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Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid

The Year That Changed Baseball Forever

Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid by John Rosengren
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"The vivid story of a young Reggie Jackson on Charlie Finley's A's and the veteran Willie Mays on Yogi's Mets, both destined for the '73 series."
-Library Journal

This was the year that the national pastime underwent an extreme makeover.

In 1973, baseball was in crisis. The first strike in pro sports had soured fans, American League attendance had fallen, and America's team-the Yankees-had lost more games and money than ever. Yet that season, five of the game's greatest figures rescued the national pastime.

Hank Aaron riveted the nation with his pursuit of Babe Ruth's landmark home run record in the face of racist threats. George Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees at a bargain basement price and began buying back their faded glory. The American League broke ranks with the National League and introduced the designated hitter, extending the careers of aging stars such as Orlando Cepeda. An elderly and ailing Willie Mays-the icon of an earlier generation-nearly helped the Mets pull off a miracle with the final hit of his career. Reggie Jackson, the MVP of a tense World Series, became the prototype of the modern superstar.

The season itself provided plenty of drama served up by a colorful cast of characters. The Mets, managed by Yogi Berra, performed another near miracle, rising from last place in the National League East to win the division and take the A's to seven games in the World Series. Pete Rose edged Willie Stargell as the National League's MVP in a controversial vote. Hank Aaron chased Babe Ruth's landmark 714 record in the face of racial threats. Reggie Jackson, the World Series MVP, solidified his reputation as Mr. October. Willie Mays, arguably the best player of the '50s and '60s, hit the final home run of his career and retired, no longer able to keep pace with the younger players of the next generation. Future Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and George Brett played in their first major league games; Luis Aparicio and Mays played in their last.

That one memorable summer changed baseball forever.

