This concluding part of Our Game continues from: http://goo.gl/e7IjtK.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.)
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
The opening section of Our Game may be read here: http://goo.gl/gsOXoU.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This 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.
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.
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
. . . 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
This 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.
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: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/blacksox/trialtestimony.html
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.”
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: https://prestonjg.wordpress.com/2009/12/04/the-history-of-the-record-for-baseballs-longest-thrown-a-tale-that-involves-john-hatfield-honus-wagner-sheldon-lejeune-don-grate-rocky-colavito-and-glen-gorbous-among-others/
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: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2014/12/15/nate-colberts-unknown-rbi-record/
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: http://www.thenationalpastimemuseum.com/article/black-sox-scandal-cold-case-not-closed-case
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.
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: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/01/30/unraveling-a-baseball-mystery/
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: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2013/01/14/clark-griffith-remembers/
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.
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: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2015/01/30/the-marty-bergen-tragedy/
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.
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: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/06/27/baseballs-first-professional-contracts/
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.
Merritt Clifton’s “Where the Twain Shall Meet,” originally published in The National Pastime in 1985, commenced here: http://goo.gl/aRUwmJ.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A couple of weeks ago Rob Fitts, the co-author with Masanori Murakami of a fine new book titled Mashi, asked me to preface his remarks at a signing in Rhinebeck, New York. I spoke for perhaps three minutes and then stepped aside; however, I enjoyed the privilege of joining both men for dinner afterward, and got to know the charmingly self-effacing “Mashi” Murakami a bit. Then, semi-miraculously, a week later I bumped into him at a massively attended outdoor party prior to the All-Star Game in Cincinnati, where we greeted each other like long-lost friends. I have all the admiration in the world for Mashi, who, while he is not the best Japanese national to have played here, is forevermore the first, an indelible and incredibly arduous achievement. Returning home from the All-Star Game and then moving on to Cooperstown and Pedro Martinez’s effervescent celebration of his native and adopted lands, I thought about Merritt Clifton, and the great story he wrote for The National Pastime in Spring 1985–before Hideo Nomo, when Mashi seemed likely to be an isolated instance of Japanese-American cooperation at the major-league level. Here is that story, not republished in all these years and still fascinating.
My friend Merritt Clifton described himself, back then, as a freelance writer and small-press publisher and the author of Relative Baseball, a sabermetric classic self-published in 1979. I can testify to that brilliant book’s influence on me before publication of The Hidden Game of Baseball. And upon re-reading this brilliant essay three decades later, I see how he has influenced my thinking about baseball’s primordial past, its vibrant present, and its glimmering future.
When a team of Japanese collegians defeated their American counterparts to claim the 1984 Olympic gold medal for baseball, stunned American fans realized what the Japanese have felt for years: Baseball is as truly theirs as ours. Japan’s upset victory had even greater impact upon Americans than the initial victories by Taiwan, South Korea, and Okinawa in the Little League World Series some fifteen years ago. Then, at least, disgruntled U.S. fans could claim that the Asiatic teams consisted of older players hiding behind their small stature; and certainly the Asiatic Little League squads were selected from among the best players in entire nations, not just the best in extended neighborhoods. Olympic baseball, however, is just one or two steps from top-rank professional baseball. If the American game is still intrinsically superior, at this level the edge should show, even granting that the single-game elimination format of Olympic play permits flukes and does not force the teams to call upon their depth. Americans may still produce more and better second-line starting pitchers, relief pitchers, pinch-hitters, platoon outfielders, and utility infielders, but up front, the Japanese Olympians proved themselves equal, if not superior.
Thus far, no American major league club has ever lost an exhibition series to Japanese professionals. However, the Kansas City Royals had to beat the Japanese champion Yomiuri Giants six games to two to salvage a 9-7-1 overall record on their 1981 tour. The Royals claimed they started poorly–because of a three-week layoff between the end of the 162-game American League season and the beginning of their visit to Japan–but the Japanese players had been waiting around even longer since the end of their 130-game season. Like most other American baseball authorities, the Royals still describe Japanese baseball as the equivalent of American Double-A minor leagues. They point out that even Double-A teams occasionally beat the big leaguers in exhibitions. But sooner or later some cocky major leaguers are going to arrive in Japan expecting to clobber quasi-minor leaguers and really get their ears pinned back. The Olympics should be taken as a warning that Japanese baseball has not only established itself as a cultural tradition, but also matured at a top-flight level.
The past two decades of Japanese play represented a Golden Age, setting standards for the future much as the 1920s and 1930s set enduring standards for the American game. Since the 1920s, as documented in Thorn and Palmer’s The Hidden Game of Baseball, the average American major leaguer has risen to the levels of natural ability and acquired skill once possessed only by stars. Thus today’s American stars stand out much less than did Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson. Likewise, though Japanese baseball no longer boasts players as dominant as home run king Sadaharu Oh was during the 1960s, this is because the average player has improved. The single-season and career records Oh and others set during the 1960s and 1970s may stand as long as the records of Ruth, Cobb, and Johnson because in Japan as in America it is no longer possible for anyone player, no matter how good, to be that much better than all the rest.
It wasn’t always so. Just a few generations back, the Great American Pastime was as foreign to Japan as the automobile and electronics industries. Japanese players were obviously smaller, slower, awkward, less understanding of the nuances of the game. But as with automobiles and electronics, Japan imported know-how, worked hard, and put forth an impressive product.
“After the war,” Japanese professional baseball commissioner Takeso Shimoda told the New York Times, “we had to start from zero. We had to improve the technical level of Japanese players…. We had to hire American players. It succeeded. Now there’s not much difference between American and Japanese players, technically.”
He might have been speaking of cars or television sets, as an executive for Honda, Nissan, Sony, Sanyo, or Mitsubishi. Yet Shimoda wasn’t speaking of a business success so much as of a cultural transformation, of a process that more or less replaced institutionalized emperor worship with the transient idolatry that fans individually accord to favorite star athletes. Where Japanese boys once memorized the sayings of philosopher-emperors, since the middle 1960s they have memorized the statistics on the backs of Kabaya-Leaf baseball cards, just as their American counterparts who, with rare exceptions, long since ceased memorizing passages from the Bible.
The economic incentive behind Japan’s rapid industrialization is clear enough, but why should baseball have come with it? Why should baseball have become a national preoccupation while other American sports and other facets of American culture haven’t? What particularly attracts the Japanese en masse to baseball and even bubblegum cards, but not to football or drag-racing?
Golf has been adopted among the Japanese economic elite because the nation’s few greens provide an internationally acceptable place for informal business discussion. The young, upwardly mobile Japanese likewise play handball, squash, and tennis, and run marathons but, as in America, none of these successful transplants has become a major spectator sport, televised every day and discussed wherever men gather. Boxing, hockey, and basketball have been transplanted as spectator sports, but enjoy distinctly minor status.
