He'll Bring L.A. Hockey Out of Ice Age

Listen! Would Caruso want to spend his career singing Gilbert and Sullivan in Leeds? Would Rembrandt want to paint barns? Is Nijinsky going to dance on street corners in Pocatello?

No. If you know anything about show business, you know you've got to bring the act to Broadway. No matter how good you are in Bridgeport, it's still Bridgeport.

What made anybody think the greatest hockey player who ever lived was going to stay up there by the North Pole forever? I mean, did Jack Nicklaus stay at Scioto, putting for quarters with school chums?

It must have killed Wayne Gretzky to walk down a street in L.A. or New York and not have 12 people in the entire city recognize him on sight or have any clear idea what he did for a living. It must have been galling to go to a cocktail party and have people looking over his shoulder to see if they can spot any celebrities while they murmur, "Oh, and are you in pictures, too, Mr. Grobsky, er, Grinsky?"

Now that he's married an actress, you can bet me she doesn't want to be sitting up there, 2,000 miles from the sound stages and the power lunches. I mean, you can be a hockey player in Edmonton but you can't be an actress. Trust me.

At times like these, I'm always reminded of the line in the play, "Magdalena," where the Parisian general is transferred to the jungles of Colombia in South America and he tries to convince his mistress that she'll love it in the moonlight down there. "We'll be great lovers!" he cries. "Bah!" she says. "In Paris, great lovers. In the jungle, two monkeys."

Is it the greatest, most cynical sale in sports history? Well, it's close.

In 1919, a show biz entrepreneur named Harry Frazee owned the Boston Red Sox but his heart was on Broadway. Among other things, he wanted to bankroll a musical called, "No, No, Nanette." To get cash, he sold the greatest player in all the annals of baseball, Babe Ruth, himself. He got $100,000 cash and a $350,000 loan on his ballpark.

The sports world was stunned. The park-bench lawyers were out in force with their dark warnings of antitrust. But it was the greatest single move baseball ever made, unless you count Walter O'Malley's move to California.

Could Ruth have become Babe Ruth, a universal symbol for domination of a profession, if he had stayed in Boston? Highly unlikely. In that day and age, if you didn't do it in New York, you might as well not have done it.

Press box denizens recall one night in a World Series when an Oakland outfielder, Joe Rudi, made a catch that was right out of Lourdes. "If he does that in New York, they write songs about it," pronounced writer Jack Lang. "Here, it's just 'F-7.' "

In 1969, in concert with the complicated--and extra-legal--draft laws of the sport, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, undoubtedly the greatest single player in the annals of basketball, found himself playing the game in Milwaukee. Now, Milwaukee isn't Edmonton. They have summers there. It may be a fine place to raise a family. But it ain't 42nd Street. Sunset and Vine.

Abdul-Jabbar played the Good Soldier Schweik for six years. Then, he told the team and the league that was enough. He would play either in New York or Los Angeles. The tryout was over. The show was ready for the big top.

Even ricocheting between Philadelphia and San Francisco wasn't enough for Wilt Chamberlain, although neither of those metropolises is exactly bucolic. Wilt wanted out and maneuvered his way to Los Angeles.

Jack Kent Cooke was an owner who very well understood the nature of the sports business, which was, after all, show business. It needed stars. Cooke went out and got Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain--and later Magic Johnson--for his basketball team. There is no hard evidence he twisted the league's arm but it is evident the league was more than glad to see a contender in the L.A. market annually. Any game needs L.A. and New York.

George M. Cohan once said that once you get west of the Hudson River, everything is Bridgeport. Well, that's no longer so true. But superstars need super-cities.

I have always felt Henry Aaron would have been a mega-star if he'd done what he did in New York. Ty Cobb's and Rogers Hornsby's feats didn't go unnoticed--all those years over .400--but they would have been ticker-tape parade starters in the Big Apple. Ted Williams might have had leagues named after him if he'd starred in Yankee Stadium. Musial earned the nickname, "Stan the Man," playing against New York teams.

I think Gretzky had all the "Nice game, eh's?" that he wanted. He wants to play the Palace.

I think Bruce McNall is in the Jack Kent Cooke mold. Hollywood was built on the star system. So were professional sports.

Anyway, the league should be happy. I don't know whether Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington was another Harry Frazee who needed the quick money or whether he knew he couldn't keep Gretzky in the closet. Either way, you hang the "Mona Lisa" in the Louvre, not some curio shop in downtown Lyon.

Gretzky will fill the seats. If he can fill the nets, too, he'll be the biggest bargain since Babe Ruth. The game needs glamour more than goals. He's already pulled the hat trick. He's put hockey on Page 1. In Los Angeles. In August.

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