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Old News in Baseball, No. 17

Newsboy logoPitchers and catchers are the first to report in spring training and the first to wilt in the heat of August. What else besides addlepated heat prostration could explain a catcher’s idea to await a ball dropped from the Washington Monument? Or another catcher, typically leaden-footed, to steal home with the bases full in extra innings? Or a pitcher’s brainstorm to issue an intentional base on balls with the sacks already loaded? Or a reliever’s notion that baserunners were a mere nuisance, to be dealt with via three successive pickoffs? Not only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun.

August 21

1881: The first instance of an intentional base on balls (though not by that name) with the bases loaded occurs when Buffalo’s Jack Lynch walks Abner Dalrymple of Chicago in the eighth inning. The Chicago Tribune reports: “At one time, when the bases were full, Lynch deliberately sent in seven balls [the rule at the time to provide a base on balls] rather than take the chances of a hit by Dalrymple, who was at bat, and in this way forced a run upon Chicago. But all to no purpose, for Gore followed with a terrific drive for two bases, and three men came in on the hit.” [Reader Nathan Bierma of Grand Rapids, MI alerted me to a likely error here.He found in the Chicago Tribune, and I corroborated with the Chicago Inter-Ocean, mention of this ploy on 8/3, referencing the game of 8/2. Clearly someone in recent times typed 8/21 when they meant 8/2. I could delete this entry but, as 8/2 is past for purposes of this column, I choose to retain it as an interesting story with the caveat that the date cited here (8/21) is wrong.] The earliest printed reference to an intentional walk occurs in the Washington Post on May 2, 1894 in an account of a game between the Boston Beaneaters and Washington Senators. Washington Manager Gus Schmelz instructed his pitcher, Ben Stephens, to give an “intentional base on balls” to George Treadway, “with the object in view of retiring the side on a double play.” For more, see:

1908: Washington catcher Gabby Street stands at the base of the Washington Monument and catches a ball dropped from the top‚ 555 feet up‚ duplicating the feat performed by Pop Schriver of the Chicago Colts on August 24‚ 1894. Street gets a $500 prize for his morning’s efforts‚ then spends the afternoon behind the plate catching Walter Johnson.

1947: The first Little League World Series tournament is held in Williamsport‚ PA. The Maynard Midgets of Williamsport win.

Walter Johnson, Gabby Street

Walter Johnson, Gabby Street

August 22

1915: In the Federal League‚ Newark takes two games from Pittsburgh‚ winning‚ 2-1 and 3-1‚ both wins coming on 10th inning inside-the-park homers by Edd Roush. Newark leads by one percentage point over Kansas City‚ with Pittsburgh third and Chicago fourth‚ only 1-1/2 games separating the teams. In MLB’s closest pennant race ever, Chicago will win it by one game with a mark of 86-66 to St. Louis’s 87-67 and Pittsburgh’s 86-67.

1949: The Giants sell veteran Johnny Mize to the Yankees for $40‚000. Mize has tied Ralph Kiner for the NL lead in homers the past two seasons. As a supersub Mize will star in the World Series for years to come.

1982: Third-string catcher Glenn Brummer steals home with the bases loaded and 2 out in the bottom of the 12th inning to give the Cardinals a 5-4 win over the Giants. Brummer‚ who was running on his own‚ will steal just four bases in his career.

August 23

1936: At Cleveland’s League Park‚ 17-year-old Bob Feller makes his first start and strikes out 15‚ one less than the American League record‚ as Cleveland beats St. Louis‚ 4-1.

1942: Walter Johnson pitching to Babe Ruth is the pregame attraction that draws 69‚000 for the New York-Washington game at Yankee Stadium that provides $80‚000 for Army-Navy relief. Ruth hits a pitch into the right-field stands, his last homer in a big-league park.

Babe Ruth Homers off Walter Johnson, 1942

Babe Ruth Homers off Walter Johnson, 1942

1953: Phil Paine‚ a former Boston Braves pitcher with the U.S. Air Force in Japan‚ becomes the first former big leaguer to play in Japan. He pitches in nine games for the Nishitetsu Lions. For more, see:

August 24

1918: In Baltimore‚ Babe Ruth’s father dies following a fight with his brother-in-law outside his saloon. The funeral will be on the 28th and Babe will miss two Red Sox games.

Babe Ruth and Father, 1915

Babe Ruth and Father, 1915

1952: Minor-league phenom Ron Necciai fans only one as he receives credit for his only major league win‚ 4-3 over the Boston Braves. On May 13 of this year, pitching in the Class D Appalachian League for the Bristol Twins against the Welch Miners, he had struck out 27 men while tossing a no-hitter. One man had been retired on a groundout, but a passed ball on a strikeout permitted Necciai to record four strikeouts in an inning. For more, see:

1983: Making his only career appearance behind the plate‚ Oriole infielder Lenn Sakata catches the 10th inning against the Blue Jays and hits a three-run homer as the O’s win‚ 7-4. Toronto had gone ahead 4-3 in the top of the inning when Tippy Martinez relieved Tim Stoddard with a run in in, a man on, and no outs. Picking off the inherited runner, Martinez walked his first batter …. and picked him off, then allowed a single to Willie Upshaw and picked HIM off.

Moonlight Graham, by Helmar Cards

Moonlight Graham, by Helmar Cards

August 25

1952: In a 1-0 win over the Yankees in Yankee Stadium‚ Virgil Trucks of the Detroit Tigers pitches his second no-hitter of the season, giving him his fifth win of the season. He will finish with a won-lost mark of 5-19.

1965: Archibald Wright “Moonlight” Graham dies in Chisholm‚ MN. Graham played in one big-league game‚ for the 1905 Giants‚ and did not get to bat. His character in W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (renamed Field of Dreams in the cinematic version) made him a household name. For more, see:

1985: Dwight Gooden wins his 14th consecutive game and his 20th of the season, 9-3 over San Diego. He will finish the season 24-4. At the age of 20 years‚ 9 months, Gooden is the youngest pitcher ever to win 20 games. Bob Feller was a month older when he first won 20 in 1939.

A.G. Mills

A.G. Mills

August 26

1929: Abraham G. Mills‚ NL president 1883-84‚ author of the National Agreement and original reserve rule that governed baseball’s early years‚ dies at 84. He had also been chairman of the Mills Commission that, at Albart Spalding’s behest, in 1908 anointed Abner Doubleday as the inventor of baseball. Mills joined a dozen veterans of the National League’s inaugural campaign at the fiftieth anniversary banquet at the Hotel Astor on February 2, 1926. The machinations involving the Special Commission, Abner Doubleday, and Cooperstown were very distant indeed, so Mills may well have been surprised when he was asked a question that evening about what evidence he had for Cooperstown as baseball’s birthplace. “None at all,” he answered.

1939: The first telecast of a big league game occurs at Ebbets Field as the Cincinnati Reds play the Dodgers in a doubleheader. Red Barber broadcasts the game over W2XBS‚ the “2” referring to the number of sets able to view the game: one is in the press box‚ while the other‚ at the RCA Pavilion in Rockefeller Center‚ attracts a crowd.

1947: Signed by the Dodgers, former Memphis Red Sox Negro Leaguer Dan Bankhead becomes MLB’s first African-American pitcher. The Pirates rock Bankhead for 10 hits and 8 runs in 3-1/3 relief innings‚ but Bankhead homers in his first at bat.

August 27

1912: In response to demands for an alternative way to rate pitchers besides wins and losses‚ the National League will once again officially record Earned Run Average, as it had in the 1870s. The AL will not make ERA part of their official statistics until 1913. The natural corrective to the deficient won-lost percentage, the earned run average preceded it in the 1860s, gave way to it in the 1880s, and then returned. For more, see:

1918: After today’s doubleheader split with the Braves in Cincinnati‚ Christy Mathewson resigns as Reds manager to accept a commission as a captain in the chemical warfare branch of the Army.

1992: The Mets trade pitcher David Cone to Toronto in exchange for Jeff Kent and Ryan Thompson. Cone will miss leading the league in strikeouts by one as John Smoltz registers a K on the final day of the season. If not for the trade, Cone would have been the first NL pitcher in 50 years to lead in strikeouts for three consecutive years.

Over the Plate: Arlie Latham’s Own Baseball Stories, No. 1

Arlie Latham, 1911

Arlie Latham, 1911

In the weeks to come, I will offer up some Arlie Latham tales that were published in the New York World a century ago and reprinted by a handful of newspapers, beginning in August 1915, but have escaped notice since. Latham is one of baseball’s most colorful if not necessarily likable (or trustworthy) characters. Born in 1860, Latham lived long enough–until 1952–to tell, repeat, and “enrich” his tales for several generations of writers, including Robert Smith (author of the wonderful the wonderful Baseball, 1947). To get us started, here’s a snapshot of who he was.

Arlie Latham was called “the Freshest Man on Earth” after a popular song of the 1880s. The song is long forgotten, but Latham lives on in his stories. He was also something of a clown and thus a fan favorite. He was famous for profanely badgering the opposition and hectoring his own players, thus earning him the enmity of both. His private life was as tumultuous as that on the field: his first wife attempted suicide, and his second wife divorced him, charging “perversion, assault, desertion, and infidelity.”

Latham had a brief trial with Buffalo’s National League team in 1880, but didn’t stick in the leagues until he joined the St. Louis Browns of the American Association in 1883, who went on secure four straight American Association championships from 1885 through 1888. Although he batted above .300 four times in his career, he was not considered an outstanding hitter. He excelled mostly on defense, exhibiting one of the strongest arms in baseball, as well as on the basepaths. Because the rules at that time credited a player with a steal whenever he took an extra base on a teammate’s hit, it is impossible to accurately reconstruct Latham’s record in modern terms. However, under the rules of his day, he was credited with 129 steals in 1887, and he led the league the next year with 109. His career total, with some years unavailable, is 739.

Arlie Latham, 1888

Arlie Latham, 1888

Latham played part of the 1890 season in the Players League, then joined Cincinnati of the National League, where he starred through 1895, his last full season. He did play briefly with St. Louis in 1896 and with Washington in 1899. He spent three years as an umpire before returning to the game in 1909 with the New York Giants.

At a time when players took turns coaching baserunners at first and third, John McGraw hired Latham to be baseball’s first professional coach. Some say that his habit of roaming the length of the foul line inspired the creation of the coaches’ boxes that bracket the diamond today. Latham also played in four games that year, and though he went hitless, he became, at the age of 49, the oldest player to steal a base.

Into his nineties he served as the press box custodian at, first, Yankee Stadium, and then the Polo Grounds.

Latham Tells Stories of Chris von der Ahe

New York, N.Y., Aug. 14 [1915]–There was a fat German saloon keeper outside the old ball grounds in St. Louis and after the games he used to stand at the end of his bar and watch his sweating bar-keepers rake in the shekels.

“Five tousand tamn fools,” he would say, “and one wise man. Und dat wise man is me–Chris von de[r] Ahe.”

But old Chris saw money in baseball and soon he became interested in the sport, writes Arlie Latham in the World. Eventually he became owner of the St. Louis Browns, one of the most successful teams that ever played the game. From that time on everyone knew Chris. For all his eccentricities he was a likable old fellow and, as he said, no fool.

He was a big man with a face like the full moon and a nose like a bunch of strawberries. It’s a wonder he wasn’t cross-eyed from trying to see around it. He had a stomach as big as a bush leaguer’s opinion of himself, and for every step he took forward he had to take two to each side.

Chris von der Ahe, 1887

Chris von der Ahe, 1887

Chris had a great sense of his won dignity, and if he caught a player trying to pull any wise stuff on him he made the player pay for it–that is, he told he was fined. I have estimated that while I played with his club he fined me a million dollars. But he never got a cent of it, for he always forgot it the next day.

His heart and soul were bound up in his ball club, and he never could see any excuse for losing a game. If anyone booted away a game, Chris roared like a bull. Sometimes, when the team would be going bad, Chris would become so disgusted that he would threaten to fine the whole club. But we would remember that it was only old Chris von der Ahe talking, and we let it go at that.

If there was one thing Chris hated it was to see a man hit a fly ball.

“Shtop hitting them high-fliers!” he’d yell. “Keep them on the floor! Don’t you know them fielders can catch does high vuns?”

Taking Observations

He used to have a seat on the bench, and when a fly ball would be hit Chris would groan and then grab a telescope he had always with him. He’d focus the fielder running after the ball and then begin to pull with his arms and legs as if to pull the ball away from him. He’d grunt like a man lifting a heavy weight and bend his body almost double, as though he thought he could change the course of the ball. Finally, just as the fielder was about to catch the ball Chris would be so excited and doubled up that he usually ended by toppling off the bench with a crash. Then the players always gave him the horse laugh.

When Chris picked himself up his mustache would be sticking up like the quills of a porcupine, and if he saw anyone laughing heaven help that wretch!

As I could, he never could see any excuse for an error. No matter how hard the ball came, get it! If you knew it was going to knock your head off, get it! If it came so fast that it would kill you–well, Chris would forgive–maybe.

One day in St. Louis they were knocking them at me so fast I could only wave my arms and hope one of them wouldn’t hit me in the teeth. They must have hit a million at me. Well, a million may be an exaggeration, but there were at least 900,000. All I could do was stand there, let them hit me on the chest and trust to luck to recover them in time to throw the runner out at first. I could hear Chris mumbling something about a “chackass,” but I was afraid to look at him.

1888 St. Louis Browns, cabinet card by Guerin.

1888 St. Louis Browns, cabinet card by Guerin.

At the eighth inning the other team had us three runs to the bad. That was too much for Chris. He pulled himself out of his seat and started for the gate. He could never stay to see us lose, and when the game got beyond what he thought was hope he would get up and march out to the box office. There he’d drown his sorrows by counting the gate money. If the crowd was big he would speedily forget about the game.

This day, however, when he was in the middle of his counting there was a terrific noise outside.

A player came running in and found Chris serenely counting his coin.

“Did you hear that, Chris?” yelled the player.


“Do you know what it was?”

“Oh, I suppose that chackass Laydem made anodder error.”

“No. But he just made a home run with three on, and won the game for you.”

“I always said,” remarked Chris that night, “dot Laydem vos the best man I effer hat in a binch.”

Not a Sane Fourth

But I got back at Chris in my own way. And then he got back at me again.That was always the trouble with that old bird. He got wise to things eventually and then he’d gum the cards with a fine.