Baseball possesses a uniquely national character in both Japan and America in part because it came first, ahead of the other leading spectator sports. But it also fills a cultural role that the other sports can’t. Battalions of American sociologists and historians have tried to figure out just what baseball means, without reaching any consensus. However, historically it is clear that the rise of baseball was coincidental with that of industrialization in both the United States and Japan. It is further clear from the overseas birthplaces of many of the pioneer players that baseball in America caught on quite rapidly with recent immigrants, who might have been expected to stick with the sports brought with them from Europe. European-style football, rugby, cricket, and rounders all require less space to play, for one thing, and less equipment. They’re easier for spectators to understand (all but cricket). Yet they faded into virtual oblivion, while the largest immigrant centers became the founding cities of the U.S. major leagues.
Sociologist Ken Hogarty, of the University of California at Berkeley, may have pinpointed the key difference between baseball and most other sports in his unpublished doctoral thesis (1977). According to Hogarty, the primary conflict in baseball is individual versus society, whereas the primary conflict in most other sports is nation versus nation. The model for most other sports is war, Hogarty observed, with the individual subordinate to the group, while baseball he compared to the classical western. The lone cowboy-outlaw, the batter, rides into town to confront a hostile posse of nine. Usually, society triumphs and the anarchic cowboy is buried in his dugout, the symbolic Boot Hill. Sometimes, however, the cowboy-outlaw shoots his way into the bank, first base. Sometimes his gang then shoots him back out of trouble with a succession of hits that finally bring him home. Once in a while, a particularly valiant cowboy shoots his own way clear through town with a home run. The umpires, in Hogarty’s view, represent God rather than human authority. Dressed in their dark suits, they arbitrate justice.
Hogarty’s model clearly explains why baseball should have appealed to U.S. immigrants. Often as not, they came to America in rebellion against authority back home. Many had themselves been outlaws, of one sort or another. They could identify with the ambitious batsman/gunslinger who takes ’em all on. And, as they gradually gained property and responsibilities, they could identify with the home-team defense, too.
In football, basketball, hockey, soccer, tennis, even chess, the object of the game is capturing territory, plundering or violating a protected treasure–goal-nets and basketball hoops mix sexual and territorial symbolism so thoroughly as to leave no doubt how the reproductive and territorial drives are connected. Such sports date back to the very beginnings of society, to the first time tribal groups engaged in symbolic rather than literal mass combat to determine who would drink first at a watering hole. They survive because we retain our tribal instincts, expressed now as nationalism and political partisanship.
But, particularly since the Declaration of Independence asserted the rights of the individual as equal to those of the state, we no longer think of ourselves first as parts of a greater whole. We are each “me” before we are Christians or Jews, northerners or southerners, blue-collar or white-collar. The rise ofbaseball historically parallels the rise of individualism, concurrent with the collapse of the village-based, semi-tribal agrarian economy. Alexander Cartwright and Henry Chadwick devised baseball even as Ralph Emerson and Henry David Thoreau distinguished individualism from mere selfishness, the first philosophers to openly salute those “marching to the beat of a different drum.” Their colleague Walt Whitman saluted baseball for expressing the same independent American character that Emerson and Thoreau defined. Unique among sports, baseball not only permits but demands that each player briefly emerge from among his teammates to stand alone. Every player must belong to the team on defense, but each must hit his own way on base. This balance of social and individual responsibility must have appealed greatly to young men who didn’t really wish to be outcasts forever, but did wish to make the most of their own abilities in whatever field of endeavor.
But that was nineteenth century America, not Japan. Japan has received no recent waves of immigrants seeking freedom and opportunity. Throughout recorded history, Japan has maintained a society that has been regimented, if not entirely socially stratified. Indeed, historically Japan would seem much more like Europe than like America, so that one might expect the Japanese game to have followed the European course. A game called baseball developed from rounders and cricket in England even earlier than it emerged in America–again concurrent with industrialization–but became a girls’ game, which novelist Jane Austen mentioned in Northanger Abbey, written ca. 1803. It faded from popularity as Victorian mores discouraged women’s participation in competitive sports, and vanished by 1850.
Reintroduced repeatedly, baseball did finally catch on somewhat in Europe after World War II, with Little League and adult weekend clubs now scattered among all the western nations. Italy boasts one low-caliber professional league including several American ex-major leaguers, while The Netherlands recently sent pitcher Win Remmerswaal to the Boston Red Sox, the first major leaguer to spend his entire amateur career in Europe. Europe is now well into evolving a postindustrial economy, however. Baseball is at most a successful minor sport, not a significant cultural influence as it has been in Japan for decades. If the evolution of baseball in Europe could be compared at all to baseball history in America, it must be placed at about the Civil War level, the point at which troop movements and the new transcontinental railroads first spread the game from coast to coast, north and south.
Baseball in Japan, by contrast, is today about as well established as it was in the United States in 1919, by which time it was already undeniably the Great American Pastime. American professional baseball was exactly fifty years old in 1919, the Cincinnati Red Stockings having become the first admittedly salaried team in 1869. The first Japanese professional team, the Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo, was chartered almost exactly 50 years ago, on December 26, 1934. The Hanshin Tigers of Osaka followed a year later, on December 10, 1935. The Chunichi Dragons of Magoya were assembled on January 15,1936. The Hankyu Braves of Nishinomiya came together just eight days later. Nineteen thirty-six brought formation of Japan’s first fully professional baseball league. Expansion began when the Nankai Hawks became Osaka’s second professional team on March 29, 1938. Postwar, these original five teams gradually grew into the present two leagues of six teams each, paralleling the development of our American and National Leagues.
When the Yomiuri Giants formed, baseball had been played in Japan for about twenty-five years. A team of American major leaguers first visited in 1912, beating a nine of U.S. missionaries. Babe Ruth led several subsequent visits, leading to the almost annual tradition of one U.S. team or another visiting in the fall. Each time Ruth visited, he and his teammates noted larger crowds and better players, an observation continued to this day.
Like the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the Tokyo Giants drew together top players from various locales–in the Giants’ case, their talent was drawn from college and athletic club teams. They barnstormed against these same colleges and athletic clubs, in the absence of any organized professional league, and having most of the best players they naturally won most of their games. Even after other professional teams organized and the first Japanese major league was formed, the Giants were able to maintain their advantage, winning over thirty championships. Only two other Japanese teams have won as many as ten.
Here Japanese baseball first diverges from American, and a difference in the cultural traditions appears. Our Red Stockings soon disbanded, with their players moving to other cities, principally Boston and Washington. But the Giants remained together. Other teams similarly started from scratch. Instead of raiding one another to achieve parity, they patiently developed their own talent. The principle became established that Japanese players would generally remain with their clubs for life. To this day, trading and otherwise moving from club to club is rare in Japanese baseball, just as Japanese factory workers rarely move from firm to firm. Japanese club owners, usually large industrial consortiums, are expected to provide lifetime employment for their players in one capacity or another, while players are expected to remain unswervingly loyal to their bosses.
These expectations of loyalty have recently become a point of conflict between the Japanese teams and imported American players, a conflict of great symbolic significance that may influence the future direction of all Japanese society. On the one hand, imported American players are viewed as mercenaries, and are clearly treated as such, hired, fired, and blamed for team failures with an abandon management would never display toward native players. On the other hand, the imported players are expected to conform at least outwardly to the same rules as the natives: to respect their supposed betters and keep their mouths shut, just as if they could expect similar long-term rewards for good behavior.