"It's a season-ticket to one of the greatest years in baseball history. John Rosengren has given us one of the most enjoyable baseball books to come along in years."
-Jonathan Eig, author of Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig and Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season
Sourcebooks; April 2008
352 pages; ISBN 9781402230318
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Title: Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid
Author: John Rosengren
A Mr. October AfternoonListen. You can hear it in the crowd. The 49,333 at Oakland Coliseum that afternoon. Tense. Excited. Sold. They believe their A’s can spoil this Mets miracle—the tremendous dash from last place at the end of August to within a game of the world championship. No matter, it’s Game Six, the Mets up 3–2 in the Series. These fans have assigned their allegiance to these A’s, the star-studded lineup of the defending champs: Bando, Tenace,Campaneris, Rudi, Hunter, Holtzman, Fingers, Blue, and Reggie. Reggie. Reg-gie! Reg-gie!! REG-GIE!He steps to his place. First inning, man on, two out. Reggie digs in. The white Pumas anchor in the dirt, the Sonny Liston-sized biceps wiggle the 37-ounce bat in his powerful hands. Reg-gie! His swagger, his manner, his style—he’s like no one else. He’s Reggie.He feels the eyes of the 49,333 on him, along with those of the millions in front of television sets from the Bay Area to Flushing Meadows. Feels good. His first World Series. The big stage. An October afternoon promise to supersize his status. Reggie stands poised to bust open his own image. Watch this.The 1973 season had already proven itself a watershed year that changed baseball forever. Race, money, rules—raging factors in the country’s social revolution—had marked the national pastime. A black man who had begun his career in the Negro Leagues threatened the supremacy of a white man’s legend, a mythical landmark universally identifiable by a simple number, 714. In New York, a multi-millionaire shipbuilder with an ego the size of Yankee Stadium bought America’s team at a bargain-basement price and began to flex his wealth in the league’s largest market, sparking baseball’s economic revolution. In a culture reluctant to change, American League owners had broken ranks with their National League counterparts and introduced the designated hitter, a marketing measure desperate to reclaim fan interest dissipated by the growing popularity of professional football. Already that season, baseball had undergone an extreme makeover that provided a demarcation in its history. There was baseball before 1973 and baseball after 1973—two distinctive eras.Now Reggie at bat in the Fall Classic would animate the season’s final act. While Willie Mays watched from the bench, Reggie would enact a changing of the superstar guard so complete that it would transform the media’s coverage, the fans’ perception, and the game’s image. That afternoon, the age of the modern superstar was about to dawn. Willie Mays was the best player of his generation—some argue of all time. An All-Star 24 times, a two-time MVP, he was the kind of player for whom the Hall of Fame was built. The Sporting News had recently declared Mays the best player of the past decade. He held more Major League Baseball records in more categories than any other player in history. His day was nearly done. By October 1973, he was ready to retire, but he wanted to close out his career as a champion. In Game Six, the forty-two-year-old Mays watched Reggie bat from what had become Willie’s customary spot at the back end of the Mets dugout. Fail or triumph, Reggie did everything big. He was coming off an MVP season—batting .293 and smashing a league-leading 32 homers and 117 RBIs while scoring more runs (99) than any other American League player. Yet, that same season, he struck out 111 times, or once every fifth at bat. Shame claims the flip side of glory’s skinny coin.Reggie could be the victim of his own hype. After hitting 47 home runs in his sophomore season, he had started calling himself Mr. B&B—as in bread and butter, the guy who delivered the big hits—then endured a three-year slump for a player of his potential, averaging fewer than 30 home runs and less than 75 RBIs a year. He batted .261 over those seasons.Before the Series began, Reggie had announced to his teammates with characteristic swagger, “I’ll take care of you.”1 But his bat had not been as large as his mouth. In the first five games, he had only five hits in 21 at bats, a .238 average. Worse, Mr. B&B had driven in only two runs and stranded 17 teammates on base. In Game Five, he had come to bat three times with men on and failed to bring any home, failed even to hit the ball out of the infield. Reggie faces Tom Seaver, the Mets ace, aware that he has failed to carry his teammates. If he doesn’t show them his big stick today, he will be chastised as just a big mouth.Minutes earlier, Reggie had stood at his locker, getting ready for the pre-game introductions. Teammate Gene Tenace walked over, placed his hand on Reggie’s shoulder, and said, “I sure would like to play tomorrow.” Tenace walked away, but the message was clear: Back up your mouth. Win one for us.On the Mets bench, Willie watches to see what Reggie will do. Reggie raises his 37-ounce bat. Seaver throws his fastball. Reggie slices a drive into left center. He hustles into second with a double, and Joe Rudi scores from first to give the A’s an early lead.It’s what Willie would have done. Once upon a time.Reggie wanted to be Willie. Mays had been his boyhood hero. “I started thinking about playing ball when I found out who Willie Mays was,” he said.In 1966, as a minor leaguer with the A’s affiliate, the Modesto Reds, Reggie drove 100 miles to San Francisco with a teammate to watch Willie play. The twenty-year-old was mesmerized, following Mays’s every move—admiring his basket catches, his big swings, even his casual trot toward the dugout. “I got to see Willie Mays play in person for the first time,” he writes in Reggie: The Autobiography. “Willie Mays. In the flesh.”His teammates, having listened to Reggie’s adulation of Willie, called him Buck, Willie’s nickname.4 Reggie didn’t mind. In a rare fit of humility, Reggie had once admitted that he would settle for being “one half the player Willie Mays is,”5 but he was on his way to becoming close to Willie’s peer. Jackson had a powerful arm, fast legs (he ran a 9.6 hundred-yard dash) and hit with power—in 1973, he hit a home run every 17 at bats, best in the majors. He was big and strong. At six feet and 205 pounds, he had an inch and 25 pounds on his idol. His biceps measured 17 inches around. He also possessed thunderous, 27-inch thighs that powered his big swing. Reggie didn’t win batting titles—he would never hit better than .300 in a season—but when he made contact with the ball, he usually clobbered it. At forty-two, Willie knew how good he had been; Reggie, at twenty-seven, was just sensing his possibilities.The two were marked by their different eras. Willie was born at the start of the Depression; Reggie was the first of the baby boomers. Willie was a rookie in 1951, shortly after Jackie Robinson had hurdled baseball’s color barrier but when Jim Crow laws still ruled. A black man from the deep South, Mays came to the majors via the Negro League. Reggie, an African American with Puerto Rican roots, grew up in a Jewish suburb of Philadelphia and played college ball before breaking into the big leagues in 1967, amidst the turmoil of the Vietnam war and America’s cultural revolution. Willie remained old school; Reggie epitomized the Seventies’ Me Generation.