We were playing in St. Louis one Fourth of July morning and it occurred to me that I’d have a little fun with the club owner. During our batting period I got a dynamite bomb from a man in the grandstand, and then, when our side was out, I walked out to third and put it under the base where Chris couldn’t see it. I had also got a piece of punk, and, as though tying my shoelace, I lit the fuse of the bomb. Then I pulled down my cap, put my hands on my knees and while shouting, “Come on! Get in the game!” I watched it.

All of a sudden–boom!

1883 St Louis Browns

1883 St Louis Browns

I jumped three feet in the air and landed on my back, kicking and writhing.Then I rolled on my side and kept one eye cocked at von der Ahe. He always carried a bugle with him with which he summoned the special policemen when he needed them. When he saw me fall he put the bugle to his lips  and tooted away for dear life. The specials came running from all parts of the stand and surrounded their employer. When he felt that he was safe and that no one could shoot him without first killing  guard he got up and yelled,

“Who in blazes shoot Laydem?” Then he came down oin the field surrounded by his guard and looked at me.

Presently I jumped up, shook myself and looked old Chris in the eye.

“It’s all right, Chris,” I said; “It didn’t go in; it just stunned me.”

Just then a player with a pail of ice water came running up and threw it over me. At that the spectators and players began to roar, and I could see the light of understanding coming into Chris’ eyes.

“You chackass,” he yelled at last. “I fine you $50.”

Which he never got.

Up in the Air

But Kid Gleason pulled a better one than that on him–and nearly got away with it.The team had been going bad for a while and Chris began to look blue around the gills. He couldn’t understand it. He never could. He never could see why the breaks should go against his team.

He took us into a hotel and began to call us down. He hadn’t been talking long when all the players began to laugh. Chris couldn’t stand anyone laughing at him. He saw Gleason just closing his mouth.

“Vot are you laffing at Gleason?” he demanded.

“Oh,” said Gleason, “I was laughing at those three kids looking in the window.”

Chris became furious at this and ordered the shutters closed immediately.

“Dey can’t look in here, the little low-lifes,” he exploded.

We were on the ninth floor of the building!

Chris saw the joke next day, hunted up Gleason and fined him $50. Which also he never collected.

If he became thoroughly disgusted with the team’s work he’d threaten to fine or release the whole team outright. When he’d threaten us in that manner we’d all go to the nearest telegraph office and wire for jobs. Of course Chris would hear of this immediately and in a few minutes down he’d come with good nature oozing out of him, haul us all up to the hotel and buy us a good dinner with wine.

Chris Von Der Ahe mortuary statue

Chris Von Der Ahe mortuary statue

Another thing he hated was to lose a baseball. Every time a ball was fouled out of the grounds he’d almost break his neck trying to keep his eye on it. One day in St. Louis they were fouling them off as fast as the pitcher could shoot them across. Every foul that would sail up in the air Chris would watch until he almost fell out of his seat. And to make it worse for him I’d run up and yell:

“There goes another dollar and a quarter, Chris!”

Finally Chris couldn’t stand it any longer.

“You’re too fresh, Laydem!” he said, getting up and pointing at me. “You’ll pay for dem balls. I fine you a hundred dollars!”

Poor old von der Ahe is dead now, and, I hope, at rest. His good nature got him a host of friends and his eccentricities lost him all his money. He was a good old fellow, when all is said, and he treated his players like men. And, even if they did poke fun at him they liked him just the same.

Old News in Baseball, No. 16

Newsboy logoPitching and defense and daring—those were the keys to winning in the deadball era, and are increasingly relevant today, as batters seem to be headed toward the endangered species list. This week’s Old News in Baseball features low-hit pitching and steals of home—the Yankees had 18 in one season! Now, I like home runs as much as the next guy, but I mourn the disappearance of the triple, the double steal, and especially the steal of home—which, with its high ratio of reward to risk, is the game’s most unfairly neglected play. So take the week off, Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds. All hail Ty Cobb, who stole home more than anyone; Lou Gehrig, who is, surprisingly, second on the list; and this week, hail Vic Power and Guy Zinn (who? read on).

August 14

1878: The Indianapolis Hoosiers of the National League expel Ed “The Only” Nolan for leaving the team to visit a sick brother. It turns out that he was visiting a brothel. For more, see:

1958: Vic Power, slick fielding first baseman of the Cleveland Indians, steals home in the eighth inning and again in the tenth to give his team a 10-9 win over Detroit. Power becomes the first American Leaguer since Doc Gautreau in l927 to steal home twice in the same game.

1996: The Atlanta Braves bring up Andruw Jones of Curaçao. The 19-year-old center fielder started the season a season in Class A, moved up to AA and then AAA‚ and would go on to hit home runs in his first two at bats in the World Series.

Guy Hecker

Guy Hecker

August 15

1886: Louisville pitcher Guy Hecker has a day to remember. He throws a four-hitter to defeat Baltimore, 22-5. He scores seven runs in a game. He collects six hits—to give him 17 in his last four games—including three home runs. Everyone assumes that Babe Ruth was the greatest hitting pitcher the game has ever produced but only Hecker won a batting title, with a .341 mark in 1886.

1912: Guy Zinn‚ obscure Yankees outfielder‚ steals home twice in a 5-4 win at Detroit; this will add to last-place New York’s all-time record of 18 steals of home for the year.

1962: The Mets play out two of their more disturbing losses in this season of horrors. They lose the back end of a twin bill with the Phils despite tying a major league reiord with two pinch-hit home runs. Choo Choo Coleman hits the first in the sixth inning and Jim Hickman hits another in the eighth) but the Mets still lose to the Phillies‚ 8-7‚ in 13 innings. The Phils had taken the opener‚ 9-3 behind two home runs by Don Demeter—both off Bob Miller but each off a different Mets pitcher of the same name. The first came off righty Bob L. Miller (season record, 1-12) in the third frame and the other off lefty Bob G. Miller (season record, 2-2) in the ninth.

Ray Chapman

Ray Chapman

August 16

1886: Bob Caruthers becomes the first pitcher to record four extra-base hits in a game‚ but he allows 10 runs in the eighth inning and loses 11-9. Having hit a double and two home runs earlier‚ Caruthers ends the game tagged out at home trying for a third.

1909: New York and Pittsburgh play to a 2-2 tie at Forbes Field‚ stopped after eight innings because of rain. Giants outfielder Red Murray prevents a loss with one of the greatest catches ever seen. With two outs and two on‚ the Bucs’ Dots Miller belts a long line drive off Christy Mathewson into the gathering gloom. With everyone straining to follow the ball‚ a bolt of lightning flashes and Murray is seen making a bare-handed grab on the dead run to end the inning. Bill Klem then suspends the game. Oldtimers were still saying, into the 1950s, that this was the greatest catch of all. If only we had video!

1920: On an overcast day at the Polo Grounds, Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, a righthanded batter who crowds the plate‚ freezes and fails to get out of the way of a scuffed and discolored ball from Yankees submarine-style pitcher Carl Mays. The ball caroms off Chapman’s head and renders him unconscious. He dies the next day from a fractured skull. Mays‚ a surly‚ unpopular pitcher‚ will be the target of fans’ and players’ outrage, perhaps misplaced. Henceforth, discolored balls will be removed from play. Chapman is followed at shortstop by Joe Swell, who will win a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Roy Thomas

Roy Thomas

August 17

1882: The host Providence Grays defeat the Detroit Wolverines 1-0 in 18 innings on a home run by Hoss Radbourn, playing right field in this game. Winning pitcher John Ward and loser Stump Weidman both go all the way. Providence almost won in the 16th when George Wright “hit a liner over [George] Wood’s head and out of the horse gate‚ but Wood went outside‚ got the ball and fielded Wright out at the plate” (Detroit Free Press). For more, see:

1900: Reds pitcher Bill Phillips punches Phillies batter Roy Thomas after Thomas fouls off a dozen pitches in the eighth inning. Reportedly (as noted by Art Ahrens)‚ Thomas had fouled off 22 straight on another occasion. Such frustrating antics by Thomas and John McGraw are chiefly responsible for the National League adopting the foul strike rule next year. (The AL will wait until 1903.) This rule, perhaps more than increasing the pitching distance to its current length in 1892, may be said to mark the dawn of “modern baseball.”

August 18

1909: Giants player-coach Arlie Latham steals second base in the Giants’ 14-1 laugher over the Phillies. At 49‚ he is the oldest player to swipe a base. It is the 739th of his big-league career, commenced in 1880. In the weeks to come, Our Game will feature reminiscences by baseball’s legendary bon vivant, knave, and raconteur, unpublished since their newspaper syndication in 1915. For more, see:

1940: The Sunday New York Daily News publishes a shocking article written by its sports editor‚ Jimmy Powers‚ suggesting that the Yankees‚ had been hit by a “mass polio epidemic.” Powers charges that Lou Gehrig‘s “infantile paralysis” (in truth, of course, amyotrophic later sclerosis, or ALS, an incommunicable disease) had infected the other Yankees‚ accounting for the team’s uncharacteristic fifth-place standing. Gehrig brings suit for $1 million against Powers and the newspaper; so do other Yankees. The News issues a public apology on September 26. Powers admits he had no business getting “snarled up in medical controversy …. Hurting [Lou’s] feelings was far from my mind.”

1983: In the continuation of the “Pine Tar Game‚” Hal McRae strikes out for the last Kansas City out and Dan Quisenberry retires the Yankees in order in the bottom of the ninth to preserve the Royals’ 5-4 victory. The conclusion takes just 12 minutes (and 16 pitches) and‚ as the only game scheduled at the Stadium‚ is witnessed by a crowd of 1‚245.

Jim Maloney

Jim Maloney

August 19

1945: In Game 2 of a doubleheader against the Reds‚ 37-year-old slugger Jimmie Foxx makes his first pitching start‚ lasting seven 7 innings for the Philadelphia Blue Jays (briefly the preferred name for the Phillies). He leaves with a 4-1 lead‚ and Andy Karl saves Foxx’s win

1965: The Reds’ Jim Maloney records his second 10-inning no-hit effort of 1965—but wins this one as Leo Cardenas homers at Wrigley Field. Maloney allows 10 walks and fans 12.

1982: Scheduled to pitch against the Expos in a home game‚ Braves’ rookie Pascual Perez misses the start of the game when he can’t find his way to the ball park. Perez circles on the expressway several times but Phil Niekro is forced to take his spot.

August 20

1877: Louisville director Charles E. Chase receives an anonymous telegram from Hoboken‚ NJ‚ saying that “something is wrong with the Louisville players” and that gamblers were betting on Hartford. Louisville then loses today’s game to Hartford‚ 6-1. When the story is finally made public, The Louisville Courier-Journal headlined:
A Complete Exposé of How Four Ball Men Picked Up Stray Pennies
Hall and Devlin Bounce Themselves
Out of the League on Their Own Testimony.
Nichols and Craver Also Take Their Gruel
for Tasting of Forbidden Fruits
A SAD, SAD STORY . . . .

1886: Matt Kilroy of the Orioles and Joe Miller of the Athletics hurl opposing one-hitters. Baltimore wins 1-0 on first-inning errors‚ but doesn’t get a hit until the ninth. There will be four other opposing one-hitters in the next 100 years‚ all 1-0 games: Mordecai Brown over Lefty Leifield on July 4‚ 1906; Bob Cain over Bob Feller on April 23‚ 1952; Jack Harshman over Connie Johnson on June 21‚ 1956; and Frank Bertaina over Bob Meyer on September 12‚ 1964. For stinginess, however, it’s hard to top Sandy Koufax (no-hitter) and Bob Henley (one-hitter) on September 9, 1965 … unless one counts the double- not game of Fred Toney and Hippo Vaughn on May 2, 1917, which ended with the latter allowing two hits in the tenth. For more, see:

1945: At the age of 17‚ Dodgers shortstop Tommy Brown becomes the youngest player to hit a big-league homer, off Pirates southpaw Preacher Roe.

The Krank–Baseball’s Rarest Book

KRANK_cropIn baseball literature, this little book–sixty-four pages, dimensions two inches by two-and-a-half inches, printed on “blood parchment” and “bound in the skin of a baseball”–is the rarest of the rare. The New York Public Library has a copy, and so does the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library. Three other copies appear to exist, also held by institutions, and another, the sixth, was sold at auction nine years ago. Its author is Thomas William Lawson, who would go on to fame as a wizard of Wall Street, but who at this time was the manager of a troubled publishing firm in Boston, Rand Avery Company, which printed the book and sold it to the public for twenty-five cents.

The Krank: His Language and What It Means is a humorous glossary of baseball terms. Many of these are highly picturesque to the modern imagination (a strikeout is “cutting a hole in space,” “ smashing the wind,” or “compressing the atmosphere”). Others are fascinating for their etymological clues. What we today call a “pop fly,” for instance, is defined and depicted as a pot fly–the household insect that traces lazy circles over a steaming pot in the kitchen. The book begins:

The Krank is a heterogeneous compound of flesh, bone, and base-ball, mostly base-ball. He came into existence along back in the early seventies. He came to stay.

The Krank is purly American. He is found in no other country.

The Krank is of the masculine gender. The female of the tribe is known to science as a Kranklet.

The Krank has reached a high state of cultivation. The Kranklet is at present only partly developed.

The Krank has a shell, into which he crawls in the month of November. He does not emerge from it until April. While in his shell his only article of food is stray newspaper articles on deals. During the Krank season, from April to November, he subsists on air, and waxes strong.

Advertisement, 1888

Advertisement, 1888

“Krank” surely derives from the German word for sick as well as the British dialect meaning of “cranky,” which is “feeble-minded.” Baseball devotees at the turn of the century were also called “bugs,” thus casting another aspersion on those who were simply mad about the game.

As a boy Thomas William Lawson had been a “candy butcher” on the New England trains, which meant that he sold candy, tobacco, and newspapers in the aisles. He was a rabid baseball fan–even before that term replaced the older “krank”–to such an extent that in 1884 he took the profits of his candy business and poured them into a baseball-card game of his own invention. Then he wrote The Krank, and contracted with 18-year-old Boston art student Sears Gallagher–who would go on to win fame as an illustrator, etcher, and painter–to illustrate it with silhouettes.