Grafting on an almost feudal system of team loyalty was only part of how the Japanese adapted baseball customs to suit the traditions of their own society. Baseball took root in Japan at precisely the time when most other foreign activities became suspect, the period during the late 1930s when tariff wars with Great Britain and the United States were raising tensions that culminated in World War II. As Japanese baseball promoters realized immediately, the game would have to take on a nationalistic character to survive.
To great extent, this influenced the style of play. In the heyday of American jingoism, between the Spanish Civil War and World War I, the American game endured the “deadball” era, a phase in which managers tried to replace the freewheeling Wild West style of offense that characterized the ’90s with team play emphasizing the sacrifice bunt. The sacrifice was lauded by sportswriters while players swinging for home runs were derided as “rutting sluggers” with more muscle than either brains or character. Baseball in Japan entered a similar phase, with several significant differences. Despite the patriotic emphasis on conformity during the American deadball era, Americans still prided themselves on being rough-and ready. Thus American pitchers continued knocking batters down with inside fastballs and American base-runners threatened fielders with their spikes at every opportunity. While sublimating offense, the American deadball era might have featured the most violently aggressive style of play ever. The Japanese, on the other hand, pride themselves on courtesy. As recently as the mid-1960s, pitchers apologized for accidentally “dusting off” batters, and no Japanese player ever physically challenged another. Players even bowed to the umpires who called them out. Deadball play in Japan stressed the sacrifice without any form of self-assertion emerging until after World War II.
Thus, even as jingoistic generals urged a return to the code of the samurai and other unique cultural traditions, baseball was not only tolerated but even encouraged. Baseball and military preparations were perhaps the only two realms in which Japanese leaders urged the population to learn from the West right up to the outbreak of war. Shortly before Pearl Harbor, when most foreigners were being hustled from the country, former major league catcher-turned-spy Moe Berg was not only allowed in but was welcomed with the red carpet, was allowed to take photos from a tower overlooking Tokyo, and was further permitted to take them home again, to be used in directing American bombers. Berg recalled in his memoirs that his having played on one of Babe Ruth’s teams that toured Japan served him much better with the Japanese authorities than either his passport or his ability to speak Japanese.
Nor did the war itself curtail Japanese enthusiasm for baseball. Americans who flew on General Jimmy Doolittle’s 1942 raid against Tokyo recalled feeling guilty about dropping their bombs after passing over children at a sandlot ballgame. Japanese troops on the Pacific islands shouted “To hell with Babe Ruth!” at American invaders, but the invaders usually found shell-pocked baseball diamonds ready for play just as soon as they finished mopping up.
If baseball were only another game providing some sort of moral lesson, it probably wouldn’t have caught on so strongly, certainly not at that time. But the nature of the lesson had special appeal. Although Japanese baseball was played in a fashion tending to promote traditional values, it added the notion that there are times in life when it is not only necessary but also good and praiseworthy that each individual step forward and do something conspicuous. Though ostentation was discouraged, the spotlight was unmistakably focused upon the man at bat, upon his individual contribution to the greater whole. Here, at least, the small fish in the big sea were not permanently anonymous. Here also, they received the opportunity to perform so well as to become big fish. The promise of social mobility endemic to America was rather new to Japan, but equally appealing–and all the more noticeable, because in Japan hardly any other field of endeavor overtly offered it. The peasant who accepted industrialization might indeed become richer, but he would still be a peasant, whereas the humble batsman who excelled might become exalted as a samurai.
Perhaps the most significant clue to what baseball means in Japan lies within the event that prompted Commissioner Shimada to address The New York Times–an event highlighting essential differences. A few months before the Olympics, xenophobic Japanese baseball fans including Shimada raised a hue and cry against the foreign players they once enthusiastically hired and copied. Foreign players should be banned, they argued, for corrupting the character oftheir national sport. Their definition of that character emerges from the origin of their wrath.
Former U.S. major league infielder Don Money touched off the uproar by signing with a Japanese team for more money than any of his native teammates were making, reporting to the team out of playing condition, griping incessantly about the Japanese training discipline, and finally leaving the team without permission in mid-pennant race. Money claimed he jumped the club to receive treatment for an injury from his own doctor back home, but Japanese baseball people weren’t convinced. Many other disillusioned American players have used the same excuse as a means of escaping their Japanese contracts. Foreigners were nearly banned a decade ago, in 1973, when Joe Pepitone jumped the Yakult Atoms with a purported injury best diagnosed as acute culture shock.
Money was an irritant, both as an individual and as an economic factor, but Money in either sense wasn’t the primary issue. The primary issue for most Japanese fans was that players like Money and Pepitone violate the fundamental tenets of their society by overtly placing their own interests above those of their team. Their actions are discourteous and disloyal. They set a poor example for Japanese youth. American sports columnists reported that Money and Pepitone were simply too individualistic to suit the Japanese, an unfair oversimplification. Money and Pepitone were criticized not for being individualistic so much as for being selfish.
Nor would their conduct have been any more acceptable in the American major leagues. Pepitone, in fact, wound up in Japan after similarly jumping his contract with the Atlanta Braves. During his career, Japanese baseball actually offered him more leeway than the American leagues did, since the standard Japanese contract for foreign players lasts only two years. At that time, players in the U.S. leagues, like native Japanese players, were purportedly bound for life to the teams that owned their contracts. In actuality, American players have always moved rather freely and frequently from club to club, through trades often self-initiated. Nonetheless, in either nation, Pepitone was expected to honor his contract by playing ball to the best of his considerable ability. In both nations, Pepitone was notorious as a playboy, often criticized for letting off-the-field pursuits interfere with realizing his on-the-field potential. American teams put up with Pepitone for a decade because he still hit better with a hangover than most players who were cold sober. In Japan, however, he hit .163, erasing any claim to special privilege.
Money’s case was somewhat different, in that U.S. baseball norms have changed since Pepitone’s time. Since 1976, about midway through Money’s career, American professional baseball has offered veteran players several means of openly choosing their own teams, through requesting or refusing trades and playing out their contract options. The most significant change from past practice is that today players can change clubs without their former clubs receiving compensation: can in effect sell themselves, instead of being sold by club owners, and pocket the proceeds. But even under this new system, contract-jumpers have never been tolerated. A U.S. major leaguer who simply breaks his contract is heavily fined, as Dick Allen was for abandoning first the Phillies and then the White Sox. If less valuable than Allen, one of the game’s all-time great sluggers, a contract-jumper in the U.S. might also be suspended, or unconditionally released, ending the team’s obligation to pay him. Over the last thirty-five years, such cases have usually been resolved through retirement or a trade, rather than confrontation such as happened in Japan in the Money and Pepitone cases.
