In “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley wrote one of our culture’s happiest lines: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” Baseball fans have always lived by this maxim, as winter’s talk (still called “the hot stove league” to honor older places of public conversation) yielded to spring training and the start of another season. But not this year. While owners and players, tycoons all, continue their pointless and destructive strike, fans are reduced to writing and remembering. In choosing baseball’s most ancient and distinctive genre—the sports biography—as my subject for this review, I can at least honor the continuity and change that fans once viewed as inviolable for the game itself, the guarantee of our fealty.
In formulating his optimistic maxim, Shelley called the west wind of autumn “the trumpet of a prophecy.” Several of the biographies under review issue their own jeremiads without any overt intent. Their statements about the continuity of baseball, particularly the annual ritual of the World Series (which neither distant war nor immediate earthquake could ever interrupt), ring especially hollow after the rupture of 1994, when baseball’s owners canceled both the season’s end and the subsequent World Series. In his biography of Christy Mathewson, baseball’s first public hero, Ray Robinson discussed the refusal of the 1904 Giants to meet the Red Sox in a World Series (only one had been played before, in 1903, so the Giants were scarcely violating an established tradition). The Giant’s owner, John Brush, and manager, John McGraw, hated the “upstart” American League—just formed in 1901, while their own National League dated to 1876—and didn’t wish to dignify the new league’s existence with such a contest.
Thus, the World Series of 1904 was never played. It was the last time in the game’s modern history that an owner of a pennant-winning club could unilaterally kill off the World Series. It wouldn’t happen again. Thereafter, the Series was played every year on schedule, becoming the ultimate theatrical moment of every baseball season. No autocrat like Brush, no despot like McGraw would be able to do a thing about it.
Even the clichés of conventional biographical puffery, the passages either read in derision or skipped in boredom, have poignancy in this altered context, as in this bromide from John Kruk of the Philadelphia Phillies, a key player in the last World Series of 1993:
Baseball is a game. Win or lose, you play again the next day. If you lose the last game of the World Series [as the Phillies did] you can play again next year. It’s not the end of the world.
I am a paleontologist by trade, a student of life’s uninterrupted 3.5 billion year history on earth. All species die, and new forms emerge; but continuity has and must be maintained, or else we would not be here today—for if all life had ever been exterminated, what odds could be placed on reconstitution, especially of anything as complex as Ted Williams’s swing, or Nolan Ryan’s heater? Paleontologists therefore have a special feeling about the ultimate value of continuity.
If deprived of the thing itself, we must seek a surrogate with the cardinal properties of persistence and its own interesting history of change. Aside from schedules, score cards, rule books, and guides on how to play, the literature of baseball best provides such continuity (with alteration through time) in its distinctive genre of biography for star performers.
Such works are as old as professionalization of the sport itself (mid to late nineteenth century). Putative autobiography has always relied upon the services of ghostwriters (the preferred form of yesteryear) or “as-told-to” mouthpieces who craft the conventional sequence of chapters from taped interviews (the modern style). Sportswriters have not been overpaid, and supply often exceeds demand—so a job as trumpet for the stars has always been regarded as potentially lucrative and sufficiently honorable. Moreover, with few exceptions, ballplayers have not been blessed with literary skills to match their physical prowess, so we should not begrudge them their surrogates. Even the pitcher Christy Mathewson, regarded as the intellectual among early twentieth-century players because he had spent some time in college (at Bucknell, though he did not graduate), hired a ghostwriter to compose the many books that appeared under his name.
The history of baseball biography has followed the trend of general culture. Before 1970, almost all published books strictly obeyed the conventions of the hagiographical mode—limitation of treatment to the heroic aspects of on-field play, told as an epic, so that the tragedies of defeat (borne with stoic honor) received equal space with the joys of victory. Statements about personal life, if any, echoed Horatio Alger and told us how diligence and dedication might overcome an early life of poverty and illness. Even the titles of these books conveyed the gratitude of men who might never have emerged from the coal mine, or debarked from the fishing boat, if God had not granted, and the public appreciated, their fortunate skills of body—as in Joe DiMaggio’s Lucky to be a Yankee from the 1940s.
Former arbiters of taste must have felt (as so many apostles of “traditional values” and other high-minded tags for restriction and conformity do today) that maintaining the social order required a concept of unalloyed heroism. Human beings so designated as role models had to embody all virtues of the paragon—which meant, of course, that they could not be described in their truly human, and ineluctably faulted form.
