Walt Amses: No hit wonder

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Walt Amses, a writer who lives in North Calais.

When New York Yankee Don Larson — who passed away recently at age 90 — pitched the only perfect game in World Series history against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956, I was in elementary school and a huge fan. But our teachers, sadistic old nuns for whom baseball meant nothing, had pitched a shutout of their own that day, blocking any transmission of the game into the classroom. We were bereft well before knowing what that meant. It was the longest afternoon of our young lives.

The city and environs was the epicenter of Major League Baseball back then, when everything that mattered in the sport happened within a 20-mile radius of the Empire State Building. Along with the two teams locked in a furious battle for the MLB championship just across the river, our other claim to supremacy was having three center fielders destined for the Hall of Fame: Duke Snider and Mickey Mantle respectively of the Dodgers and Yankees, as well as the incomparable Willie Mays, who played just up the road for the New York Giants.  

After a breathless two block sprint, we caught the last couple of innings through the window of a TV repair shop but had no idea anything particularly special was happening until Dale Mitchell struck out looking in the ninth inning and catcher Yogi Berra leaped into Larson’s waiting arms. As the camera slowly panned the scoreboard revealing three zeros, we realized he’d pitched a no hitter but since we were outside, without the benefit of sound, didn’t learn it was a perfect game until the evening news.

After reading his obituary in the New York Times, something else struck me other than Larsen’s unprecedented feat. I chuckled to myself. The weird aspect of my memory was the idea of TV repair shops, which proliferated in the 1950s landscape but have become nearly as rare in today’s throwaway culture as that elusive perfect game. My intermittently volatile father’s reaction, had I suggested when the old furniture-sized television set was on the fritz, that we simply throw it away it and buy a new one was too troubling to speculate.  

In fact, not only did televisions and other electronics get fixed, repairmen frequently made house calls since most TVs were essentially living room furniture and far too cumbersome to simply toss in the back seat and transport to the shop. Today such home visits are the domain of outfits such as the “Geek Squad,” which seem to have been designed to make sense of all those connections and wires, particularly for people of a certain age whose technical comfort level wanes perceptively once beyond “on -and off.”

But maintaining your comfort level doesn’t come cheap. In fact — depending on exactly how comfortable you want to be — it can cost every bit a much as keeping your vehicle in operating condition. According to several websites, $119 is the average cost for the FIRST 10 to 19 hours of Geek visitation with a minimum of 10 hours required to start, which at over $1,000, would be topping out somewhere near 10 grand in 1956 money. No mystery why we hesitated before pronouncing our appliances DOA in those days.

In fact, it was the early 1970s transition from tubes to circuit boards that led to newer, more reliable electronic devices outlasting their predecessors that put many of the neighborhood repair shops out of business. But somewhere along the line, corporations realized that selling us something once was not nearly as profitable as selling it to us over and over again — (re)enter planned obsolescence. Originally coined to describe the early 20th century auto industry’s design changes as an incentive to annually replace the family car, the term aptly describes devices from phones to tablets to laptops, all of which seem to have an expiration date not too distant from the time of purchase. 

Although certainly rare compared to 50 years ago, there remain some repair shops scattered around Vermont and New Hampshire and while their glory days may be long gone, new interest in old formats may just keep them in business a little longer. Young audiophiles, millennials to be precise, have become interested in collecting vinyl LPs and, of course, the turntables needed to play them.  Ironically, the future of electronic repair shops may be rooted in the past

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Don Larsen was a sort of rarity himself. An unlikely star for the storied Yankees, not much of an athlete beyond the basics, he was known more for his partying than his pitching, save that one glorious October afternoon of perfection in 1956 when he went from utilitarian to legendary. Nicknamed “Goonybird,” possibly by Mickey Mantle, Larsen liked New York nightlife as much as playing ball, regularly violating curfew, which he reportedly did the night before his moment in the sun, showing up at the ballpark hungover, only to arrive at his locker to find a baseball in his spikes: He was the starting pitcher.

Reminiscing years later, Larsen explained — referring to his disastrous start in game two, where provided with a 6-0 lead, he promptly blew it, leading to a Yankee defeat —  “I was so bad that if I were the manager I wouldn’t have handed me the ball under any circumstances.” The irascible manager Casey Stengel though had other ideas, and for whatever reason, handed the ball to Larsen, in retrospect, a perfect decision. 


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