Sports-Obsessed in the 1970s

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The author in 1978.

I possess a “feature” lurking either in my DNA or in my nurtured makeup that has both allowed me to be quite accomplishment- and achievement-oriented (great for getting stuff done while working for “the man”), and a total weirdo obsessive about even my most navel-gazing of personal hobbies. It’s the proverbial two sides of the same coin, and this manic, Type A foolishness has been a lifelong constant, annoying me and my loved ones since childhood.

Even today it’s quite difficult for me to just be a little bit into something. If I’m “getting into” a genre of music, I need to ensure I’m a self-anointed subject-matter expert on every major and minor player who created music in that genre – and that I own virtually all of their cornerstone recordings – within a matter of weeks. If I decide I’m into old 1960s motel signs, I have to collect hundreds of postcards and photo books of them that I buy and stack up around the house (note – this is not really an “if”). For me, there’s generally very little worth doing halfway, unless it’s boring and expensive home maintenance, or something else that offers neither material nor psychic reward.

So it was in late 1970s Sacramento and San Jose, California, where my professional sports obsession was birthed and very rapidly harvested. It started with my dad’s transistor radio and a 1976 San Francisco Giants baseball game on in the backyard of our Sacramento home. I’m not even 9 years old. He’s clearly excited about something. What happened, Dad? Jack Clark just hit a home run. Who’s Jack Clark?, etc. The fabled father-son bond and baseball knowledge transfer was thus kicked off, as was my lifelong baseball obsession.

Two summers later, I’m in the car on a long drive with my grandparents to visit my uncle and his family in British Columbia. Spread out across the backseat where I’m sitting are my well-organized and voluminous baseball cards, the statistics from which I’ve completely memorized to the point where my parents would sometimes trot me out in front of guests for a parlor trick and ask me to reveal, for instance, the number of runs batted in George Foster or Bake McBride or Roger Metzger accumulated last year. I’d dutifully respond with each player’s 1977 batting average / HR / RBI totals to the exact number; gasps would ensure, and I’d trot back to my room extremely pleased with myself.

all-pro baseball starsRight there on the same backseat is my “All-Pro Baseball Stars 1977” book, bought for me by my parents as part of my monthly scholastic book order, and my grandfather has just politely asked me to please take a thirty-minute break between reading him each team’s summary. I’d just spent most of the day’s six-hour drive regaling him and my grandmother with the book’s full prognosis for the 1978 Montreal Expos, the ‘78 San Diego Padres and so forth. I’m hoping that if I’m really good, they’ll take me on the way up to see the brand-new Seattle Mariners’ – whose name I pronounce Mareeners – stadium (they pointed out The Kingdome from the freeway, which was enough for me). I look at my watch, and it appears I’ll be allowed to read the 1978 Pittsburgh Pirates preview at exactly 3:32pm.

Here’s how any given ten-year-old American sports nutball educated himself with the intricacies of baseball at the time. First, there were baseball cards. I bought them by the bushel at my local 7-11 and Quik Stop. Josh Wilker wrote a phenomenally nostalgic and often sad memory-hole book about 1970s baseball card collecting called Cardboard Gods – I highly recommend it. There was near-daily San Francisco Giants baseball on the radio on KSFO with Lon Simmons and Joe Angel (later Lindsay Nelson and Hank Greenwald), and I listened to every game I could.

While I wasn’t an Oakland A’s fan – my dad ensured that I inherited his love of the Giants and the National League, as well as his lifelong hatred of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers – it didn’t matter much that particular year of 1978, because A’s games all spring were broadcast by UC-Berkeley college radio station KALX, whose laughable 10-watt signal didn’t even reach the next-door city of Oakland, let alone our new home in San Jose. The A’s moved to radio station KNEW later in the season, and I couldn’t get their signal in San Jose either.