I confess to some ambivalence about our modern veering to the other extreme of “kiss and tell.” We need heroes, and Zeus and Achilles will no longer do (they weren’t very nice folks anyway). I don’t mind discreet silence about certain categories of private behavior (and I am glad that the press kept out of FDR’s bedroom). But I do reject a one-dimensional presentation of public life (and I regret the lost opportunity for private understanding of the man and public knowledge of disability when Roosevelt and the press so cunningly hid his paralysis; think what might have been gained if he had been able to announce, in calm dignity, that he did not govern with his legs).
Ballplayers, as young males living on the road for so many months a year, are notoriously less likely to act as paragons in any case, so the old style seems more inaccurate about these men than about any other putative heroes (except, perhaps, actors and politicians). There is, of course, no final “truth” to be captured by the art of biography, but we can pronounce this postmodern dictum and still allow that some genres depart further than others from salient facts of a person’s life. The old hagiographical biographies certainly left a lot out. Had the authors of these books explicitly restricted their narratives to performance on the field, we might criticize them for limited compass, but could not charge gross inaccuracy. Yet these older books do make a claim for providing full and accurate representation of players’ lives.
Can we understand Babe Ruth without his drinking and whoring; or Ty Cobb without his paranoia, racism, and general nastiness; or Grover Cleveland Alexander and Jimmie Foxx (and so many others) without the perils of dipsomania? In The Meaning of Nolan Ryan, Nick Trujillo tells a story about Babe Ruth and the press that can stand as a symbol of transformation, with all its meanings and ambiguities. An eyewitness
provided the perfect example of this change in sports when he told the story about a group of beat writers traveling by train with the New York Yankees in 1928. The group watched in awe as an attractive young woman wielding a knife chased after Babe Ruth yelling, “I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch.” One of the writers said, “That’d make a helluva story,” as his colleagues laughed and continued to play poker, knowing that the story would never be written.
The change to kiss-and-tell biography would have occurred in any case because a cultural alteration of this magnitude cannot be resisted by one segment so firmly tied to the mainstream. But particular items fuel or catalyze any particular transition, and we need to honor these efforts whatever the general inevitability. Jim Bouton was a mediocre pitcher for the New York Yankees at the end of their glory years in the early 1960s. He then played for the hapless Seattle Pilots in 1969, a short-lived team. Bouton wasn’t much of a pitcher (62 wins, 63 losses, lifetime), but he had one skill vouchsafed to very few ballplayers: he could write. In 1970, he changed the face of sports biography forever by composing a book with the unsurprising title Ball Four. His description of life in baseball broke all taboos by trying to describe the tedium, the pettiness, the raucousness, even the raunchiness of this particular male society on the road.
Yet Ball Four already seems dated. Bouton has much to say about drinking and pill popping. Some of his scenes are memorable for their humor—particularly the clubhouse election to choose a new catcher for the “all-ugly nine” in 1965 after Yogi Berra retired. But Bouton maintains a discreet silence about a variety of unmentionable subjects, notably dishonesty and race relations, and also about sex, where he lets humor and silliness substitute for action. (In Bouton’s most celebrated “exposé,” he recounts how Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin would crawl out upon ledges and roofs of hotels for a game of “beaver shooting,” or spotting naked women through the windows.)
Now everything hangs out (often to the near exclusion of play on the field as a subject—what an absurd inversion!). Even the most saccharine book for granny and the kids must now include the expletives deleted from Nixon’s tapes and a “manly” account of sexual prowess (often with a disingenuous admission of guilt as an attempted nod to the feminists). Jim Bouton himself, on reissuing Ball Four in 1981, wrote: “The books that have come after mine make Ball Four, as an exposé, read like The Bobbsey Twins Go to the Seashore.”
A classical device in literature traces the passage of time by permitting the anomalous survival of an oldster into the wonder of a new age—Rip Van Winkle as America’s prototype, though paleontologists have their own version in the concept of “living fossils,” or creatures like cockroaches and horseshoe crabs that persist almost unchanged for “too many” millennia. This season offers a marvelous opportunity to write about the history of baseball biography because we have just been presented with the finest example of this device in all the days of our sports.
