It could be a coincidence, but as each of our major wars winds down we seem to become more and more mesmerized by baseball, and the cold war so far has proved no exception. To a nervous system set on high, peace can be an awful anticlimax; suddenly a section seems to be missing from the papers and there’s nothing special to wait for. This is it, the thing you’ve been praying for. So what do you do with it?
In this troubled state, baseball seems to constitute a quite serviceable halfway house to the longueurs of peacetime: alternately laid back and explosive, riveting and dull, it also comes to you every day like a soap opera (our other games would kill you if you played them every day), bringing a fresh mouthful of information each time, for six mind-numbing months on end. And it bears the further overwhelming recommendation of being considered terrifically American, though this I’ve never quite figured: it is one of those dogmas one accepts without fully understanding.
The mere fact of books on the subject by David Halberstam and George V. Higgins, and one to come by George Will, suggests the spectrum this baseball mania cuts across. Conservatives, having done so much in recent years to kill or stun political enthusiasm in America, might be presumed to have a special interest in finding some other focus of attention, a playtime equivalent of disarmament and reconversion, but liberals like baseball too, possibly because doing so proves that they’re as American as anyone else: it is like having an alternative pledge of allegiance, complete with a backup anthem that even a Bolshevik can sing along with. Ethel Rosenberg in her last days talked about her “beloved Dodgers” in what I take to be an informal plea bargain, though the poor woman probably meant it. Her fate suggests that maybe one can overrate the importance of baseball in America, which brings us to our first witness.
David Halberstam is a loud writer, he can’t seem to help it. When he tries to lower his voice, it reminds one of Jiggs trying to sneak past Maggie on a moonlit night, with every floorboard betraying him. All Halberstam’s effects are big, which can lead to great bathos, not to say occasional risibility, when the subject is too small for him, but he can be unlaughably powerful when he hits it right, as he did with the Vietnam War in The Best and the Brightest.
Nor do all his best subjects have to be quite as ostensibly major as that: his book The Amateurs was a small-framed study of a group of oarsmen bent on making the US Olympic team, and for the occasion his hyperintensity precisely matched their own. Rowing is an exhausting, hard-breathing affair, and one sensed Halberstam’s own heart bursting as he crossed the finish line, a thrillingly appropriate performance.
And even when his subject is perhaps not quite as big as he thinks it is, his heavy brooding can still generate queer and interesting effects, as in the portraits in his new book, The Summer of ’49, of baseball’s capo di capos, Joe DiMaggio whose morbid shyness translated into an air of overwhelming authority, and of the reprobate Red Sock, Ellis Kinder, whose idea of prepping for a big game was to drink all night the night before. In other cases Halberstam seems to be beating his chops over nothing much, as when he feels duty-bound to recite the subsequent careers of every single member of both the Boston and New York teams of 1949: enough auto dealerships is enough. And in all cases, the reader has to shoulder the task of deciding for himself what’s important and what isn’t: the author, one feels at despairing times, would be the last to know.
Baseball is, of course, a far cry from rowing (in baseball, to breathe hard is to have failed), and on the face of it, its pleasures might seem rather understated for Halberstam’s sledgehammer methods. But he has a knack of inflating things to his measure, somewhat in the manner of a March of Time newsreel, and within pages one has no doubt whatsoever that the American League pennant race of 1949, that cusp year in the reign of King Television, was one of the major turning points in our history.
And why not? My only quarrel is with the season he chooses: obviously our great watershed was the National League pennant race of 1942, as the brash upstarts from the West (St. Louis) toppled the old-money Easterners (Brooklyn and the Yankees), President Roosevelt gave baseball the green light, and the “Star-Spangled Banner” was sung for the first time at ball games (or was that the next year?)—and above all I was almost the same age as David Halberstam was in 1949.
In other words, any number can play at this game, and so long as it is understood to be just that, a game, Halberstam plays it uncommonly well, recapturing as few of us still can the fevers of prepuberty and rephrasing them as a sharp-eyed, occasionally ironic adult (Halberstam’s boyishness cohabits with a fitfully sophisticated mind: he can never be dismissed out of hand). As an old investigative reporter, he is also accustomed to drilling somewhat wider and deeper than most sports writers, and he comes up with a richer lode of gossip. (Where else would you learn, for instance, that Johnny Lindell, the Yankee outfielder, used to whap unwary teammates with his member as they reclined on the training table? The sports pages just don’t cover stuff like that.) As for his baseball writing proper, I believe it on the whole profits from being aimed at a general audience rather than outright fans, and for sounding, if you will, just a little amateurish at times.
