Baseball: The People’s Game
Men At Work: The Craft of Baseball
When the Cheering Stops: Former Major Leaguers Talk about Their Game and Their Lives
Consider baseball as Janus, the double-visaged god of our beginnings. One face looks beyond our everyday world into the realm of myth. I went to a game at Fenway Park last month, accompanied by a professional sociologist and budding, but unsophisticated, baseball fan. He delighted in observing the few forms of joint action indulged by fans of this most individualistic sport—the wave and the seventh-inning stretch in particular—referring to these displays, in his jargon, as “social organization.” But in the ninth inning, with Carlton Fisk at the plate for the visiting White Sox, another apparent ritual puzzled him greatly. Several dozen fans, dispersed throughout our vicinity, stood up, raised their arms above their heads, and gyrated in an odd little motion. What could this mean? My friend was utterly stumped.
I explained that this behavior fell outside the generalities of rules for human conduct in crowds, and that he would have to learn the specific mythology of baseball. The gyrating fans were enacting a ritual to be sure—by imitating, in the presence of the Hero himself, a cardinal moment of baseball’s legend. In the bottom of the twelfth inning of the sixth game of the 1975 World Series, probably the greatest baseball game ever played, Carlton Fisk, then a catcher for the Red Sox, hit a long ball toward left field in Fenway Park. It seemed to curve foul, but Fisk gyrated his body, put some English on the air space between home plate and the arching ball, and bent its trajectory right into the left field foul pole—thus winning the game as he jigged around the bases. It was past midnight in the little New Hampshire town of Fisk’s birth, but someone ran to the church and set the bells ringing. (I am also assured that the laws of physics preclude Fisk’s action at a distance, but facts cannot be denied.) The fans were simply recreating a treasured moment of legendary official history.
The other face looks back into our quotidian world of ordinary work and play. When I grew up on the streets of New York City in the late Forties and early Fifties, we found a hundred ways to improvise and vary the game of baseball. I particularly enjoyed the two-man versions—rubber balls bounced against stoops (with different rules for each set of steps) or pitched from one sidewalk square across a second and into the batter’s box of a third in line, where the hitter slapped the ball back toward the pitcher (we called it “boxball-baseball”). The canonical playground version for school recesses was punchball—played with fist against that same ubiquitous pink rubber sphere. After school, we grabbed the old map handle and played stickball. (An uncharted variation among neighborhoods and boroughs should be investigated by scholars. The hegemony of Brooklyn has led to a widespread impression that stickball was invariably played in the street, with sewers as arbiters of distance, and that the ball was called a “spaldeen.” In my part of Queens, we always played stickball against a schoolyard or apartment building wall, with a chalked box for balls and strikes. The ball was a “spalding,” with strong accent on the second syllable—less of a departure from the trademark, A.C. Spalding, stress on the first syllable of course, prominently embossed on each ball.)
Mythology is wondrous, a balm for the soul. But its problems cannot be ignored. At worst, it buys inspiration at the price of physical impossibility (as my initial story of churchbells and action at a distance testifies). At best, it purveys the same myopic view of history that made this most fascinating subject so boring and misleading in grade school as a sequential tale of monarchs and battles.
Most baseball books continue to bask in the mythology—tales of heroics in that tiny pinnacle of activity known as major league baseball. We have tales of unforgettable seasons; sagas of dynasties (the once-proud Yankees, the current Athletics), or disasters (Cubbies, Phillies, and Sox); and, above all, ghost-written autobiographies, now a bit more confessional than the old cardboard, but still basically hagiographical.
But the Janus face of our daily lives peeks through often enough, and even sets the theme of several contemporary baseball books. When The New York Review sent me this year’s crop for the new season—to receive during spring training, read during a lazy summer, and report just in time for the World Series—I decided to select the three items that treated this neglected, ordinary face. These three otherwise disparate books share the common property of their allegiance to Annales history vs. kings and battles. Seymour tells us the explicit story of the largely undocumented mountain supporting the pinnacle (and leaves us wondering whether we should use such a metaphor at all). George Will and Heiman, Weiner, and Gutman adopt the other tactic of demythologizing from within the pinnacle—Will by displaying the workaday quality of manifest excellence in performance, Heiman, et al., by tracing the heroes after they pass from the limelight into the invisibility of later life.