Next for Lawson was a stint on Wall Street during which he became seriously wealthy through stock-market manipulation. He became a yachtsman and a full-fledged financier of the Amalgamated Copper Company, one of the trusts that enraged Teddy Roosevelt and Judge Landis. In 1904 and 1905 Lawson confessed to his stock-market swindling and bared the whole Wall Street mess in a famous book called Frenzied Finance, which was first published serially in Everybody’s magazine. Then he became a novelist, writing Friday the Thirteenth for publication by Doubleday in 1907, and after that turned to satire under the nom de plume of Thomas W. Roastem.

Quite a career, this Baseball Leonardo. A recent profile of him may be read here: For a discussion of his parlor game, see:

All but truly a handful of you have ever seen the pages of this book. My xerographic copy is by now some thirty years old, and a bit furry, but it would be ill grace to complain–The Krank has not been reproduced at all to now.

Old News in Baseball, No. 15

Newsboy logoAs we enter the dog days of August, when batters beef up their averages and pitchers swoon, we look back upon some remarkable pitching feats—Greg Maddux topping Cy Young, Lee Richmond precipitating the left-right platoon, Red Barrett’s stinginess, and Harry Hedgpeth’s twin-bill one-hitter … combined! (Who was Harry Hedgpeth? A one-inning major leaguer.) And we offer the usual sprinkling of Hall of Fame heroes, from Tris Speaker—today nearly forgotten but perhaps the greatest center fielder the game has produced—to Joe DiMaggio and Walter Johnson. Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs share a single entry, and Mets fans, now feeling pretty good about their chances, may recall Art Shamsky and Benny Agbayani.

August 7

Johnson in Weiser, Idaho 1907

Johnson in Weiser, Idaho 1907

1894: Chicago shortstop Bill Dahlen goes 0-for-6 to break his 42-game hitting streak. During the streak Dahlen was 74-for-186 (.398) and drove in 44 runs;  tomorrow‚ he will start a 28-game hit streak. His 42-game mark was topped by Willie Keeler in 1897, Joe DiMaggio in 1941, and Pete Rose in 1978. For more, see:

1907: Washington’s Walter Johnson wins the first of his 417 victories‚ 7-2 over Cleveland. The 19-year-old had been signed off the roster of the Weiser club in the semipro Idaho State League. For more, see:

1999: Just one day after Tony Gwynn reached the milestone‚ Wade Boggs also gets the 3000th hit of his career in Tampa Bay’s 15-10 loss to Cleveland. Boggs goes 3-for-4 in the contest‚ reaching the 3000 mark with a sixth inning HR off Chris Haney.

August 8

1877: After St. Louis catcher John Clapp has his cheek smashed by a foul tip‚ replacement Mike Dorgan goes behind the plate wearing a mask. Though the mask made an earlier appearance this year in the rival International Association, this is the first use of a catcher’s mask in MLB.

1914: At Boston‚ center fielder Tris Speaker pulls off his second unassisted double play this year‚ this one coming against Detroit. Tiger runner Harry Heilmann is doubled off second base in the fourth inning on a line drive to Speaker. Although the line later became attached to Willie Mays, Speaker’s glove was the first to be termed “the place where triples go to die.”

1952: Bob Neighbors‚ a shortstop who played briefly with the 1939 St. Louis Browns‚ is declared missing in action in the Korean War. He will be the only ex-major leaguer killed in action in Korea and the sixth and last to die in wartime action this century. For more, see:

Hal Chase with Reds

Hal Chase with Reds

August 9

1905: Mistaking her husband for a burglar‚ Ty Cobb’s mother shoots and kills him. The Georgia Peach will make his big-league debut with the Tigers later this month.

1906: The Cubs’ Jack Taylor beats Brooklyn 5-3 and posts his 187th consecutive complete game‚ a major league record. The streak will end in four days when he is knocked out by Brooklyn in the third inning. Taylor’s record run had begun on June 20‚ 1901.

1918: With Sherry Magee at first base for Cincinnati in place of the regular first sacker, Hal Chase, the Pirates defeat the Reds‚ 4-3. Reds manager Christy Mathewson has suspected Chase of taking bribes to fix games‚ and suspends him “for indifferent play.” Formally charged after the season by owner Garry Herrmann‚ Chase will be acquitted by NL President John Heydler. Prince Hal will be reinstated and play for John McGraw and the Giants in 1919.

August 10

1887: Tip O’Neill gets his tenth consecutive hit (including one walk, as per the scoring rule for this year) before being retired by Cleveland Infants pitcher John Kirby. Against this one club‚ Tip will finish the season with an astounding .652 average (60-for-92) including 10 walks‚ or .610 without walks. For more, see:

1944: Red Barrett of the Boston Braves throws only 58 pitches and shuts out the Cincinnati Reds 2-0. This is the major league record for fewest pitches in a nine-inning game. The game is played one hour, 15 minutes.

1971: Sixteen baseball researchers gather in Cooperstown to form the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)‚ with founder L. Robert (Bob) Davids as president. For more, see:

August 11

1868: In Rockford‚ IL‚ the Unions of Morrisania play before 5‚000‚ their biggest crowd on their tour. They win their eleventh straight‚ beating the Forest City Club‚ 23-17. Peripatetic star George Wright—returned to the Unions this year after playing with Washington in 1867—hits a homer off kid pitcher Al Spalding. Both will play for the Boston Red Stockings in the National Association of 1871-75. For more, see:

1947: Cardinal farmhand Harvey Haddix‚ pitching for Winston-Salem (Carolina), no-hits Danville‚ 8-0‚ in seven innings, fanning 14.

1950: Hitting just .279 and mired in a 4-for-38 slump‚ Yankee great Joe DiMaggio is benched for the first time in his career. His sub‚ Cliff Mapes‚ wearing the number 7 later made famous by DiMaggio’s successor in center field, hits a home run to give the Yankees a 7-6 win over the A’s.

August 12

1887: At the Mets’ grounds on Staten Island‚ Philadelphia Athletics batter Gus Weyhing hits an apparent triple that right fielder Chief Roseman kicks into the stage of the play “The Fall of Babylon.” Since the ground rules at the park call for a double on hits into the theatrical set‚ the umpire orders Weyhing back to second base. After a futile argument‚ the Athletics leave the field and forfeit the game‚ 9-7. During the summer of the previous season, spectators at Mets home games were able to look at New York harbor from the St. George grandstand and see the Statue of Liberty being assembled. A newspaper report of a game here included this other singular feature: “Two trusty warriors stood upon the walls of Babylon and held their polished shields so that the reflection of the sun would strike the Baltimore batters full in the eyes.”

New York Mets played on Staten Island in 1886-87

New York Mets played on Staten Island in 1886-87

1966: At Crosley Field‚ Art Shamsky enters the game in the eighth inning‚ when he hits a two-run homer to put the Reds up over the Pirates, 8-7. His solo homer in the tenth ties the score at 9-9‚ as does his two-run homer in the eleventh. Pittsburgh prevails 13-11‚ scoring three in the thirteenth inning. Shamsky’s pair of extra-inning homers is a first in the NL‚ and just the third time ever in the majors (Vern Stephens‚ 1943, and Willie Kirkland‚ 1963).

2000: The Mets defeat the Giants‚ 3-2‚ despite a mental mistake by outfielder Benny Agbayani. After catching a fly ball for the second out in the fourth inning‚ he hands the ball to a seven-year-old boy in the stands‚ mistakenly thinking the ball was the third out of the inning. Two runners score.

Lee Richmond, 1879

Lee Richmond, 1879

August 13

1880: Switching outfield and pitching positions five times‚ Fred Corey and Lee Richmond combine to hurl Worcester to a 3-1 victory over Cleveland. Worcester manager Frank Bancroft, the father of platooning, had tried this gambit with less success on June 19, when Corey and Richmond exchanged spots twice. Richmond won 32 games as a rookie with Worcester in 1880 and, the Detroit Free Press later reported, “columns of room were given to discussion in the newspapers as to why the delivery of a left-hand pitcher should be harder to bat than that of a right-hand pitcher.” As noted by Peter Morris in A Game of Inches, on June 26, 1880, three left-handed Chicago batters, Abner Dalrymple, George Gore and Larry Corcoran, batted right-handed against Richmond. For more, see:

1913: Pitcher Harry Hedgpeth of the Petersburg Goobers in the Virginia League blanks Richmond twice‚ by scores of 1-0 and 10-0‚ both games going nine innings. He gives up only one hit in the opener‚ while hurling a no-hitter in the nightcap. The Washington Senators will let Hedgpeth pitch an inning on the next to last day of the 1913 campaign, which will be the entirety of his big-league career.

2006: In pitching eight shutout innings against the Giants, Greg Maddux sets a major-league record, becoming the first pitcher to make at least 25 starts in 20 consecutive seasons. Maddux had shared the record of 25 in 19 straight with Cy Young, Warren Spahn, and Tom Glavine.

Our Game, Part 3



This concluding part of Our Game continues from:

The Sixties
A chaotic decade for our country, the 1960s were worrisome, stormy years for baseball as well, with dramatic changes in league composition, playing styles, competitive balance and, most distressingly, the game’s appeal to the American people. Baseball endured its ordeal by fire, and came through not unscathed but strengthened.

The departure of the Dodgers and Giants in 1958 created a vacuum in New York and an increased hunger for baseball in new boomtowns like Houston, Atlanta, and Minneapolis. Enter Branch Rickey, nearly eighty but still possessed of a keen nose for new opportunity. The great innovator who had already brought baseball the farm system and integration now created the Continental League, a paper league with paper franchises. Nonetheless, Rickey’s mirage worried Organized Baseball into expansion.

Two of the Continental “franchises”—the future New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s—were admitted for 1962. The American League was authorized to commence its western foray one year earlier with the expansion-draft Los Angeles Angels and the relocated Minnesota Twins (the latter being the transplanted Washington Senators, who were replaced in the nation’s capital by an ill-fated expansion team that migrated west to become the Texas Rangers).

Other franchise shifts and startups in the decade saw baseball’s original vagabonds, the Milwaukee Braves by way of Boston, move to Atlanta in 1966. Two years later the erstwhile Athletics of Philadelphia, having failed in Kansas City, directed their caravan toward Oakland.

The A’s were quickly replaced in KC by the Royals, one of two new teams introduced in each league with the expansion of 1969. This in turn precipitated divisional play and the League Championship Series, both inventions much decried at the time but now generally applauded. And in one of baseball’s more forgettable debacles, the expansion Pilots of 1969 lost their course in Seattle after only one year and ran aground in Milwaukee, where they were rechristened as the Brewers. The National League’s expansion into San Diego and Montreal proceeded more smoothly, although Padres’ attendance lagged expectations and the Expos’ Olympic Stadium (replacing the stopgap Jarry Park) took longer to open its dome than Michelangelo took to paint St. Peter’s.

Larry Sherry, by Jim Trusilo

Larry Sherry, by Jim Trusilo

On the field, the big-bang game of the 1950s was giving way to a pitching-and-defense formula, at least in the National League, which began to outstrip its long-time tormentor at the box office and in World Series and All Star confrontations. Speed returned to the equation, too, as personified by first Maury Wills and then Lou Brock (though both were preceded, in the AL, by Luis Aparicio). And a revolution in baseball strategy was brewing, as the 1959 success of such relievers as Larry Sherry, Lindy McDaniel, and Roy Face paved the way for the universal adoption of the bullpen stopper in the 1960s.

In the American League expansion year of 1961, the first played to a 162-game schedule, the Bronx Bombers hit a whopping 240 homers. Sluggers Harmon Killebrew, Norm Cash, and Rocky Colavito all hit more than 40 homers; Mickey Mantle hit more than 50. These totals were troubling to Commissioner Ford Frick, but nowhere near as consternating as the 61 homers struck by Roger Maris to top the game’s most famous record, the 60 that Babe Ruth had walloped in 1927. After seeing the National League’s scoring increase in 1962, its first year of expansion, Frick became concerned that pitchers were becoming an endangered species. He said:

I would even like the spitball to come back. Take a look at the batting, home run, and slugging record for recent seasons, and you become convinced that the pitchers need help urgently.

Disastrously, Frick convinced the owners to widen the strike zone for 1963 to its pre-1950 dimensions: top of the armpit to bottom of the knee. The result was to increase strikeouts, reduce walks, and shrink batting averages within five years to levels unseen since 1908, the nadir of the Dead Ball Era. The once-proud Yankees, who had continued their long domination of the American League to mid-decade, saw their team batting average sink to an incredible .214 in 1968. That year produced an overall AL mark of .230 and a batting champion, Carl Yastrzemski, with an average of .301.

Roger Maris, by Jim Trusilo

Roger Maris, by Jim Trusilo

As pitchers vanquished batters, seemingly for all eternity, the bottom line was that the fans stayed away in droves. Attendance in the National League, which in 1966 reached 15 million, fell by 1968 to only 11.7 million. In fact, despite the addition of four new clubs in 1961–62, attendance in 1968 was only 3 million more than it had been in 1960. Critics charged that baseball was a geriatric vestige of an America that had vanished, a game too slow for a nation that was rushing toward the moon; its decline would only steepen, they claimed, as that more with-it national pastime, pro football, extended its mastery of the airwaves.

The sky was not falling, despite the alarms. The owners acted quickly to redress the game’s balance between offense and defense, reducing the strike zone and lowering the pitcher’s mound. But the most important change may have been one that was introduced in 1965 and was only beginning to take effect: the amateur free-agent draft. Typically successful teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Braves, and Cardinals had stayed successful because of their attention to scouting. Consistently they were able to garner more top prospects for their farm systems than clubs with less deep pockets or more volatile management. Now, teams that had fallen on hard times need not look toward a generation of famine before returning to the feast. Now, dynasties—awe-inspiring but not healthy for the game—were suddenly rendered implausible. Now, baseball had a competitive balance that could produce a rotation of electrifying successes among the leagues’ cities, like the ascension of the Boston Red Sox from ninth place in 1966 to the pennant the next, and the amazing rise of the New York Mets from the netherworld they had known to world champions in 1969. The game would still have some hard rows to hoe in the 1970s, but there was no mistaking the reversal of its downturn: in the new age of “relevance,” baseball was back.

