It was, as Yogi Berra once artfully observed, Deja vu all over again. Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, the two most revered living former ballplayers '97 or at least two out of three if one counts Yogi himself '97 replayed their memories of baseball'92s Golden Age, the 1950s and 1960s, for Bob Costas on a special edition of HBO'92s Costas Now. (The program premieres on Tuesday, Sept. 30 and will air several times throughout October.)
The interview was an extension of the July 16 edition of Costas'92s show and came about as a lucky afterthought. Recorded with a live audience, the show, an overview of baseball in the past half-century, featured conversation with, among others, Jim Palmer, Dave Winfield, Pete Rose (via satellite), Bob Gibson and, finally, Birmingham'92s Willie Mays and Mobile'92s Hank Aaron. Mays, whose reputation in recent years has leaned towards the reticent, was surprisingly voluble, supported by the quiet humor of Aaron.
Around 11 p.m., at the end of the show'92s scheduled airtime, the two legends'92 enthusiasm showed no signs of abating. Costas surprised the audience by stopping the proceedings and asking everyone if they '93minded'94 staying a while longer while Aaron and Mays talked for another 30 minutes (which turned out to be closer to an hour). The audience, which included myself and my 17-year-old daughter, had been clinging to every response. We voted with our voices.
The result is a show for the ages. If you have a library of baseball recordings, you'92ll want to add this one. Some might accuse Costas of hyperbole when he told Aaron and Mays, '93You guys are monuments. Your faces should be on Mount Rushmore.'94 Costas'92s critics would be right '96 if Costas hadn'92t been right.
Not all baseball fans, of course, are ready to concede that the '9150s and '9160s were baseball'92s Golden Age '96 it was the previous half century which gave baseball Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Ted Williams (for most of his career) and many other players in baseball'92s Valhalla. It was a time when baseball stood unchallenged as America'92s national sport.
But Costas'92s case is compelling: '93It was the time when major league baseball became truly integrated, not just by black but Latin players, and there were more kids going out for baseball. The quality of competition and therefore of play was probably at an all-time peak. And the great stars from that 20-year period '96 I mean, of course, Aaron and Mays, but also Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Warren Spahn, Frank Robinson, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax and another dozen or so I could just as easily name '96 could supply an All-Star team that, in my opinion, could beat one from any other era.'94
A '93Golden Age,'94 though, doesn'92t have to be viewed through a golden haze. Both Aaron and Mays make clear in the interview that the scars of racial prejudice in the years following Jackie Robinson'92s rookie season have never healed. Mays explains, '93They told us [after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers] that black and white players would all be playing alongside each other. That wasn'92t true. When I was in the minor leagues, there was still the Birmingham Barons and the Birmingham Black Barons, Just about every city still had two teams.'94
Aaron had vivid recollections of cities that wouldn'92t allow black and white Milwaukee Braves to stay in the hotel as late as the end of the 1950s. '93I stayed at the Chase Hotel for five years, and for five years, every time I went into my room and looked out the window, there was a brick wall right there. I never got a room looking out at the street or on the pool.
'93Jackie Robinson,'94 he noted, '93refused to stay at the Chase Hotel.'94
Life on the road for a black minor leaguer back then was often hellish, though humor has helped temper the memory of it. In Baltimore, then a minor league town, Mays recalled racial slurs so vicious that they were almost impossible to ignore. Fortunately, he got some help from the public address announcer. '93'92I know you don'92t like that kid out in centerfield,'94 the crowd was told, '93but please lay off him. He'92s killin'92 us.'94
Nor was the era as wholesome as misty-eyed nostalgists would like us to believe. '93 A lot of players took drugs,'94 Aaron says, '93mostly alcohol. I think there were a lot more players drinking heavily back then than now.'94'a0 But alcohol, Costas reminded, is not a performance-enhancing drug. '91No,'94 Aaron agreed, '93it'92s not.'94
In one of the more eye-opening segments, Mays admitted, '93I might have taken somethin'92 that in a vitamin mixture that, by today'92s standards'92 was questionable. I had a gift of a body for 20 years '96 34-inch waist and 189 pounds '96 but I got to where I was draggin'92 toward the end of the game.'94 He went to a doctor and asked for a boost. He didn'92t know what was in it, and he didn'92t ask.
The Costas-Aaron-Mays interview is golden as memoir, though as history, it may be just a bit outside the strike zone. For one thing, the subject of Barry Bonds was brushed off the plate, out of consideration for Mays, who is Bonds'92s godfather. Aaron was characteristically gracious . '93I'92ve never seen a hitter,'94 he told Costas, '93who could turn a game around like him.'94 There was no mention of Aaron'92s expressed resentment of Bond'92s breaking his career record of 755 home runs, nor of Hank'92s refusal to attend games where Bonds was poised to set the new record.
Nor was the nearly two decades-long rivalry between Aaron and Mays, confirmed by'a0 numerous veteran sportswriters such as Leonard Koppett and Roger Kahn, really addressed. Was Aaron, as many reported, truly resentful of Mays'92s popularity with the New York press?'a0 Was Mays jealous that Aaron was the one who finally surpassed Babe Ruth'92s home run record?
The two old legends would have none of it. '93That'92s so far from the truth,'94 Aaron offered. '93It was competition, not jealousy. We both measured our performance against the other.'94
'93I lived in New York and then in San Francisco,'94 Mays reminded. '93'91Hank lives in Milwaukee and Atlanta. We saw each other when we played, and we were friends. I would borrow his bats. If I wasn'92t hitting, I'92d say, '91Give me one of your bats. Maybe you'92ve got something here.'92'94
If that'92s the way Hank and Willie want to remember, then I want to remember it that way, too. Like the man says in John Ford'92s classic, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the fact becomes legend, print the legend.