This may not seem like much of a virtue, but other kibitzers should make note of it. Most outsiders writing on this subject tend, out of piety, to adopt the stock phrases of newspaper accounts, as if there were no other way to describe a ball game. But the only justification for publishing books by outsiders (and I suppose for reviewing them) is to hear it told freshly. And in this respect The Summer of ’49 is a modest sort of landmark: a book by a generalist who brings his own weapons of gusto and doggedness to the event and doesn’t rely on hand-me-downs (or bad poetry) to see him through.
And the result is some very satisfactory swashbuckling. A pennant race is not unlike a military campaign, so it gives Halberstam’s fearsome concentration plenty to play with, and few specialists if any have ever done more justice than he to the variables: namely, the big game versus the small one, the crucial series that proves inconclusive and the minor one that turns out disastrous, and all the streaks and slumps and injuries that curl their way through the season: and behind and around all this, the alternating rage, boredom, and glee of the personnel, which here includes not only the gypsies who play the game, but the alcoholic manager (Joe McCarthy) and the man-child owner (Tom Yawkey) of the Red Sox, and the pixilated manager (Casey Stengel) and the Scrooge-like general manager of the Yankees (George Weiss), and what seems like hundreds more. Halberstam has a voracious appetite for characters and he crams them in here with a savage excitement that can be contagious, if you feel like playing today. Otherwise, the treacherous question intrudes: all this about a game?
Possibly Halberstam wonders about this too, because he shows a regressive tendency to drag the outside world in by the tail in order to place the mere game in a larger context. “It  was the last moment of innocence in American life,” he quotes the announcer Curt Gowdy as saying, thus giving his stamp to at least the fifth date for this recurrent ritual that I’ve heard so far this year. Foreigners must be puzzled at how often we seem to lose our innocence around here, but it’s just something we do: if we ever really lost it, we probably wouldn’t go on about it so much (and we certainly wouldn’t make movies like the recent Field of Dreams, in which the denouement consists triumphantly of the hero playing catch with his dad).
Halberstam’s apparent approval of this inanity indicates that he isn’t thinking terribly hard for the occasion (what the hell, it’s only a baseball book). And this impression is confirmed a couple of other times. To wit: although the Red Sox lost the 1949 pennant heartbreakingly to a bloop hit by Jerry Coleman which left them almost catatonic with grief, he quotes without criticism Tommy Henrich’s obiter dictum that the Yankees actually won it because they wanted it more, and they wanted it more simply because they were underpaid.
This, after the author has just wrung our withers describing the tattered pitching arms that had tried to bolt the door for Boston, is a bit hard to take, even from an aside. Not only does it make no sense in terms of what he has just described so well himself, but its accuracy also depends on reducing all baseball history to a single year: otherwise one is left having to suppose that the Yankees were also paid less than the Indians and the White Sox, the Giants and the Dodgers, and all the other teams they humbled in those years, and the correct phrase should read, “Rich guys finish last,” a formulation that doesn’t even completely cover George Steinbrenner.
But this illustrates one of the less salubrious aspects of trying to write baseball books for a non-baseball audience: reflexively one reaches for explanations outside the game itself—economics, character, anything will do. By contrast, George V. Higgins in The Progress of the Seasons attempts to explain the same enigma—what’s wrong with the Red Sox, a question that every generation must answer in its own way—in purely baseball terms, and I doubt if there’s a non-fan left in the house after the first sentence (although there are other reasons for reading, or not reading, the book).
(The Progress of the Seasons is a good elbows-on-the-table, Here I Stand kind of baseball book, which sometimes leans a bit clumsily on the new numbers racket: for instance, the attempts to collate Red Sox performance with hours spent traveling—but in that case shouldn’t one first subtract the opponents’ flying time, not to mention the relative jet lag caused by flying East to West? And do we really want to go on with this? But insofar as baseball is used simply as background music to the passionate reticences of an Irish upbringing, the book has the effectiveness of a small, precise truth. This is exactly how it was.)
