The recent Catfish Hunter spectacle is going to be one of those things that people 20 years from now will write about with wonder and disbelief.
Watching any TV newscast these days has all the surreal overtones of running a couple of thousand feet of Federico Fellini's out-takes on your own moviola. Senator Proxmire's face appears: stern, puritanical, unsmiling. He speaks briefly of introducing a bill to do away with chauffeured limousines for every Governmeat official except possibly the President and the Secretary of State. We are in perilous financial times, he barks, and the times call for strong measures. He disappears.
President Fords's face shows up: open, honest, dawn-to-earth. He tells the press corps that plans are being formulated for severe belt-tightening, that with concentrated effort our country can survive the economic crisis. However, we must all learn to live more or less permanently on a lower scale. The affluent days are over.
Harry Reasoner takes over and with a wan smile introduces a film showing a huge, sullen crowd milling about the Unemployment 0ffice In Kenosha, Wis. A large lady with two chins is interviewed by an offstage voice:
"I just don't know what we're gonna do. Clem's been out of work now for eight months. We got seven kids. We been livin' on hot dogs an' Rice Krispies." She disappears.
She is replaced by "an Arab spokesman," wearing black shades. In cultured tones and witb a vague smile, he assures us:
"The present oil prices will be maintained for at least 60 days. However, we must make substantial upward adjustments shortly thereafter, but these adjustments should be well understood in the West to be only normal price increases due to world inflation, of which we are the unfortunate victims. The West will learn to live with new conditions and we wish to maintain pleasant, amicable relations with all concerned."
He slithers offscreen. A few brief shots of plane crashes, and then the good news for the night. Big Al at the sports Desk shows us a film dominated by the large, lumpish, smiling face of a mustachoied post-teen-ager, weight 245, height 6 feet 7 inches. He says:
'Me and my manager got together with our agent,and we finally decided to sign with the Flaming Sabers. I ain't supposed to discuss the actual terms, but I can say that we signed for a little over 4 mil, plus s 30-year, $100,000 anuity, prepaid, for any kids I might have if I ever get married, plus 10 per cent of the stock in the Sabers, plus a Lear jet.
"Naturally, we got a clause that says if there's a new league opens up and they come along and offer me more, the Sabers ain't got no legal claim an me. Us athletes been exploited too long. We ain't got no rights. It's time them owners realized we ain't slaves.
"I look for the Sabers to have a good season. That is, it my knee heals and I got time enough to play, between them movies I been shooting. But the owner understands that and he says he ain't gonna put no pressure on me, that I can play when I want."
Big Al reappears with his editorial:
"Today's signing supports the belief at this desk that at long last the mistreatment and peonage of professional athletes is at an end. All Flaming Saber fans no doubt applaud today's signing. And now let's take a look at the scoreboard."
I was squatting there in front of my television set a few nights ago when that exact newscast unreeled before my eyes. Maybe it was the Tanqueray martini I was sipping or possibly it was bar-ometric coadltions because suddenly an Internal voice muttered clearly and dis-tinctly "Madness! All is madness!", I stead up, threw a couple more ice cubes in my glass and a finger more of gin and considered this sudden onslaught at insight.
How can a nation be in dire financial straits and yet treat its linebackers and pitchers as if they were a great, natural, irreplacable resource like gold or oil? A $600,000 contract for a .280 hitter. Good God! What would Ted Williams be worth today, or even Whitey Ford?
The curios thing is that none of these new guys has any discernible loyalty to the team he plays for. One guy with an enormous three-year contract simply quits before the end of his second season, announces his "retirement" and signs an even more stupendous contract with another crowd of suckers. All of this seems to be applauded by the various sports contmeniators but totally put down by the fans themselves. Let's face it, who ever heard of a sports commentator or a sports writer who was a fan?
True to George Orwell's prediction, the worst victim of it all is the language. Words have been subverted, values reversed. The word "professional" is used constantly when what is actually meant is "mercenary." There is a vast difference between the professional and the mercenary. They both work for pay, but there's an incredible difference. Joe Di-Maggio was a professional, Richie Allen is a mercenary.
There's one thing they'd better remember, though, about mercenaries. The Britsh at Trenton found it out with their Hessians. High pay does not necesserily mean good play especially when things are going bad, the ammunition is law and the shades of night are gathering.
I would love to be reborn in the year 2074 and sit with a group of sociologists while they run a tape of that newscast. I would try to tell them about Catfish, but I don't think they'd understand.
Jean Shepherd is a four-time Playboy Humor Award winner and a performer of note on television, radio and the New York stage. He is at work on a movie script of one of his novels.