The Seventies
The 1970s saw a continuation of the trend toward new stadium construction that had marked the 1960s and may well have triggered that decade’s batting drought, as hitter’s havens like Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, and Sportsman’s Park fell to the wrecker’s ball. The 1960s had brought new ballparks to eleven cities—San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, Bloomington (Minnesota), New York (NL), Houston, Atlanta, Anaheim, St. Louis, Oakland, and San Diego. In 1970–71, baseball bade farewell to old friends Crosley Field, Forbes Field, and Shibe Park as new stadiums—artificial-turf clones of each other—sprang up in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. Other new parks were built in Arlington (Texas), Kansas City, Montreal, Seattle, and Toronto (the latter two, expansion franchises added to the American League in 1977), and Yankee Stadium underwent a massive facelift.

Henry Aaron

Henry Aaron

All this construction activity seemed to bespeak the game’s profitability. Indeed, attendance was climbing in almost all major league cities, as heroes like Henry Aaron, Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson, and Pete Rose, to name but a few, gave the fans plenty to cheer about. And the controversial adoption of the designated hitter innovation by the American League in 1973 gave a further boost to hitting while giving fans much to argue about, which after all is one of the game’s great pleasures.

But the game’s financial health was imperiled by rising unrest over labor issues, centered on the reserve clause which bound a player to his team in perpetuity while denying him the opportunity to gauge his worth in the free market. The reformulation of the relationship between players and management became the hallmark of the decade and sorely tested fans’ devotion to the game.

It began with the momentous case brought against Organized Baseball by veteran outfielder Curt Flood in 1970, challenging the legality of the reserve clause. The Supreme Court ruled against Flood the following year, but the tenor for the 1970s had been set. A thirteen-day player strike delayed the opening of the 1972 season, and arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in 1975 (in what has come to be known as the Messersmith–McNally case) that a player could establish his right of free agency by playing out his option year without a signed contract. The writing on the wall was clear: free agency was the wave of the future.

Big-name players like Jim Hunter, Reggie Jackson, and Rich Gossage migrated to New York and lesser lights like Wayne Garland and Oscar Gamble signed elsewhere for figures that seemed incredible. In the race to sign available talent some owners spun out of control while others like Minnesota’s Cal Griffith, without corporate coffers behind them, had no choice but to sit on the sidelines. Player movement among stars jeopardized fan allegiances, pundits alleged, as Gossage and Jackson played for three teams in three years and championship teams like the Oakland A’s and Boston Red Sox were broken up through trades that were forced by the specter of impending—and uncompensated—free-agent departures.

(Comfortingly to the historian, all this hubbub had occurred in very much the same way in 1869–70, before the advent of the reserve clause, when Henry Chadwick was fulminating about the perniciousness of players “revolving” from one team to another simply to advance their fortunes. Also, baseball’s first avowedly professional team, Harry Wright’s Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869–70, were roundly abused for constructing their powerhouse team with “mercenaries” from other states—thus scorning baseball’s core appeal to civic pride.)

Reggie Jackson's confection

Reggie Jackson’s confection

What actually compromised fan loyalties in the ’70s was not player movement—it took Yankee fans, oh, maybe, ten minutes to regard Reggie as a born pinstriper—but player salaries. When the major league minimum was under $5,000 or so and only a Mantle, Williams, Musial, and DiMaggio made $100,000 a year, fans saw their heroes as, by and large, working colleagues who had the supreme good fortune to play ball for a living. If a star made a splendiferous salary, that was socially useful as a proof that any worker could make it big if only he had sufficient ability to emerge from the pack. But when stars began routinely to command seven-figure salaries, and, more importantly, the annual wage of the average major leaguer rose to six-figure levels, and eventually seven figures, many adult breadwinners struggled to remain fans.

That they succeeded is testament to their love of the game, for fans have had a difficult assignment in reshaping their views of baseball players along the lines of media stars. The princely compensations of actors and pop musicians have long been accepted by the public as the verdict of the marketplace. If the movie The Terminator makes hundreds of millions of dollars for its studio and distributor, then Arnold Schwarzenegger’s multimillion-dollar fee for the film seems not out of line. Analogously, if the Dodgers were fabulously lucrative for ownership, then a lofty salary for Steve Garvey ought not to have given rise in the 1970s to resentment among the fans. This sort of reeducation is by no means complete, but barroom banter about baseball in the 1990s was not as bitterly one-note about “greedy players” as it had been fifteen years previous.

And one didn’t hear a peep about pro football replacing baseball as the national game.

The Eighties and Nineties
The game on the field in the 1970s had been marked by an unprecedented commingling of power and speed; the great teams of Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Oakland; the return to prominence of the Yankees; and the historic exploits of Henry Aaron and Pete Rose. The game in the ’80s would begin with the Philadelphia Phillies, led by free-agent Rose and future Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, ridding them of a historic stain. Until their victory over the Kansas City Royals in 1980, the Phils were the only one of the original sixteen major-league franchises never to have won a World Series (the St. Louis Browns had to accept the help of their modern incarnation, the Baltimore Orioles).

Mike Schmidt in SPORT, 1984.

Mike Schmidt in SPORT, 1984.

The next year brought baseball’s darkest moment since the Brotherhood revolt and ensuing Players League of 1890, as major-league players walked off their jobs at the height of the season and didn’t return for fifty days. By that time even diehard fans were thoroughly fed up with baseball’s seeming inability to resolve its problems fairly and with dispatch. Talk of a fan boycott never amounted to much, but as players and management looked toward their Basic Agreement negotiation in 1989—the centenary of the Brotherhood’s break with Organized Baseball—both reflected back on the damage wrought in 1981.

The 1980s brought unprecedented parity on the playing field and misery off it. The drug problem endemic in our society struck baseball, inevitably as well, and Rose’s itch for gambling disgraced him and the game. Baseball’s victims are highly publicized and their fall from grace is judged more reprehensible for all the advantages that today’s players enjoy—but the game is an American institution reflecting what is wrong with our people as well as what is right with them. In this most difficult area of addictive behavior baseball managed —as it did with integration—to lead America rather than follow it.

The year of 1989 became a nightmare, with Commissioner Bart Giamatti’s expulsion of Rose followed by his own sudden and shocking death days later. This was followed by a second finding of collusion by owners to undermine the free-agent market, and finally a Bay Area World Series rudely interrupted by an earthquake. But baseball recovered even from these calamities, as well as a spring training lockout in 1990, to embark upon an era that gave promise of unprecedented prosperity. The attendance of the Toronto Blue Jays exceeded the 4 million mark while the team captured back-to-back World Series, the first such feat since the Cincinnati Reds of 1975–76. And in 1993 the National League expanded to fourteen teams, welcoming franchises in Miami and Colorado that were instantly and wildly prosperous, with the Rockies setting an all-time attendance peak of nearly 4.5 million fans.

And then came 1994, a year of wonderment on the playing fields, as Ken Griffey, Jr., Matt Williams, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Tony Gwynn, Greg Maddux, and a host of others appeared to be initiating a new golden age of baseball . . . until play stopped on August 12. The leagues, which had divided into three divisions for the first time, now had no opportunity to try out their new idea of an additional round of postseason play, with the introduction of a wild card team that had not been a division winner. When Opening Day 1995 rolled around, play still did not resume for a while. This momentous event hung as a cloud over the game for years to come.

The Iron Horse and the Big Fella.

The Iron Horse and the Big Fella.

As fans, we had been presented with a dilemma. Should we side with the players, who went on strike hoping to extend their gains of the previous two decades … or with the owners, who stood fast in insisting upon a balance between costs and revenues? As fans, we tried to side with the game of baseball, and to wish that its most intense contests would revert to the field of play. And we rooted especially against the use of replacement players, perhaps especially because it would have ended Cal Ripken’s pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games played.

When Major League Baseball finally returned, with splendid seasons in 1995 and 1996, some fans continued to withhold their affections. Attendance did not swiftly return to 1993 levels. But a monumental 1998 season enriched baseball’s treasure storehouse in so many ways, that disaffected fans had to give the game another chance. There was the excitement of the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and the awesome 125-victory total of Joe Torre’s New York Yankees, including eleven wins in the postseason. Gloriously, baseball’s ghosts came back to life, in the daily press and in dinner-table conversations everywhere. Roger Maris, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig played invisibly alongside the heroes of today.

The New Millennium
Over the following years, baseball continued to give the fans home runs and more home runs until historic records were shattered and resistance capitulated to celebration. Even in the wake of the World Trade Center catastrophe of September 11, 2001, baseball provided a reminder to the healing nation that nothing could signify a return to normalcy like a ball game punctuated by a home team home run.

Barry Bonds’ assault on the season home run record, established by McGwire’s 70 in 1998, was followed by his toppling of Hank Aaron’s career high of 755. But allegations of steroid use tainted his marks, as they did the epic pitching feats of Roger Clemens. And then there was the morning after, the game’s remorse for how it had permitted too much of a good thing—which, despite Mae West’s testimonial, proved not altogether wonderful. The Mitchell Report commissioned by MLB revealed a pervasive use of performance-enhancing drugs. Despite the Cock Robin game of “Who killed Baseball?” the fact remained that everyone had a hand in the steroids scandal that fueled the era’s home run derby, and besides, baseball was a fabulous invalid.

Barry Bonds, hero

Barry Bonds, hero

This decade brought other wonderments, from the Boston Red Sox cracking the Curse of the Bambino in 2004 to the Cubs finding yet another novel way to preserve their own curse, that of the billy goat. Larger players, smaller stadiums, a shrinking strike zone, the death of the complete game and the rise of situational relief pitching … these are as much the decade’s legacy as anything else.

In 2011, a year of severe economic downturn in the country at large, baseball more than held its own. In the last week of the season it marked the 200,000th game in its unparalleled history. On the last day of the regular season three postseason outcomes up for grabs were decided within minutes of each other, on national television. And a brilliant World Series provided in Game Six a contest unique in the sport’s annals: the Cardinals rallied from two run downs in the ninth, one strike away from ending their improbable season, to tie the Texas Rangers on a clutch triple by St. Louis native David Freese. They accomplished the feat again in the following inning, and then won on Freese’s home run in the eleventh.

The race dilemma in baseball and the nation had not been magically resolved on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson took the field for the first time in a major league game. Nor was Jackie’s impact reserved for his race; the rise of the Hispanic player in our era owes much to him, and to Roberto Clemente. Ichiro Suzuki and Hideo Nomo have been the great Asian players in Major League Baseball, but certainly there are more heroes to come.

The Weather of Our Lives
Ever changing in ways that are so small as to preserve the illusion that “nothing changes in baseball,” the game has introduced, in the lifetime of some of us: night ball, plane travel, television, integration, bullpen stoppers, expansion, the amateur draft, competitive parity, indoor stadiums, artificial turf, free agency, the designated hitter, wild card contestants, interleague contests, international play, and expansion to thirty teams. Not far off, perhaps, are further expansion and an intercontinental World Series.

Ichiro Suzuki

Ichiro Suzuki

For fans accustomed to the game’s languorous rhythms and conservative resistance to innovation, the changes of the past forty years in particular seem positively frenetic. Yet for all its changes, baseball has not strayed far from its origins, and in fact has changed far less than other American institutions of equivalent antiquity. What sustains baseball in the hearts of Americans, finally, is not its responsiveness to societal change nor its propensity for novelty, but its myths, its lore, its records, and its essential stability. As historian Bruce Catton noted in 1959:

A gaffer from the era of William McKinley, abruptly brought back to the second half of the twentieth century, would find very little in modern life that would not seem new, strange, and rather bewildering, but put in a good grandstand seat back of first base he would see nothing that was not completely familiar.

It’s still a game of bat and ball, played without regard for the clock; a game of ninety-foot basepaths, nine innings, nine men in the field; three outs, all out; and three strikes still send you to the bench, no matter whom you might know in city hall. It’s the national anthem before every game; it’s playing catch with your son or daughter; it’s learning how to win and how to deal with loss, and how to connect with something larger than ourselves.

“Baseball,” wrote Thomas Wolfe, “has been not merely ‘the great national game’ but really a part of the whole weather of our lives, of the thing that is our own, of the whole fabric, the million memories of America.” Spring comes in America not on the vernal equinox but on Opening Day; summer sets in with a Memorial Day day game and does not truly end until the last out of the regular season. Fall begins with the World Series; winter begins the day it ends.

Where were you when Bobby Thomson hit the shot heard ‘round the world? Or the night Carlton Fisk hit his homer in the twelfth? Or when the Mets, with batter after batter one strike away from their team’s loss in the World Series, staged their famous rally? Where were you when Freese hit the triple and then the home run? These are milestones in the lives of America and Americans.

We grow up with baseball; we mark—and, for a moment, stop—the passage of time with it; and we grow old with it. It is our game, for all our days.

Our Game, Part 2

William Gilbert ("W.G") Grace, Cricketer

W.G. Grace, Cricketer

The opening section of Our Game may be read here:

A Model Institution

Father Henry Chadwick had been typically prescient when he wrote in 1876, the inaugural year of the National League and the centenary of America’s birth:

What Cricket is to an Englishman, Base-Ball has become to an American. . . . On the Cricket-field—and there only—the Peer and the Peasant meet on equal terms; the possession of courage, nerve, judgment, skill, endurance and activity alone giving the palm of superiority. In fact, a more democratic institution does not exist in Europe than this self-same Cricket; and as regards its popularity, the records of the thousands of Commoners, Divines and Lawyers, Legislators and Artisans, and Literateurs as well as Mechanics and Laborers, show how great a hold it has on the people. If this is the characteristic of Cricket in aristocratic and monarchical England, how much more will the same characteristics mark Base-Ball in democratic and republican America.

Chadwick’s vision of baseball as a model democratic institution would have to wait for the turn of the century to be fully articulated, and for Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey to be fully realized. But Chadwick’s belief that baseball could be more than a game, could become a model of and for American life, presaged baseball’s golden age of 1903–30.

The tumultuous 1890s witnessed a player revolt against high-handed and monopolistic management, epitomized by a cap on salaries, followed by a nearly ruinous contraction from three major leagues to one twelve-team circuit. The national economy suffered a panic in 1893 and a sluggish recovery thereafter; baseball attendance dwindled; and the lack of postseason interleague competition after 1890 (as there had been since 1884) was sorely felt. The game was in a period of consolidation, or hibernation, or stagnation; one’s perspective depended upon whether one was an owner, fan, or player.

Ban Johnson

Ban Johnson

But then Ban Johnson came along, fired by the same vision of a rival league that had inflamed the Players League and the American and Union Associations before him, and that would beckon to the Federal and Continental Leagues later on. With the declaration by the American League that it would conduct business as a major league in 1901, and the signing of a peace treaty with the Nationals two years later, the World Series resumed, prosperity returned, and the popularity and influence of the game exploded.