Ty Cobb, who played from 1905 to 1928 (mostly with Detroit and later with Philadelphia), was probably the finest player in the history of baseball (Ruth, Aaron, and a few others have their defenders, but why quibble among the paragons). He hit over .400 in three seasons, stole 892 bases, and won 12 batting championships. His lifetime batting average of .367 will, we may state with confidence, never be equaled (although Pete Rose eclipsed his mark for most career hits, while three players surpassed him in stolen bases).
But Cobb was also, and even more undoubtedly, the meanest star in the history of American sport. He delighted in the fact that he had pistolwhipped a man to death. A violent racist, he would beat up any black person who touched him (his teammates once had to pull him off a black laundrywoman). He once dived into the stands to thrash a man who had taunted him (and he continued the beating even when told that the man had no arms, for his tormentor had called him a “half nigger”). Psychobiographers have no trouble attributing this behavior to the great trauma of his teen-age years, when his mother shot his adored father to death after mistaking him for an intruder (and why blame her, since Mr. Cobb, Sr., had climbed in through a second-story window, apparently on suspicion that his wife was in bed with a lover? And perhaps she was). Whatever the complex causes, Cobb was vicious and probably psychotic. He played brilliantly, made millions in the stock market thereafter, and lived and died absolutely friendless.
In 1960, mired in drunken rages and sensing the approach of death, Cobb hired sportswriter Al Stump to compose a standard hagiographical biography in the defensive mode, as the title indicated—My Life in Baseball: The True Record. This book could not be more traditional in style (and therefore becomes a prototype by having the greatest of the great as its subject).
The Cobb-Stump apologia begins with the greatest possible panache, a foreword by none other than General Douglas MacArthur, whose personality and politics made him more likely than anyone else in America to admire Cobb. MacArthur wrote predictably,
This great athlete seems to have understood early in his professional career that in the competition of baseball, just as in war, defensive strategy never has produced ultimate victory and, as a consequence, he maintained an offensive posture to the end of his baseball days…
Ty Cobb injected much of his own fighting spirit into that aspect of the American character which has put inspiration and direction behind our progress as a free nation.
There follows an even more remarkable preface from E.A. Batchelor, then the oldest active member of the Baseball Writer’s Association of America, and a longtime Cobb watcher and apologist. He called Cobb “the greatest ballplayer that ever lived” and praised “the greatest combination of qualities of body, heart, and mind ever given to a professional ballplayer.” But what qualities? Batchelor does take up all those nasty rumors about Cobb’s demented persona, but he presents a literally incredible explanation for them:
Early in his baseball life, a canard developed that Ty was a brawler who constantly sought trouble. This misconception seems to have started when he first joined the Tigers, as a slender youth of eighteen, a well-brought-up boy inclined to be friendly with everybody and anxious only to make good on his own merits. Unfortunately for him, there then were among an otherwise fine group of men on the Detroit roster, a few who were contemptible bullies. These rowdies immediately started to pick on the stripling from Georgia and did everything their disordered minds could think of to make life miserable for him.
Mr. Stump’s chronicle then continues for another three hundred pages in the same mode.
Since then, Bouton’s revolution came and conquered—and Al Stump watched and waited. Few people get a second chance after the revolution (though Jacques-Louis David, as a Jacobin, voted for the death of Louis XVI and then lived to become Napoleon’s court painter). But Al Stump, at age seventy-eight, has just produced a new biography, more simply titled Cobb, and largely to expiate the inadequacies of his earlier treatment. The new volume still leans toward the respectful (for the mind cannot be easily cleared of earlier commitments, even so many years later), but Cobb’s persona now gets prominent billing, no aspects excluded. Stump himself, substituting for MacArthur in the prologue, writes of his earlier work: “That 1961 autobiography was very self-serving. Cobb had the final say in its contents, accorded him by the publisher. And when we did not agree, which was often, it was his word that was accepted by Doubleday.”
In striking symmetry of form with the 1961 volume, but with utter contrast in content, Stump’s new book then features a foreword by Jimmy Reese (then ninety-three, the oldest living major leaguer in the Association of Professional Ballplayers—just as the senior professional sportswriter had performed this task for the 1961 book). But Reese, who played against Cobb for many years, remembers the viciousness along with the skill and dedication:
Not many are left who saw Ty Cobb on the rampage in the years 1905–28… What a wildcat he was… We called him “Jack Dempsey in spikes.” The story is quite true that Cobb filed his spikes to razor sharpness to first intimidate opponents and then gore them.
Reese then quotes Lou Gehrig, perhaps the most genial of the star players: “Cobb is about as welcome in American League parks as a rattlesnake.”
