Baseball is a game of episodic action rather than of flow (as in basketball or soccer). Discrete events stand out. The players are dispersed around a large space. And it is the American sport with the longest season and longest history. These are among the reasons it has such a strong institutional memory. One savors one’s memories of episodes, so much so that A. Bartlett Giamatti, the late commissioner, said that baseball is, in a sense, the conversation about it.
The conversation often concerns the most famous this or that. The most famous home run? Perhaps Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ‘round the world,” the one by which the Giants beat the Dodgers in the 1951 playoff, or perhaps the one by the Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski against the Yankees in the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, the only home run to end a Series. Or perhaps Babe Ruth’s “called shot” against the Cubs in the 1932 Series. The most famous pitching performance? Perhaps Don Larsen’s perfect game for the Yankees in the 1956 series, or Orel Hershiser’s fifty-nine consecutive scoreless innings at the end of the 1988 season. The most famous defensive play? Probably “The Catch” by Willie Mays, the over-the-shoulder spectacular in game one of the 1954 Series.
Baseball’s most famous collision at home plate is as famous as it is not just because it involved a superstar and occurred in front of a huge national television audience, but also because it occurred in a game that did not matter. It happened during an All-Star game, baseball’s mid-season picnic, when work is suspended and the business of baseball becomes pure play for a day. The All-Star gathering is the community of baseball condensed and at ease, a mingling of players who have competed against one another since they were deep in the minor leagues and of executives many of whom played against each other long ago.
The 1970 game was played in Cincinnati’s new Riverfront Stadium, with the President of the United States present. In the bottom of the 12th inning, with the score 4–4 and two out, Pete Rose, a product of Cincinnati’s sandlots and by then a hero of the Reds, came to the plate. He singled, then advanced to second on another hit. The next batter lined a single on two bounces to the American League’s centerfielder, who played the ball cleanly and came up throwing, as Rose, the potential winning run, raced around third. The throw was headed for Ray Fosse of the Indians, who at twenty-three was baseball’s premier young catcher. He was in the most vulnerable position a player can be in, his eyes on the incoming ball, with a runner barreling toward him. He was prepared to catch the ball and sweep his glove at Rose, who presumably would be trying to hook-slide around Fosse’s tag.
But Rose was not sliding. He made of himself a missile, slamming …