You can look closer and take it off the rack—go ahead, you can try it on—and when you do, you’ll find that 1972 fits a bit tighter than today, not as loose, though day to day you get used to it; after all it’s still just waking up and earning a living, which is a lot like all the other years of your life. A good time to be a white man. Women at home, minorities in back, homosexuals in the closet.
“If you’ve done extensive research in old newspapers,” Robert Creamer once wrote in a letter to me, “looking for factual sports data, say, but glancing at the front page, you soon come to recognize that an awful lot of what appears to be news in newspapers is usually the same old bullshit.”
From far away 1972 beckons as a huge year: terrorists ruin the Munich Olympics, Nixon mucks up a Presidential campaign… These leap out as news stories of a different kind, off-script insertions that irreparably erode American values (our president’s a petty criminal? really?) and hint at where we are headed (the world doesn’t love us?). They keep showing us pictures
Nixon in China
Nixon visiting Moscow
But what we are seeing, as if for the first time, are less welcome things.
The Vietnam war is on, a doomed enterprise that will backlash into a fashion for Marxism in the region. The urban centers of America that have sustained major property damage in the late sixties are empty shells in the final throes of white flight, and long-discussed plans to revive the nation’s city centers will come to nothing. A few realize how bad this looks. McGovern tries to have these conversations when he runs for President. He loses badly. Nobody is ready yet. In 1972 we still trust our government. We trust our president though he is Nixon but sad, nervous Nixon does not trust himself enough to win re-election without breaking the law. There is a rumor that documents connecting Nixon to illicit activities with Howard Hughes are in the safe of McGovern’s main advisor, Larry O’Brien. The White House sends thieves to retrieve the documents. The thieves are caught. “I let down our system of government and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but will think it is all too corrupt and the rest,” Nixon tells David Frost afterward. Trust in our institutions never fully returns.
1972 breaks the heart of Ted Williams. The game’s greatest hitter quits at season’s end, disillusioned, after managing the Washington Senators for four years. Williams resigns while his career winning percentage (.429) still outranks his lifetime batting average (.344). “Some of these guys are making the same mistakes they made in high school,” observes Williams. The major leagues, Ted seems to be saying, just can’t compete anymore. It’s not like it used to be, no no no, not by a longshot, not by 1972. Not with twenty-four(!) major-league teams sorted into East/West divisions, not with doubleknit polyester uniforms instead of wool, not with players wearing beards and batting helmets, not with ballparks like the Oakland Coliseum.
Attendance is down all over except Detroit, which leads the American League, drawing on average 25,753 fans per game, up nearly 25% from the previous year (when they’d also led the league). Their 1972 regular season attendance total of 1,900,000 is among the highest in Tigers’ history. Their television and radio revenue is more than any other team except the Dodgers and Yankees. All agree: Detroit is a great baseball town.
Beware fake nostalgia.
“It is important to note,” Charles LeDuff writes in Detroit: An American Autopsy, “that, growing up in Detroit and its suburbs, I can honestly say it was never that good in the first place.”
Sure, in 1972, gasoline costs just 52 cents a gallon… but unleaded gasoline (like lead-free paint) isn’t yet available. Asbestos is still being used in construction, thousands of future superfund sites lie festering in toxic anonymity, and a pack of cigarettes (32 cents) arrives with a rather mild warning from the surgeon general. Hit songs of the time come courtesy of corrupt radio people who play certain vinyl discs on their turntables in exchange for favors. There is little variation. America in 1972 sounds insufferably of “My Ding-a-Ling” by Chuck Berry and “Candy Man” by Sammy Davis Jr. It sounds like a moog synthesizer playing “Popcorn.” TV shows from then are interminable, as if we were a slow stupid people, new to our own native tongue.
What seems obvious is that the spotlight of History is held by a hamster who picks out things at random. What we notice at the time and collectively remember later are rarely in sync. Why this not that? It takes five exciting games to decide both the National and American League playoffs, and it takes seven dramatic games to decide the World Series, but baseball is not what we remember about 1972, except perhaps
the iconic image of Oakland’s Joe Rudi outstretched to catch a ninth inning fly ball at the wall (which occurred in the second game of the World Series). When we remember sporting achievements of 1972, we remember Mark Spitz, Olga Korbut, Bobby Fischer. The popular imagination was lit by the freestyle and the butterfly, the uneven bars and balance beam, and, weirdest of all, chess.
Meanwhile, baseball goes on. It’s the same old ballgame as always, but very soon (as always) it will change. Games in the championship series are still played in daytime. American League pitchers still come to bat. Some players still bat without wearing a helmet. The players still belong to the owners. They still earn too much, according to the public and press.
It is no great year for the Yankees. That’s often how 1972 is remembered. There is a dramatic and suspenseful post-season, sure, but since not of it unfolds in the Bronx it doesn’t matter. It is marvelous for the game when small market teams win pennants but bad for the overall popularity of the sport. The Yankees are the only guarantor of a national viewing audience, the only certainty that people will remember, the only chance that History’s spotlight might sweep past. Ten of millions watched baseball’s post-season televised in 1972 but, despite all those watching eyes, few but fans of the teams involved—Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Oakland, and Detroit—remember anymore.