Stump’s expiation has gained immeasurably greater force by the conversion of his books into a movie, just released—Cobb, starring Tommy Lee Jones as Ty, and Robert Wuhl as Stump. The film hardly deals with Cobb’s life as a ballplayer, but concentrates on his dying year and on his relationship with Stump when the sportswriter ghosted the 1961 version. Director and screenwriter Ron Shelton (of Bull Durham fame) has cast his account of Cobb in the classic (and rather tired) genre of on-the-road “buddy” movies, in this case the adventures of an old codger and his strained but loyal sidekick. Cobb and Stump go to Reno for a bit of partying, on to Cooperstown (where colleagues honor him at the Hall of Fame dinner, but will not let him into their private parties thereafter), and finally to Cobb’s native Georgia, where he dies, surrounded by bitter memories of his father’s murder.
Among the film’s many inaccuracies (mostly exaggerations, for dramatic effect, of Cobb’s lousy driving, impotent loving, and tempestuous drinking), one item of artistic license stands out as a symbol of change in the history of baseball biography. Today, we simply cannot believe that a sympathetic character like Stump could have acted as such a toady to Cobb’s lies and rages. So the film relies upon a device to remake the 1960 Stump as a post-Bouton modernist. Stump writes the biography that Cobb requires on his portable typewriter, but he also stuffs a briefcase full of handwritten notes with all the true and nasty stuff, hastily scribbled while Cobb was drunk or asleep. These he intends to fashion into a separate book after Cobb’s impending death. (Cobb, of course, finds the notes in one of the film’s most dramatic scenes.)
I understand the need for this anachronistic ruse to make Al Stump a sympathetic character in modern terms—a man committed to the “true” record, even while he must humor his bully (in both senses) subject. Yet we distort and dishonor history in such an approach, no matter how good our intentions, just as we falsify a past we need to understand when we “update” racial relations (as in the current Broadway revival of Show Boat, first staged in 1927), or change the text of Bach’s St. John Passion to read “the people” every time the original, and truly Biblical, text says “the Jews.” Al Stump planned no second “truthful” book when he worked with Cobb in 1960. Why would he have so proceeded against all the accepted standards of his day? In acting as a mouthpiece for Cobb, Stump was doing an honorable job, in a mode that had long been canonical for the genre. Richard Sandomir, interviewing Al Stump in the New York Times, wrote: “Stump was not haunted by or ambivalent about not writing a truer version of Cobb’s life the first time around.” Stump himself then told the interviewer: “I didn’t have any secret plan to go around Cobb to write a second book.”
As Darwin recognized in devising his own theories for the broad sweep of life’s history, evolutionary change encompasses two distinct subjects: (1) trends, or general modification of lineages through time; and (2) diversification, or alterations in the number of entities (loss of species by extinction and gain by branching of genealogical lines). The Boutonian revolution in baseball biography may be judged by both criteria in considering the most interesting books of the last two years.
On the first subject of trending, or general change, the old hagiographies about on-field play are out, replaced, probably forever, by mixtures of psychobiography and social commentary with old-fashioned baseball chronicle. Consider, for example, two recent biographies of heroes (if the term retains meaning in its original sense) from early and later generations: Christy Mathewson (played 1900–1916) and Ted Williams (played 1939–1960).
Who, even in fantasy, could have constructed a better American idol than Christy Mathewson: tall, handsome, god-fearing (he opposed Sunday ball at first), non-drinking, gentle and polite, college-educated (at a time when few people in general, and ballplayers especially, got much formal schooling), and by far the greatest right-handed pitcher of the early game? He also died young, both tragically and heroically—of tuberculosis, just a few years after an accidental gassing in army exercises during World War I (probably unrelated to his early demise, but always so associated in the public mind). Ray Robinson’s fine biography sticks mostly to his sports career, but bears the pervasive signature of post-Boutonian writing in its constant linkage of baseball narrative with the main events of history, both domestic and foreign, and in its emphasis upon Matty’s relationships with others in the game, particularly with his feisty manager, John McGraw.
In 1991, I participated in a learned symposium to discuss the fiftieth anniversary of Ted Williams’s banner season of 1941, when he hit .406 (a pinnacle reached by no one since). After all the panelists had spoken, Jean Yawkey, owner of the Boston Red Sox, rose from the audience and, obviously annoyed by the scholarly and statistical slant of the panelists, addressed a more emotional question to the audience: “How many of you never saw Ted Williams bat?” About half the people present raised their hand. Mrs. Yawkey simply said, “What a pity!” and sat down. I often saw Ted Williams at bat, and he was my mortal enemy (for I am a Yankee fan): he was the greatest.