Baseball: The People’s Game is the third volume of a distinguished series by the doyen of baseball historians, former Dodger batboy and history professor, Dr. Harold Seymour (the first two entries, The Early Years and The Golden Age, treat official history, but this magisterial compendium makes up for any previous neglect of Janus’ other face). Aristotle invoked the house in a venerable and celebrated metaphor for his theory of causality (bricks and mortar as material causes, masons as efficient causes, blueprints as formal causes, and inhabitants as final causes). Seymour uses the same structure for ordering his chapters on the history of baseball up to the Second World War, as played by nonprofessionals, from kiddie toss-up games on the street, to well-organized industrial and semipro leagues. In “the house of baseball,” Seymour treats, sequentially, the foundation (boys’ baseball), the ground floor (organized men’s leagues from colleges, to towns, to industries, to the armed forces), the basement (baseball in prisons, reformatories, and Indian schools and reservations), the annex (women’s baseball), and the outbuilding (black baseball).
Seymour’s book, all six hundred-plus pages of it, revels in intimate detail, often reading more like a list, filled out in prose style, than a narrative. Seymour is the leading professional in a small, but growing field of sports history, yet he writes with the most admirable zeal of a hobbyist and amateur in the fine (not the pejorative) sense of a word that means “to love.” I can well imagine Seymour’s mode of composition. He must have hundreds of thousands of index cards (for this project began years before our modern electronic shortcuts), each with the history of baseball in a particular state prison, prairie town, or military outpost. He then ordered them by time or concept and disgorged this great labor of love. Any fan must rejoice and greatly admire the results; the less committed may be forgiven for occasionally feeling that some details might be less important than others, and perhaps justifiably excludable (must we know, for example, that everyone became seasick during a return steamer ride from California to the Chemawa Indian School in Oregon following a pre-World War I trip by the school baseball team and band?)
Still, as the saying goes, baseball is a game of inches and an enterprise awash in particulars, statistical and otherwise; and Seymour’s densely detailed account will rivet any enthusiast’s attention. Since baseball is truly our “national pastime” (however trite the phrase), the various arms of the establishment that have sponsored the game have invoked utility or defense against subversion for a plethora of purposes: the promotion of “American” values in wayward boys, the suppression of unionism through fostering paternalism in factories, the spread of imperialism, and the undermining of Indian culture.
Yet just as one can’t blame science, as an institution, for misuse in the service of racism, baseball was valued and enjoyed, whatever misappropriation took place. Moreover, means are not causes; and instruments remain available to both sides. The ILGWU and other major unions formed their own leagues, and the Daily Worker had a crackerjack sports section; Albert “Chief” Bender began his march to the Hall of Fame from an Indian boarding school, and Babe Ruth learned his baseball in a Catholic charity home for orphans and wayward children in Baltimore. Some beneficiaries admitted that the real influence flowed from baseball to the sponsoring institution, and not vice versa. An Illinois pastor gloated in 1912 about the success of his church team: “There is many a one who comes to play and remains to pray.”
As for Seymour’s stories, thousands upon thousands of them, I was most intrigued by two features. First, the comprehensiveness in detail (I doubt that I could even envisage many of the topics Seymour discusses, much less ferret out the information). In a dizzying few pages on small-town baseball before World War I, we learn about the purchasing of uniforms (Sears needed longer notice for delivery by July 4 than at other times); the practice of lining basepaths with buggies and then with automobiles (windshields often removed); the playing of bands; hiring of “ringers” as fraudulent substitutes in the lineup; the influence of betting; and endless arguments about the propriety of Sunday ball. Among the taller tales, we learn that during a game in Utah, with two on and none out, the batter hit a ball high into a tree (located in fair territory). The runners all circled the bases, but the opposing fielder shook the tree, dislodged the ball, caught it before it hit the ground, and turned a three-run homer into a triple play! (The innocent and bucolic wraps around the urban and commercial. A few years ago, Dave Kingman hit a high pop fly into the ceiling meshwork of the indoor stadium in Minneapolis. It never came down and was proclaimed a ground-rule double.)
