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Mike Cline: Growing up a Yankees fan

By Mike Cline
For the Salisbury Post
I always enjoyed playing and watching baseball more than any other sport. I’ll leave pro wrestling out of the mix for obvious reasons.
So this time of year, I get a little pepped up to watch the Major League Baseball road to the World Series, even though I watch very little baseball during the regular season these days. This year, I have watched zero complete major league games. But the World Series is still special to me, a throwback to my childhood, I guess.
Back in my youth, the journey to the baseball championship was a shorter one. A 154-game schedule instead of today’s 162. There were only 16 total teams, eight in the American League and eight in the National League. It was a simple formula. The top team in each league won their respective “pennant” and immediately competed in the World Series.
The game of baseball seemed purer back then, too. No wild card teams, no designated hitter in the American League. Pitchers had to bat in the lineup. No interleague play, except the All-Star Games (from 1959-1962, there were two per season) and the World Series.
Starting pitchers were expected to pitch nine innings. It didn’t always work out that way, but there weren’t middle-inning pitchers, set-up pitchers and closers like today. Whitey Ford used to say that if he didn’t finish the game he had started, he hadn’t done his job. These days, it’s common to hear a team manager say that he hopes to get five good innings out of his starting pitcher.
No zillion-dollar contracts back then either. For the 1961 season, Mickey Mantle was baseball’s highest paid player at a salary of $75,000. And the men played hurt. I read once that after Mantle’s legs started giving him lots of trouble, it would take the trainer an hour before every game to tape up Mickey’s legs to the point he could walk. Today, a minor back spasm will bench a MLB superstar for a week or longer.
There was no “drug enhancement” problem in baseball. The drugs of the day were nicotine and alcohol, in the locker rooms as well as the stadium seats. A MLB locker room often looked more like a pool hall than a locker room. I was shocked as a kid to see an interview with a player in a locker room after a game standing in front of a cigarette machine. Naive me thought that professional athletes didn’t smoke. Oh, well. And I doubt alcohol ever enhanced any player’s performance on the field, with the exception of maybe George Herman Ruth. He seemed to thrive on the stuff.
The crowds were different back then, at least they looked that way. Ever notice in old film footage shot during a baseball game that all the men in the stands were wearing double-breasted suits and fedoras? The ladies looked to be in their Sunday church dresses. They could all go straight from the ball park to a funeral and be properly attired. And most of the men were complete with their favorite stogie in their collective mouths.
During my first 14 years, no question, the powerhouse of baseball was that group of guys called the New York Yankees. From 1950-1963, the Bronx Bombers appeared in all but two Fall Classics (1954 and 1959). These Yankees won the World Series in 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961 and 1962. They played in but lost the Series in 1955, 1957, 1960, 1963.
Baseball fans didn’t sit on the political fence when it came to the New York Yankees. (They still don’t.) Fans either loved them or hated them, and I do mean hate – as much hate as Howard Platt has for Duke and the Dallas Cowboys.
Not me … or my neighborhood buddies. We loved the Yankees. Many a Saturday or Sunday afternoon (there were no night games back then) would find me in front of our black-and-white television watching the Yanks playing someone. And Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese often called the game, and when Diz would say, “Pee Wee, it’s time for a Falstaff,” I’d head to the kitchen for a bologna sandwich.
All of us guys liked the Yankees so much, we all piled into a neighborhood mom’s car, and she took us uptown to a sports shop (in fact, the name of the store was The Sports Shop) to buy a “NY” Yankee stencil, which all our moms ironed on brand-new white tee-shirts, which we all wore to elementary school very proudly.
When we came of age to play Little League, it was a disappointment to learn that all the teams were named after their sponsors, i.e., Northwestern Bank, Webb Insurance. There was even a team sponsored by the local Oddfellows Lodge. Thankfully, I never played for them. Who wanted to wear a shirt that says “Odd Fellow”? We all wanted to play for the Yankees, but there wasn’t a Yankees team in our league.
Disappointment was huge in 1959, as the Yanks didn’t win the pennant. A third-place finish in the AL and a huge 15-games out of first place.
But the following 1960 season, a fresh start, and a one-year hiatus out of the World Series was over.
Nothing could stop the Yankees now …
Mike Cline’s website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” documents all the movies played in Rowan County theaters from 1920 through 1979.

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