1980sBaseballESPNJoe DiMaggioMLBMLB Hall of Fame

MLB – Special – 1st Annual Cracker Jack’s Old Timers Classic – With Red Barber & Jack Brickhouse


Between 1982 and 1990….an annual old timers game was played…..first in Washington, D.C. and then in Buffalo, New York….which an event that drew national attention from its very first inning….for it was known as the Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic….and it was the brainchild of former Atlanta Braves Vice President Dick Cecil, who said “I missed seeing the old guys, and I wanted to stage a real game, not a two-inning affair where everyone hit once….I wanted a game where the players would feel competitive once again.”

With that in mind he took the idea to Ketchum Communications….whose client, Borden, owned Cracker Jack…which was tThe snack that is part of the “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” lyrics….who had lost some of its baseball identity over the years….and its CEO, Frank Forrestal saw this as a great opportunity for his brand.  “Our presentation was 15 minutes long,” said Cecil. “They were aboard before we walked into the room. Most of the 15 minutes were spent talking about players to invite.” as I thought, “Is it always this easy?” ….then Cecil enlisted the partnership of the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America (APBPA)….an organization with an all-star advisory board under the leadership of Chuck Stevens. With the charitable component of APBPA added, word quickly spread among retired players that this was going to be a significant and fun event.  The placement of the game in RFK Stadium in Washington added to the significance….cuz RFK had not had a baseball event since the Washington Senators fled to Texas after the 1971 season. While the Redskins still played football there, Washington baseball fans were hungry for a revival—even for a day. All the pieces were falling into place.

The missing element was support from Major League Baseball….as even Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had his heart in his hometown of Washington and a longing to return the game there. “His PR guy, Bob Wirz, told him this was not a good event to connect with, and so we had to go without MLB,” said Cecil. “As a result, we designed our own uniforms—National and American—and the players wore those.”….some of which have brought big money on the auction circuit in the years that followed because they had their names on the back.

Cecil wanted some special touches. The games would be five innings, not two, and would call for good competition and strategy. The players would be introduced one at a time, emerging from the dugout to cheers, and then returning. There was no lining up along the baselines. Robert Merrill agreed to do the National Anthem if he could have a uniform with No. 1½. ESPN, in just its third year of operations, made a deal to televise the game and signed up Red Barber for the first cablecast….which is seen herewith….as Cecil Stevens would manage the American League team, and Tal Smith the Nationals.

The players each received $1,000 plus travel expenses….as no one got more….and the only player who appeared in all nine games was Joe DiMaggio….for he loved the event and was at his friendliest with the old timers and the media…who really had a great time….and t-he 1990 game was believed to be the last time he wore a uniform, although he no longer took a turn at-bat.

The rosters were loaded with Hall of Famers and stars, including Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Roger Maris, and Whitey Ford. Frank Howard was an enormously popular invitee because the Washington fans still loved him.  “We got a call from the White House once asking if Vice President George Bush might be able to play first base,” recalled Cecil. “It didn’t work out, but we always had a lot of official Washington brass on hand like Senate Majority Leader Tip O’Neill, Press Secretary Jim Brady and many more.”

The game likely would have been a big hit locally, but it quickly got on the map nationally, when in the very first inning of the very first game on July 19, 1982, 75-year-old Luke Appling planted a Spahn delivery into the left-field stands.  “God bless Spahnie for that pitch,” said Cecil….as 75 year old Hall of Fame Member Luke Appling….who only hit 45 homers in his 20-year career (1930–50)….ambled around the bases to a fabulous fan reaction as players in both dugouts applauded. The left-field stands were somewhat drawn in by the mechanism to move the stands from a football layout to baseball had long ago rusted….but this was a big-time moment for Luke, for baseball, and for the Classic. Thanks to the ESPN coverage, it was played and replayed that very night on local newscasts around the country….and then again and again in the days that followed….cuz that is when Bone Daddy recorded this video seen herewith.  It was not surprising that when Appling died in 1991, the home run was first-paragraph worthy in his obituaries.

Luke Appling was 75 years old and knocked the nostalgia out of a pitch by Warren Spahn, hitting a homer that landed 12 rows beyond the 280-foot fence in left field in RFK Stadium.  With that one swing, Appling turned the Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic game into a verifiable, boldface blip on the baseball map.  With that, laughter came over the phone, laughter from deep in Appling’s heart, from deep in the Carolinas. “You know that Warren,” Appling said of the 63-year-old Hall of Famer. “He’s a great boy.”

It is this humble chiweenie Sportsphiles opinion that this original Cracker Jack Old Timers Classic is must see video for any baseball fan who might just be a Sportsphile too. 

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