Marty Niland: Cracker Jack Classic brought stars to baseball-hungry D.C.

Now that the starting lineups have been announced and the rosters filled, Washington is abuzz about the 89th Major League Baseball All-Star game. Many historians will tell you will that the July 17 game will be the fifth All-Star meeting in the nation’s capital, the first since 1969, and they’d be technically correct.

However, each summer from 1982 to 1987, Washington baseball fans saw something arguably better come to RFK Stadium. The Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic featured lineups stacked with Hall of Famers, giving it their all for five innings, all to benefit their retired peers who needed a helping hand.

Of those games, the first in 1982 was the most memorable, not only for the unique thrills it provided, but for the hope that it brought more than 29,000 fans who had been starving for their own major league team for more than a decade. It was also a pretty cool experience for an 18-year-old newspaper intern whose first press credential got him into the game with his mentor.

The Cracker Jack game was organized by former Braves vice president Dick Cecil, who wanted to see retired stars play in a contest that was the main event, rather than an exhibition before a big league game. Cecil hit a home run on the first pitch to a potential sponsor, signing Cracker Jack, known to anyone who has ever heard or sung “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Ballots for fans to choose the starting lineup were attached to boxes of the sweet snack.

The beneficiary was the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America, a charity that has been helping former ballplayers since 1924. Before the advent of free agency in the mid-1970s, baseball players did not command huge salaries and often had to work at regular jobs in the offseason to make ends meet. With no pension fund at the time for players who retired before 1980, many fell on hard times in retirement. The game guaranteed APBA a payment of $50,000 each year it was played, more than twice the amount it received annually at the time from the major leagues.

Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn would not endorse the game, so Cecil designed his own uniforms and promoted it himself with retired major leaguers, who were paid a $1,000 stipend for the game, plus travel expenses.

The starting lineups included all-time greats Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew and Brooks Robinson. Although former Senators slugger Frank Howard couldn’t make it, ex-Washington stars Bob Allison, Camilo Pascual and Roy Sievers were there. Former Dodgers manager Walter Alston helmed the National League team, and former Cleveland and Chicago White Sox skipper Al Lopez managed the American League club. The TV crew included broadcasting legends Red Barber and Jack Brickhouse.

Like the last major league All-Star game in Washington, the 1982 contest was marred by one of the region’s trademark summer thunderstorms. But unlike 1969, when it forced the game to the next day, the rain let up after a one-hour delay. RFK had not been used for baseball in 11 years, and the machinery to convert the stands from a football configuration to baseball was broken, so the left-field foul pole was only 260 feet from home plate. Besides being soggy, the field had no baseball diamond, only dirt cutouts around each base. None of that mattered to the players, who had almost as good a time playing the game as they did conversing before, during and afterward.

Fans didn’t have to wait long for the highlight of the night. After the NL scratched out a run on Aaron’s bases-loaded single against Early Wynn, the most unlikely hero emerged for the AL.

At 75, Luke Appling was not only the oldest player on either team, but with just 45 homers among his 2,749 career hits, was the least likely to go deep. But Appling belted a 1-0 pitch from 63-year-old Warren Spahn, the winningest left-hander ever at the time, over the short left field fence. The crowd didn’t mind the distance, rising to cheer Appling as Spahn and the infielders swatted him with their gloves as he rounded the bases.

Other highlights included an AL homer by Jim Fregosi to key a four-run third inning and a shot for the NL by Bill Mazeroski that tipped off Allison’s glove and into the stands. There was also Bob Feller striking out Willie McCovey, and Aaron making a shoestring catch on Bill Freehan’s liner to left field, then doubling Robinson off second base.

The final score was 7-2, with the American League on top, but there were no losers in this game, only winners: the aging stars, who got to relive their youth and swap stories all night; APBA, which received badly needed funds; and the fans, who were missing out on big league ball, but got to see the legends of the game having the times of their lives.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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