An investigation into the relative merits of carrots and sticks in baseball might be rewarding, but it would also be technical, and a mass-market author simply wouldn’t have the time for it. Such a one must pick up his major insights on the run, which may account for the slapdash sermonette that Halberstam tosses in toward the end of his book in order to give it a message it has in no wise prepared us for or earned.
“Those five championships [1949-53] marked both the dawn of an era and…the end of an era as well,” he writes.
[The Yankees’] failure to sign blacks brought with it a penalty so severe that not only would the Yankees’ dominance end but the American League by the late fifties and early sixties would become a lesser league.
Now while the second half of this thought may squeak by as a fairly respectable truism (although Hank Greenberg maintains in his book that the American League owners were “imbeciles” across the board, race being only the half of it), the first part, the bit about the death of the Yankees, surely cries out if anything does for the kind of mordant analysis that Halberstam would have brought to, say, the causes of a war or even the rise of the Los Angeles Times (but how seriously is one supposed to write these books anyway? and how seriously does one review them?). As it stands, the sentence reminds me of a coda attached, as I recall, to the movie Spartacus, to the effect that the slaves’ revolt marked the beginning of the end of slavery. What the coda didn’t say was that there was no point holding one’s breath for the next development: at that point, slavery still had nearly two thousand years to go.
So, too, the Yankees after 19531 would go on to win another nine pennants and four championships in eleven years, before collapsing into the arms of CBS and Tim Burke, who could have lost with the Negro All-Stars. Right now the Yankees have a profusion of black players and nothing special to show for it—almost as if it made no difference.
In his rush to slap a liberal moral onto his tale, Halberstam has scanted one of the most remarkable phenomena of American sports history, to wit, the uncanny ascendancy of this one baseball team from 1921 to 1964, in a sport whose checks and balances and susceptibility to pure chance would seem to render such a thing impossible. “Yankee luck,” we used to call it despairingly. And as I read again of Jerry Coleman’s wretched bloop hit that fell in to end the chase in 1949, I felt the same pang I’d felt as an infant when Mickey Owen dropped the third strike. Halberstam mentions earlier that although successive Yankee teams were known for their bombing and murdering, their real secret was pitching and fielding, which suggests that at some point he may have had the real story in his grasp, only to let it skip away: Why did those things happen to the Yankees?
In this same brief lapse of concentration—too brief to damage his book fatally—Halberstam may also have missed a possible chance to advance the question of race and sport maybe another inch or two. Blacks already dominate basketball and to a lesser extent football, but so far they don’t quite dominate baseball, and significantly liberals, whose preferred stance is that race makes no difference in sports, seem to sense that there must be something wrong about this: voices have recently been raised against the New York Mets for not hiring enough blacks, even though the Mets are conceded to have the most talent in baseball with what they’ve got. Clearly, the Mets, like Halberstam’s Yankees, are riding for a fall, sometime in the indefinite future.2
If only because of the unholy length of the season, assembling a great baseball team is as tricky as casting a play, and the best of them do not necessarily contain the best athletes. And what’s mildly frustrating is that Halberstam seems to know it. His discussion of “Yankee pride,” which the older ones passed on like samurai to the new recruits, is so acute that it’s a pity to see him lining up for even a moment with the fraternity of social scientists in missing what is under his nose.
Surely it must have occurred to these people who are paid to think about such things that the current boom in baseball interest might conceivably have something to do with the fact that it is not dominated by blacks. But if it has occurred to them they would no doubt put it down to a collusion of racisms between owner and fan, and let it go at that. Yet surely the actual message of the Yankees and Mets, as opposed to the approved one, is that white boys and girls can still hope to win something in this life, and that perhaps it is even plausible for them to dream of succeeding in this particular sport themselves. Baseball feels like something they can play with the best, football and basketball don’t. And if that be racism, it’s a very pure child who isn’t afflicted with it to at least some small extent.
But have blacks any edge at all in baseball? So far the people asking this not particularly pressing question have proved much more entertaining, and instructive, than the question itself, because the subject reveals a classic split in the pants of the liberal (and I use the word here in its humorous sense) sensibility. On the one hand, liberal dogma has it that all races are created athletically equal,3 and that hence any apparent edge of one over another must ipso facto be temporary and artificial, if not downright illusory; but the tradition has it that the black man is forever being kept from reaching his true potential, so that hence, and equally ipso facto, black athletes must really be even better than they seem, and we’ll worry about the “edge” another time.