Baseball mania seized America as new heroes like Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, and Nap Lajoie found a public hungry for knowledge of their every action, their every thought. A fan’s affiliation with his team could exceed in vigor his attachment to his church, his trade, his political party—all but family and country, and even these were wrapped up in baseball. The national pastime became the great repository of national ideals, the symbol of all that was good in American life: fair play (sportsmanship); the rule of law (objective arbitration of disputes); equal opportunity (each side has its innings); the brotherhood of man (bleacher harmony); and more.

The baseball boom of the early twentieth century built on the game’s simple charms of exercise and communal celebration, adding the psychological and social complexities of vicarious play: civic pride, role models, and hero worship. It became routine for the President to throw out the first ball of the season. Supreme Court Justices had inning-by-inning scores from the World Series relayed to their chambers. Business leaders, perhaps disingenuously, praised baseball as a model of competition and fair play. “Baseball,” opined a writer for American Magazine in 1913, “has given our public a fine lesson in commercial morals. . . . Someday all business will be reorganized and conducted by baseball standards.”

Ty Cobb sliding into Jimmy Austin

Ty Cobb sliding into Jimmy Austin

Leaders of recent immigrant groups advised their peoples to learn the national game if they wanted to become Americans, and foreign-language newspapers devoted space to educating their readers about America’s strange and wonderful game. (New York’s Staats-Zeitung, for example, applauded Kraftiges Schlagen—hard hitting—and cautioned German fans not to kill the Unparteiischer.) As historians Harold and Dorothy Seymour wrote, “The argot of baseball supplied a common means of communication and strengthened the bond which the game helped to establish among those sorely in need of it—the mass of urban dwellers and immigrants living in the anonymity and impersonal vortex of large industrial cities. . . . With the loss of the traditional ties known in a rural society, baseball gave to many the feeling of belonging.” And rooting for a baseball team permitted city folk, newcomers and native-born, the sense of pride in community that in former times—when they may have lived in small towns—was commonplace.

Thus baseball offered a model of how to be an American, to be part of the team: Baseball was “second only to death as a leveler,” wrote essayist Allen Sangree. Even in those horrifically leveling years of 1941–45, when so many of our bravest and best gave their lives to defend American ideals, baseball’s role as a vital enterprise was confirmed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “green light” for continued play. Many of baseball’s finest players—Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, to name but a few—swapped their baseball gear for Uncle Sam’s, and served with military distinction or helped to boost the nation’s morale.

Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth

Even oldtimers like Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, and Ty Cobb donned uniforms in service of their country—baseball uniforms, as they staged exhibitions on behalf of war bonds. Servicemen overseas looked to letters from home and the box scores in The Sporting News to keep them in touch with what they had left behind, and what they were fighting for—an American way of life that was a beacon for a world in which the light of freedom had been nearly extinguished.

I was one of the countless immigrants who from the 1860s on saw baseball as the “open sesame” to the door of their adopted land. A Polish Jew born in occupied Germany to Holocaust survivors, I arrived on these shores at age 2. After checking in at Ellis Island, I happened by chance to spend the first night in my new land in the no-longer-elegant hotel where in 1876 the National League had been founded. I learned to read by studying the backs of Topps baseball cards, and to be an American by attaching myself passionately to the Brooklyn Dodgers (who also taught me about the fickleness of love).

The Brooklyn Dodgers, in the persons particularly of Rickey and Robinson, also taught America a lesson: that baseball’s integrative and democratic models, by the 1940s long held to be verities, were hollow at the core. David Halberstam wrote:

. . . it was part of our folklore, basic to our national democratic myth, that sports was the great American equalizer, that money and social status did not matter upon the playing fields. Elsewhere life was assumed to be unfair: those who had privilege passed it on to their children, who in turn had easier, softer lives. Those without privilege were doomed to accept the essential injustices of daily life. But according to the American myth, in sports the poor but honest kid from across the tracks could gain (often in competition with richer, snottier kids) recognition and acclaim for his talents.

Until October 23, 1945, when Robinson signed a contract to play for the Montreal Royals, Brooklyn’s top farm club, the myth as far as African Americans were concerned was not a sustaining legend but a mere falsehood.

Robinson and Rickey

Robinson and Rickey

Rickey’s rectitude and Robinson’s courage have become central parables of baseball and America, exemplars of decency and strength that inspire all of us. Their “great experiment” came too late for such heroes of black ball as Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston and Ray Dandridge, but its success has been complete. Once the integrative or leveling model of baseball—all America playing and working in harmony—was extended to African Americans, the effect on the nation was profound. Eighty years after the Civil War, America had proved itself unable to practice the values for which it was fought; baseball showed the way. This is what NL president Ford Frick said to the St. Louis Cardinals, rumored to be planning a strike in May 1947:

If you do this you will be suspended from the league. You will find that the friends you think you have in the press box will not support you, that you will be outcasts. I do not care if half the league strikes. Those who do it will encounter quick retribution. They will be suspended and I don’t care if it wrecks the National League for five years. This is the United States of America, and one citizen has as much right to play as any other. The National League will go down the line with Robinson whatever the consequence.

As Monte Irvin said, “Baseball has done more to move America in the right direction than all the professional patriots with their billions of cheap words.” The Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education; civil rights heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., James Meredith, Thurgood Marshall, and others; the freedom marches and the voting rights act—all were vital to America’s progress toward unity, but the title of one of Jackie Robinson’s books may not overstate the case: Baseball Has Done It.

A final way in which baseball supplies models for America is one that has been present from the game’s beginning: a model for children wishing to be grownups, wrestling with their insecurities and wondering, What does it mean to be a man? What does a man do? (Most of us old boys occasionally wonder this as well.) The answers in baseball, at least, are unequivocal; as Satchel Paige said in his later years, “I loved baseball. There wasn’t no ‘maybe so’ about it.”

Baseball gives children a sense of how wide the world is, in its possibilities but also in its geography. Reading the summations of minor league ball in The Sporting News each week piqued the curiosity of baseball-mad boys like me: where were Kokomo and Mattoon and Thibodeaux and Nogales? How did people behave in Salinas or Rocky Mount? What did they eat in Artesia? How many exciting, exotic places this enormous country contained! But a note of comfort—they couldn’t be all that strange if baseball was played there.

Babe Ruth and Father, 1915

Babe Ruth and Father, 1915

And to that other vast terra incognita—the world of adults—baseball also offered a road map. How many boys and girls learned to talk with adults, principally their fathers, by nodding wisely at an assessment of a shortstop’s range or a pitcher’s heart, and mock-confidently venturing an opinion about the hometown team’s chances? Our dads are our first heroes (and, decades later, our last); but in between, baseball players are what we want to be. For heroes are larger than life, and when as adults we have taken the measure of ourselves and found we are no more than life-size, and on our bad days seemingly less than that, baseball can puff us up a bit.

Douglass Wallop put it nicely:

. . . only yesterday the fan was a kid of nine or ten bolting his breakfast on Saturday morning and hurtling from the house with a glove buttoned over his belt and a bat over his shoulder, rushing to the nearest vacant lot, perhaps the nearest alley, where the other guys were gathering, a place where it would always be spring. For him, baseball would always have the sound and look and smell of that morning and of other mornings just like it. Only by an accident of chance would he find himself, in the years to come, up in the grandstand, looking on. But for a quirk of fate, he himself would be down on that field; it would be his likeness on the television screen and his name in the newspaper high on the list of .300 hitters. He was a fan, but a fan only incidentally. He was, first and always, himself a baseball player.

The Fifties
If the America that was survives anywhere as more than a memory, it is in baseball, that strangely pastoral game in no matter what setting—domed stadium or Little League field. As hindsight improves upon foresight, memory improves upon reality, so that the endless monotony and grinding physical labor of small-town life before the Civil War are now thought quite romantic. For all our complaints today, it may likewise be argued that America is better than it ever was.

Today’s players are better than those in the game’s golden age; the strategy of the game and even its execution are more adept (forget all that moaning about how nobody knows the “fundamentals” any more . . . the average player of fifty years ago didn’t know them either); and the opportunities to watch baseball, if not to play it, far exceed those of say, the 1950s, today broadly regarded as the game’s halcyon era. (A golden age may be defined flexibly, it seems, so as to coincide with the period of one’s youth.) For all its pull toward the good old days, for all its statistical illusions of an Olympian era when titans strode the basepaths, for all its seeming permanence in a world aswirl with change, baseball has in fact moved with America, and improved with it.

Ted Williams at Fenway Park, ca. 1946

Ted Williams at Fenway Park, ca. 1946

The period after World War II was a heady time for the nation and its pastime, both of them buoyed by returning veterans and removed restrictions. But in 1946 the major leagues still represented only the sixteen cities that had participated in the National Agreement of 1903, none west of St. Louis; a handful of African Americans were just entering the minor leagues after a half-century’s exclusion; and because television was not yet a staple of the American home, most baseball fans had never seen even a single big-league game.

Women had been courted as patrons (even nonpaying patrons) ever since the game’s dawn. Baseball management hoped that their presence would lend “tone” to the proceedings and keep a lid on the rowdies, in the stands and on the field. But women’s participation in the game’s labor force and management was even more limited than their role in the nation’s business and industry—Rosie the Riveter and Eleanor Roosevelt as yet had no counterparts in Organized Baseball. The All-American Girls Baseball League made its debut in 1943, the brainchild of Chicago Cubs’ owner Philip K. Wrigley. The women’s “league of their own” won many admirers over the next decade, but the majors always regarded it as separate and unequal.

Inside Baseball for Little Leaguers

Inside Baseball for Little Leaguers

On the amateur level, while American Legion Junior Baseball had begun as early as 1928, and Little League in 1939, neither attained their heights until after the War ended. Naysayers will point out that baseball has lost ground as more kids today play football, basketball, soccer, and tennis than fifty years ago—but far more play baseball, too, and not only in America. The annual pursuit of the Little League championship in Williamsport, Pennsylvania (like the Pan-American Games and the World Baseball Classic), has become an international affair, an instrument of diplomacy that State Department officials envy. Indeed, baseball may yet hold the key to neighborly relations with all nations in the hemisphere and beyond.

Baseball in the colleges, now so vibrant and so fertile with major league talent, was on the path to extinction by the end of the War, only to be brought back from the brink by the G.I. Bill: the explosive growth in enrollment that the returning veterans produced also created a sudden need for expanded athletic programs, and baseball was the prime beneficiary. The NCAA’s introduction of the College World Series in 1947 affirmed the game’s recovery on campus, and since locating in Omaha three years later it has grown steadily.

In 1951 Major League Baseball, as dated from the inception of the National League in 1876, reached the august age of 75 and proclaimed its “diamond jubilee.” Celebratory banquets were held, a plaque was erected at the old hotel where the league was founded, and all NL players wore a commemorative patch on their sleeves. (Coincidentally but less flashily the American League marked its fiftieth birthday as a major circuit.) Let’s take a moment to look at where baseball stood at that point.

Phil Rizzuto

Phil Rizzuto, 1951

There was no question it was booming. On the professional level, a whopping 59 leagues contained 448 teams employing about 8,000 players—or 19 minor leaguers competing for each of the then 400 spots in the big show. Little League would soon send its first alumnus to the majors, which had already accepted hundreds of graduates from Legion and other programs. Happy Chandler secured from television a then mind-boggling but now quaint $6 million for broadcast rights to the next six World Series. And with the game’s most powerful teams bunched in New York City—the Yankees, the Dodgers, and the Giants—the publicity mills and the turnstiles were spinning as they had never spun before.

But the excitement of the first five postwar years was not confined to New York: even such perennial tailenders as the Boston Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Cleveland Indians fought their way into the World Series; and staid old Cleveland, under Bill Veeck’s carnival-barker aegis, set staggering new attendance records. Many of the newly admitted African-American players had become stars and—satisfyingly, though few but Branch Rickey had predicted it—box-office attractions: Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe of the Dodgers; Monte Irvin and rookie Willie Mays of the Giants; Sam Jethroe of the Braves; Larry Doby and Satchel Paige of the Indians. Many prewar stars continued to shine, like Bob Feller, Stan Musial, and Ted Williams (though with the Korean War he answered Uncle Sam’s call yet again), and new ones like Gotham’s center field trio of Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle, and Mays replenished the stock as heroes like Joe DiMaggio hung up their spikes.

Don Newcombe

Don Newcombe

But most of these blessings had their downside. Opening the game to African Americans was indubitably right, but it killed the Negro Leagues, ruining owners and abruptly ending many playing careers. The increasing organization of youth baseball, particularly the rise of Little League, heightened the stress of the game at its formative levels and drained much of the fun, as driven parents began to see their Junior as tomorrow’s big leaguer, not as just a boy having fun while learning a thing or two. The game on the field was dominated by the home run, making for a brand of ball that some might term dull. League champs registered such stolen-base totals as Dom DiMaggio’s 15 or Jackie Jensen’s 22; Early Wynn led the AL in ERA one year with a mark of 3.20; and the three-base hit, despite the big old parks still prevalent, went the way of the dodo. And the pennant domination by the three New York teams—principally the Yankees, of course—made the national pastime a rather parochial pleasure; it was hard for fans in Pittsburgh or Detroit to wax rhapsodic over a Subway Series. No, the blessings of the 1950s were not unmitigated, any more than on the national scene the tranquility of the Eisenhower years was without cost.

Take television, for instance: the revenues were great, and so was the publicity value of electronically extending major league play to people in southern and western areas. But the novelty of big-time heroes on the small screen kept those folks at home when formerly they had gone to the local ballpark. The minors began their long decline, one that didn’t bottom out until 1964; by then the 59 leagues of 1951 had become 19, and the 8,000-odd professional players had dwindled to fewer than 2,500.

Yankee Stadium with Dumont TV Cameras

Yankee Stadium with Dumont TV Cameras

Moreover, television whetted the baseball appetites of Californians and Texans (and Georgians and Washingtonians and more). That demand plus the development of faster passenger planes gave ideas to owners of two of baseball’s decaying franchises. Walter O’Malley, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham had seen the solidarity of the original 16-city composition broken in 1953, when the venerable Boston Braves (a franchise established in the first year of the National Association, 1871) became the darlings of Milwaukee, and they saw it further weakened by the defections in 1954–55 of the St. Louis Browns to Baltimore and the Philadelphia Athletics to Kansas City. Amid weeping and gnashing of teeth that continue to this day, the Dodgers and Giants left for the Golden West in 1958.

