In the 1960s, kids traded baseball cards all summer and took transistor radios to school to listen to the World Series in the fall, while Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were trying to beat Babe Ruth’s home run record.
HBO’s “When It Was a Game III,” which airs tonight, captures many of those moments as it examines the last decade of innocence of America’s favorite pastime. Though the Yankees were still king in the early ‘60s, by 1965 changes were starting that rumbled through the rest of the decade. The Yankees didn’t make the World Series. Maris was traded to St. Louis in 1966. Mantle retired in 1968. Integration of both African American and Latin American players was blossoming. By then, pitching dominated, with St. Louis’ Bob Gibson, the L.A. Dodgers’ Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax setting records.
Narrated by Liev Schreiber, the documentary features rare color footage of some of the game’s greats, and interviews with Hall of Famers Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Ferguson Jenkins and home run champ Hank Aaron, among others.
The series began in 1991 with Peabody-winning “When It Was a Game,” which looked at such early superstars as Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio. The next year, “When It Was a Game 2" followed, featuring rare color footage of these superstars.
The producing team, led by Ross Greenburg, senior vice president and executive producer of HBO Sports, has been involved in all three. Greenburg, who fell in love with baseball as a kid in the ‘60s, recently chatted about the documentary and his lifelong love affair with the sport.
Question: I have to admit I got misty watching this, flooded with memories of my childhood.
Answer: You should get teary-eyed. The ‘60s signal the end of a time and an era and a sport that we will never know again. Also, it makes you reflect on your own youth. That is what this is all meant to do--to draw out those little nuggets of memory and bring it to life again.
During the making of the show, George Roy, who was producer and editor with me, he and I would refer to these gentlemen as “our guys.”
[The first two documentaries] were about players that we respected and heard of but never knew. But these were our guys.
Q: So you followed the Yankees as a kid in the ‘60s?
A: I had two heroes growing up--one was Mickey Mantle in the American League and the other was Willie Mays in the National League. When the Giants came into town, I would go to Shea and I would also spend a lot of time at Yankee Stadium, cheering my Yankees. I think it was tough in the ‘60s in New York, not to be a baseball fanatic and particularly, a New York Yankee fan. The Mets obviously did come to the fore in ’69 with that miracle win, but during the ‘60s you had that tradition of the New York Yankees. I guess it got into our blood--baseball cards and doing imitations of guys at the plate or pitching. All of that works its way into the show because we wanted to give a fan’s perspective to the game.
Q: In the documentary, Billy Crystal talks about the thrill of walking through the tunnel at Yankee Stadium and seeing the green grass of the playing field.
A: You always felt that you were entering some type of cathedral--you weren’t just entering a ballpark, particularly at Yankee Stadium. There is just too much history there. As Billy said, you felt that in those monuments [in the park] that Babe Ruth was buried out in center field. You were entering these hallowed grounds, so when you walked through the tunnel--every kid can identify with this and they still can because I bring my 12-year-olds, Brad and Rachel, to games now--and you see that green grass, there is nothing like that feeling.
And there is nothing like that feeling at 45 . . . I can still walk into Yankee Stadium and get that tingling feeling in my spine. I get tears in my eyes all the time sitting next to my son and daughter, knowing that I am now part of that passing of the torch from one generation to the next.
Q: Do you remember when you began to feel that baseball was changing?
A: I don’t think it was one moment in time. We signal it in the documentary as the Curt Flood decision . All of us honor Curt Flood and his memory and what he accomplished in establishing free agency. But it did change forever the way the game would be run. It was now a business, and players were going from one team to the next at a drop of the hat. So it did change the texture of the game.
Q: Didn’t you feel two years ago during the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa that some of that old-fashioned magic returned?
A: Yes, and the anticipation and the feeling that we were part of a historical moment that we would reflect on for the rest of our lives and the country would reflect on it. That is the beauty of sports and sports history.
Q: It must have been wonderful to talk to your idols for this documentary.
A: It was. I didn’t talk to Juan Marichal, but I mentioned to producer George Roy to tell him that I, like many, many other young kids, probably beaned hundreds of Little Leaguers because we were trying to imitate his famous kick on the mound as we pitched to the batters. I felt like we wanted to imitate [the players] back then. Our kids aren’t because they aren’t playing sandlot baseball. They are not getting a bat and going down the block with their buddies and imitating their favorite players, as they play a pickup game. There are no pickup games. There are organized games now where they are not allowed to imitate anyone. We could go out in the backyard and imitate all of our heroes.
Q: Did you ever get to meet Mantle?
A: I spent a lot of time with Mantle. Actually, I met him during his alcoholic phase, which was his post-playing days. Then I was fortunate enough to spend a day with him after he had gotten out of the Betty Ford clinic and saw the Mickey Mantle that I will take to my grave, which was one of the most wonderful men you have ever met.
* When It Was a Game III” airs tonight at 10 p.m. on HBO.