Two current books represent the respective trouser legs of the dilemma. The first, Necessities, by Philip Hoose, comes dressed in a cover featuring a black man chained to a basketball, which should tell us, I suppose, where the author is coming from: this will be libéralisme noir, in which even having fun will turn out to be a cruel joke (“tote dat ball, block dat kick”). For all I know the author may be right: there may indeed be a dastardly white plot to keep blacks from being quarterbacks and major league catchers. But if so, and if they start to outnumber whites at those positions too, mightn’t—and one almost hesitates to ask—that mean that they’re simply better than whites?
Not necessarily. In Blackball Stars, a useful little book about the old black baseball leagues, John Holway executes an entrechat on the subject that would make a Jesuit proud. Having unearthed the apparently crushing statistic that in exhibition games played between 1900 and 1950 professional black teams beat professional white ones 268 to 168, he first crows about it for a moment or two, then seems to recollect himself and backs off politely, leaving the white man a loophole to crawl through.
But, he writes,
even granting the argument that the whites could have won more if they had really wanted to, then one must wonder: How many more? Twenty more? Thirty? Fifty? If they had won 50 more than they did, they would have won 218 and lost 218. Could they still argue that the blacks were not their equals on the field?
Assuredly not: because they would then be perfect equals, and we would be in liberal heaven.
But in the more or less real world they didn’t win fifty more, and we’re left with the number, which just sits there, one of those rocks of fact that sport casts up for theorists to scamper around as best they can.4 Athletes, for their part, know what they know, or at least, say what they think. The all-star lineup of the black outfielder Dick Allen consists quite persuasively of seven black players and one white (Mike Schmidt), who “is the baddest white boy I’ve ever seen play the game”—in other words (unless there’s some other way of construing this), he plays just like a black.
Baseball, it will be noted, gives one ample opportunity to talk about something else if you’d prefer, and Dick (better known as Richie, a name he hates) Allen’s book Crash (with Tim Whitaker) may actually be more interesting in its tangents and grace notes than in its story proper. Although Allen was known as a free spirit in his playing days (1963–1977), his opinions here seem quite studied and sly, and, if my reading is a fair guide, reasonably representative of the latest protocol in sporting race talk, which seems right now to permit blacks to be slightly more bigoted than whites, so long as they don’t go overboard.
To wit: Q. “Do you think the black ballplayer and the white ballplayer share a similar work ethic?”
A. “As a rule, the white and the black ballplayer work equally hard. Difference is, the black ballplayer only lets it show when it makes good baseball sense.” And more to the effect that whites show off (example—only example—Pete Rose), while blacks (except for Reggie Jackson) never co—a harmless if cranky enough opinion, but a white athlete probably wouldn’t allow himself even such modulated bigotry as that. (Blacks are too laid back, too elaborately cool? Forget it. If you allow a race to have any characteristics whatever, you are felt to be opening the floodgates.)
In a similar vein, Allen states flatly that “the black ballplayer is the innovator in sports,” which sounds like a promising topic for an all-night debate; but Allen gets no debate from his white coauthor, who merely asks meekly, “Why are the black athletes the innovators?” Which in turn gives Allen a perfect chance not to boast. “When you are poor,” he says, tipping his hat to the sociologists, “you have to improvise your time.” And if he believes that’s all there is to it, then he’s the baddest black liberal I’ve ever heard.
Dick Allen, in short, is obviously a bright man who eats polite interviewers for breakfast, but the ease of this makes him condescendingly slapdash at moments. For instance, in Crash, he passes on as if for the first time the accusation that black athletes are always called “naturals,” and never given credit for hard work and intelligence, an observation which I thought arresting the first time I heard it, but which has since been so well circulated that even the dullest redneck probably wouldn’t use quite those words anymore.5 If someone like Allen wants to pursue the thought to its latest hiding place, he should at least break out a new phrase for it: cleverness may be easier to play than baseball, but it makes some demands.