Unlike Mathewson, Williams was no paragon of personal character. He played with enormous intensity and inward concentration (some called him selfish), and he maintained a constant feud with sportswriters and, to some extent, the public as well (Boston fans have still not entirely forgiven Williams for refusing to reenter the field and tip his hat to acknowledge their thunderous applause after he had homered in his last major league at-bat in 1960). But Williams was at least an adequate hero for our times: he didn’t brawl or drink (at least as a public spectacle), and he did sacrifice four prime seasons of his career to fight in two wars. Ed Linn’s marvelous biography, Hitter, is, again, refreshingly old-fashioned in its focus on his life at bat (Linn, a veteran sports-writer, followed Williams’s career from his rookie season in 1939), but also ineluctably post-Boutonian in its exploration of his troubled childhood with a difficult mother and his feuds with the press and, symbolically, in its Sturm und Drang subtitle: The Life and Turmoils of Ted Williams.
But the effects of general change are most tellingly recorded not in alteration of the best products, but in transformation of the most ordinary, workaday books; for when potboilers adopt the new style, then the revolution is complete. Consider the usual process of composition for a baseball potboiler: decent player has banner year; sportswriter for the local paper has followed him all season; writer records on tape some tens of hours of interviews with player; writer produces a 250-page book in time for release at the beginning of the next season; book is heavily marketed in the player’s home town and almost nowhere else; enough copies are sold to justify expenses and return some profit.
John Kruk is a perfectly competent ballplayer; he is also a distinctive character par excellence on the current baseball scene—fat and proud of it, and leader of the scruffy-imaged Philadelphia Phillies, toast of a nation, but losers to Toronto in the last World Series.
If you wish to find a good example of literary revolution completed, just read Kruk’s book “as told to” Paul Hagen: “I Ain’t an Athlete, Lady…”: My Well-Rounded Life and Times. We do hear a bit about baseball, but ever so much more about Kruk’s weight, Mitch Williams’s unhappiness, and various petty grousings about this and that. The hagiography of play on the diamond has turned into gossip about life off the field. Hardly an improvement.
As for diversification, post-Boutonian baseball biography has also added a variety of styles and subjects that would have been unthinkable in the hagiographical era. All may be viewed as consequences of the transformation of baseball biography into social commentary.
Social commentary thrives on the lives of people who have become marginal within their communities or professions. The post-Boutonian expansion of baseball writing has provided a bonanza of opportunity for biographers of the formerly neglected, most notably the shameful history of those once excluded from major league play by the irrelevancy of skin color. Many of these great players, palpable heroes among blacks, became legendary figures for fairminded whites (I think of my father and grandfather), who knew that the excluded stars equaled or exceeded their own Ruths and Gehrigs but could never see them compete face to face.
The most famous, and perhaps the greatest, of all black players, pitcher Satchel Paige, finally got to perform in the major leagues—in his late forties, and with sustained excellence, long after most other players had retired. (I well remember the thrill of seeing him as a boy.) Although Paige may have been the greatest pitcher of all time, his biography must be written largely as social commentary—and Mark Ribowsky has done a fine job in Don’t Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball. What can one say, except that his story could make any grown man cry, as we learn about Paige’s dignity and his good humor as he walked the necessary but impossible tightrope between “acting black” (by white racist expectations) as the situation demanded (and when dignity did not greatly suffer, or could be redeemed by humor or subtle table-turning) and the explicit courage of directly making demands and taking action. Paige was also the Yogi Berra of his generation, “America’s greatest existentialist philosopher,” Ribowsky tells us with permissible hype. Just consider the poignancy and good spirit of this Paigeian dictum (though incontestably true as well) from a man unfairly deprived of so much: “Bases on balls is the curse of the nation.”
Among marginalized players once deemed beyond consideration by conventional hagiography, the lousy performers stand out. Moe Berg, who played sporadically from 1923 to 1939, was a truly poor catcher but perhaps the most fascinating character in the history of baseball. He is therefore candidate numero uno for post-Boutonian biography of the marginalized—and Nicholas Dawidoff has responded splendidly in his best-selling The Catcher Was a Spy.