American fans would certainly boo a Money or Pepitone for jumping his club, just as they booed Allen. The issue in either nation is not “individuality” but honor. Antagonistic toward the Americanization of traditional Japanese society, the xenophobes emphasize the imported players’ mercenary status-warriors with no sense of honor, who unlike the samurai fight only for pay, and then only when they feel like it. After all, the American and Latin American players in Japan have already left other teams and countries, often under questionable circumstances. The very first American players in Japan actually were mercenaries, more or less. Former Boston Braves’ pitcher Phil Paine became the first ex-major leaguer to play in the Japanese big leagues during 1953, while serving with the U.S. Air Force. Infielder Larry Raines made the U.S. major leagues in the mid-1950s as the best-known of many Americans who also played for Japanese clubs on leave from the U.S. military. Arriving under moral suspicion, meanwhile, was first baseman Don Newcombe, who drank himself out of a brilliant pitching career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The first American stars to reach Japan, Newcombe and outfielder Larry Doby, played poorly for the Chunichi Dragons in 1962, becoming the focus of criticism directed at U.S. imports ever since.
Although American players have generally given honest effort and conducted themselves honorably, Japanese fans are aware that most view their two major leagues as a sort of Siberia, preferable only to the death of a return to the minors. American players go to Japan either because they’re washed up, not good enough to stick in the U.S. major leagues, or because no American team will put up with them.
Faced with the end of their careers, many Americans do take advantage of the tough Japanese training regimen to get back into shape and play good baseball. George Altman and Willie Kirkland came off the American scrapheap to become superstars in Japan, thanking martial arts discipline for rescuing them from hard drink, fast women, and what appeared to be fast fade-outs after brilliant beginnings. U.S. minor leaguer John Sipin similarly developed his abilities through the Japanese approach, also becoming a superstar after scarcely getting a trial in the American majors. Former Kansas City infielder Tim Ireland, now with the Hiroshima Carp, speaks for many American players in observing that under the Japanese regimen, “you forfeit individual expression, but you gain in production and non-confusion.”
Great comeback efforts are applauded and compliments from Americans accepted, even when they miss the point. But comebacks attributed to sobriety and proper conditioning also hurt Japanese pride somewhat, since Americans often take the successes of “failures” to mean Japanese baseball is inferior. Never mind that American stars often likewise emerge after interleague trades–Hall of Famers Carl Hubbell and Joe Cronin, for instance. No baseball expert claims the National League of the 1930s was inferior because the late-blooming Hubbell excelled for the Giants after failing with the Tigers, or that the American League was inferior because Cronin made it big with Washington and Boston after riding the Pirates’ bench. The accusation that the Japanese game isn’t quite as good persists because nonentities like Greg “Boomer” Wells keep emerging as superstars when Japanese clubs give them the first real chance to play regularly that they’ve ever had. How, then, to account for the inability of former stars like Reggie Smith or Warren Cromartie to handle Japanese curveball pitching? American scouts find it easier to consider the Smiths and Cromarties washed up than to accept that they’ve misjudged a Sipin or a Wells, or an Altman or Kirkland, for that matter.
The Japanese, meanwhile, are sensitive about being considered a nation of imitators, whose products are essentially inferior to the originals. They’ve worked hard for two generations to erase the “Made in Japan” stigma from cars, cameras, and electronic equipment. Thus when Americans take Japan’s national pastime lightly, the “ban foreigners” approach is understandable. It’s what the U.S. and Soviet Union do, more or less, in boycotting one another’s Olympics … what half the world does in boycotting sports events involving South Africans … what every child does when offended by a playmate: “If you don’t play nice, I’ll take my toys and go home.”
Part II, concluding the essay, tomorrow.
As we near Induction Weekend at the Baseball Hall of Fame, this week’s Old News column, while referencing many whose plaques adorn the gallery in Cooperstown, focuses on the game’s lesser lights. It is men like Joe Borden and Victory Faust and Hank Borowy and John Blanchard who provide a special pleasure of recollection, for their brief entries into baseball lore are what oldtimers like myself love to share with a newer generation of fans. Who would believe the circumstances of even a relatively recent event like the Pine Tar Game if it had not provided such a flash of theatrics and lingering controversy? These, by the way, are lovingly recounted in Filip Bondy’s new book titled, unsurprisingly, The Pine Tar Game, published this week by Scribner.
1911: An American League all-star team plays a benefit game against the Naps in Cleveland‚ raising $12‚914 for the late Addie Joss’s family. The great pitcher, ill through much of his brief career, had died on April 14 of tubercular meningitis; he was 31. The all-stars win 5-3 behind Joe Wood and Walter Johnson. Cy Young, who pitched for the Cleveland side, had said at Joss’s funeral “He was a great man. I feel sure he never made an enemy.”
1959: Before the International League game between the Havana Sugar Kings and visiting Rochester Red Wings‚ Fidel Castro pitches two innings for his pickup team Los Barbudos against a military police squad. Castro strikes out two batters with the aid of some friendly calls‚ and ground outs to short.
1983: In what came to be known forevermore as “Pine Tar Game” at Yankee Stadium‚ George Brett hits an apparent two-run home run off Rich Gossage to give the Royals a 5-4 lead with two outs in the top of the ninth. Then Yankees manager Billy Martin points out that the pine tar on Brett’s bat handle exceeds the 17 inches allowed in the rules. Brett is called out, giving New York a 4-3 victory and precipitating his memorable tantrum. The Royals immediately protest‚ and league president Lee MacPhail overrules his umpires. He follows his own precedent, established after a protest in 1975 of the September 7 game played between the Royals and the Angels. In that game, the umpire crew had declined to negate one of John Mayberry’s home runs for excessive pine tar use. MacPhail upheld the umpires’ decision with the view that the intent of the rule was to prevent baseballs from being discolored in game play, and that any discoloration that may have occurred to a ball leaving the ballpark did not affect the game’s competitive balance. The “Pine Tar Game” will be resumed, from the point after Brett’s home run, on August 18.
1867: The Washington Nationals, touring the West, lose to the young men of the Rockford Forest City Club, by a score of 29–23. There had been upsets before in baseball’s brief history, but never one on this scale. Immediately it was alleged that the Nationals had tanked the game so as to narrow the odds for their coming contests against the Excelsiors and Atlantics of Chicago. When the Nationals went on to win those games by respective scores of 49–4 and 78–17 to close out their tour, the cries of fraud regarding the Rockford contest only grew louder. No one could have known that several of the Forest City lads would one day become nationally prominent players—particularly pitcher Al Spalding and infielder Ross Barnes. For more, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/12/15/the-most-important-game-in-baseball-history/.
1898: The Giants forfeit a game to Baltimore in the fourth inning on orders from President Andrew Freedman. He is offended by anti-Semitic remarks from Orioles left fielder Ducky Holmes‚ who used to play for Freedman. Responding to typical taunts from his former teammates, Holmes shouted across the diamond, “Well, I’m —— glad I don’t have to work for a sheeny no more.”) Freedman ordered his men off the field, forfeiting the game to Baltimore despite his own players’ sympathy with Holmes: Who didn’t hate Freedman? Holmes was suspended, Freedman was fined. When the suspension was rescinded but the fine was left to stand, animosity increased.
1956: At Roosevelt Field in Jersey City‚ the Dodgers defeat the Reds‚ 2-1 when Duke Snider hits a homer in the ninth. This is one of seven games the Dodgers will play in Jersey City this year, with seven more the next, as they advertise their dissatisfaction with Ebbets Field.