In a strange twist, the architect of the move, Walter O’Malley, was (and in the East, still is) widely reviled as the man responsible for ending the grand old game’s paradisical age. Yet the placement of franchises in California, as distressing as it was for Brooklyn and Manhattan and as roundly condemned as it was by traditionalists, may now be seen as the best thing to happen to baseball in the decade. And Walter O’Malley, if you will permit your mind a considerable stretch, may be viewed not as the snake offering baseball the mortal apple but as a latter-day Johnny Appleseed (in the footsteps of Alexander Cartwright, who in 1849 also headed for California in pursuit of gold, yet who is celebrated not for his venality but for bringing the New York Game to the West).

It was imperative that baseball take the game to where the people were, precisely as it had in 1903. America’s population had already begun the westward and southward shift that was to become so pronounced in the 1960s and ’70s. The move to Los Angeles and San Francisco, rather than confirming those cities’ stature as “big-league,” as is so often written, brought baseball into step with America, which had long recognized them as such. Baseball could now call itself the national pastime without apology.

The concluding Part 3 tomorrow.


Our Game

Baseball, Our Game, ThornThis little book was issued in 1995 as part of the Penguin 60s series–celebrating Penguin’s 60th anniversary with 60 titles by its authors over the years. The 60 for the UK were somewhat different (a book about baseball would have made little sense across the pond, even though the Brits were first to play the game). I was pleased to be included among the 60 for North America, however, as it placed me in the company of my betters, from Melville and Poe to Emerson and the Pope. I got some cocktail-party mileage out of saying that Stephen King and I received the same fee for our work ($200). Anyway, this little book began its life as part of a book I wrote for The Sporting News in 1988, The Game for All America. Revised and republished over the years, the essay is presented here, at the blog named for it, with a tip of the cap to Whitman (“… well—it’s our game: that’s the chief fact in connection with it: America’s game: has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere—belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life”)

Baseball has been, most often for better but occasionally for worse, the American game. It has given our people rest and recreation, myths and memories, heroes and history and hope. It has mirrored our society, sometimes propelling it with models for democracy, community, commerce, and common humanity, sometimes lagging behind with equally instructive models of futility and resistance to change. And as our national game, baseball in no small measure defines us as Americans, connecting us with our countrymen across all barriers of generation, class, race, and creed.

First played in England, baseball has always been about America. Live Oak Polka, 1860.

First played in England, baseball has always been about America. Live Oak Polka, 1860.

Baseball in the Americas is more than a game, an observation to which the scope of this little book is testimony and tribute. But it is first and foremost about play, a fact obscured amid the recent ferment of free agency, salary caps, and sky boxes. Some 150 years ago, an overly solemn America was first indebted to baseball for the freedom it gave to play. As overture to this volume’s chronicle of baseball’s history, let’s look at how child’s play came to be our national pastime.

America Learns to Play
Even when the New York Game of Base Ball was in its infancy in the 1850s—having just evolved from a variety of regional and boyhood games, including an older, formalized competitor in New England—the sport was already shaping the life of the country. Americans of the previous generation had been blind to the virtue of play, much perplexing our European cousins. We permitted ourselves few amusements that could not be justified in terms of social or business utility, or “seriousness.” Nonconformists like the Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia in the 1830s had to put up with a lot of guff, as this later account details:

The first day that the Philadelphia men took the field . . . only four men were found to play, so they started in by playing a game called cat ball. All the players were over twenty-five years of age, and to see them playing a game like this caused much merriment among the friends of the players. It required “sand” in those days to go out on the field and play, as the prejudice against the game was very great. It took nearly a whole season to get men enough together to make a team, owing to the ridicule heaped upon the players for taking part in such childish sports.

Olympic Clubhouse ca 1860

Olympic Clubhouse ca 1860

What brought scorn upon the heads of these staunch devotees of town ball, as the Philadelphians dubbed their form of ball play, was that although the game had regularly positioned fielders and demanded a modicum of strategic play, it still bore the essence of childhood games: the retirement of a base runner by throwing the ball at him, which necessitated a softer, less resilient ball than that used in the manly sport of cricket.

Who was the genius who came up with the idea of retiring a runner by touching him with the ball or securing it “in the hands of an adversary on the base”? For a long while many baseball scholars thought it was Alexander Cartwright of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York, who some still call “the man who invented baseball,” even though baseball was not invented; it evolved. Today we think it may have been William Rufus Wheaton, who drew up the Knick rules in 1845, modeling them upon a set he had penned eight years earlier for the Gotham Ball Club.

No matter—this was the first step toward making an American game that could challenge boys and men alike, and that could take its place in the life of our nation as cricket had done in England. Henry Chadwick, the English-born cricket reporter who coined the term “national pastime” and became known as the “Father of Baseball,” wrote that early on he

Henry Chadwick

Henry Chadwick

. . . was struck with the idea that base ball was just the game for a national sport for Americans and . . . that from this game of ball a powerful lever might be made by which our people could be lifted into a position of more devotion to physical exercise and healthful out-door recreation than they had, hitherto, been noted for. . . . In fact, as is well-known, we were the regular target for the shafts of raillery and even abuse from our outdoor-sport-loving cousins of England, in consequence of our national neglect of sports and pastimes, and our too great devotion to business and the “Almighty Dollar.” But thanks to Base Ball . . . we have been transformed into quite another people. . . .

The transformation was from a hard-working but grim citizenry to a nation devoted to fresh air and exercise, not unlike the modern rage for jogging, aerobics, and body building. Amateur baseball clubs sprang up like dandelions in the years immediately before the Civil War, but these were formed more for camaraderie and calisthenics than for the pursuit of victory or the honing of skills. The demands of the new game on athleticism were few, as the one-bound rule remained in effect (an out was recorded if a ball was caught on a bounce), and a couple of weeks’ practice were enough to make a novice of forty a creditable player.

Men viewed baseball as a mild pastime, or a relief from the mental strains of work; as a tonic, restorative of the physical energies needed for work; or as a release of the surplus nervous energy that impedes young men in their pursuit of purposeful work. America in the mid-1850s was learning how to play, but still viewed sport in terms of its salutary effects on commerce; not until the close of the War Between the States would the focus shift to learning how to play well—for its own sake.

The Charm of the Game
Today we think of baseball as an anachronism, a last vestige of America’s agrarian paradise—an idyllic game that takes us back to a more innocent time. But baseball as we might recognize it originated in New York City, not rural Cooperstown, and in truth it was an exercise in nostalgia from the beginning. Alexander Cartwright and his Knickerbockers began play in Madison Square in 1842, and the city’s northward progress soon compelled them to move uptown to Murray Hill.

American National Game of Base Ball, 1866

American National Game of Base Ball, 1866

When the grounds there were also threatened by the march of industry, the Knicks ferried across the Hudson River to the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, a landscaped retreat of picnic grounds and scenic vistas that was designed by its proprietors to relieve New Yorkers of city air and city care. In other words, the purpose of baseball’s primal park was the same as that of New York’s Central Park or, much later, Boston’s Fenway Park—to give an increasingly urban populace a park within the city, a place reminiscent of the idealized farms that had sent all these lads to the metropolis in pursuit of work.

Thus the attraction of the game in its earliest days was first the novelty and exhilaration of play; second the opportunity for deskbound city clerks to expend surplus energy in a sylvan setting, freed from the tyranny of the clock; and third, to harmonize with an American golden age that was almost entirely legendary.

Simple charms, simple pleasures. In the late 1860s, advancing skills led to heightened appetites for victory, which led to hot pursuit of the game’s gifted players, which inevitably led to sub rosa payments and, by 1870, rampant professionalism. (Doesn’t that chain reaction put one in mind of college football or basketball?) The gentlemanly players of baseball’s first generation retreated from the field, shaking their heads in dismay at how greed had perverted the “grand old game”—now barely 20 years old—and probably ruined it forever.

1874 Athletics of Philadelphia

1874 Athletics of Philadelphia

Sound familiar? It should—the same dire and premature announcements of the demise of the game have been issued ever since, spurred by free-agent signings, long-term contracts, no-trade provisions, strikes and lockouts, integration, night ball, rival leagues, ad infinitum. The only conclusions a calm head might draw from this recurring cycle of disdain for the present and glorification of the past are that (a) things aren’t what they used to be and never were; (b) accurate assessment of a present predicament is impossible, for it requires perspective; and (c) no matter what the owners or players or rules makers or fans do, they can’t kill baseball. All three conclusions are correct. In baseball, the distinction between amateur and professional is not clear-cut: an amateur may play for devotion to the game (amat being the Latin for “he loves”), but a professional does not play for pursuit of gain alone; he plays for love, too.

Oh, don’t you remember the game of base-ball we saw twenty years ago played,

When contests were true, and the sight free to all, and home-runs in plenty were made?

When we lay on the grass, and with thrills of delight, watched the ball squarely pitched at the bat,

And easily hit, and then mount out of sight along with our cheers and our hat?

And then, while the fielders raced after the ball, the men on the bases flew round,

And came in together—four batters in all. Ah! That was the old game renowned.

Now salaried pitchers, who throw the ball curved at padded and masked catchers lame

And gate-money music and seats all reserved is all that is left of the game.

Oh, give us the glorious matches of old, when love of true sport made them great,

And not this new-fashioned affair always sold for the boodle they take at the gate.

That doomsday ditty by H. C. Dodge was published in 1886.

The National Pastime
America before the Civil War was still populated by a handful of veterans of the Revolutionary War and many who remembered vividly the War of 1812. The era of Anglo-American amity had not yet dawned; our country’s spiritual separation from the Mother Country, though effected by treaty in 1783, was still in process. And having baseball to rival and replace cricket was an important step in that process. Moreover when England, seeking to maintain its supply of cotton from the American South, appeared over-cordial to the Confederate cause, anti-British feeling swept the North. An America long suffering from an inferiority complex toward England now turned against cricket and embraced baseball with increased fervor.

From 1856 on, Henry Chadwick had been eager for baseball to rise to the status in America that cricket held in his native England. He championed the game tirelessly, helping to refine its rules and practices to make it the equal of cricket as a “manly” and “scientific” game. And baseball soon became, in his words, like cricket “a game requiring the mental powers of judgment, calculation and quick perception to excel in it—while in its demands upon the vigor, endurance and courage of manhood, its requirements excel those requisite to become equally expert as a cricketer.”

Chadwick's American Base Ball Manual, London 1874

Chadwick’s American Base Ball Manual, London 1874

Chadwick invented a method of scorekeeping and statistical compilation patterned on those inaugurated in cricket. Baseball was an elemental game—pitch, hit, catch, throw—like other games of ball; but keeping records of the contests and later printing box scores and individual averages elevated it from childhood games and placed it on an equal footing with its transatlantic counterpart. (As important, the records served to legitimize men’s concern with what had been merely a boys’ exercise by making it more systematic, like the numerically annotated world of business.) Today a baseball without records is inconceivable: They are what keep Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson alive in our minds in a way that President James K. Polk, Walter Reed, or Admiral Dewey—arguably greater men—are not.

By the end of the Civil War, cricket in this country remained a pastime for a shrinking band of Anglophiles, while the New York Game of Baseball (as it was then called to differentiate it from the nearly vanished Massachusetts Game) was spreading across the country, courtesy of returning veterans whose first exposure to baseball might have come in a prisoner-of-war camp. In the press, baseball was typically proclaimed The National Game—the same term Britons used for cricket.

Play for Pay
From its creation in 1871 to its crash five years later, the National Association had a rocky time as America’s first professional league. Franchises came and went with dizzying speed, often folding in midseason. Schedules were not played out if a club slated to go on the road saw little prospect of gate-share gain. Drinking and gambling and game-fixing were rife. And the Boston Red Stockings of Al Spalding and the Wright brothers dominated play, going 71–8 in the last of their four straight championship seasons; their predictable and one-sided victories crushed the competition and, at last, interest in the entire circuit.

Grand Central Hotel

Grand Central Hotel

But from the ashes of the National Association emerged the Red Stockings’ model of success and the entrepreneurial genius of Chicago’s William Hulbert. After raiding Boston to obtain four of the biggest stars in the game—Spalding, Ross Barnes, Deacon White, and Cal McVey—and lining up the services of the Philadelphia Athletics’ Adrian “Cap” Anson, the White Stockings were ready to roll in the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, founded on February 2, 1876 in New York’s Grand Central Hotel.

The first five years of the NL were nearly as unsettled as the final years of the NA, with franchises appearing and then disappearing in such cities as Syracuse, Indianapolis, and Hartford while major cities like New York and Philadelphia were, after the league’s inaugural year, unrepresented. In 1878 the fledgling circuit was forced to cut back to six teams: Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Chicago, Providence, Cincinnati, and Boston. National League? National Game? It seemed Americans had plenty of appetite for playing the game, but not much for watching it.

Yet as the National League suffered with growing pains, it was introducing some elements that were critical to the explosion of interest that came with the 1880s. It created a professional (paid) umpiring crew; insisted that the league schedule be honored; banned pool selling and hard-liquor consumption in the stands; and created a system of management-owned teams as opposed to the player-run cooperatives that had largely characterized the NA. As the public’s renewed faith in the integrity of the game coincided with an upswing in the national economy, not only did the National League flourish; along came an interloper, the rival American Association, to offer patrons 25-cent baseball (NL admissions were 50 cents), Sunday games, and beer. With the public’s new appetite for the game seeming insatiable, a group of investors led by St. Louis’ Henry Lucas launched a third major league, the Union Association, for 1884.

Sporting Times Scorecard with Kelly, Anson

Sporting Times Scorecard with Kelly, Anson, et al.

As brash stars like Cap Anson, Tim Keefe, Dan Brouthers, and the larger-than-life King Kelly captured the newspaper headlines and the nation’s imagination, the age of the baseball idol arrived. Before this decade, men like Jim Creighton, Joe Start, and George Wright had been admired in New York and New England, but now a baseball hero’s image could be mass-produced for nationwide sale, or licensed for advertising, or shaped to inspire odes and songs. Kelly inspired “Slide, Kelly, Slide,” its arcane references now largely forgotten but once the most popular song in the land:

Slide, Kelly, slide!