Second, consider the sheer delight of a good tale (combined with instruction in broader aspects of American culture): Did you know that a baseball game once had to be interrupted at Fort Apache so that soldiers could saddle up to chase the escaped Geronimo? That several leagues operated in Panama during the building of the Canal, and that a Marine squad lost to a group of civilian players in a game staged at the bottom of the Culebra Cut, perhaps our greatest engineering triumph before the Apollo program? That a factory owner in a western city sent a note to a rival in 1883, with a gentle protest against baseball played by industrial squad on the rooftops?
It is creditably reported to us that some of our employees frequently use the roofs of buildings extending from yours to ours to play base ball thereon. We are ever desirous to help elevate the national game, and this altitude seems to be about as high as it ever will get, yet there are also a few objections to this special location.
The details mount. A nineteenth-century drug company league included teams named the Hop Bitters, the Home Comforts, and the Paregorics (who, I trust, got many runs of one sort, and none of another). A touring women’s softball team of the 1930s was called “Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom’s Curvaceous Cuties” (some things do change for the better). On a similar theme of prejudice, a 1908 league of the United States Steel Company formed a white squad called the “big team,” and a black group called the “little jive team,” In 1905, the first recorded game between two different non-white races occurred when a visiting Japanese team played at an Indian boarding school in California. The patronizing reporter for Sporting News observed: “The Orientals…had it over the Aborigines during all stages of the game, with the exception of the sixth inning, when the Sherman braves with a whoop broke from the reservation and went tearing madly about until six of them had scored.”
President Eliot of Harvard discouraged baseball and considered a curve ball a “low form of cunning,” and the pitcher’s practice of looking home and then trying to pick a runner off first base as “ungentlemantly.” A 1907 league at the Massachusetts State Prison featured teams by occupation (Weavers, Lasters, Carpenters, Kitchen, and Band), but the Lifers had to play the Smokes (a black team). Another game at the same prison featured the Children of Israel vs. the Sons of Italy, at least the first time around. At their second game, the prison newspaper referred only to the “Jews vs. Wops.” We read that a game at Sing Sing prison had to be called off in 1916 because all balls had been fouled into the Hudson river (now pretty foul itself). Finally, Patrick Casey, a condemned man at the state prison in Carson City, Nevada, asked to umpire a game as his last request. His wish was granted as the warden arranged a match between two convict teams. Casey was executed the next day; “kill the umpire” indeed!
Seymour tells the tale of his own role as umpire, during the 1930s, for a twilight (after working hours) industrial league in Brooklyn, dominated by Brooklyn Edison. One evening, Seymour called out an Edison runner on a close play and was summarily fired. If getting even marks the ultimate triumph over getting mad, then Seymour has certainly made his mark as the recorder and arbiter of vernacular baseball I trust that we are past the academic elitism that would brand such a subject as peripheral or unimportant in American history. Any activity that has commandeered the time and devotion of so many Americans, and that found a place for itself at the heart of so many American institutions, cannot be dismissed because conventional taxonomy places it into a category of play or “leisure.”
George Will’s Men at Work has led the best-seller league throughout the summer, and for good reason. Will has pursued an opposite tactic for illuminating the less visible face of Janus. He has examined the pinnacle itself, the citadel known as Organized Baseball, and tried to demythologize it from within. Will’s subtitle, The Craft of Baseball, epitomizes his thesis. Since “baseball is a game of normal human proportions and abnormally small margins,” tiny advantages win ball games. Luck is important, and raw skill never hurts, but over a season of 162 games and daily play, the accumulation of minuscule edges, wrought by continual practice, obsessive watchfulness, and keen intelligence, marks the difference between a pennant and a .500 season. “Most games,” Will rightly notes, “are won by small things executed in a professional manner.”
Will ridicules the common notion, particularly among insecure intellectuals who don’t understand the subtlety of the game, that success in baseball rests upon sheer brawn tempered by good instinct, because activities of the body cannot demand much of the mind. Will quotes Tony La Russa, baseball’s most intellectual manager:
La Russa says, with a fine sense of semantic tidiness, that what are called baseball “instincts” are actually the result of “an accumulation of baseball information. They are uses of that information as the basis of decision making as game situations develop.”