There was the weekly syndicated highlights show This Week in Baseball; the Saturday morning NBC Game of the Week (which I never missed, including the game in which Dave Kingman bombed three homers); dog-eared copies of Baseball Digest, which I read at the library; and a plethora of borrowed baseball books checked out on mom’s library card – including great kids’ titles like Bud Harrelson: Super Shortstop and not-for-kids classics with sexual situations and curse words, such as Ball Four and The Bronx Zoo.

I really loved everything about baseball, but I especially loved how wonderfully the action on the radio and TV broke down onto paper, and allowed for much more engaged statistical contemplation. I dug deep into box scores and lists of batting averages. I’d mesmerize myself by comparing stolen bases across teams and lineups. I’d sometimes even score games I was listening to at home on homemade scorecards, tallying up my 6-3s, 5-3s, Ks and HRs at the end of each three-hour session. (This is now referred to as a “lost art”).

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I won a KSFO San Francisco Giants “superfan” contest in 1978. As you might imagine, it was the pinnacle moment of my life to that date. Take note of my hero, Jack Clark, on deck for the Giants — as well as the sparse crowd and the outstanding uniforms on the Houston Astros.

Mostly, though, my obsession was focused in and around all things San Francisco Giants. They’d been a bit of of a laughingstock in 1976 and 1977, as my fandom was solidifying. Veteran Willie McCovey and aforementioned power-hitting outfielder (and world-class postgame interview doofus) Jack Clark were my gods. My paternal grandfather – not the maternal one made to suffer on the trip to Canada – took me to my very first Giants game(s) in August 1977, a doubleheader against the “Big Red Machine” world champion Cincinnati Reds.

I remember the blessed event like it was yesterday – coming up the stairs of Candlestick Park and gasping as I caught sight of the field and scoreboard, as well as the monstrous grand slam that future hall of famer Joe Morgan hit to bury us in the second game. (Morgan would later become a Giant, and I would be fortunate to attend at age 14 the legendary 1982 season-ending game in which his home run eliminated the hated Dodgers from the playoff race, the day after they’d eliminated us).

The 1978 Giants, though, were actually good! In fact they spent most of that summer in first place, only to swoon to third at season’s end, and to return to their normal level of awfulness the following year. Yet what an amazing year that was across the board. I got to see Tom Seaver (again of the Reds) throw a 3-hitter against us with nearly 55,000 other fans in the freezing San Francisco fog/cold in a game that, though none of us knew it at the time, had been an early part of Pete Rose’s record 44-game hitting streak. I saw McCovey pinch hit a game-winning home run; I saw my hero Jack Clark up close and personal; I watched the exceptional Giants starting pitchers John “The Count” Montefusco, Vida Blue and Bon Knepper blow through opposing lineups; and I coerced my grandfather to buy me concession stand snacks every two innings, from polish sausages to malt cups to “big cookies”.

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 11.56.55 AMI also got really into APBA baseball, which was sort of the pre-fantasy baseball board game for obsessive dorks like myself. One could hide out in one’s room and recreate, with dice, a spinner and stat cards, an entire mock season of baseball with a team made up of actual players – and oh, I did. I did also play actual little league baseball with real living human beings every year until I was about 14, yet the futility of most late 70s Bay Area sports teams was generally mirrored by my own as a baseball player, perhaps as sort of a unknowing and unspoken tribute to my floundering heroes.

Baseball obsession eventually begat an NBA basketball obsession, which begat an NFL football obsession. My local Golden State Warriors and San Francisco 49ers were as abysmal in 1979 as the Giants and A’s were. The Giants went 71-91 that year; the A’s were an incredible 54-108; the 1979-80 Warriors went 24-58, and the 49ers notched a 2-14 record. These were truly the leanest years among many suffered by Bay Area sports diehards.

I even fell hard for NASL soccer for a while – and we had an actual professional team, the San Jose Earthquakes, right in our provincial little backyard. I’m sure I was probably insufferable on the schoolyard as a fount of would-be sports knowledge and statistical memorization, yet I mostly remember having friends that were just as strangely obsessed and willing to blather on about sports as I was.