On the other hand, another of his haymakers may land a little closer:
Q. “Why does baseball have such a hard time dealing with free spirits?”
A. “They don’t—only with the black free spirit.”
And before one can say there he goes again, he illustrates the point quite convincingly with the case of one Alex Johnson, who seemed impenetrably surly to whites, but was apparently a sweet-heart in camera with blacks; and one thinks quickly of other cases, where the colorful black “character” strikes whites as slightly too ominous to be amusing—and in this one might include Allen himself, although discerning whites tended to find him a congenial exception to his own rule.
What Allen seems to have trouble deciding, in his own case and maybe the other blacks’ as well, is whether being misunderstood is altogether such a bad thing or whether perhaps it might not be simply the mark of a superior man; and one senses that he would like to keep both the grievance and the pleasure he got from making white men sweat a little over it, as they tried desperately to figure him out and placate him. Certainly nobody ever got more mileage out of being misunderstood than Crash Allen, turning up for work drunk or not at all, and harboring curious ailments that only he could cure, to the fury of his coworkers. Managers had a way of catering to him, to keep on his good side (“You don’t treat a man with the baseball skills and intelligence of a Dick Allen like an ordinary baseball player,” says one of them) even as he sneered at them for trying to “handle” him, while his teammates, who had probably been spoiled at some earlier stage of life themselves and whose current confidence, hence livelihood, depended on considering themselves special cases too, seethed over the upside-down, black-on-white injustice of it all.
But although sometimes this game of wits was obviously fun, at other times our hero seems to be just plain lost in his curious situation and improvising rather wretchedly. Allen’s sweet-sour predicament, whiplashed between too much love and too much hate, too much praise and too much contempt, underlines one of the peculiar irritations of any black star’s life, namely the lopsidedness of the attention he receives. Allen passed his first baseball year, 1963, in Little Rock, Arkansas, just in time for the vicious death throes of Jim Crow, and from there was moved to left field in Philadelphia, which was reputed to be an even more primitive cauldron in those days: the white man never did anything more vicious to him than putting him in front of the Phillies bleachers, and perhaps no amount of pampering could ever make up for the cretinous abuse he heard out there.
But things did get better, and he lived to receive a standing ovation from those same bleachers, and he seems still at a slight loss what to do about the improvement. “I want you to walk in my shoes,” he instructs his white coauthor, but most of the time his shoes sound pretty good, particularly to those who haven’t had to stand in them on a rainy night when the cabs won’t pick him up after, perhaps, a banquet in his honor.
Dick Allen was simply not a clock-puncher or drudge, as the great record setters have to be in the night-game era, but he did quite enough to establish for all time what he could have done, which is more than can be said for most of us, whatever our profession; he always had as much character as he wanted to have.
Beyond that, one senses that he is willing to play along, up to a point, with the liberal expectation that he turn out to be yet another victim of racism (blacks have been accused of doing that a lot lately, but some white audiences make it irresistible), but only insofar as it enriches his accomplishment. Any attention is sweet when you’re retired. But at one point he quits dancing for a moment and admits that he mightn’t have been half the player he was if he’d fit in better. “Somebody,” as he tells it,
once said to my brother Hank, “If Dick had gone along, instead of bucking the system, he could have had 700 home runs and a 400 lifetime batting average.” And Hank answered, “If Dick had gone along, he might have had 100 home runs and batted 220.”
To which he adds, “I’ll go along with that.”
That sounds about right. Although it probably isn’t what he had in mind, his quirky little book actually reflects a period in which race may have ceased once and for all to be an excuse, unless whites start using it someday from the other direction.
For another angle on bigotry, from another time, consider Hank Greenberg’s The Story of My Life. Even more so than Dick Allen, who was raised in a comparatively integrated town in Pennsylvania, Hank Greenberg grew up not knowing that there was anything funny about him; being a Jewish kid in the Bronx was no big deal in the Thirties, and young Hank added to that cushion of confidence the extra dose that goes with being extra-large physically, always the quickest if not the best answer to bigotry.
Later, as he rolled triumphantly through the big leagues, hitting fifty-eight home runs in his best year, two short of Babe Ruth’s record, that same height and width would give Greenberg the serene air of being above the noise, a giant harassed by pygmies, and the type of impregnable hero that every minority craves. But as Dick Allen reminds us, it’s usually a mistake to think that things come easily to anyone. Big athletes have been known to feel more rather than less vulnerable, as if more of them were exposed, and as if they might be missing something up there. Greenberg’s triumph was his complete mastery of his large frame: the same command system that enabled his brain to move his hands at the lightning speeds of baseball told him, more slowly, but just as decisively, how to deal with social situations; and the same doggedness that kept him practicing until it was too dark to see taught him how to put even anti-Semitism to good use.
