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Baseball: Joys and Lamentations

My Life As A Fan

by Wilfrid Sheed
Simon and Schuster, 221 pp., $20.00

The Era, 1947–1957: When the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers Ruled the World

by Roger Kahn
Ticknor and Fields, 372 pp., $22.95

The Gospel According to Casey: Casey Stengel’s Inimitable, Instructional, Historical Baseball Book

by Ira Berkow, by Jim Kaplan
St.Martin’s, 172 pp., $12.95 (paper)

O Holy Cow! The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto

edited by Tom Peyer, edited by Hart Seely
Ecco Press, 107 pp., $8.95 (paper)

1.

Change is neutral as a general phenomenon, and can only be assessed case by case. We sit in our unsatisfactory present, surrounded by two mythologies that exalt their respective and conflicting ends—better futures by the fancy of progress, and rosier pasts by the fable of golden good old days. Sports fans are particularly subject to the dangers of nostalgia and a falsely glorified past. Young children deify Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, or even Reggie Jackson (who flourished at the dawn of my middle age)—none of whom they have ever seen in play. But nostalgia is surely silliest in older fans who should be able to grant some strength to the former contestant in a battle between eyewitness testimony and clouds of later memory. (I should mention that “older” has a definite meaning in this particular ballpark. Rooting is generational, and you enter the category of older when you first take your child to a game.) We simply have to be tough in the face of such temptation to moon about better pasts. I confess that I am about to submit to this enticement in choosing to focus this year’s review of baseball literature on five books exalting the prime joy of my own youth—New York baseball in the late 1940s and 1950s. I must therefore begin with an apologia.

Consider the twin dangers of arguments about the good old days. First of all, we need only listen to Kindertotenlieder, Mahler’s searing songs on the death of children, or place a call to Japan by pushing a few buttons, to remind ourselves about unambiguous improvements in the quality of our present lives. Second, I see no sense in fighting to retain old pleasures that have become truly inconsistent with modern life. We may (and should) lament the deaths of friends and lovers, but we cannot hope to retain perpetual youthfulness and must accept inevitability with grace—a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up.

To choose an example involving both dangers, I see no point in decrying baseball’s current structure of high salaries, though it has spawned a host of dire consequences endlessly rehearsed in the copious literature of baseball lamentation—including the complacency and self-indulgence of some stars, and the rupture of any loyalty between player and town, as teams become holding operations for the passage of mobile and monied players who spend a year or two and then move on. (Yes, the old days were marvelous, when DiMaggio defined the Yankees for life, Williams belonged to Boston and the Red Sox, and Musial was forever a Cardinal. But remember that only a few stars used this system to their advantage, and that most players were peons performing for peanuts, prevented by the infamous reserve clause from negotiating their own contracts, and therefore held as vassals to their owners. And I need hardly remind anyone that black men couldn’t play in the big leagues at all until 1947.)

Besides, how can we deny players the benefits that modern life has produced? Broadcasting fees have vastly increased the “take” of major league teams. Either the owners keep the windfall, or it goes to the players who actually generate the money. Ball players are members of the entertainment industry and are only receiving the going rate (maybe even a bit less, if you consider rock stars) for their services. Do not, therefore, lament things that cannot be anymore, and never were so good anyway.

Let us, instead, save our complaints for preservable goods lost through stupidity, complacency, and avarice. Baseball presents a fascinating duality to students of change and tradition. Nothing substantial has altered on the playing field. We can understand Babe Ruth in 1927, or even Nap Lajoie in 1901, because they played exactly the same game, always changing its style of course (as any dynamic institution must) but operating for more than a century without any major alteration in rules or physical dimensions. (By contrast, I can make no meaningful contact with football and basketball players of my grandfather’s generation, for I do not grasp their different games, while the numbers attached to their performances permit no comparison with modern assessments.) Yet, at the same time, the commercial structure of baseball as a business, and the social status of baseball as an institution (including such basics as times and places of play), have altered almost beyond recognition.

I do not like many of these changes (while welcoming others), but I generally resist the strategy so rightly ridiculed in Ko-Ko’s proposed beheading of “the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own.” I have, instead, accepted what I didn’t like because I could see no alternative that would keep baseball consonant with changed realities in modern American life. “Museums of practice” cannot survive as mass institutions (opera, an elite institution, just barely manages). The miracle of baseball, after all, lies in the fact that on-field play still works so splendidly in its unaltered mode; how did the rulemakers of the 1890s know that they had constructed a game for the ages?