1933: The 61-game batting streak of San Francisco’s 18-year-old rookie‚ Joe DiMaggio‚ is stopped by Ed Walsh‚ Jr. of Oakland. Joe’s streak breaks the Pacific Coast League mark of 49‚ set by Jack Ness in 1915. DiMaggio hit .405 (104-for-257) during the skein. Joe Wilhoit of the Wichita Jobbers of the Western League retained his hold on the longest such streak in the minors, however. In 69 games from June 14 to August 19, 1919, he went 153-for-297 for a .515 batting average.
1961: John Blanchard ties a big-league record by hitting his third and fourth homers in four at bats over three games. The spare catcher-outfielder will end the year with 21 homers in 243 at bats‚ the first player in history to hit 20 or more in fewer than 250 at bats. Four of his home runs would come in pinch-hitting spots.
1991: Against the Dodgers‚ Montreal’s Mark Gardner pitches a no-hitter through nine innings before Lenny Harris beats out an infield single in the tenth. The Dodgers get two more hits and win the contest. Gardner is one of many pitchers who once would have been credited with no-hitters but, following an MLB ruling to come in September of this year, such famous no-hitters as that by Harvey Haddix and Jim Maloney are tossed into the “nice try” bin. For more, see: http://www.nonohitters.com/near-no-hitters/
1904: John McGraw and John T. Brush announce they have no intention of playing in a World Series. “The Giants will not play a post season series with the American League champions. Ban Johnson has not been on the level with me personally‚ and the American League management has been crooked more than once.” says McGraw. “When we clinch the NL pennant‚ we’ll be champions of the only real major league‚” Ban Johnson fires back‚ “No thoughtful patron of baseball can weigh seriously the wild vaporings of this discredited player who was canned from the American League.” For the two-year-old background to this aborted World Series, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/02/29/the-house-that-mcgraw-built/
1945: In perhaps the most momentous midseason transaction in baseball history, the Cubs purchase pitcher Hank Borowy from the New York Yankees in a waiver deal. Borowy‚ 10-5 with the Yankees‚ was put on waivers‚ apparently to solve a short-term roster problem‚ and was passed over by all seven AL teams who assumed the Yanks would pull him back if claimed. The Cubs grab him, and he will help them win the pennant with an 11-2 record. For more, see: http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ea042adc
1969: Broadway producer David Merrick opines in the New York Times: “There’s not enough showmanship in baseball. It is show business, isn’t it? I don’t think baseball is dead by any means. But it needs things. In the theatre we’re always thinking of the audience. But in baseball they’re unmindful of the audience. . . . I like the idea of having a pinch hitter for the pitcher, one of the things they were trying this spring.”
1875: Philadelphia’s Joseph E. Borden‚ also known as Joe Josephs and “The Great Josephus,” pitches the first no-hitter in professional baseball‚ beating the Chicago White Stockings‚ 4-0. Boston will sign him to a big contract for 1876, and he will win the first game played in the National League, on April 22, 1876. But Borden will disappoint, ending the summer as Boston’s groundskeeper and turnstile operator.
1911: Charles “Victory” Faust shows up at the Giants’ hotel in St. Louis asking for a tryout. Manager John McGraw observes the “pitcher‚” and carries him on the team in unform as a mascot and good luck charm. The hayseed mental defective “helped” the Giants to pennants in 1911 and 1912. Fred Snodgrass recalled that Faust worked his charms on the 1913 pennant winners too, but research fails to back that up. For more, see: http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/d1ee8535
1943: The Phillies threaten not to take the field for a game with the Cardinals‚ the proceeds of which are earmarked for the War effort. The players are upset because they learn about manager Bucky Harris’s firing by reading of it in the newspaper. Cox averts the strike but a few days later‚ Harris tells reporters that Cox had bet on games‚ a charge that will force him to sell the team. The chaos in Philadelphia will intrigued Bill Veeck, who later claimed that he sought to buy the club and stock it with stars from the Negro Leagues.
1889: Boston wins a ten-inning‚ 7-6 decision over Philadelphia but the Phils claim they are robbed by Mike Kelly. When Phillie slugger Sam Thompson hits a ball apparently over the fence in right field‚ Kelly runs back and then fires a ball to the infield. The Phils claim Kelly used a ball planted in the outfield before the inning began but the umpire rules it is the game ball. Thompson does not score.
1909: National League president Harry Pulliam‚ despondent over his inability to handle the problems and controversies of the league, dies after shooting himself yesterday. Pulliam had been suffering from a nervous breakdown that writers speculated had been brought on by the aftermath of the Merkle Boner controversy of September 1908, and New York Giants’ supporters’ resulting fury.
1921: As part of Cleveland’s 125th anniversary celebration‚ Cy Young‚ 54‚ makes a two-inning appearance on the mound in an old-timers’ game. Chief Zimmer‚ 60‚ is his catcher. Nap Lajoie, Harry Bay, and other old-time heroes take the field as well.
1874: In Liverpool‚ England‚ the Philadelphia Athletics score five runs in the tenth to beat the Boston Red Stockings‚ 14-11. The two teams would miss nearly two months of the National Association regular season in order to demonstrate the American game to its English originators. The English are largely unimpressed. A correspondent signing as “Grandmother” will write to the London Times on August 11, 1874: “Sir——Some American athletes are trying to introduce to us their game of base ball, as if it were a novelty: whereas the fact is that it is an ancient English game, long ago discarded in favor of cricket. . . .”
1980: Attempting to throw for the first time since being hospitalized for tests last week‚ J. R. Richard suffers a stroke and is rushed into surgery to remove a life-threatening blood clot in his neck. He will never pitch in the major leagues again.
2004: In a swap savaged by New York media‚ the Mets acquire pitchers Victor Zambrano and Bartolome Fortunado from the Devil Rays in exchange for highly touted pitchers Scott Kazmir and Jose Diaz. Relatively unnoticed on this day is another trade, in which the Mets obtain pitcher Kris Benson and infielder Jeff Keppinger from the Pirates for Ty Wigginton‚ Matt Peterson … and Jose Bautista‚ who, though he did not get into a game for the Mets, will emerge as a great slugging star with the Toronto Blue Jays.
I have been thinking lately of one-year wonders, phenoms who blazed their names in the sky and then retreated into obscurity. We’ll look at pitchers another day, but in the history of Major League Baseball, only three men have batted .300 in their first full season and then never appeared in the big leagues again: Buzz Arlett, Irv Waldron and, most interestingly to me right now, Henry (sometimes rendered as “Harry” or “Hen”) Moore.
Of these the most celebrated is Arlett, who in 17 minor-league seasons compiled 367 homers and a batting average of .336. In his only MLB year, as a 32-year-old rookie with the 1931 Phils, he hit .313 with 18 home runs (with an OPS+ of 138), then returned to the minors, where in 1932 he hit 54 homers and drove in 144 runs. Like Babe Ruth, he had begun his professional career as a pitcher, leading the Pacific Coast League in wins in 1920 with 29 for the Oakland Oaks. In the years 1919-1922, before converting to a full-time outfielder in 1923, Arlett notched 95 victories.