“I found it [anti-Semitism] to be a big help,” he writes:
Many times during a long season…you had an inclination to kind of drag a little bit. Whenever I was having a bad day…somebody would yell out from the stands, “Come on you big Jew, can’t you do better than that?” Or something to that effect. It would always hit me like a cold shower. It would make me angry, but it would also put me on my toes again. Just anticipating a barb from the stands did the same thing.
That last sentence surely has to be the last word in positive thinking. Instead of dreading your memories, put them to work for you right away: it was no harder than mastering first base or learning to read the pitchers, both of which Greenberg had done by sheer application, as if the game were played in Carnegie Hall. And the obvious corollary was that, the moment anti-Semitism stops working, stop using it. “Don’t ever use the term ‘because you’re Jewish’ if you don’t do well,” he told a young Jewish team mate—which roughly translates as don’t weaken yourself in pursuit of justice. And again, “It should be more an incentive to be successful.”
Unfortunately, the same qualities that made him a great ballplayer make Greenberg an inadequate chronicler: having consigned useless anti-Semitism to oblivion, he has trouble remembering it at all, and, since the perpetrators usually can’t remember it either, we’ll never know for sure how much he was up against, which would’ve been fine to him: like Jackie Robinson, he did not wish to be remembered as a saint, but as a great ballplayer—that part, he did insist on.
However, one episode perhaps gives us some idea of what we’re missing—a scene on a team bus involving a fight between Hank and the pitcher Rip (for R.I.P., as I write this) Sewell: Greenberg gives one version of the fight, and Sewell gives another, but only a third party, Billy Rogell the shortstop, actually recalls the word “Jew” being central to it. “It always starts with that Jew thing again,” Rogell told Ira Berkow, the skillful editor and coauthor of Greenberg’s book. And perhaps that “always” can stand in for Hank’s missing memories.6 For his part, the great pragmatist was content to insist, with some truth, that the gentiles were equally rough on each other, while preserving the code of omertà, or manly silence, about the rest, and incidentally making the world a safer place for Sandy Koufax and other Jews.
Greenberg’s book also suggests in places that he may have had the defects of his virtues: he tended to be tunnel-visioned and stubborn, and a slow take if life sent him a pitch he hadn’t seen before. Since he had been given so much grief over being Jewish, he did his occasional best to find out what this thing was that he was, but he never got very far with it. Religion remained for him something that people went to war over, a source of nothing but friction, and certainly it had been in his case: but one somehow wishes the noble creature could see beyond his own stall.
Since he never quite knew what Jewishness was, Greenberg was also quite at sea with the nuances of anti-Semitism, most especially with the anti-Semites’ fixation about Jews and money. Throughout the book, he recalls with relish and at length the ferocious bargains he drove with the Detroit management over his salary, blessedly unaware that the Jew who would ingratiate himself with rednecks must appear to be less interested in money than they are, at least in his memoirs, where it’s easy.
As it is, management had a ready-made weapon to use against him when they were ready to release him. In 1946, he asked for deferred payments on his income in order to lessen the tax bite, a maneuver already common in business but new to baseball, and they either misunderstood or pretended to misunderstand and in any event conveyed indignation over it. “Maybe they didn’t like Jews coming up with such ideas,” writes Hank, as if it has only just dawned on him, but I think he misstates it. If my reading is correct, they loved him to come up with such ideas: it was just what they needed to get a popular hero out of town while he still had some value.
Today’s pioneer is tomorrow’s mossback: not long after leaving Detroit Greenberg became an owner himself and began to bargain just as hard from the other side of the divide; and Al Rosen, the young Jewish player who was about to go through the same cycle and become management, describes how he was at his new sport. Rosen had done prodigiously well one particular season, but that winter “when I walked out of there [Greenberg’s office] I felt like I had had a bad year. He reduced me to ashes. It was absolutely devastating.”