Berg was marginal on all fronts within baseball—a crummy player, a Jew, and an intellectual. Berg finished both college and law school, and was a linguist by avocation and partial hype. (In Japan, for example, he did what generations of bluffers, including myself, I must admit, have done to convince people of nonexistent competence based upon marginal effort: he learned the fifty or so symbols of the katakana, the syllabary used as a supplementary system to traditional kanji characters; with katakana, any series of sounds can be written out, at least approximately.)
I had not expected to like Moe Berg much, for I thought that all the standard stories of his life had been egregiously embellished, and that his other exploits might turn out to be as mundane as his baseball. Not so, and I thank Dawidoff for the corrections. Though he thrived on exaggeration, in part concocted by the press to give him a persona that could transcend his play, Berg was a genuinely cultured and accomplished man. (I love John McGraw’s comment about Berg’s trip to Europe: “Who ever heard of a ballplayer spending his vacation studying Latin—and in Paris?”)
Moreover, the well-rehearsed legend of his career in espionage turns out to be true. Chosen for his rare combination of charm, good looks, intelligence, genuine bravery, and linguistic ability, Berg worked at high levels of espionage for the US government during World War II. He had a major role in a plot, bizarre and futile in retrospect but not absurd in conception, to kidnap (even perhaps to kill) Werner Heisenberg, if the great German physicist had been making substantial progress toward the manufacture of nuclear weapons. (He wasn’t—but no one knew for sure, and Berg could have emerged as a great hero if the German bomb had been a near reality.)
Berg’s life ended in sadness, for he could never move beyond his past, or overcome the maddening secretiveness and idiosyncrasy that ultimately drove nearly everyone away. Rejected by the CIA for work in espionage after 1945 (for they found unsupportable in peacetime the same bravado that Wild Bill Donovan had valued for the wartime effort), Berg spent the last quarter-century of his life (he died in 1972) unemployed, moving and mooching from acquaintance to acquaintance, telling the same old baseball and war stories. During all this time, he tried to write his autobiography, but never could—perhaps because hagiography was then dominant, and Berg had too much self-respect to compose in such a mode. Dawidoff writes of Berg’s inability to complete the book of his life:
Alone at his desk, Berg could gloss over and manipulate things no longer…He saw [himself] as a mediocre ballplayer, a scholar only within the unlearned community of baseball, and an intelligence agent whose work had come to nothing. There was no bomb, and the CIA didn’t want him.
If lives of the marginalized have added one genre of social commentary to the literature of baseball biography, another may be found in retaining the traditional focus on star players but in writing about their cultural impact rather than their skill on the field. I trust that this genre will be exploited only so far (for genuine sports-talk must not end), but I must confess to great interest in Nick Trujillo’s The Meaning of Nolan Ryan, the first post-modern biography of a star ballplayer.
Nolan Ryan broke in with the hapless New York Mets in 1966 and pitched until the end of the 1993 season. Very few major league pitchers play into their forties, and those who do usually rely on soft stuff (knuckle-ballers stay the longest). Nolan Ryan continued to throw the best fastball in the game right to the end. Moreover, he improved through time. He began as a mediocre hurler with no control and no diversity of pitches (the Mets only used him once, in relief for a couple of innings, during the magnificent World Series of 1969). He ended with great control, immense cunning, and a host of additional pitches to augment the heater. In addition, Ryan is a traditional “hero” in an age that has almost deprived the term of meaning: he is tall, handsome, patriotic, married only once and living on a ranch, “down-home” in manner (despite his immense acquired wealth), and gracious and modest. Enter, therefore, the exploiters and the commercializers, for this is America. And enter Nick Trujillo, associate professor of communication studies at California State University, Sacramento.
When Ryan was traded to the Texas Rangers in 1989, Trujillo spent three seasons studying his utility to the team’s owners and fans. Once upon a time, we might have defined utility by performance on the field, and Ryan continued to do some marvelous pitching. But now, with ballplayers marketed in every conceivable outlet from autograph shows to pictures on pencils, the financial value of a genuine hero can be measured only by taking account of all his salable symbols, with on-field performance as a starting point of ever-receding import.
We therefore meet the postmodern Ryan of commercial America, fragmented into his salable symbolic roles, none more genuine or truer than the other. Trujillo lists them as follows: “Ryan the Hall of Fame power pitcher, Ryan the cowboy rancher, Ryan the family man, Ryan the workaholic, Ryan the profit-seeking endorser, Ryan the conservative Republican, Ryan the hunter and fisherman, and even Ryan the sex symbol.”
