The Hot Stove League

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(HOST)  Civil War historian and commentator Howard Coffin is also a baseball fan whose love of the game spans at least fifty years.

(COFFIN) Though baseball season runs April through October, baseball talk never ends. They used to call the other months the Hot Stove League, back in a time before anyone had even heard of steroids.

On a recent wintry holiday outing, I took myself for the first time to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Cooperstown is an American small town at the end of a glimmering lake, the kind of place where kids grew up playing baseball, as I did in Woodstock. The games went on in back yards and cow pastures almost until the stars appeared.

At bedtime I would quietly take the family radio from the living room table and sneak it upstairs, concealing it beneath the covers. Its cloth front against my ear, I turned the lighted dial to KDKA Pittsburgh and the voices of Jim Woods and Bob Prince. Yes, I was a faithful Red Sox fan, but a Pirates fan in the National League because of the power of that radio station and because nobody ever called a baseball game better than those two.

A half century later I stand in the Hall of Fame, by a reconstructed announcer’s booth, listening to recordings of great games. From the overhead speaker I hear Don Larsen deliver to Dale Mitchell the last pitch of his World Series perfect game. And now begins a replay of the Pirates’ greatest game –  one I heard live in 1960. A big gray haired fellow with a serious limp joins me, says he heard it, too, in Ohio.

Pick it up in the ninth inning. Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, the Pirates have rallied. Though beaten 16 to 3, 10 to nothing, and 12 to nothing in earlier games, the series is tied 3 to 3. Yanks 9, Pirates 8. One man on. Bill Mazeroski at the plate.

The man beside me, I notice, has tears in his eyes. Ralph Terry winds and fires and Mazeroski swings and hits one long to left. Yogi Berra (yes he played the outfield that day) is back, looking up. It’s GONE. The Pirates win the World Series.

Now there are tears in my eyes. The big fellow smiles.  "I was 26 then," he says. "How ’bout you?"

"18," I say.

We shook hands and he shuffled down the hallway, his legs betraying the toll of squatting behind a home plate somewhere in America on how many green and golden afternoons? Just before rounding the corner toward the room with Babe Ruth’s bats, he turned around.

"What’a ya gonna do?" he called back, palms upraised and a half smile on his face, speaking an ages-old comment on the human condition.

From the speakers above me I hear the voice of Russ Hodges from the Polo Grounds. It’s the autumn of 1951, Ralph Branca on the mound, a kid named Willie Mays on deck, and Bobby Thompson is coming to bat.

(SFX of classic game. In: Branca throws. Out: crowd noise.)

Our thanks to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for the classic play-by-play sound clip.

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