WITH ALL the moaning, jeering and debate concerning Quarterback Tom Brady’s departure from the New England Patriots to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I have become nostalgic about how star professional athletes were once as closely associated with certain cities as were landmarks. I mean, well, Ted Williams once owned the same sense of place in the American mind as did Boston Common. Stan Musial had a spiritual stature akin to the Saint Louis Arch. And Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford were as New York as the Empire State Building.
To the locals of the team’s hometown there belonged a sense of familial ties, to rival regions lessons in distant geography, culture, and tradition.
I am a baby boomer, a member of that voluminous tribe born between 1946 and 1964. Those were the years before free agency in professional sports. Team owners essentially owned their players. Terms of contract and compensation were only slightly less dictatorial than, say, the U.S. military.
Players back then were not millionaires. Most had off-season jobs and there were certainly issues of fair labor practices for professional athletes.
But this medieval system of sports business possessed an upside for us fans. Most of the players from last year would be back this year. There might be some new faces, but there was not wholesale change. We seemed to actually know most of the guys for years at a time, for an era.
There were rookies of course, and there were occasional trades and retirements. And sometimes a veteran, who had been the face of the hometown team but is traded away for youthful hopes, would try to escape Father Time and eke out another year or two with another outfit. But Johnny Unitas had been Baltimore and Bobby Orr had been Boston, who even remembers their last seasons elsewhere? Those days of exile were usually elegiac for the old timers, reminding one of Gloria Swanson’s classic “Sunset Boulevard” portrayal of an aging actress unaware that her sun has indeed set.
A similar debate is on about Tom Brady, one of the few sports issues available to talk about with COVID-19 restrictions suspending most sport competitions.
In my boyhood there were the following fixed associations, which were as much a part of youthful routine life as trading cards, blacked-out TV broadcasts for the home team, pick-up games with no umpires and plenty of juvenile arguments:
Detroit = Al Kaline
Cleveland = Jim Brown
Chicago = Ernie Banks
Green Bay (somewhere out there) = Bart Star (and Vince Lombardi, of course)
Baltimore = Brooks Robinson
Boston = Bob Cousy and Bill Russell
Teams also were less prone to move to new municipalities, but that changed too. Alas.
But back to Brady. Actually, I am one who has not bought off that Tom Brady is actually the proverbial G.O.A.T. While I think he has owned the greatest situational awareness of any quarterback ever and that his arm is incredibly quick, powerful and accurate, Tom was never very mobile. He did not have to be. And I am not sure he and some others fully appreciated the amazing system of players assembled about him. Not just talented individuals, but a whole much greater than the sum of parts, year in and year out.
I actually feel a bit sorry for Number 12. Voluntarily decamping to Tampa, Tom will never own New England hearts and minds the way Ted Williams still does 60 years after his final home run in his final at-bat — at Fenway Park where he started out.
And speaking of things that last, that tendency also endures among adult sports fans, whose argumentation often remains quite juvenile. I speak from personal guilt.