Living Legends

July 29, 2001

The beauty of baseball is the absence of a clock. Time doesn't
stop for ballplayers, but it does cease to matter. ("What time is
it?" someone asked Yogi Berra, and he replied, "You mean now?")
When they leave the game and the unblinking gaze of the public,
the legends of baseball become Dorian Grays in reverse: They
remain pictures of perpetual youth in the attics of our minds,
but they go right on living. (Stan Musial, for instance, is the
great-grandfather of eight.) Photographer Walter Iooss Jr. set
out this spring to take portraits of some of baseball's oldest
living stars. The result is less a collection than a
constellation, one that has somehow brightened with the passing
years.

Willie Mays, 70

His hat was forever flying off behind him, like the lines
denoting speed that trail a cartoon character. Except that Mays
was--is--real. Somehow it doesn't seem right, his walking around
among the rest of us. He belongs with the other cartoon icons of
Americana: Lindbergh, DiMaggio, men who scale great heights and
then pull up the rope ladder, unreachable. Still, here he is, the
kid who debuted in 1951 with a 1-for-26 streak and finished the
season as Rookie of the Year, watching from the on-deck circle as
Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard 'Round the World. The rest of
Mays's career, too, would unspool on newsreel: After two years in
the Army he returned in '54 to make The Catch off Vic Wertz in
Game 1 of the World Series--yes, his hat flew off--and then went
home to Harlem to play stickball with the neighbors' kids. When
the Gold Glove was invented, in '57, Mays won 12 in a row. Over
his career he also hit 660 home runs, batted .302 and stole 338
bases while playing home games in the cavern of the Polo Grounds
or the meat freezer of Candlestick. Imagine (as Mays might be
doing here) the numbers he would have rung up in compact and
placid Pac Bell Park.

Yogi Berra, 76, and Whitey Ford, 75

Forget, for a moment, the Yogi-isms, and consider Yogi himself.
Berra, you may not know, was in a Navy support boat that capsized
off Omaha Beach in Normandy just days after D Day. He also served
in North Africa and Italy and returned from the war to play in 14
World Series in 18 years. Spanning the eras of Joe DiMaggio and
Mickey Mantle, Berra led the New York Yankees in RBIs for seven
straight seasons and won more World Series rings (10) than any
other ballplayer. His teammate Whitey Ford was likewise an
outsized champion--his .690 career winning percentage was the best
of the 20th century. The native New Yorker's greatest thrill,
however, was his '74 induction into the Hall of Fame with his
drinking buddy Mantle. Yogi and Whitey--and Mickey: The names
remain forever boyish. But where does the time go? As a wise man
said, "It gets late early out here."

Ernie Banks, 70

When Chicago took delivery in 1967 of the Picasso sculpture that
still stands in front of the city's civic center, alderman John
Hoellen (among others) denounced the abstract, five-story rust
hulk as "Picasso's fiasco." Hoellen proposed that it be replaced
with a five-story statue of Banks, whom he aptly described as "a
living symbol of a vibrant city." Banks, like Wrigley's
centerfield scoreboard, which is six years his junior, still
serves as an emblem of all that's right with his city and his
sport. In 19 seasons of epic futility, including the Cubs'
collapsed souffle of '69, the shortstop-first baseman was the
only source of light required at the Friendly Confines. He can
still be found there, as resplendent as the outfield ivy. On that
day--decades from now--when Mr. Cub meets his maker, we all know
precisely what Banks will say: "Let's play two."

Warren Spahn, 80

Back in uniform, back in a ballpark, Spahn calls to mind two
lines by poet Joseph Campbell: "As a white candle in a holy
place/So is the beauty of an aged face." A cigarette is plugged
between his first two fingers like a forkball, which he could
probably still throw, given that Spahn didn't hit his stride
until age 39, when he threw his first no-hitter. His pitching
secret was an epiphany: Returning from three years lost to World
War II he realized, "Wow, what a great way to make a living: If I
goof up, a relief pitcher is going to come in--and nobody's going
to shoot me." So Spahn pitched for 21 seasons, winning more games
than any other southpaw in history. Above that famous left hand
resides a wristwatch. Spahn, however, has seldom paid time any
mind, heeding the wisdom of another famous pitcher. "How old
would you be," asked Satchel Paige, "if you didn't know how old
you was?"