But baseball is now about to institute a change of a different order—erosive (if not destructive), unnecessary, and preventable; and therefore to be lamented. This change is not overtly bigger than others of recent years, but it cuts at the heart of baseball’s central joy. As I write this essay, we are witnessing baseball’s last pennant races. Next year, teams will no longer play the regular season in pursuit of a meaningful pennant—the banner of victory for first place in a daily struggle lasting from April to the end of September. They will, instead, compete for a slot in an ever-widening, ever-extending, multi-tiered series of playoff steps to the World Series. Why does this change matter so much?

The National League began in 1876, the American League (still called the “junior circuit”) a quarter century later in 1901. In 1903, the champions of the two leagues met for the first World Series (won by the Boston Red Sox). Each league contained eight teams, concentrated in the east and geographically confined by the practical limits of train travel to a region defined by Chicago, St.Louis, and Washington at the corners. In 1952, the same teams still played in the same places, under a slightly increased and stabilized schedule of 154 games (up from 135–140 in the 1903 season).

In 1953, the hapless Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee (and later to Atlanta). The even more hapless St.Louis Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954, where they have become, as the Orioles, one of baseball’s most successful teams. This trickle then expanded to a flood as old teams migrated and new clubs joined. Major league baseball moved into California, Canada, Texas, and most recently, Denver and Miami. Each league now maintains fourteen teams. (You really have to know your history to make any sense of current names. Why should seaside Los Angeles be lost to a basketball team called the Lakers? They are the transplanted Minneapolis Lakers of yore. Why should the same city, where no one walks, host a baseball team called the Dodgers to honor wary Brooklyn pedestrians?)

I do not see how any fair person can object to these expansions. After all, by what right could the northeastern segment of the United States continue to wield territorial hegemony over baseball after team travel by airplane made the entire nation accessible. Similarly, how can one lament the first alteration, initiated in 1969, of the balance between regular and postseason play—the splitting of each league into two divisions, with an added round of championship play between division leaders in each league before the World Series? Postseason play for a single club made sense in an eight-team league, but one chance in fourteen (the present number of clubs in each justifiably expanded league) seems too rarefied, while one in seven (the amended probability of victory with two divisions per league) preserves the old balance while implying a round of playoffs before the World Series. Thus very few fans deplored the added intra-league playoffs, which have become a welcome and exciting part of the baseball season. Why, then, do so many of us object so strongly to the second tier of playoffs that will start next season—not as a consequence of further expansion (and this observation holds the key to our complaints), but as an end in itself.

To epitomize the new system, each league will be further fractured into three geographical divisions (five teams in the east, five in the center, and four in the west). Four teams (the divisional leaders plus a “wild card” second-place team with the best record across the entire league) will then meet in the added round of playoffs. The winners of this elimination will then play a second round to determine participants in the World Series. Since the regular season schedule of 162 games will be maintained, and since non-domed stadiums in places like Boston and Chicago really don’t permit a beginning much before the traditional April date, the World Series will now take us nearly to November (if not literally so, given postponements for rain—or snow!).

To understand why this change is qualitative and destructive rather than merely incremental and inconsequential, we should consider the packaging of laundry detergent. In this commercial world, ordinary and regular do not exist; the smallest available package is marked “large”—and sizes then augment to super, gigantic, and colossal. Such “promotions” without substance are merely risible, but more consequential inflations in sport alter the product itself in fundamental ways, not just the packaging. The root cause of sporting inflation is entirely obvious: the financial control and consequent dictation of policy by national TV and its advertisers, by far the dominant source of modern revenue. Regular season games are regional and for small markets; postseason championship series can be advertised and promoted nationally for big bucks.

Basketball, football, and hockey, our other major professional team sports, have been inflated in this way for years. The so-called “regular” season has become something of a farce, with scarcely more meaning than a set of exhibition games. Few teams are eliminated from postseason championship play. The rounds of postseason competition have become so numerous that fans now speak of these endless eliminations as a “second season.”

We may grasp the structural absurdity of such a situation, but I don’t think that lamentations are in order—for football, basketball, and hockey were created (at least as professional activities with truly mass appeal) by television and constructed in its image. Their regular seasons never had a central place in American culture (much as they meant to relatively small coteries of devoted fans)—so demoting regular season play, while silly in a logical sense, has not robbed us of anything precious and formerly possessed.

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