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Recalling Bygone World of Baseball

I AM one of the most dyed-in-the-wool fans of that world that is referred to when the ``World Series'' is played. As a boy I hung on every word as the radio announcer described the drama of the baseball game when Grover Cleveland Alexander relieved Jesse Haines and won the world series for the St. Louis Cardinals over the New York Yankees.

That was in 1926. Alexander was in the twilight of his career. He had won two games in that series and that by itself had seemed enough. So when he trudged in to take the ball from Haines, who had injured his finger throwing his knuckler, I doubted he could cool off the hot Yankee bats. But the ``old fellah'' did it. In movies depicting his career, Alexander was played by none other than Ronald Reagan.

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In my hometown of Urbana, Ill., almost everyone was a Chicago Cubs fan. But I quickly grew to love the Cards. They had never won a pennant. They had been stepped on by other teams for years. But here was an underrated group of players, managed by Rogers Hornsby, that often led the league in hitting and confounded the critics by finishing on top.

The Cards weren't supposed to have a chance in the 1926 World Series against a great Yankee team with stars like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Herb Pennock. But they did! They have been my team ever since, winning a sizeable number of pennants and World Series.

I followed baseball mostly through radio play-by-plays. But my Dad would from time to time take me down to see the Cards play in Sportsman's Park. I played a bit in the local kid leagues, then on an American Legion team. We were on the road to the state championship before losing to a hard-throwing pitcher, Junior Thompson, who a couple of years later won 20 games as a rookie for the Cincinnati Reds.

FOR several years my fantasy was that I would someday replace the Fordham Flash, Frankie Frisch, at second base for the Cards. But I had some little problems: I never learned to hit the curve. And my arm was never that strong. But I wasn't bad with the glove. And I was a great holler guy.

Actually, for a number of years my fealty to the Cards and baseball has been weakening. The game I loved was played by men who felt lucky not to have to work for a living. As Ken Burns reminds us in his wonderful TV documentary, ``Baseball,'' most of these young men escaped from what would have been dreary lives on farms, in mines, or in factories. As they saw it, all they had to do was play a children's game a few hours each day for six months each year.

Their paychecks were quite modest. And baseball's reserve clause kept them in the grip of the club owner - to be traded or sold at his will. But the players always seemed to me to be having a lot of fun.

Sometimes owners sold a favorite player. Babe Ruth went from Boston to New York. Fans got furious. I hated it when the Cards traded Hornsby for Frisch, who later became my hero. But it seemed the teams remained much the same from year to year. One felt close to the players. The reserve clause is gone, and I wouldn't want it returned. But with this change has come a yearly turnover. A player becomes a favorite star, and then away he's gone to another club.

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Like many fans, I have lost my patience with greedy players and owners. My interest has been waning. For many of us, the loss of the World Series is not the tragedy it would have been years ago.

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