Your running’s a disgrace!

Slide, Kelly, slide!

Stay there, hold your base!

If someone doesn’t steal ya,

And your batting doesn’t fail ya,

They’ll take you to Australia!

Slide, Kelly, slide!

And although Ernest Lawrence Thayer always denied it, Kelly could well have been the model for “Casey at the Bat,” the immortal lyric ballad Thayer penned in 1888. (“Casey” was sometimes reprinted in the newspapers of the 1880s as “Kelly at the Bat,” changing the locale from Mudville to Beantown.)

Baseball was ascendant in the 1880s, and like the budding nation whose pastime it was, pretty cocksure. In the same year that “Casey” made his debut, Albert Spalding led a contingent of baseball players on a round the world tour, spreading the gospel of bat and ball to such places as Egypt, Italy, England, Hawaii, and the above-mentioned Australia. Baseball, America thought, was too grand a game to be merely a national pastime; it ought to be the international pastime.

World Tourists at Sphinx, 1889

World Tourists at Sphinx, 1889

At a New York banquet for Spalding’s returning “world tourists” in 1889, speaker Mark Twain declared, “Baseball is the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century.” Spalding himself later wrote:

I claim that Base Ball owes its prestige as our National Game to the fact that as no other form of sport it is the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness; American Dash, Discipline, Determination; American Energy, Eagerness, Enthusiasm; American Pluck, Persistency, Performance; American Spirit, Sagacity, Success; American Vim, Vigor, Virility.

In fact baseball had become more than the mere reflection of our rising industrial and political power and its propensity for bluster and hokum: the national game was beginning to supply emblems for democracy, industry, and community that would change America and the world—not in the ways that Spalding’s Tourists may have envisioned, but indisputably for the better.

Part 2 tomorrow.

Old News in Baseball, No. 14

Newsboy logoThis week’s foray into baseball’s world of the strange and unusual brings back to life such ancient controversies as the longest throw, the first championship, and nefarious deeds on and off the field. The Black Sox Scandal rears its ugly head yet again, as the most memorable instance of Baseball’s Original Sin. Pete Rose makes an appearance, griping that the Braves used closer Gene Garber with an 11-run lead. And the often vilified Cap Anson tries to save a win for a deaf-mute pitcher in his big-league debut. Who remembers Glen Gorbous and Sheldon Lejeune, let alone John Van Buren Hatfield? They all had mighty arms and are fondly recalled here.

July 31

1909: For the second time in two years, “Sleepy Bill” Burns has a no-hitter broken up with two outs in the ninth‚ when Washington’s Otis Clymer singles. Burns is the only pitcher to suffer this fate twice‚ until Dave Stieb of Toronto repeats Burns’s burn on September 24 and 30‚ 1988. Burns, a star in the Pacific Coast League before breaking into the big leagues in 1908, is remembered today, if at all, for his peculiar role in the Black Sox Scandal of 1919. For more, see:

1954: The Milwaukee Braves’ Joe Adcock hits four home runs off four different pitchers‚ adding a double for good measure. His 18 total bases would not be topped until Shawn Green hit for 19 in 2002. The visiting Braves defeat the Giants 15-7. On April 29 of the previous season, Adcock became the first man to hit a home run into the center field bleachers at the Polo Grounds; Lou Brock and Henry Aaron would become the only other men to do so.

1978: Cincinnati’s Pete Rose singles off Phil Niekro to extend his consecutive-game batting streak to 44‚ as the Reds edge the Braves 3-2. Rose ties Willie Keeler’s 1897 National League record. Larry McWilliams and Gene Garber will stop Rose’s streak in the following game, prompting Pete to grumble about Garber’s approach, after striking out, “You would have thought it was the seventh game of the World Series.”

Nate Colbert, 1972 Topps

Nate Colbert, 1972 Topps

August 1

1925: The Yankees buy Tony Lazzeri from the Pacific Coast League for spring delivery. Lazzeri will hit a minor-league record 60 HRs with 222 RBI at Salt Lake City‚ and earn the nickname “Poosh-em-up” from his legion of Italian admirers. Tony will solidify the Yankees’ Murderers Row of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Earle Combs.

1956: Glen Gorbous of Omaha, who had big-league time with the Reds and the Phils, breaks Don Grate’s record toss with a heave of 445 feet 10 inches before a home game. No baseball organization would risk a prospect’s arm in such an exploit today, but such “field-day” events hearken back to the game’s beginnings. Sheldon “Larry” Lejeune of the Reds reached 426 feet 9-1/2 inches in 1910, breaking a record first set by John Hatfield of the New York Gothams in 1865. For more, see:

1972: In a doubleheader with the Atlanta Braves, the Padres’ Nate Colbert ties one record, with five home runs‚ and sets another with 13 RBIs. As a boy Colbert had been at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis to witness Stan Musial becoming the first to hit five homers in a twin bill. For more, see:

August 2

1921: A Chicago jury brings in a verdict of not guilty against the Black Sox. The transcripts of their grand jury testimony had mysteriously vanished but were available to to the jurors via stenographic recordings; simple jury nullification may be the reason for the acquittal. That night‚ jurors and defendants celebrate with a party in an Italian restaurant. Ignoring the verdict‚ Judge Landis bans all eight defendants from baseball for life. Despite many challenges and appeals, notably from proponents of Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver, Landis’s judgment remains in force, decades after the death of the last man banished. The transcripts would turn up, finally, in the files of Charles Comiskey’ attorneys in 2007. For more, see:

Black Sox and Jurors and Gamblers, post-acquittal, 1921

Black Sox and Jurors and Gamblers, post-acquittal, 1921

1943: Yankee minor leaguer Larry (not yet Yogi) Berra‚ playing for Norfolk‚ has six hits and 10 RBIs against Roanoke. This follows the 18-year-old catcher’s performance yesterday when he had six hits and 13 RBI.

1960: In an agreement with the major leagues‚ the Continental League abandons plans to take the field as a rival to circuit. Walter O’Malley‚ chairman of the National League Expansion Committee‚ says‚ “We immediately will recommend expansion and that we would like to do it in 1961.” The Continental League ends without playing a game, but it ushers in baseball’s expansion era with clubs in Washington and Los Angeles for the American League in 1961, and Houston an New York in the NL of 1962.

Billy Hamilton, Kansas City, 1888-89

Billy Hamilton, Kansas City, 1888

August 3

1865: Twenty thousand spectators watch a “championship” game at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken between the Mutuals and the Atlantics. The game is a five-inning‚ rain-shortened 13-12 Atlantic victory. Henry Chadwick writes‚ “these championship games are informal matches‚ there being no established rules for such contests‚ the title being one established by custom only.” This particular game would be immortalized in the title of a now rare and precious 1866 Currier and Ives lithograph, “The American National Game of Base Ball: Grand Match for the Championship at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken, N.J.” However, the action depicted in that litho was of another, imaginary game, pitting the Atlantics against the Excelsiors. For more, see:

1888: Kansas City Cowboy rookie Billy Hamilton‚ recently purchased from Worcester‚ steals his first base in the big leagues. Sliding Billy will go on to amass 937 stolen bases‚ a record until Lou Brock tops it in 1979.

1954: At Forbes Field‚ Reds manager Birdie Tebbetts starts righthander Bud Podbielan‚ but Fred Haney counters with an all-lefty Pirate lineup. Birdie then lifts Podbielan after one batter and brings in lefty Joe Nuxhall. The ploy works and the Reds win‚ 7-2. Haney is fooled by an old gambit first pulled, memorably, by manager Bucky Harris in Game 7 of the 1924 World Series. For more, see:

Jack Coombs

Jack Coombs

August 4

1910: The Philadelphia Athletics’ Jack Coombs and Chicago’s Ed Walsh duel 16 innings to a 0-0 tie. Coombs gives up just three hits and strikes out 18; Walsh, who also goes the distance, gives up just six hits.

1948: Ernie Harwell begins as an announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had to trade a player‚ Cliff Dapper‚ to the Atlanta Crackers to acquire Harwell.

1982: Joel Youngblood plays for two teams in different cities on the same day‚ and collects a hit in each game, an unprecedented and peculiar feat. After going 1-for-2 off Fergie Jenkins in an afternoon game at Wrigley Field‚ Youngblood is traded from the Mets to the Expos. He flies to Philadelphia in time to enter the game that night in the sixth inning‚ getting a hit off the Phils’ Steve Carlton.

August 5

1884: The major-league debut of Chicago White Stockings deaf-mute pitcher Tom Lynch goes well until the eighth‚ allowing only two earned runs, when his arm gives out. When the umpire refuses to allow Lynch to leave the game‚ Lynch switches positions with first baseman Cap Anson‚ who proceeds to surrender five runs and lose the game to Cleveland. Lynch will never play another game. Other deaf major leaguers have been: Ed Dundon, 1883-84; William Hoy, 1888-1902; Reuban Stephenson, 1892; Luther Taylor, 1900-08; George Leitner, 1901-02; William Deegan, 1901; Dick Sipek, 1945; Curtis Pride, 1993-2006.

1899: Sporting Life says “Martin Bergen‚ Boston’s great catcher‚ does not drink‚ chew‚ or smoke; yet he is the hardest man in the league to manage. He is a crank of cranks and‚ moreover‚ has the persecution mania.” On January 19 next year, Bergen will kill his wife and three children with an axe and then take his own life with a razor. For more, see:

1921: The first radio broadcast of a major league game is heard over KDKA in Pittsburgh when Harold Arlin announces the Pirates-Phils game. Arlin’s grandson Steve will pitch six years for the San Diego Padres and Cleveland Indians.

August 6

1868: The Champions of Marshalltown (Iowa) travel to Omaha‚ winning 32-16. Three Ansons play for Marshalltown: Henry‚ and his sons Sturgis and Adrian. For more, see:

Cap Anson with Marshalltown, vignette

Cap Anson with Marshalltown, vignette

1953: Ted Williams is back in a Red Sox uniform after military duty in Korea. He pinch-hits for Tom Umphlett in the bottom of the ninth and pops up. But he will finish the season with 13 homers in just 91 at bats—a startling record of efficiency—and a .407 batting average.

1979: In a night game following the funeral of his close friend Thurman Munson‚ who died in an airplane crash in Canton, Ohio on August 2, Bobby Murcer drives in all five runs as the Yankees top Baltimore 5-4. Murcer has a three-run homer and a ninth inning walk-off single.

Where the Twain Shall Meet, Part 2

TNP 1985Merritt Clifton’s “Where the Twain Shall Meet,” originally published in The National Pastime in 1985, commenced here:

Ironically, the Japanese victory over the U.S. baseball team in the Olympics makes a ban on foreign players less likely. Japanese pride has been assuaged. Now that Japanese collegians, at least, have proved themselves peers of their American counterparts, fans can more easily shrug off the “inferior” rap whenever an American unknown hits a home run. The pressure on imported players to excel conspicuously might also diminish considerably, after decades of mounting. Having starred for the Hankyu Braves in 1964-68 and again in 1971-72, former infielder Daryl Spencer knows that pressure well, understanding thoroughly how it contributes to the present situation. Not only the fans but “the managers like to use Americans as scapegoats,” Spencer recently explained to baseball historian Mike Mandel. “If the American has a bad year and the team doesn’t do well, then the manager says, “Well, our Americans didn’t do well,” without regard to the performances of the other twenty-three on the roster.

Daryl Spencer, Hankyu Braves

Daryl Spencer, Hankyu Braves

Smith and Cromartie particularly demonstrate this tendency. The Yomiuri Giants more or less expected them to replace Sadaharu Oh, the Korean-born first baseman who hit even more home runs than Hank Aaron (868 to 755 before retiring in 1980) and Shigeo Nagashima, the third baseman whose lifetime batting average is the highest in Japanese baseball history. While the Giants dominated the Japanese game as the New York Yankees once dominated American baseball, Oh and Nagashima were the Japanese Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Through their prime, the Giants alone among Japanese teams steadfastly refused to sign Americans. Their only imported players ever had been Hawaiian-born Wally Yonamine, Andy Miyamoto, Bill Nishida, Jun Hirota, and Fumiharu Kashiwaeda, all of pure Japanese descent, who formed their nucleus during the early 1950s. But tradition changed fast after Nagashima began declining. In 1975 the Giants jumped at a chance to sign infielder Davey Johnson, a perennial Gold Glove winner and All-Star with the Baltimore Orioles who had also hit 43 home runs as an Atlanta Brave only two years before. Past his prime, Johnson disappointed, but he did have a good year in 1976 as the Giants kept on winning despite Nagashima’s retirement. Aware what might happen, however, if the Giants lost, Johnson fled back to the U.S. after his two-year contract expired, where he enjoyed one more standout season in 1977. The Giants next traded for John Sipin, who did effectively replace Nagashima during Oh’s last few seasons. In 1980 they added outfielder Roy White, a regular on three recent pennant-winning New York Yankee ballclubs. White starred, but after both Oh and Sipin retired, he slumped, unable to carry the Giants’ offense alone. For the first time, the Giants suffered three consecutive losing seasons. Nagashima, probably the most popular Japanese player ever, had become the team’s general manager. He couldn’t be blamed. Nor could Oh be blamed, now the Giants’ field manager. The Giants dumped White, bringing in first Smith, then Cromartie a season later with fanfare designed to hide the bitter truth that almost their whole club was over 30, they no longer had a single standout pitcher, and hadn’t developed a native star in at least a decade.

Sadaharu Oh

Sadaharu Oh

Smith had been a legitimate major league superstar in his prime with the Red Sox, Cardinals, and Dodgers, distinguished for home run power, speed on the bases, and one of the best arms in the history of baseball. However, he arrived in Japan at age 38 after a succession of injuries had left him unable to throw hard, run fast, or even swing the bat hard every day. Cromartie, in his early thirties, was a few years past career highs of 14 home runs and .304 in seven seasons with the Montreal Expos. He was a good player, but only a marginal regular. Smith and Cromartie couldn’t possibly have lived up to their billing, even if they had produced as well as Oh and Nagashima did during their last seasons; the Giants couldn’t reasonably have been expected to win. But blaming them for the Giants’ collapse helps Yomiuri management, including Oh and Nagashima, to survive the fans’ disappointment while rebuilding their team from the bottom up.