One shudders to think what Greenberg would have had to say to our next author, who also happens to be today’s champion at financial thumb-wrestling; Orel Hershiser, the muscular Christian who pitches baseballs and products alike with the unflagging enthusiasm of a missionary. A lifelong user, so he tells us, of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, who recites hymns to himself between innings, Hershiser must be about as far from the foul-mouthed tobacco chewers of Greenberg’s day, or even Dick Allen’s more recent one, as you can get: yet at the bargaining table he is a tiger to their tabby cats, and as such a haunting symbol of the Reagan years, family values, profit motive, and all.
“The Lord wanted me to bargain as hard as I could,” were his approximate words after he had extracted his latest contract, worth $7.9 million for three years’ work, from the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers had already offered him, as I recall, a mere $7.6 million the day before, but the Lord must have told him there was more money in the room, because at that point he allegedly threatened to leave Los Angeles altogether and peddle his wares elsewhere. Yet when he got the 7.9, he admitted he hadn’t the faintest idea what to do with it: he had just wanted to realize his market potential, and here he was, stuck with all this money.
In such cases, modern ballplayers usually add that the lower offer “wouldn’t have been fair to my family,” but in this instance, we find a player apparently willing to uproot said family from friends, schools, and any hope of having a home-town, and take them to any city, however dismal, in the US or Canada, which will raise his fee from one unimaginable figure to another; willing also to perplex the hearts and minds of countless small fry in the Los Angeles area who might have trouble grasping the fine point of principle that obliged their hero to do it. (Even if he was only bluffing, he was at least letting them think that he held their affection cheap.) In the arch little book Yogi,7 Yogi Berra describes having lunch (not a free one I trust) with Milton Friedman. But Friedman obviously met the wrong ballplayer.
What differentiates Orel Hershiser from a score of other scheming athletes of the day, aside from the fact that he does it all himself and can’t blame it on his agent, is that he doubles on the side as baseball’s showcase Christian, the good example pious people juxtapose most often to that of Pete Rose, the infernal riverfront gambler. Yet Pete, for all his sins, had a whole city full of fans willing to die for him, while it’s hard to imagine what combination of cities would die for a transient like Hershiser, if he ever starts making good on his threats.
There would be no excuse for flogging Orel Hershiser further than that (although he who would be an example should be prepared to take his lumps) if he weren’t so representative, not only of Reaganism but of much of born-again America. He is obviously a model young man with a curious but admirable detachment about possessions: one feels that if the Lord instructed him, as He instructed the rich young man in the Gospel, to sell all he has and give to the poor, he would do so without a whimper: it’s just that he receives other instructions.
No doubt, the Bible being what it is, profit-minded born-againers have long since compiled their own arsenal of texts, telling them in sum to keep what they have and double it. And no doubt also, Hershiser in particular will gladly obey the unarguable command to charity and in fact already has. What is striking is that he can think of no other gesture, no symbolic act, witnessing to his Christianity, be it even so simple as bargaining with the Dodgers to lower their ticket prices so more kids could get in, and to hell, for one shining moment, with free-market mechanisms.
In a theology, deduced from Hershiser, the only gesture left is precisely and entirely being a good example—but of what, besides keeping your nose clean, he doesn’t say. The ultimate kernel is obviously just too private to pass on, and Hershiser’s public Christianity boils down feebly to high-minded self-help, someplace between auto-suggestion and kissing the Blarney stone. And there it all sits until such time as concupiscence about money is again seen as at least a slight character blemish, not to mention a menace to society—and curiously hard to give up (smoking is a snap in contrast)—and that Christianity might conceivably have something to say about this.
And if this takes us almost too far from baseball, it is only where the players have taken us themselves. Try talking baseball with some of them these days, and they’ll come back quick as a blink with God-talk: it seems that the Man Upstairs practically hits the curve-ball for them nowadays, so technique doesn’t arise. Nor does the Man Upstairs desert them at contract time, at which stage He helps them in very much the same way: not to get what they need, but strictly to beat the other guy. Hershiser wanted that 7.9 in order to be the best-paid pitcher in baseball, and in that sense it was only play money, and it becomes pompous to bring Christianity into the matter: the players probably have more fun getting it that way than Ivan Boesky ever did (unless, as seems possible, he played in the same spirit), though they’d probably enjoy it even more if they had to dive for it or wrestle each other.