Irv Waldron began his professional career in 1895 with Pawtucket of the New England League. In 1901, the American League’s first year as a major, he hit .311 between the old Milwaukee Brewers (who would become the St. Louis Browns in 1902) and Washington Senators. While he played another nine seasons for various minor league teams, he never returned to the majors after 1901. Frankly, the difference in pay between the minors west of the Mississippi and a fledgling major league may be sufficient to explain Waldron’s decision–if it was his. His reputation for boneheaded defensive play may have been enough to ward off bidders, too.
Henry Moore hit .336 in with the Washington Nationals in 1884, leading the Union Association, a one-year major league, in hits and in games played. Yet, as David Nemec has written: “After a couple of years in the minors, he completely disappeared. As well as the record for the highest batting average of any player who appeared in the major leagues for only one full season, Moore left behind another unique legacy: He is the only .300 hitter about whom not a single biographical fact is known–where he was born, when he died, which way he batted and threw–none of it.”
I have taken that as a friendly challenge and proceeded to poke around a bit. What I can say with certainty is that he batted left, threw right, was born in California before 1865 and probably died there, certainly sometime after 1905 and before 1912. That is not very precise, I will be the first to admit; perhaps others will pick up loose strands from this ball of yarn and take the research further. [Breaking news as of July 25, 2015: Publication of this story last week prompted some of SABR’s best sleuths–Peter Morris, Richard Malatzky, and Bruce Allardice–to pitch in; see the Comments section below. We now appear to have a good birthdate for Moore of November or December 1862 and a deathdate of June 3, 1902.]
Reading of his various fistfights, suspensions, fines, and blacklists, we may safely say that Henry S. Moore had a problem with drink as well as self-control. It may not be too much to term him a sociopath. The best way to tell his sketchy, nomadic story is chronologically.
I think “our” Henry S. Moore (we don’t know what the S. stood for) is represented in the 1880 census as a 16-year-old living at home with his divorced mother, reportedly 50, and two siblings. In 1879 he had begun his baseball career with the San Francisco Eagles and the Stars, both in the Pacific League. Of his teammates Jerry Denny would be the one who would go on to stardom in the majors. While his parents were both born in Ireland, Henry was born in San Francisco. (On November 24, 1886, the San Francisco Chronicle declared, “Henry Moore, a Californian, and who leads the batters of Northwestern League, has returned to his native city….”)
In 1880 he again played with a San Francisco entry, this time in the California League, in which all four clubs were based in the city by the bay. Among his teammates were Live Oak Taylor and Ned Williamson. The following year found him with the San Francisco Mystics and the Californias. Hen Moore was recognized as an up and comer, and after one more year on the West Coast, with the San Francisco Nationals, he headed east to prove his mettle, joining the Actives of Reading, a strong club in the Inter-State League on which 17 of the 20 men had played in the majors or would go on to do so.
Moore played second base in 34 of his 35 games with the club—indicating but not assuring that he threw righthanded (in the following year, with Washington in the Union Association, he played eight games at shortstop, too). But it seems odd that the Actives played a schedule of at least 64 games, and Moore appears to have played nowhere else in 1883–why did he appear in only 35 games? It turns out that “at a meeting of the managers of the Active base ball club at Reading yesterday [June 22], Henry Moore, second baseman of the club, was ‘blacklisted’ for general misconduct.” After a period of reinstatement—he was undeniably a good player—on August 7 he was again blacklisted, this time permanently. “Manager Fox said that this was final and conclusive. Jacoby will continue to play second base, which he has been covering well.”
All the same, when the Union Association announced its entry into the arena as a third major league, the need to stock its clubs was pressing. Hen Moore was snapped up by the Washington Nationals, and given a starting place in the outfield. For manager Mike Scanlan he played in all but one of the club’s scheduled 112 games but probably should have been expelled again: “The queerest and meanest thing ever done on a ball field,” was how Washington’s pitcher Billy Wise described Moore’s actions in a game against Boston. Denied a $10 advance against his salary in a discussion the evening prior to the game, Moore came to the plate with the score 3-2 against his Nationals with two out in the ninth and Phil Baker on first and Wise on third. Let Wise tell the story:
He walked up the plate, smacked the first ball pitched into the far corner of the lot, good for twice four bases, threw his hat on the ground and deliberately walked to the players’ bench and sat down. Baker and I both raced to the plate but the Boston fielder finally overtook the ball and fielded it to first base, and the umpire declared Moore out, neither run counting under the rule, Boston winning the game 3 to 2….
Tim Murnane, who was present, said it was the most measly trick he ever saw perpetrated…. [Back in Washington] I was commissioned to interview the culprit and offer to remit the fine and suspension if he would agree to play his best for the remainder of the season, for we really needed his services. He seemed sorry for what he had done, and gave his promise, which he kept, playing gilt-edge ball for another month.
This pattern of insubordination, petulance, apology, expulsion, reinstatement, and renewed expulsion came to mark Moore’s career, as we shall see. When the Union Association blew up after its lone season, its former big leaguers were at first blacklisted by both the National League and the American Association, and its lesser lights struggled to hook on with minor-league clubs. Moore found a spot for 1885 with the Washington and then Norfolk clubs, both in the Eastern League. At season’s end, however, he headed west to resume play with the San Francisco Stars. On November 8, 1885, the San Francisco Alta ran an ad:
Baseball To-Day. The Stars and Pioneers will play at Central Park this afternoon. This will be the first appearance of Ed. Morris, Fred Carroll and Henry Moore, who have made such excellent records in the East this season. Morris will pitch and Carroll will catch for the Pioneers. Moore will play with the Stars….
The following November another ad appeared, this time in the Sacramento Daily Union, that confirms Moore to be a lefthand batter.
SPECIAL GAME: HAVERLYS, OF SAN FRANCISCO, ALTAS, OF SACRAMENTO.
LOU HARDIE and INSELL will form the battery for the Haverlys, and McLAGHLAN and BORCHERS for the Altas. HENRY MOORE, the great fielder and lefthanded batter, will play with the Altas.
After incidents during a game on October 22, 1887 Moore, no doubt fueled by drink, got himself blacklisted again. The Los Angeles Herald reported that on October 26,
Henry Moore, the blacklisted centre-fielder, and manager [Mike] Finn, of the Pioneers, came to blows on the street this afternoon over a dispute growing out of difficulties in Saturday’s baseball game, when Moore was expelled from the club. The participants were separated before much injury had been done.
A feisty man with a barrel chest and handlebar mustache, Mike was approximately 5-feet-9-inches tall and weighed about 180 pounds. No stranger to fisticuffs, he tangled with teammate Charles Gagus on March 28 after hearing that Gagus was jumping to another team…. In October Finn tangled with an insubordinate outfielder, Henry Moore, who was making disparaging remarks about him. Finn won the bout and Moore was blacklisted by league President Mone for the duration of the season….
