November 21st, 2011

The Hot Stove League

I delivered this brief talk the other day at the Beattie-Powers House in the New York village where I reside, Catskill. I thought you might like it.

Hello. I am Major League Baseball’s official historian and, more importantly today, your neighbor. I was fortunate enough to attend all seven games of this year’s World Series, and by most any measure it was one of the all-time greats.

After Game Six, I walked back to my hotel in St. Louis surrounded by Cardinal revelers raucous and giddy in a way that I, as a Mets fan, could not be. Yet I woke the next morning still struck with the improbability — no, the impossibility — of what I had just witnessed. One strike away from World Series defeat, in two successive innings, yet pulled back from the brink each time. Game Seven could not live up to this standard, and the Cards won in humdrum style. The following morning I came home, subdued and a bit sad that the game would now be mothballed for a long while.

But baseball is never quite over and done with. Every day since the World Series I have devoured every crumb of baseball news I could find, and have daily swapped stories of the game in distant days with a legion of likeminded friends in distant places. The web is our century’s general store and electronic messages its equivalent of spitting tobacco juice on the hot stove in the general store.

Soon, pitchers and catchers will report to camps in Florida and Arizona, and American hearts and minds, even those so recently in thrall to the rites of the oblate spheroid, will spring to attention. But for some months we can still swap cracker-barrel wisdom and bask in the wintry glow of the game that connects us with our past, that races through us like blood.

Baseball has always had an active hot-stove league in which today’s stars might be matched against those of the past. Ruth and Cobb, DiMaggio and Williams, Mathewson and Johnson — they cavort like colts every winter and are content to be idle when spring rolls around. But there is no summer stadium where Grange and Nagurski, Thorpe and Baugh, Brown and Huff square off. In football there is no air-conditioner league. When was the last time you played a game of football trivia? Or basketball trivia? Or hockey trivia?

Willie, Mickey, or the Duke? The Babe, Hammerin’ Hank, or Barry Bonds? Cy Young, Sandy Koufax, or Roger Clemens? If there were incontrovertible answers to these questions, wouldn’t we have stopped asking them long ago?

Who’s going into the Hall of Fame from the Veterans Committee ballot early next month? Ron Santo? Luis Tiant? Gil Hodges? I’ll be in Dallas for baseball’s winter meetings when the announcement is made but I have neither a vote nor a crystal ball. In January we’ll see who the beat writers put in—maybe Barry Larkin or Jack Morris, though to me it seems Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell might well have been elected already.

Why is it that the past and present mingle so agreeably in baseball? In football, no one imagines that Red Grange would star in today’s NFL. In basketball, who thinks that George Mikan, the greatest player of the 1940s, would even start for an NBA team in 2012 (right now it appears in fact that no one will). When pressed, most of us will acknowledge that Johnny Weissmuller won an Olympic gold medal in 1924 with a time that wouldn’t get him onto the girls’ varsity in Catskill’s high school today. Yet everyone believes that Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson, if teleported Jetson-style to the present day, would dominate the game as they did in the days of yore.

What accounts for this? Baseball is a backwards-looking institution, like the Bible or the law, where the precedents of old shine like beacons to the future; it pleases us to think that in America’s game giants once strode the earth and their like will not be seen again. This is baloney of course. The best baseball players one might ever see are playing for us, here and now.

Statistics help to create this illusion of a past age of marvels. A .300 hitter signified excellence in 1911 as he might in 2011, though the average level of skill is much, much greater today. In the 100-yard dash, times get lower every generation. In baseball, we move the finish line ever so slightly so as to maintain the balance of the game and, as a by-product, the stats.

I could go on, but for grownups of a certain age, baseball embodies the paradox of progress: we know the game on the field is better today, yet somehow it feels worse. Why is that?

Because we are older. The golden age of baseball was not the 1920s, or the 1950s, or the 1970s. It coincides perfectly with when we were twelve.

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