All that Hershiser files sternly away under the rubric “business decisions,” which he keeps as separate from real life as a mafia chieftain at a daughter’s wedding. In real life, he has co-hosted a quite passable baseball book, written, as such books always used to be, for a bright twelve-year-old who might, in this case, want to learn what it’s like to pitch in the big leagues and then, more specifically, what went through the author’s mind, ball-by-ball, as he pitched to the Mets in the 1988 National League playoffs. Hershiser’s astonishing string of sixty-six scoreless innings last year seems to have been a mental prodigy as much as a physical one, and no doubt a vivid example of Christianity in action. “Do what thou doest.” I’ve read a great deal worse during my recent immersion in this stuff.
Meanwhile, back in real life, baseball itself has spent the past summer spinning a story far better, and closer to literature, than any of the above. The endless, timeless showdown between Pete Rose, who bet on anything that moved, including his own team, and the late Bart Giamatti, the baseball commissioner, arrived by stages at the kind of drama that perhaps only our two slowest pastimes, baseball and the law, still have time to stage. Pete Rose is a classical figure in baseball (even his face is old-fashioned): the eternal roustabout who takes the game’s natural properties of slyness and bluff home to bed with him and elsewhere. Rose represents the baseball of hidden balls and stolen signs and bean-ball wars and his natural habitat is the second decade of the century, a period which the magisterial Bill James, the baseball philosopher, classifies starkly as “A Decade Wrapped in Greed”; and his author is Ring Lardner. Bart Giamatti, for his part, was an echt baseball fan, whose love for the game was almost too pure for this world, and whose author, I am tempted to say, in this case, is Giuseppe Verdi. At any rate, Giamatti’s final sentencing of Rose could easily be turned into an aria in a tragic opera: both men had the stature for it.
Failing that, the clash of these two mortal rivals for the hand of baseball is at least the stuff of books, and needless to say books under both their names will be appearing shortly. Rose’s will presumably tell his side in the case, but Giamatti’s (posthumous) volume, Take Time for Paradise. (even the title sounds like an epitaph) will surely tell about his love for sports—which I guess was his side of the case. It will be nice to be reminded of his extraordinary presence just a little bit longer.
October 12, 1989
The year is artfully chosen: if the subject is to be the Yankees and the black factor, surely we have to start counting from 1949. But if one makes that post-1953 instead, it works out that the Yankees “only” went on to win four more championships out of nine. Even so—no other (non-Yankee) team has ever won that many world series in that short a time in the entire history of baseball. ↩
Probably sooner rather than later. Free agency and the annual baseball draft have rendered the construction of dynasties, white or black, almost impossible now. All the same, I wouldn’t bet that the old Yankees couldn’t have done it. ↩
Before one makes any more fun of the sports egalitarians, it could be argued that over the years they’ve been more right than wrong and that their farfetched assumption that anyone can do anything has proved surprisingly fruitful and one of America’s glories. The danger now is that by imposing their will on the evidence, they give the impression of being afraid of it, as if admitting that blacks are better at one thing were tantamount to calling them worse at something else. ↩
Before a white supremacist can retort that what makes a big leaguer a big leaguer is how much he learns from each encounter, and that the whites would probably prevail if the races played each other more regularly, I suggest we all fall as silent as Galileo until the subject is declared fit for honest discussion. On a recent TV special about race and sport, Tom Brokaw declared that it was almost impossible to get scientists to testify on behalf of genetic explanations: which, TV exposure being what it is, suggests a wave, if not of fear, then of unprecedented timidity. ↩
The charge that everything comes easily to them has dogged graceful athletes for as long as anyone can remember, and one of my own earliest memories is of Joe DiMaggio wearily defending himself against it—perhaps on behalf of all Italians. But it could be that blacks have been picked on once too often with this compliment. In which case, salvation may eventually arrive from the direction of basketball in which Bill Russell, Lenny Wilkens, Isaiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, and countless others have always been prized expressly for their intelligence and craft. ↩
Curiously enough, Dick Allen also reports next to no racism from his teammates, but you never can tell with Allen. Although he is no stoic in other respects, he tells his coauthor, “I’m not telling stories about my teammates,” so we can’t be quite sure with him either. But since half of his teammates and opponents were black anyway, it seems safe to assume his worst troubles began where Greenberg’s ended, outside the ball park. ↩
Yogi Berra with Tom Horton, Yogi: It Ain’t Over , (McGraw-Hill, 1989). ↩