Will advances his unexceptionable thesis by concentrating upon the daily work and cogitation of four particularly thoughtful and industrious men at the top of their specialties within the profession—Tony La Russa for managing, Orel Hershiser for pitching, Tony Gwynn for batting, and Cal Ripkin, Jr. for defense. (By the way, Will’s thesis, if ever properly grasped, would forthwith and forever end the silly discussion about the supposed anomaly of why so many intellectuals love baseball; and why baseball, alone among major sports, has a distinguished literature [with Will’s book as the latest entry]. We who have loved and lived with the game all our lives feel no need to mount a defense against such ignorance, preferring our own versions of Louis Armstrong’s oft-quoted line about jazz: “If you gotta ask, then you’ll never know.”)
I most admire Will’s success in resolving a structural problem inherent in his excellent choice of procedure. Having made a key decision to stress the incremental, repetitive honing of skills by practice, the tiny advantages that accrue with eternal vigilance to detail, and the minute edges gained from your thoughtfulness and someone else’s slack, how can Will make these workaday themes lively and continuously interesting (Carlton Fisk’s homer has an undeniable éclat compared with daily batting practice)? Will realized that his favored theme could not carry the book unaided. He has therefore created a marvel of variegated but seamless patchwork by lacing the central text with all manner of baseball lore, including statistical digressions, and hot-stove-league commentary, with a good (and entirely legitimate) sprinkling of classical tales about past and present stars from Janus’ other face.
Above all, the commitment and professionalism of these splendid men shines forth, teaching us that excellence transcends any particular subject, and demands the same discipline for both body and mind. The primary value in eliminating the myth of the invincible “natural athlete” should lie in the possibility of fellowship—in the recognition that some form of excellence is accessible to anyone who can bring will and discipline to opportunity.
But I must quibble with Will’s overextension of his observations on baseball to a program for American rejuvenation in general. (Of course, we all know that life imitates baseball, so I have no objection to Will’s general attempt, only to this particular version.) Will actually advances two related claims in his central thesis. First, the quality of play in professional baseball has improved markedly through time, in opposition to more mythology from the other face of Janus—this time, the legend of past Golden Ages. Will writes:
Human beings seem to take morose pleasure from believing that once there was a Golden Age, some lost Eden or Camelot or superior ancient civilization, peopled by heroes and demigods, an age of greatness long lost and irrecoverable. Piffle. Things are better than ever, at least in baseball, which is what matters most.
Second, this increasing excellence narrows the range of disparity among professional players (by relative equalization at higher summits) and makes the tiny edges supplied by obsession, practice and intelligence all the more important. Perhaps Ruth could excel by brawn, and shun conditioning while feeding his insatiable gustatory and sexual appetites. Modern competition will not permit such laxity. Will writes:
The fundamental fact is this: For an athlete to fulfill his or her potential, particularly in a sport as demanding as baseball, a remarkable degree of mental and moral discipline is required.
We speak of such people as “driven.” It would be better to say they are pulled, because what moves them is in front of them. A great athlete has an image graven on his or her imagination, a picture of an approach to perfection.
And finally, bringing both arguments together:
What spectators pay to see is a realm of excellence, in which character, work habits and intelligence—mind—make the difference between mere adequacy and excellence. The work is long, hard, exacting, and sometimes dangerous. The work is a game that men play but they do not play at it. That is why they, and their craft, are becoming better.
I am a card-carrying (dare I utter the word?) liberal, Will an equally self-identified writer of conservative bent. On baseball, however, we differ little, for most fans are deeply conservative in this jewel-like world where legacy is so precious (as Seymour shows) and where you do not die when age drops you from this realm of true and appropriate laissez-faire. I applaud Will’s curmudgeonly conservatism on all issues of baseball practice. His diatribe against aluminum bats alone should inscribe him in the writer’s Hall of Fame, for a deep understanding of the details that count, and the issues well worth a trip to the stake if necessary. Aluminum bats, he asserts, would destroy both the sound of baseball, and the precious continuity of statistical comparability:
Allowing aluminum bats into the major leagues would constitute a serious degradation of the game, and not just for aesthetic reasons. But let us begin with them. Aesthetic reasons are not trivial. Baseball’s ambiance is a complex, subtle and fragile creation. Baseball’s sounds are important aspects of the game, and no sound is more evocative than that of the thwack of wood on a ball. It is particularly so when it is heard against the background sizzle of crowd noise on a radio broadcast, radio being the basic and arguably the best way to experience baseball if you can not be at the park. To a person of refined sensibilities, aluminum hitting a ball makes a sound as distressing as that of fingernails scraping a blackboard.