Hank Aaron, 67

Before his 40th birthday Aaron was the recipient of more mail
than any other American outside politics. Born in the Deep South
during the Depression, he has lived an improbable life of firsts.
He is, to be sure, first in the baseball record books,
alphabetically and athletically. Aaron (and a handful of other
players) also integrated the South Atlantic League in 1953, a
year after his professional baseball debut with the Indianapolis
Clowns of the Negro American League. Upon first laying eyes on
Aaron, Clowns manager Buster Haywood exclaimed, "God done sent me
something." Not for long: Aaron was promoted to the Milwaukee
Braves and won the Rookie of the Year award in '54, the National
League batting title in '56 and the MVP award in '57, when the
Braves won the World Series. But his legacy is much greater than
his ludicrous numbers (including those that make him the alltime
leader in RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases). By the time he
surpassed Babe Ruth as the game's alltime home run king, in 1974,
Aaron was receiving 3,000 pieces of mail a day--900,000 letters
that year--and much of it was hate-filled. Aaron endured it all
with a quiet dignity that he exudes to this day. Whether we knew
it or not, God done sent us something.

Frank Robinson, 65

In 10 seasons in Cincinnati he produced 20 seasons' worth of
statistics, winning Rookie of the Year ('56) and National League
MVP ('61) honors and playing in a World Series. Which may be why,
upon trading him after the '65 season to the Baltimore Orioles,
Reds general manager Bill DeWitt said, "He's 30--an old 30." The
next season Robinson would merely bat .316 and hit 49 home runs,
plus two more in the World Series, which the Orioles would win.
With 122 RBIs, he would also win the Triple Crown and the
American League MVP award that year, becoming the only man to be
accorded the latter honor in both leagues. Only Hank Aaron, Babe
Ruth and Willie Mays have more home runs than the 586 that
Robinson hit in his 21 seasons. In 1975 in Cleveland, while still
an active player, Robinson became baseball's first black manager.
In his first at bat of the season he hit a home run. He managed
three clubs for a total of 11 seasons--he was named American
League Manager of the Year in 1989--and is now baseball's vice
president of on-field operations. Robinson, as you can see, is a
young 65.

Stan Musial, 80

In this all-inclusive and inflationary age, when "everyone's a
winner" and anyone can be the Man--"You da Man!" "No, you da
Man!"--one Man stands astride the U.S. sporting map: a
lefthanded-hitting hero who led the St. Louis Cardinals to two
World Series wins before literally shipping off, in the Navy, to
WWII. This Man, upon returning to American soil, did not wait for
bus or train to take him home but simply--and
immediately--hitchhiked to Donora, Pa. Slayer of Dodgers (whose
admiring fans gave him his nickname), player of the mouth harp
(he can still blow a beautiful Take Me Out to the Ball Game),
holder of Poland's highest civilian honor (the Cavalier Cross
Order of Merit) and a hell of a nice guy--he's the Man, now and
forever. As commissioner Ford Frick said of Musial, "Here stands
baseball's perfect knight."

Bob Feller, 82

His life is a tall tale. As a 17-year-old farm boy in 1936 Feller
pitched three innings of an exhibition game against the St. Louis
Browns and struck out eight of the nine batters he faced. He
debuted with the Cleveland Indians two weeks later and, in his
first big league start, struck out 15 batters. (In another game
that season he struck out 17, setting an American League record.)
Rapid Robert, who threw three no-hitters and 12 one-hitters and,
when he retired, was third on baseball's alltime strikeout list,
might have led the game in every meaningful pitching category had
he not devoted four years of his prime to serving his country. On
Dec. 8, 1941, Feller enlisted in the Navy, despite the draft
deferment to which he was entitled as the sole means of support
for his family. (His father was dying of brain cancer on the
family farm in Van Meter, Iowa.) He won eight battle stars as an
antiaircraft gunner in the South Pacific and North Atlantic
aboard the U.S.S. Alabama. Today, the Alabama is in Alabama as a
memorial, there is a Bob Feller museum in Van Meter, and a
life-sized bronze statue of him stands outside Jacobs Field in
Cleveland. "It's very nice to be honored and immortalized,"
Feller likes to say, "while you're still above the grass."

EIGHT B/W PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)