On Cars, Baseball and the Halcyon Days of Summer

The automotive world was introduced to economies of scale in 1954 as Nash and Hudson (yes, those were makes of cars exactly 52 years ago) merged to form American Motors. Both Nash and Hudson models are history now. Heck, American Motors has taken a hike since then too.

Two other auto manufacturers-Studebaker and Packard-also merged their production in response to economies of scale. They are both gone now as well.

As these four auto manufacturers were headed toward oblivion, another entrepreneur was just getting started. Ray Kroc founded McDonald’s in 1954 and went on to create the fast food restaurant industry as we know it today.

The first nonstick pan was produced in 1954, leading to Teflon (a trademark for polytetrafluoroethylene), and Reagan (who would become the Teflon President) was not even President. It was another guy named Ike (Dwight David Eisenhower), who in 1944 was made Supreme Allied Commander for the invasion of Europe during World War II.

While Ike was busy making war plans, I was born in Flint (MI), then headquarters of General Motors and its vast manufacturing facilities.

The New York Yankees, who had won five consecutive World Series from 1949 through 1953, were watching the World Series from the sidelines in 1954, as the National League Champion New York Giants (the other team from the city so nice they named it twice) swept the American League Champion Cleveland Indians in 4 games.

Leo Durocher, the Manager of the Giants, could not say “Nice guys finish last” that year.

Interestingly enough, Cleveland’s Bob Lemon lost games 1 and 4 of the Series and Early Wynn lost game 2. Both Lemon and Wynn are in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Cleveland’s Bobby Avila also won the American League batting title in 1954 with a .341 average (now that is what you call a trivia question), and Larry Doby (who broke the color barrier in the American League) won the home run title with 32 dingers.

For the Cleveland Indians, it became what some would call a bad year. Imagine getting to the promised land and coming up short with two eventual Hall of Fame pitchers, a batting champion and an eventual Hall of Fame home run champion.

I remember the 1954 Series as the one at the Polo Grounds when Willie Mays made “The Catch,” a dramatic over-the-shoulder catch off a line drive by Vic Wertz to deep center field which could otherwise have given the Cleveland Indians a game one victory (remember, the Giants swept the Series that year, winning four straight games).

A lot more happened in 1954, but here you get the tidbits I learned later in life, much later. I celebrated my 62nd birthday June 27.

In 1954 I was 10 years old and just about my whole world was baseball. We played during the school year but there was never enough time. Summer was a dream come true, no school and lots of hot, sunny days. After rolling out of bed, eating the requisite breakfast and meeting my buddy Tommy, we walked two blocks to St. Michael’s, the private school in our lower middle class neighborhood.

We could not afford to go there, but we wore out the brick wall on the side of the school all summer.

The Catholics who built St. Mike’s meant for it to stand for a long time. At that point in time, Christianity had been around for 19.5 centuries, and they built it like they meant for it to be there for another 19.5 centuries.

No one ever ran us off the property. We were very lucky, too small or too insignificant to be noticed. Maybe they thought we were their students.

Back then Tommy and I played several games a day. We were there by 10 and did not quit until after 3. Man, it was hot most days. Having a game with only two players was simple. The home team pitcher took the mound, an appropriate distance away, and fired in a rubber ball. The batter stood about 5 feet from the brick wall, and if he did not swing at the pitch or swung and missed, the ball bounced off the wall and back out to the pitcher.

You learned pretty fast how to throw strikes, because if you did not, you were running all over the blacktop lot to retrieve the ball after each pitch.

When you connected, the distance of the ball in the air determined what kind of hit you had, hit it to the chain link fence on the fly and it was “Good-bye Baseball, Hello Home Run.” The rubber ball you hit never went as far as you thought it would. You had 3 swings for each out, and 3 outs to an inning. Balls were ignored to not cause disputes.

The sun would get hotter as the day wore on. Even at age 10, we thought we invented sweat because it was so prevalent in the blistering sun. No one ever called us to come home, both our parents worked when it was not the thing to do. I think it was called survival on the wrong side of the tracks.

We never thought about lunch. We were a couple of 10 year olds, dreaming about the 9th inning with the scored tied, 2 outs and a 3-2 count on the batter. Always we thought of Mickey on that fateful pitch.

Mickey Mantle of the Yankees did not win the American League home title in 1954, but even at 10 we knew he was a legend was in the making. Mantle did win the home run title the following year (1955) and added 3 more titles in 1956, 1958 and 1960.

In 1961, Roger Maris of the Yankees would break Babe’s record with 61 humdingers. We were so excited on that day we could not pee straight.

After hours of play we headed to the local drugstore. Both Tommy and I worked or we would not have had money. I had a TV Guide route with about 200 customers. Youngsters today would have no idea that TV Guide, long before it relied on grocery stores and direct mail for sales, had routes just like paper routes. We delivered once a week and collected monthly.

We lived for two things at that drugstore, baseball cards and cherry Cokes. I purposely down-cased the “c” in cherry because back then you could not buy Cherry Coke off the shelf at your local supermarket like you can today.

You got Coke and the fountain person would squirt in cherry concentrate and stir it up, pour in ice and bam, once that hit your throat after 5 hours in the hot sun, it was like visiting another world.

We would sock down 4 or 5 of them while buying baseball cards, and with each pack of cards we opened, the bubble gum would go into our mouth, every last slice of it. We were looking for that elusive Mickey Mantle card, and when we got more than one, we had an awesome bargaining chip for trades.

Always, we tried to build up enough chewing gum so we could push it out in our cheek, like Nellie Fox, the sure-handed second baseman for the Chicago White Sox with the biggest chaw of tobacco in his cheek you ever saw.

Fox was another Hall of Famer, and probably would have been even without the chaw of tobacco. He was a 12-time American League All-Star who never struck out more than 18 times a season in 15 full seasons, and was the American League Most Valuable Player in 1959.

We loved Nellie because he was a little guy like us that made it big. Fox had 200+ hits in 1954 and a .319 batting average (his best year in the majors). Man, we thought Nellie was something.

We then walked home, exhausted, happy, poor kids who never knew any better. It would be a number of years before we got our first car, and cruised the A&W Root Beer stand on Friday nights after the high school football game. But without any cars or car repair bills, 1954 was a great summer.