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The Bay Area sports radio leader, then as now, was San Francisco’s KNBR, 680 on your AM radio dial. They hadn’t moved to a sports-only format just yet, as they did in the 1980s, yet they had started poaching the local pro sports teams’ broadcasts from other stations, starting with the Giants that magical year of 1978. They also had a great nightly sports call-in show hosted by Ken Dito called Sportsphone 68. I listened religiously as Ken and his callers talked all things pro sports and picked apart the futility of our local teams. One of the most popular pastimes on the show was for a caller to ring up and propose some potential trade to Ken. For instance, some rube would opine that the Giants should trade Jack Clark and a player to be named later to Boston for power-hitting Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice, and then Ken would pick it apart and tell them why it was wrong; or in rare cases, why it was actually a great idea.

After months of listening to callers pontificate, wheel and deal, I got it in my 11-year-old head that I needed to stop passively listening and start participating in the grand conversation. At Dito’s urging, I dialed up Sportsphone 68 one night from my parents’ bedroom, was placed in the queue by a KNBR operator, and waited for Ken to take my call, listening from the bedroom’s clock radio all the while.

I really had a doozy of a basketball trade for him: ship out the Golden State Warriors’ top scorer, Robert Parrish (later to be a superstar in Boston, alongside Larry Bird), to the San Diego Clippers for the NBA’s then-leading rebounder, a big lunky Dutchman named Swen Nater. Dito jumped on the phone far faster than I was ready for him – “Sportsphone 68, you’re on the air”. Out of the clock radio, four seconds later, I heard Ken’s exact words pour out: “Sportsphone 68, you’re on the air, we have Jay from San Jose and he has a trade for us”. I was totally baffled and discombobulated, as everything he and I would say came out of the radio a few seconds later, and in that moment, I couldn’t tell my ass from my elbow.

“Uh….Ken…..um….uh….I’ve got a trade for you…..uh….Robert Parrish….uh, hello?….uh….for Swen Nater.”. Ken’s immediate and precise words were seared into my brain for eternity: “Now son, why would you want to do THAT? Thanks for calling – and turn off your radio next time you call”. Happily for KNBR listeners, there would be no next time.

In no way was that very public misfire the end of my sports obsession, but as I headed into my teens and the 1980s, I found new ways to fill my mental space, mostly by discovering punk and post-punk music, and the related unrefined thrill of record collecting. It took me until my late 30s to regain some of that same strange accumulative behavior with regard to sports – at times going through my obsessive motions with NHL hockey, at times with English Premier League soccer, and always with major league and San Francisco Giants baseball.

Today I work it all around my other, more important life obligations, and am better able to let it ebb and flow in a somewhat managed and non-off-putting manner. I let the internet shuttle much of the information I need directly to me in the form of podcasts, video clips and email newsletters, and though I recognize that my attention span is shortening and my intelligence is likely plummeting, I do appreciate that I can now dip in & dip out of Fulham or Warriors or Sharks or Giants mania at will.

That said, I possess the same sort of perverse pride many modern adults feel about their pre-internet-era childhood obsessions. We had to work at it all so much harder than these kids do today. Perhaps that actually deepened my love for the game. I’m not sure if I could have psychically handled having every 1978 MLB game instantly streamable on TV or my phone; every baseball book instantly deliverable to a Kindle; every argument-settling stat able to be called up at will from Baseball Reference.

I certainly recognize the ultimate frivolity of all this leisure-time onanism, both then and now, yet then I call up with clarity my memorized .306 / 25 / 98 Jack Clark 1978 stat line, and remember that I still know one thing – something very, very special – that only Clark, Mrs. Clark, about ten thousand other 70s baseball dorks and I know.

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The 1978 Oak Grove Little League Jaguars of San Jose, California. I’m on the bottom row, third from the left.

One thought on “Sports-Obsessed in the 1970s

  1. such a great article Jay! Loved it – you really can tell a story and use such fun and playful words to convey it all – keep it up!

    Like

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