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COMMENTARY : Willie, Mickey, the Duke: Makers of Great Memories

NEWSDAY

On the way to the dinner I caught myself, went back inside and stuck a clean, new baseball in my pocket. Because I’ll never be 17 again.

Willie, Mickey and the Duke were going to be at the dinner. I don’t make a thing about gathering autographs; I don’t like asking favors of people I’m writing about; it’s not professional. But -- goodness knows -- Willie, Mickey and the Duke are at the heart of why I got into this business. And how often will they again be at the same place at the same time?

A long time ago, when I was very young in this business, the New York Yankees and the San Francisco Giants were in the World Series, and after the fifth game, Mantle was standing in front of his locker mocking himself. You have to understand that at the time Mantle was an intimidating figure for a young writer. It was important to be able to write about him at any time, because he was Mickey Mantle. He was the last of the great center fielders from the rich time there were three teams in New York City.

This great nostalgia craze stems from that period.

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This time the World Series was supposed to be the showcase for Mantle and Mays, and neither was shining. Mantle told of hearing this one loud fan in the bleachers hollering: “Mantle. We came to see who was best, you or Mays. Now we’re trying to decide who’s worse.”

Then, Mantle said, it sounded as if they were taking a vote. “I turned around,” Mantle said, “and this guy hollers: ‘Mantle, you win!’ ”

It was the kind of discussion/argument we had every day growing up. My father was a Giant fan; my good friend Steve was a Yankee fan. I loved the Dodgers. Willie, Mickey and the Duke, those three guys were so good, and no place had ever had that display of greatness at one time. Choose one or the other. You couldn’t have more than one, like you couldn’t have more than one true girlfriend.

It’s said that a sports fan has his deepest roots in the time he was 17 years old. They were images in the three-sided prism of New York only a short time. Snider was a Dodger beginning in 1947. Mantle and Mays were rookies in ’51. Mays spent most of ’52 and all of ’53 in the Army. Then after ’57 Snider and Mays were taken west. So the era of Willie, Mickey and the Duke -- “I saw it on the radio,” Terry Cashman sings -- was only five full seasons.

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But what a time. What a contrast with the time of replacement players about to dawn and baseball lodged in courtrooms instead of dugouts, and on Super Bowl Sunday Jonathan Schwartz has fittingly reined out his 26th annual salute to baseball -- no Willie, Mickey and the Duke on WQEW.

I wanted their signatures on the ball, I suppose, because I’d like to have a piece of the time I was 17 forever. I was a freshman on the campus of Indiana University, an ear at somebody’s portable radio, when Bobby Thomson’s home run beat the Dodgers. I was the sports editor of the Indiana Daily Student when Mays made his catch.

I remember sitting on my bunk at Fort Bragg and reading that the Dodgers had played their last game at Ebbets Field, and realizing I’d never see the Brooklyn Dodgers again. Players couldn’t move then, but owners could. When I got to cover the Yankees they were the only team in town and I felt blessed, but still a bit cheated because they weren’t the Dodgers.

I saw a lot of Mantle. He was magnetic, and yet ... He would show a flash of wit or insight for a moment and then -- one question was too deep -- and he’d spin on his stool and leave you with the reddening back of his neck. He didn’t permit himself to be a good guy with us until the last few years.

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The Mays I saw with San Francisco was a cranky, suspicious man, not at all like the kid who played stickball in the streets. But boy, could he play. “I hope I’m not bragging a little bit, but I thought I was the best ballplayer I’ve seen,” Mays said when he was voted to the Hall of Fame, and probably he was.

And Snider, he seemed to get the least credit. He hit at least 40 home runs in five consecutive seasons, which neither of the other two did. He hit the last Dodger home run in Brooklyn. “I thought I was as good as Mays and Mantle until I had the knee operation,” Snider said years later, and maybe he was. At spring training with the Mets, when he couldn’t play anymore, my wife, Anita, noted that he was the most magnetic figure in camp -- other than her husband.

What moved me at the Baseball Writers Dinner with an award named for the three of them was that all three felt that sitting together -- Willie, Mickey and the Duke -- was something special. Mantle said he was glad the Dodgers won in ’55 because Duke was “too good not to win one of them.” He gave the crown to Mays: “I’d say Willie was the best. I don’t mind being tied for second.”

Mays said, “Mickey, Willie and the Duke, to me that’s New York City, that’s not an award for an individual.”

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I’m glad they understood. Mays wiped the sweat off his face when he sat down. I think more than a few of us wiped at the corners of our eyes. I remembered when I was 17. I couldn’t ask for the ball to be signed. I really don’t need it.

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That nostalgia nerve was pinched again when Alex Groza died last week. He was part of the great Kentucky team that virtually invented college basketball -- Groza, Beard, Jones, Line, Hirsch and them. They won the ’48 Olympics and went to the NBA as the Indianapolis Olympians. Groza and Ralph Beard were all-league. Groza was the first of the big men -- a 6-7 center -- who could move. In October 1951 they were caught in the great point-shaving scandal. A few years ago John Jeansonne wrote about the course in University of Kentucky basketball tradition taught at the school; the course included the national championships of ’48 and ’49 and never mentioned the tragedy. Groza reconstructed his life but never stopped paying for the wrong decision.

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One hockey fan who hardly celebrates the return of the game is Howard Hyman of Brooklyn, who writes about canceling his New York Ranger tickets:

“I couldn’t take the drunks ... the constant obscenities, the meanness, the lack of civility ... As Curt Bennett (of the Calgary Flames) prepared to take a faceoff ... a half-soused junior executive sitting behind me let loose a stream of obscenity-laced invective so mean-spirited that everyone in the section gasped and Bennett himself skated out of the faceoff circle to see what kind of creature could conduct himself this way in public.”

Are you suggesting there’s something objectionable about the 1990s?

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Another letter, this addressed to “Rabbi” Steven Jacobsen (pray, copy my name correctly):

“Interesting how when great guy Fred Lebow died you in the media couldn’t mention enough he was a Jew ... Compare that to Gary Bettman, a two-bit, two-inch union buster -- the supposed commissioner of hockey, for God’s sake -- to whom no hockey means nothing. Why no mention that this lying, sniveling, arrogant -----'s a you know what?”

Unsigned.

Thanks. It’s always good to be reminded you’re out there.

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