The expectation that American players should be supermen even extended to Masanori Murakami, the Japanese pitcher who played for the San Francisco Giants in 1964-65. Murakami joined San Francisco almost straight out of college, after only half a season in the U.S. minor leagues. Under normal circumstances, no one would have expected him to create a stir right away. But, recalls Spencer, “Murakami came back [to Japan] and he was the first Japanese to play in the major leagues in America and they had a big bally-hoo every time someone hit a home run off him in spring training. And the kid got really psyched out, and the other Japanese players kind of resented him. He had a miserable time of it for about three or four years. Finally he did have a halfway decent season, but he never became a star,” despite lasting eighteen years in professional baseball. Ironically, reversing the pattern of American players, Murakami returned to the San Francisco Giants for his final comeback attempt. Had he succeeded, he might have proved himself that American and Japanese baseball are simply different, rather than ”better” or “worse.” Instead, he received his unconditional release during 1983 spring training.

Masanori Murakami

Masanori Murakami

Yet another Spencer anecdote reveals the depth of the Japanese inferiority complex concerning American baseball. As he told Mandel in S.F. Giants: An Oral History (self-published, 1979), “I got in a situation where I was going for the home run crown with this Japanese player. And I was ahead of him 32 to 26 in August. And my interpreter told me to forget the home run title; it had already been decided that I wouldn’t win. I couldn’t understand what he was talking about, but in our next series we went into Tokyo and we were playing in this real small ballpark, and I always hit a couple of home runs there in a three-game series. And they walked me eight straight times. The greatest pitcher in Japan at that time, a kid named Koyama, who could throw strikes blindfolded, he walked me four times on sixteen straight pitches. So they were getting the message to me that I wasn’t going to hit any more home runs. And eventually the guy caught me.”

The Japanese have never been particularly sensitive about Americans winning batting championships. Even before former American major leaguers arrived, Wally Yonamine won the 1951 Central League batting title. Larry Raines won the Pacific League batting title with the Hankyu Braves in 1954. No feelings were hurt because at that time the Japanese leagues did not even pretend to equality. Almost a decade later, playing at the same time as Spencer, former American minor leaguer Jack Bloomfield won back-to-back Pacific League batting titles for the Kintetsu Buffalos in 1962 and 1963.

Home run titles, however, have been a sore point, as has the whole business of home run hitting. In America, the self-sacrificing deadball era ended when pitcher Babe Ruth turned in his toeplate at the peak of his career and became a fence-busting outfielder instead. The deadball era in Japan ended almost the same way, when one-time pitching great Michio Nishizawa returned from World War II with an injured arm, forcing him to become an outfielder-first baseman. Unlike Ruth, Nishizawa had never before been much of a hitter. In fact, in seven previous seasons, he’d hit over .223 just once and that was as a teenaged rookie in 1937, when he got two hits in five at-bats. He’d hit only one home run in his life. Grateful just to be playing ball again, Nishizawa played conventional deadball for a couple of years, then discovered he was big and strong enough to hit home runs in bunches. The individual self-assertion inherent in swinging for the fences made Nishizawa the target of considerable criticism from the old guard, but most fans loved him. When he retired in 1958, his career total of 212 homers and single-season high of 46 in 1950 were both Japanese baseball records.

Michio Nishizawa

Michio Nishizawa

They didn’t last long. Because Nishizawa’s teams won, and because his hitting packed the bleachers, Japanese management immediately began seeking more fence-busters. This, as much as a desire to better the overall caliber of their game, was the real impetus behind the wholesale import of American players from the early 1950s on. Even playing in much smaller ballparks than the American norm, few native Japanese had the size and strength to hit home runs before the 1960s, when the improved nutrition of the postwar era brought a generally bigger, stronger generation to maturity. Meanwhile American players of average power, like Spencer, challenged league and team home run records, while Americans with no power reputation at all frequently became sluggers. The handful of Japanese players who did hit home runs consistently during the 1950s and early 1960s became symbols of national pride: Futoshi Nakanishi of the Nishitsu Lions and Kazuhiro Yamauchi of the Hanshin Tigers, who arrived in 1952; catcher Katsuya Nomura of the Nankai Hawks, who broke in during 1955 and played until age 46 in 1980; Shigeo Nagashima, debut season 1958; Oh, and outfielder Shinichi Eto of the Chunichi Dragons, who came up in 1959. These were the few players whose power complemented their other abilities sufficiently that even the most critical Americans recognized them as authentic major leaguers.

Whether or not Spencer accurately accuses Japanese baseball of a conspiracy to deprive him of a home run title, it is a fact that although many Americans had spectacular home run totals, few of them actually became home run champions until after Oh hit the home run in 1977 that put him ahead of Hank Aaron as the all-time, all-world professional leader. Only since Oh’s triumph have any Americans won multiple home run titles. Japanese players and fans today can better accept former American reserves like Adrian Garrett, Charlie Manuel, and Samoan-born Tony Solaita outslugging today’s native favorites, Koji Yamamoto, Masayuki Kakefu, and Yasunori Oshima, because regardless of the outcome of any single season’s home run race, Oh at least has done something no American shall rival for a long, long time.

Shigeo Nagashima

Shigeo Nagashima

What will happen in Japan, following the Olympic victory, might parallel developments in the Japanese industrial labor force now that Japan has established her reputation for quality and productivity. As Americans gain greater tolerance, they might also be permitted off-the-field influence equal to their influence on the diamond. Japanese players might begin asserting themselves as individuals with confidence that they do have somewhere else to go if their employers foolishly release them. Certainly American teams have been interested in obtaining Japanese players ever since Murakami held his own with San Francisco through the torrid 1965 pennant race. Only custom has bound them to Japan, while only pressure from the U.S. State Department has prevented American teams from raiding Japanese talent in bidding wars. If the State Department believes American teams can sign Japanese players without Japanese fans feeling as if their major leagues are being treated like an amateur talent pool, if the international trade authorities judge that Japanese as well as American talent can move both ways without provoking more serious economic or diplomatic retaliation, the custom of eternal loyalty to one’s team could quickly crumble.

There is an on-the-field precedent, one that Daryl Spencer initiated in early 1964. “In Japan they don’t say ‘Spencer,’ they say ‘Spen-sah,’ “he told Mandel, “and when they talk about ‘Spen-sah,’ they talk about his sliding first…. In this one game, this same pitcher with all the control, the one who walked me four straight times on sixteen pitches, well, he walked me again to get to the next guy. That put runners on first and second in the bottom of the eighth inning with one out. And I yelled down to Gordon Windhorn,” a fellow American who was the runner from second, “that if this guy hits a ground ball to just keep on running because I was going to take the second baseman out.” A conventional play in American baseball, from Little League up, this was unheard of in Japan, where rough tactics had always been shunned. “Two pitches later he hit a ground ball to shortstop, the second baseman covered, I knocked him down, and Windhorn scored the winning run. They argued for about thirty minutes over that. Our players had never slid hard like that before. But from that game on, all our players started sliding hard. And in fact it changed the whole style of play in Japan as far as making double plays. It used to be that the player running to second base, if it looked like he was going to be out, he’d just turn and head out to right field,” away from the relay throw. “No one would ever slide. The second baseman would just stand on the base and make the nice easy throw. And almost from that day on, all the second basemen had to adjust because all our ballplayers started sliding in hard. And of course all the other teams started to do it, too.”

During the middle 1960s, firebrands like Spencer, Don Blasingame, Don Zimmer, and one-time Nankai Hawks coach Pete Reiser also introduced fighting with the hitherto sacrosanct umpires. Murakami reputedly threw the first deliberate brushback pitches in 1966–one reason, perhaps, why he was anathematized by most other Japanese players of his generation. Rough-and-ready American-style baseball still isn’t universal, but by the middle 1970s Japanese management was hiring retired American tough guys like Clete Boyer, Jim Lefebvre, and Vernon Law to teach the very tactics some of them once asserted would kill their game.

George Altman in Japan

George Altman in Japan

From the sanctimonious press response to Spencer and cohorts, one would gather that Japanese fans universally disapproved of rude, individualistic aggression. Gate receipts tell a different story. The more colorful the American, at least on the field, the better the fans like him. If this admiration for the man who stands out and even makes himself obnoxious spreads to off-the-field behavior, and if this in turn inspires average Japanese citizens to become more openly self-assertive as well, the whole of Japanese society could begin changing.

As, indeed, it seems to be. No longer content with collective achievements, many Japanese are now agitating for higher personal standards of living, more freedom of choice in occupational and social matters, and less rigidity in their educational system. The rights of peasant farmers were recently advanced by student militants as equal in importance to Tokyo’s need for a new airport, a development perhaps akin to the Boston Tea Party in challenging the status quo. Minority rights have never before meant much in a society stressing obligations over options. Many of the student leaders professed Communism, certainly not the ideology of capitalistic American ballplayers. Yet both Communism and anything-goes capitalism present radical departures from prevailing custom, and may simultaneously appeal to the silently frustrated Japanese baseball fan for the same reasons.

While increasingly individualistic baseball players may help inspire the forthcoming changes in Japanese society, baseball should help equally to insure that these changes are not violent. Baseball in Japan, as in the U.S. and Latin America, may glorify the individual disrupter, but at the same time provides a safety valve for pent-up emotions, and also asserts a timeless, traditional pattern to events. Though longtime players and fans agree that no two games are ever the same, each team always fields a lineup of nine, sends nine hitters to the plate in an established order, and makes three outs in an inning.

There is an added dimension to this pattern, one that does not meet the average fan’s consciousness–a dimension equally significant to nineteenth century New Englanders, Latin American Catholics, and Japanese Shinto-worshippers. It is a dimension as old and universal as humanity itself. At root, baseball is a fertility rite, a ritual symbolizing human reproduction from conception to birth. The infinite number of variations possible within the structured combat of two teams suggests the infinite variety of romantic and genetic possibilities between male and female.

Statuette of Hercules, by Francesco da Sant'Agata, Italy, 1520.

Statuette of Hercules, by Francesco da Sant’Agata, Italy, 1520.

But baseball’s sexual dimension goes far beyond the genetic abstract. Pitchers stand on the mound, the sacred pedestal, as ovulating females, whose egg becomes vulnerable to the phallus-swinging batsmen. Their objective is to avoid unwilling impregnation; they are protected from rape by their clans, behind them, whose own phalluses menace other women in their turn. Yet each pitcher is also carrying the child of her clan, the hope of victory, which must be nourished through nine increasingly difficult innings corresponding to the period of gestation. Today, though not in baseball’s first half-century, midwife relief pitchers may help her. Relief pitchers, interestingly enough, were at one time former starters past their prime: postmenopausal females. Pitchers are even treated as women off the mound, surrounded by eunuch or old-maid coaches in the bullpen-harem. Pitchers’ arms are treated with the same sort of superstition as women’s genitals.

Most telling, perhaps, is that young men generally become interested in baseball as they approach puberty, and are most intensely devoted to it in puberty, just before establishing their first liaisons with real rather than symbolic women. On the sandlot, whether in the U.S., Japan, or Latin America, young men usually experiment with the differing pitching and hitting roles, arguably a sublimated substitute for sexual experimentation.



As a fertility rite, baseball maintains a connection between past and present wherever it establishes itself, the green outfield recalling an agrarian society, the stooping motions of infielders resembling those of berry-pickers and fishermen, the running and throwing of outfielders continuing skills originally developed by hunters and herdsmen, while the squatting catcher could be weaving a basket or milking a cow. Baseball may have initially failed in Europe because many centuries of Christianity had finally erased any instinctive feel for fertility rituals connected to the land and role-playing, rather than to statues of the Virgin. But baseball caught on like wildfire in Latin America, where Christianity has both absorbed and been absorbed by native fertility-worship. American Christianity through the age of Manifest Destiny took as its first commandment, “Go forth and multiply!”, while the Transcendentalists, Mormons, and others variously explored how that might be achieved. Adopting the baseball fertility rite may have relieved the nation of having to choose definitively among the rival religious possibilities.

And in Japan, where forms of fertility worship have always been practiced, undisguised, baseball simply fit in, as a modern variant filling the same psychological needs when some of the older forms began to seem quaint, not quite what a growing industrial power should be doing.

Ultimately, baseball heroes are gods and goddesses of the harvest, of the future, a self-regenerating pantheon whose ever-shifting structure parallels our own lives. We watch stars emerge, shine, then fade and die within the space of a decade or two–but they don’t really die, since as coaches and managers they perpetuate their lineage, while new players take their places. Baseball helps America remain American by demonstrating daily where we come from, why we’re here, where we’re each going, in a manner understood subliminally if not overtly. Likewise, baseball helps Japan remain Japanese. As a sport and subject of international commerce, baseball may help the world become a smaller place, providing new channels of communication. At some point, baseball rivalry might help replace war. When better understood, baseball’s universal patterns may help replace nationalism with new recognition of ourselves as individual members of a common species.

Wada_Sanzo, Japanese Vocations in Pictures, Series 3, Baseball, 1956

Wada Sanzo, Japanese Vocations in Pictures, Series 3, Baseball, 1956

All of this may come about not because baseball is an international melting pot, but rather because baseball provides a model of balance between individuality and teamwork. The history of baseball in Japan and America alike demonstrates that the individual must not and cannot be forever repressed, yet the formula for victory requires that the individual must also cooperate with others. No matter how the Japanese have tried to diverge from the American pattern–tried to make their game enforce their own traditional values more than ours–similar patterns have emerged, not because baseball is a quintessentially American sport but because it is a quintessentially human sport. Had baseball begun in Japan, the American game would likely still follow the prevailing pattern-breaking from quasi-feudal beginnings where the players were samurais or knights eternally loyal to overlords, to cooperation of peers for mutual benefit. This is the stage just now arriving in both lands. Whether the Japanese know it or not, they too are baseball teachers: Americans have learned from them how to run effective college baseball programs, how to use martial arts exercises to improve performance, even how to make better equipment.

Mutual acceptance of one another as peers may still be a few years off, despite the Japanese Olympic victory. But it’s coming. Once it happens, acceptance of Asiatic people as equals may gradually follow, as gradual acceptance of blacks has slowly followed the admission of black players into the U.S. major leagues. From there, perhaps, we may progress to accepting Latin American baseball as something more than a source of raw material for the U.S. majors–to considering Latin American people as equals.  Who knows, we might even wind up with world peace, to which the ongoing performance of the Hiroshima Carp could contribute as much as the lingering memory of the Hiroshima bombing.


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