On the statistical point, Will notes that aluminum bats “would dilute baseball’s intensely satisfying continuity and thereby would render much less interesting the comparison of player’s performances. Those comparisons nourish interest in the game as it passes down from generation to generation and they sustain fans in the fallow months of the off-season.”
Nor do I dispute Will’s assertion that play has improved through time (especially since the evidence comes partly from my own statistical work on the history of batting averages, particularly on the elimination of .400 hitting as a paradoxical mark of improvement).* I only question his upping of the ante in extending his two-part argument to a basically conservative, individualist solution of America’s current social and economic ills—the dissociable and more contentious “baseball imitates life” part of his thesis. Will argues that if we, as a nation composed of individuals, could only imitate the gumption and drive of high baseball achievers who prevail by dedication and obsession more than by natural gifts, then we would regain our national power and purpose. This drive cannot be granted by governmental gift or program, but must come from within:
I believe that America’s real problem is individual understretch, a tendency of Americans to demand too little of themselves, at their lathes, their desks, their computer terminals…. I will not belabor the point but I do assert it: If Americans made goods and services the way Ripkin makes double plays, Gwynn makes hits, Hershiser makes pitches and La Russa makes decisions, you would hear no more about the nation’s trajectory having passed its apogee.
I don’t even dispute this claim. But I do quarrel with the premise that major league baseball, as a totality, represents an island of selfmotivated excellence that could save us by extensive emulation. I think that Will has made an error in confusing parts for wholes. He has chosen four exemplary human beings at the summit of their profession—and these four share the qualities that he imputes to the entire enterprise at this level. But I doubt the validity of such a generalization. He has taken the best, but they are not surrogates for all. They are best because they have conjoined a basic intelligence and a fine body with a fierce inner drive. I don’t doubt that major league baseball features more such people than you might find in your average factory or college faculty lounge. Such are the fruits of highest selectivity. But all of us who work in elite institutions of their chosen profession know that cynicism, submission, and dead wood exist at all levels. Baseball also contains its journeymen and its losers, its men of superb talent who never grow up or never catch fire. Major league baseball is not a priesthood of unflagging commitment, but an institution far more selective than most, yet still containing all kinds of folks with all manner of problems and modes of life. Baseball may precipitate out the losers more quickly, but we cannot so proceed in life (where consequences include death and starvation), and this oasis of unbridled laissezfaire doesn’t even produce Will’s universal, internally driven excellence in its own house.
My best evidence for this variety in attitude among major leaguers comes from the last and least satisfying of the three books—Heiman, Weiner, and Gutman’s When the Cheering Stops. These extended interviews with twentyone players of the late Forties through mid-Seventies present a very different picture from Will’s four paragons. These twentyone include a few genuine stars, but most were journeymen who spent careers on yo-yos of trading and demotion to the minors. Some showed the obsession that has pushed Will’s men to success, but most lost the drive to injury and disappointment, or never had it at all. They admired the heroes of their own age, and they recognized the zeal as well as the talent of Warren Spahn or Mickey Mantle, but they could not emulate them.
These men played baseball in a different age of less intense strategy—the Fifties game of “put some men on and hope for a bases-clearing homer,” rather than the highly intellectual “little ball,” or one-run-at-a-time (and much more exciting) baseball recaptured from the age of Cobb and Wagner and now again in vogue. These journeymen of the Fifties often make too many excuses for their own abbreviated careers. (I cannot quite accept Al Weiss’s argument—if only because I loved him so much after his heroics won the 1969 World Series for the Mets—that this moment of greatness wrecked his career because he could never again play to a level justifying his salary increase after his day in the sun, and he soon lost his job as a result.) They also clearly demonstrate that continuous intellectual struggle does not pervade the pinnacle at all moments. Consider these two identical assessments of Bucky Harris’s managerial style, from one who loved and one who hated this successful skipper. First, from Chuck Stobbs:
My favorite manager…was Bucky Harris. We’d have two meetings a year. On opening day he’d say, boys, you know we’re glad you’re here and whathaveyou. Then, at the end of the year we’d have another meeting and he’d thank everybody for doing the best they could and say he’d hope to see us all next year.