Moore [had] made a farce of a Pioneer-Haverly game on October 22. Playing center field in the second inning, Moore, in the Chronicle’s estimation, “deliberately shirked a fly ball, which he could easily have caught, but folded his arms and stood stone still and allowed the ball to drop to the ground, three men scoring on the play.” Finn promptly ordered him off the field at the end of the inning to loud hisses and groans from the crowd. Moore was then blacklisted by league President Mone and was fined $25.
Three days later Finn and Moore ran into each other near a saloon on O’Farrell Street. Mike heard that Moore was making disparaging remarks about him, which Moore denied. Soon thereafter, blows were exchanged and a lively fight started, which was eventually broken up by the crowd. Reporters speculated that Moore’s behavior resulted because he had bet heavily on his team to win and was upset when they fell behind. Others thought Moore wanted to see his pitcher, Joseph Purcell, dropped from the team. [The blacklisted Moore in fact accused his teammates of throwing the game, then ventured south to Los Angeles, where he played left field with the touring Philadelphia Phillies for some games with the local nine.]
In March 1888 Moore took pen in hand to craft a public apology, which was published locally in the San Francisco Alta and in Sporting Life, the national sporting weekly.
SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 24. Editor Alta: As I intend applying to the California League for reinstatement, and as I earnestly hope my application will be favorably received, I feel that I owe the public that I should endeavor to set myself right before them. For my hasty action during the championship game the 22nd of last October I have no excuse to offer, but instead the most sincere apologies. To those of my friends who would make excuse for my conduct on that day I can only say that I acted in a moment of passion, caused by over-zealousness for the success of my club. Various reports circulated after that game, in effect that I had left the field because of my belief that it was a hippodrome, have gained credence. In regard to these I desire to have it understood that they, as well as many other statements reflecting on base ball, as conducted in this city, and which I was supposed to authorize, did not originate with me. I never had any reason to doubt the integrity of the officials of the California League; they have ever felt a kindly interest in the players, and their instructions have always been to play good, bona fide ball, and created in our minds the impression that shirking would not be tolerated. I know nothing of the charge that one of the managers had money wagered on the result of the League games. In conclusion, my dismissal has proved a most valuable lesson, and I know it will have a most beneficial effect upon me for all time to come.
Hoping that the foregoing will receive space in your valuable columns, I am very sincerely,
Wally Wallace, with whom Moore had played on the San Francisco Californias in 1881, observed in print, “Henry writes well, doesn’t he? Moore is an immense favorite with the San Francisco public, and the magnates have the good sense to know that he is a powerful attraction. I am heartily glad that the great player will be given a chance.”
Moore was reinstated for the 1888 campaign, but within a month manager Finn canned him again, this time for drinking.
Henry S. Moore, ball player, is listed in the San Francisco City directory for 1889, a year in which he hooked on with the Sacramento and then Stockton clubs and, on April 2, married Maggie Agnew, a 29-year-old San Franciscan. For 1890 he was offered a return to the Stockton outfield but instead tried out for the Minneapolis club, which declined his services. Apart from an oldtimers’ game in 1897, Moore’s baseball days were done.
He became a salesman, nominally, and a streetcar conductor, but also a vagrant, hauled before the courts ignominiously. He and his wife had repeated rows which brought in the police. On May 7, 1900, the San Francisco Call reported, “Hen Moore has packed his grip and left his former home at 706 Ellis Street. He says he is through with his wife for all time.” In July he attended an event at the city’s famed Olympic Club; his reputation, for all the damage it had endured, somehow remained.
The last press mention of him alive may have come on May 26, 1905, when his 78-year-old mother, a dressmaker, was thrown out of a window by her 50-year-old female friend of two decades, in a dispute over a missing $15. Mrs. Moore “told her pitiful tale at the hospital, and said Mrs. Collins inflicted the wounds with her hands. Dr. Hill, who attended her, expresses but little hope for her recovery on account of her age…. Mrs. Moore is the mother of ‘Hen’ Moore, once a noted baseball player.” San Francisco death records were incinerated in the fires following the great earthquake of 1906, but Mrs. Moore never again appeared in a city directory listing, nor did her son.
In February 1912 James Hart, former business manager and part owner of the Chicago White Stockings, who had toured California with the Louisville club of the American Association in December 1886, returned to San Francisco. He reminisced about the ballplayers of those famous California nines of olden days with whom he had waged battle. “Two of the outfielders, Jim Bufford and Henry Moore, have since died,” he noted.
That was some All-Star Game and Home Run Derby, huh? Cincinnati proved to be the perfect host city. MLB’s design department outdid itself, at the park and all around town. The Franchise Four announcements were greeted by thunderous ovations for the hometown stars, who took to the field. And even the eyes of a crusty old veteran like me welled up at the sight of the four whom the fans voted “greatest living players”: Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax. And now for the crusty part: my whiskers twitched at the signage that celebrated “Cincinnati Red Stockings, Est. 1869.” Undefeated in that year, this was the team that made Cincinnati–and baseball itself–famous from coast to coast. But they were established in 1866, as you will read below.
1903: Lefthander Dan McClellan of the Cuban X-Giants spins the first perfect game in black baseball history‚ blanking the Penn Park Athletic Club of York‚ 5-0. Rube Foster had whitewashed the Penn Park AC the day before.
1941: Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak is ended at 56 games. Indian pitchers Al Smith and Jim Bagby‚ plus sensational plays by third baseman Ken Keltner‚ stop the Yankee Clipper. Joe tells Phil Rizzuto after the game that his failure to hit cost him $10,000, as Heinz Ketchup (“57 Varieties”) was prepared to sign an endorsement deal with him. For more, see: http://goo.gl/Vw75ot.
1974: In Los Angeles‚ during a 5-4 loss to the Expos‚ Dodger pitcher Tommy John blows his elbow out. Dodger doctor Frank Jobe will suggest a replacement for the torn ulnar collateral ligament‚ a first for a professional athlete. Given one chance in a hundred of ever pitching again‚ John will return to record 164 wins after the surgery‚ pitching until age 46.
1925: Playing for Salt Lake City, Lefty O’Doul sets a Pacific Coast League record for hits in a three game series (16-for-17) and for a four-game series (19-for-21). O’Dould had come to the majors as a pitcher, but at the end of the 1924 season, in which he gave up 13 runs in one inning pitching for the Red Sox, he was released to the PCL. In 1925, in addition to the aforementioned hitting exploit, he batted .375 with 309 hits and 24 home runs. Earning a recall to the bigs in 1928, Lefty led the National League in hitting twice and finished with a career batting average of .349.
1987: Don Mattingly hits a home run in his eighth consecutive game‚ tying the record set by Dale Long in 1956 and later equaled by Ken Griffey, Jr.
1999: Don Larsen, who hurled a perfect game for the New Yorkers in the 1956 WS‚ throws out the first pitch prior to New York’s game against the Expos. David Cone then throws a perfecto of his own, defeating the Expos‚ 6-0 while fanning ten.
