose, Nixon’s achievements to that point in history would be overshadowed by more dubious exploits, namely his mandated break-in at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. and its subsequent cover-up. In another oddity, when Rose was sentenced to jail for tax evasion in the 1990s, he served time at a prison in Marion, Illinois, which happened to be Fosse's hometown. "Needless to say, the folks back home found that a joyous occasion,'' Fosse said, indicative of the acrimony between the two over the final play of the 1970 All Star Game.

For having traveled to Cincinnati to see the All Star game, I was something of a hero myself, at least to my friends and Babe Ruth League teammates. I boasted about seeing all of the great players and being witness to the final historic play. Thirty-nine years later many of the scenes from that trip are still fresh in my mind. Let’s hope the legacy for both Obama and whoever scores the winning run in this year’s game in St. Louis are more glorious than that of Richard Nixon and Pete Rose.


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