And this, from J.W. Porter:
On opening day…he got everyone around him at the mound. And here’s exactly what he said. He said, “Guys, you’re major leaguers. If you don’t know how to play this fucking game now, you never will.” And he dropped the bag of balls on the mound, went and sat in the dugout and stayed there for two years until they ran him off.
I rather suspect that major league baseball imitates life pretty well—in having its share of flakes, kooks, goof-offs, and crybabies. We can isolate a core of splendid exemplars, probably a larger core than in most professions because competition is so much stiffer. But when you probe deeply enough into the totality, all the foibles and frailties of human life emerge. Which brings me back to Janus, god of our beginnings and the “play ball” call of this essay. In his poem “A Coat,” W.B. Yeats wrote of the uses of mythology:
I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat….
But others misuse his pretty covering, and he discards it:
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.
This review has been dedicated to defending the virtues of such nakedness—in truth value, even (for I will grant Will this) in moral instruction. This nakedness of reality is the second and less familiar face of Janus. But it’s cold out there in our markedly imperfect world. So I guess we need the conventional showy face of Janus as well—the world of baseball myth and legend. And why not? In what other world is myth so harmless? Great battles kill and maim; great homers and no-hitters are pure joy or deep tragedy without practical consequence (no one, in my presence, must ever mention Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 homer against my beloved Yankees). Life is inherently ambiguous; baseball games pit pure good against abject evil. Even Saddam Hussein must have committed one act of kindness in his life, but what iota of good could possibly be said for aluminum bats or the designated hitter rule?
As a skeptic and rationalist, I prefer the second face of Janus; as a fan, I acknowledge the power of his first and legendary visage. I began with a mythic home run of this first face, and I end, for symmetry’s sake, with another, perhaps even more famous, as described by the hitter himself in When the Cheering Stops. The New York Giants (my National League club in my youth) stood thirteen and a half games behind the Brooklyn Dodgers in August 1951. Charlie Dressen, manager of the Bums, pronounced the immortal line: “The Giants is dead.” The New York papers debated his grammar, but did not doubt his conclusions. Yet Durocher’s Giants persisted, and miraculously tied the Dodgers on the last day of the season. The two teams split the first two games of the playoff. In the last inning of the third and final game, with the Giants trailing by two runs and all apparently lost, Bobby Thompson came to bat with two men on and hit the most famous homer in baseball history. I was nine years old, home alone after school and glued to the tiny TV screen that we had just purchased—a family first. I was never so purely and deliriously happy in all my life. Thompson, it seems, was pretty pleased as well:
To this day, I can never adequately describe the feeling that went through me as I circled the bases…. I can remember feeling as if time was just frozen. It was a delirious, delicious moment and when my feet finally touched home plate and I saw my teammates’ faces, that’s when I realized I had won the pennant with one swing of the bat. And I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I’ll cherish that moment till the day I die.
Janus has two faces because we need to look both ways towards transcendence and reality—somehow titrating both to forge a reasonable approach to life. As Bucky (Fuller, not Dent of the glorious 1978 home run) said: “Unity is plural and, at minimum, is two.” And as Amos (the prophet, not Rusie the Hall of Fame pitcher) proclaimed (Amos 3:3): “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?”
Stephen Jay Gould, "Losing the Edge: The Extinction of the .400 Hitter," Vanity Fair (March 1983), pp. 120, 264–278; "Entropic Homogeneity Isn't Why No One Hits .400 Anymore," Discover (August 1986), pp. 60–66.↩
Stephen Jay Gould, “Losing the Edge: The Extinction of the .400 Hitter,” Vanity Fair (March 1983), pp. 120, 264–278; “Entropic Homogeneity Isn’t Why No One Hits .400 Anymore,” Discover (August 1986), pp. 60–66.↩