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Baseball has changed little; ask JFK, Musial, Mantle and Spahn

Baseball, our national pastime, returns with a night game this Sunday before getting into full swing as April begins the following day. It’s been a long five months since the chilly conclusion of the 2012 World Series in Detroit.

The sport is a mirror of spring itself. We know it will come back each year without fail. We just don’t know the details yet. And this unpredictability calls us to look back, comparing season after season, looking for keys to the details.

Fifty years ago this year, the season began on the afternoon of April 8 in Washington, D.C., as President John F. Kennedy threw out the ceremonial first pitch. He would never again attend another baseball game.

The host Senators were defeated by the Baltimore Orioles, 3-1, yet it was like almost any other game played that year. Except that each game is totally different.

For example, Detroit Tiger Billy Bruton tied a major league record for most doubles in a single game after hitting four in a row in a 5-1 win over Washington on May 19. Later that year, Cleveland pitcher Early Wynn won his 300th (and final) game.

On April 13, rookie Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds recorded his first major league hit. During his career, it would be followed by an additional 4,255 - more than any other player ever to play the game. Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals retired at the end of the 1963 season. The youthful Rose was in the Cincinnati lineup that legendary afternoon.

On May 22, Mickey Mantle hit one of the longest home runs on record. Batting left-handed against Kansas City at Yankee Stadium, Mantle crushed a pitch that traveled 374 feet from home plate, bouncing off of the third-tier facade and falling just inches short of going out of the stadium. A college physicist calculated the estimated distance the ball would have traveled at 620 feet.

I turned 8 that February, and my mother was busy filling in the pages of a blank scrapbook for me. Its contents reveal that Joe Pepitone would be taking over at first base for the Yankees following the trade of Moose Skowron.

Don Drysdale pitched a complete game for the Los Angeles Dodgers in a 12-1 preseason win over Kansas City. Rocky Colavito of the Tigers hit a three-run homer in the first inning of an exhibition contest against the Yankees. The game was better remembered by Yankee fans for the fact that Mantle was able to return to the lineup after having been sidelined with an injury three days earlier.

That year, legendary hitter Rogers Hornsby died. David Cone and David Wells – two Yankee pitchers who would toss perfect games in 1999 and 1998 respectively – were born. So was Mark McGwire. Milwaukee Braves pitcher Warren Spahn tied Christy Mathewson’s National League record by posting a 20-win season for the 13th time in his career.

He became the oldest to do so at age 42.

Each of these games was the same, yet different. No one watching or listening knows what might happen during the two-hour or so escape from reality. But we know each team must record at least 27 outs. We know when the breaks in the action will occur. We know the significance of a full count and a double play. We know there is a scoring play called “defensive indifference.”

If we didn’t enjoy the game’s simple drama, no one would have recorded the aforementioned feats from a half-century ago. No one would have remembered them. No one from my generation would have smiled when they read their names.

For all its imperfections and injustices, baseball remains a comfortable distraction that can make you feel 8 years old again.

Future all-stars whose names no one knows will be born this year, and others

will make their major league debut. Hurry up, baseball. The scrapbooks are waiting.

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