I was most struck by Trujillo’s analysis of the power of the press and television to orchestrate artificial frenzies over trivial events—particularly the immense publicity (and sale of memorabilia) ignited on the occasion of Ryan’s 5,000th strikeout. (No other pitcher had ever reached this number, but once you get to 4,999, number 5,000 just has to come along the next time—no big deal when you are averaging more than nine strikeouts per game. The total accomplishment is, of course, magnificent; the event of number 5,000 itself is meaningless.) Yet the press and the publicists told us we should care, and most Ranger fans swear they can remember their location at the sublime moment, just as all folks of my generation know where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot.
The public may be cheapened by this devaluation of play, but has Ryan (as he became greatly enriched) also been diminished in turn? In 1975, in vigorous midcareer, Ryan told a reporter: “I try to spend all my free time with my family. I could make more appearances and get more attention other ways, I guess, but this is the life I want.” In 1992 he wrote in his autobiography, Miracle Man, about his greater willingness to make endorsements: “I have a better idea of what they want, and I’m learning to deliver with every take…. Since the extra income allows me to do things for my family I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise, I carefully select the right ones and accept them.”
I honor and value post-Boutonism, but may this fresh wind not blow us too far from the founding subject. The old hagiographies, at worst, relied on invention and hypocrisy, but at least they talked about baseball and told us how their heroes hit a curve and slid into third base. The new books, when they are good, fill in dimensions previously excluded and give voices to a variety of players ignored by the hagiographers. But, when bad, the post-Boutonian books get so tied up in their sociological analyses (the highfalutin ones) or smarmy kiss-and-tell exposés (the vernacular versions) that baseball recedes into a barely relevant background.
Al Stump’s second book is a fine post-Boutonian biography, but the movie version, Cobb, has been a crushing failure (and may not even be released nationally) despite some wonderful acting by Tommy Lee Jones. I think that director Ron Shelton lost his bearings and forgot his subject. He became so intrigued with Cobb the aged psychotic that he forgot Cobb the greatest ballplayer who ever lived. Shelton begins with a “newsreel” epitomizing Cobb’s playing career, but the rest of the movie is a chronicle of Cobb’s dying year, his relationship with Stump, and Stump’s anachronistic struggle about integrity. We never again see Cobb on the ballfield.
Hal Crowther, reviewing Stump’s second book in the North Carolina Independent, wrote:
[Cobb’s] sickness was a distorted reflection of our own. You can make a case that he influenced the outcome of more major league baseball games than any player who ever lived. The question is whether that achievement means anything at all, considering the pathology of the athlete and the human cost he incurred.
At ten, I would have waffled on that one. Now it’s clear to me that the answer is “No.”
Well, it is not clear to me; and I think the answer is “yes.” What price glory, to be sure. Cobb was a vicious bastard, and he brought misery to many around him. But baseball is a beautiful game, an important part of our history as a nation, and a joy and comfort in the lives of millions (if ever the pouting players and owners end their ridiculous pissing contest and return the institution, which they have only borrowed for a while and for their profit, to its true custodians, the fans). And excellence in any honorable form—that rarest and most precious of human accomplishments—must be praised, despite the toll often exacted on the achievers and the victims of their obsessions. Cobb was the greatest ballplayer in American history—and baseball doesn’t kill or maim.
Assessing importance is so much a matter of scale. Cobb sowed misery during his living moment to a small circle of people in his direct orbit. But moments and orbits recede as the generations roll, while unparalleled excellence emerges and holds fast. The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs looked terrible to any particular Tyrannosaurus witnessing the impact, but worked out wonderfully well for surviving mammals millions of years later. Who knows or cares any more about the foibles of Aeschylus or Sophocles, but I trust that we shall watch Agamemnon and Oedipus Rex as long as humanity persists.
No one can say of Tyrus Raymond Cobb, as Antony did of Brutus, that “his life was gentle,” or that “the elements/So mix’d in him, that Nature might stand up/And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’ ” Cobb was monomaniacal, and he paid the personal price. But we might say of him, “This was a ballplayer!” Such a judgment should be enough to give life value. Render to Ty Cobb what he couldn’t give to others. His viciousness cannot injure anyone any more; the excellence of his play endures.
March 2, 1995