I grew up in the ’80s, and yet my favorite TV show – and certainly the one I related most to – was one set in the late ’60s and early ’70s: The Wonder Years. The primary reason was that the protagonist, Kevin Arnold, and the actor who played him, Fred Savage, were both my age when the show premiered after Super Bowl XXII in 1988. In many ways, what I watched on ABC each week was a mirror of my own experiences in suburban New Jersey.
One of the parallels – along with puberty, crushes and teenage politics – was baseball. Though Kevin may not have been as obsessed as I was, he was definitely a fan. The first image we see in the opening credits shows Kevin in the street, bat in hand, waving to the camera before calling his shot. He may have been known more for wearing his green New York Jets jacket, but baseball is not forgotten in the series.
In one Season 3 episode, “The Unnatural,” Kevin tries out for his junior high baseball team. The final scene shows him hitting a game-winning home run (despite missing third base; look for it), with Russ Hodges’ call of Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” playing in the background.
But the most notable baseball scene involves a different Giant, and a way of engaging with the game we’re all familiar with here: The Hobby. In an earlier Season 3 episode, “Odd Man Out,” Kevin and Paul discuss a baseball card trade centered around Willie McCovey. The episode aired in November 1989, meaning it was set in 1969 (events depicted in the show were meant to be 20 years earlier than when they aired).
It’s not clear which McCovey card they’re talking about. Kevin and Paul are 13 in 1969, and Kevin’s voiceover saying that they’d “been through this a hundred times before” indicates that it’s an on-going discourse, so it’s probably a mid-to-late ’60s McCovey card. Paul’s stern response – “McCovey is off the table” – carried enough weight to be included as a magnet in the deluxe edition of the complete series DVD released in 2014 and inspired an indie rock song.
The Wonder Years returned to TV this fall in a reboot set around the same time – beginning in 1968 – but with a Black family and a 12-year-old protagonist, Dean, at the center of it. Baseball has an even bigger presence in the first few episodes of this series, starting in the pilot when the climactic scene occurs during Dean’s Little League game. Subsequent episodes show pennants on the wall of the room he shares with his older brother (who’s fighting in Vietnam); the Cardinals, Phillies, Yankees, and Dodgers are all represented.
And, in a nod to the “McCovey is off the table” scene, a trading session among Dean and his friends outside of school pops up in Episode 3.
This time the names offered, in a much more elaborate negotiation involving at least four boys, are Jim Fregosi, Bill Freehan (mispronounced as “Freeman”), Hank Aaron, Bert Campaneris, Carl Yastrzemski, and Willie Mays.
DEAN: OK, Cory, if you trade Brad your Jim Fregosi, Brad can trade Sam his Bill Freeman [sic], and I’ll just take this Hank Aaron, I guess. I think we have a deal here, fellas.
BRAD: Wait, who are you giving up?
DEAN: Well, I really don’t want to do this, but I guess I could get rid of my Bert Campaneris.
BRAD: Who’s Bert Campaneris?
DEAN (chuckling in disbelief): Who’s Bert Campaneris? Only the utility infielder for the Oakland A’s that hit .232 with four doubles and six hit-by-pitches last season.
CORY: I don’t know, man. My mom told me not to trade with you anymore after you took that Willie Mays card off my hands because he “ruined it” by signing it.
DEAN: I’m sorry – am I trading with Cory, or Cory’s mom? Do you ask your mom to cut your steak, too?
CORY: Well, yeah, actually – she does it the best.
BRETT: I’ll take the Bert Campaneris!
DEAN: Finally! Someone who’s his own man. Now, let’s see who do I want in return. [Picks up a card, reading.] “Carl Yas-term-ski?” That’s a weird name. Guess I could take this one off your hands.
Back in 1989, before “high definition” was a thing, Fred Savage – who directed that 2021 episode with the trading session – was given 1989 Topps cards when talking about Juan Marichal, Luis Tiant, and Willie McCovey. In 2021, the props master (they really should rethink that title) at least managed to get reprints of 1968 (and earlier) cards, though the script writer made up a Bert Campaneris season that never happened. In ’68, Campaneris was an All-Star shortstop who finished 11th in AL MVP voting after hitting .276/.330/.361 in 159 games, leading the league in plate appearances and at-bats.
A 1965 Topps Bill Freehan is on top of the cards being held on the left; those shown in the grass include three from 1963: Earl Averill (near center), Jimmie Schaffer (far right), and Casey Stengel and Gene Woodling of the Mets on a card titled “Veteran Masters” (top right of the pile). The bulk of the rest are from ’68, among them (roughly from left to right): Hank Aaron, Dick Kelley, Ken Suarez, Dave Morehead, Adolfo Phillips, Gary Peters, Cal Ermer, Bill Monbouquette, Tom Phoebus, Dan Schneider, Bubba Morton, and – yep, alone at the top – Carl Yastrzemski.
I wonder how things would have gone if Kevin had offered a Yastrzemski for the McCovey. Seems pretty fair to me.