1884: Boston’s Fred “Dupee” Shaw holds St. Louis, the top club in the Union Association, to one hit while fanning 18 batters‚ but loses the game 1-0. In his outings of July 16th‚ 19th‚ and 21st‚ Shaw will amass 48 strikeouts‚ a big-league record for three consecutive games. Possibly the inventor of the windup, Shaw’s motions in the pitching box [the slab did not come in until 1893] were thus described by Al Spink: “After considerable swinging and scratching around with his feet, during which he would deliver a lengthy speech to the batter, to the effect that he was the best pitcher on earth and the batter a dub, he would stretch both arms at full length over his head. Then after gazing fixedly at the first baseman for a moment, he would wheel half around and both arms would fly apart like magic… [H]e would wind his left arm around again and let the ball fly, running at the same time all the way from the box to the home plate.”
1909: Cleveland SS Neal Ball pulls off an unassisted triple play in the top of the second inning against the Red Sox. With Heinie Wagner on second base and Jake Stahl on first‚ Amby McConnell hits a line drive to Ball‚ who steps on second and tags Stahl. Earlier triple plays in professional baseball were achieved by first baseman Harry O’Hagan, with Rochester in 1902, and Paul Hines, with Providence in 1878. For more, see: http://goo.gl/3S3Tsj.
1960: In a spectacular debut‚ Giant Juan Marichal pitches no-hit ball until Clay Dalrymple of the Phillies pinch-hits a single with two out in the seventh. Marichal fans 12 in his one-hit win, the first by a National League pitcher in the century. (Before 1900, two men had thrown no-hitters in their first starts: Ted Breitenstein in 1891 and Bumpus Jones in 1892.)
1858: The first game played in an enclosed grounds, the first to feature a paid admission, and the first All-Star Game. In many ways, today’s game at the Fashion Race Course, pitting the best of Brooklyn against the cream of New York—when these were separate cities—may be said to be the most important in baseball history. John Holder of the Brooklyn Excelsiors hits the first home run ever recorded in a box score‚ but New York wins the game 22-18. Brooklyn will take the rematch on August 19‚ and on September 19‚ New York wins the rubber game and the series. For more, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2013/07/08/the-all-star-game-you-dont-know/
1898: Joe Corbett‚ the Baltimore hurler who has been holding out all season for a higher salary‚ spars with brother Jim‚ heavyweight champion of the world‚ to prepare him for his fight with Kid McCoy. Joe Corbett‚ who won 24 games in 1897‚ will not pitch in the majors again until 1904.
1969: San Francisco’s Gaylord Perry connects for his first hit of the year‚ and his first major league homer, to beat the Dodgers‚ 7-3. Last year‚ Alvin Dark had remarked to sportswriter Harry Jupiter about Perry’s hitting‚ “They’ll put a man on the moon before he hits a home run.” Perry’s homer comes about 20 minutes after the clubhouse receives word that Neil Armstrong has set foot on the moon.
1892: Tim Keefe of the Phillies outpitches Pud Galvin of St. Louis 2-0. It is Keefe’s 326th win against 211 losses. Galvin’s career mark is 360-306. It is the fourth and last match-up, all in the past three years, between these two 300-game winners. The next match-up of 300-game winners will be between Don Sutton and Phil Niekro on June 6‚ 1986; the one after that will not come until Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens face each other on April 29‚ 2005.
1969: At an All-Star Game banquet in Washington, DC, the Baseball Writers’ Association announces an all-time team and an all-time living team. Babe Ruth is selected Greatest All-Time Player‚ and Joe DiMaggio‚ Greatest Living Player.
1970: Clay Kirby has a no-hitter going for eight innings‚ but with two outs in the 8th and trailing 1-0‚ Padres manager Preston Gomez lifts him for a pinch hitter Cito Gaston. Gaston fails to get a hit off Mets’ starter Jim McAndrew‚ and reliever Jack Baldschun gives up two runs in the ninth. Gomez will repeat the stratagem with Don Wilson and the Padres on September 4‚ 1974.
1886: It is reported that Chicago owner Albert Goodwill Spalding has hired Pinkerton detectives to shadow the White Stocking players and report on their drinking habits. Seven players are fined $25 each. One of these is King Kelly, who accepts the fine but indignantly corrects Spalding, “It was straight whiskey; I never drank a lemonade at that hour in me life.”
1963: Diomedes Olivo‚ who will split his time between St. Louis in the NL (0-5 in 1963) and Atlanta in the IL (3-1) pitches a 1-0 no-hitter for Atlanta over Toronto. At 44 or so, Olivo is likely the oldest pitcher in Organized Baseball to toss a no-hitter.
1997: Greg Maddux throws just 78 pitches as the Atlanta Braves defeat the Chicago Cubs 4-1. It is the lowest pitch total for a nine-inning complete game since Bob Tewksbury threw 76 for the Cardinals against the Reds on August 29‚ 1990. But neither pitch count approaches the record of Red Barrett, who needed only 58 pitches to throw a complete-game shutout of Cincinnati on August 10, 1944 in which he did not walk or strike out anyone.
1866: The Cincinnati Base Ball Club is organized. Harry Wright had left New York for the Queen City of the West in March 1865 to serve as the professional instructor and bowler of its Union Cricket Club. On this date in 1866, the Cincinnati Base Ball Club is formed, and Harry Wright is enticed into being its pitcher. To devote his full attention to the new national game for 1867, the baseball club’s directors, many of them holding office in common with the cricket club, will offer him the same salary he is already receiving to switch sports. The club will fare well against regional opponents but they see the need to recruit from the east for 1868 and then what will be the unequaled campaign of 1869. For more, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2014/12/01/baseballs-wright-brothers-and-the-cincinnati-red-stockings/
1870: Five thousand spectators jam Dexter Park in Chicago to see the White Stockings play the visiting Mutuals of New York. Mutuals pitcher Rynie Wolters holds the White Stockings to three singles, winning 9-0 for the first shutout game in big-time baseball history. Until this game, in the West a blank score had been termed a “whitewashing,” and in the East a “blinder.” In New York it had been called a “skunk.” After this 1870 landmark game, the New York Herald will use “Chicagoed” from now on to signify a shutout; the term will survive into the 1890s.
1924: The Yankees and Lou Gehrig hits the first of his longtime-record 23 grand slams in a game against Firpo Marberry and the Senators. Gehrig’s slam is an opposite-field fly ball in the seventh that left fielder Goose Goslin thinks will drift foul‚ but it drops fair and bounds into the seats, scoring Aaron Ward‚ Bob Meusel‚ and Babe Ruth. The bounce homer will not become a ground-rule double until the next decade.
While researching the strange career of Henry Moore, Washington Nationals outfielder who hit .336 in his lone season in major league baseball (in the Union Association of 1884), I recalled having published this fine article by James D. Smith III in The National Pastime of 1983. Smith was, in 1983, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard and had contributed to historical, religious, and sports publications. Today, The Rev. Dr. James D. Smith III is Professor of Church History at Bethel Seminary in California, and is part time Minister of Pastoral Care at Fletcher Hills Presbyterian Church. As to Henry (also known as Harry or Hen) Moore, I will devote a full column to him next week.
In the early months of 1926, Ty Cobb recounts in his autobiography, My Life in Baseball, the great outfielder was obliged to submit to eye surgery at the Johns Hopkins Clinic in Baltimore: “the dust of a thousand ballfields was in my eyes.” Shortly before he was admitted, a poem appeared in one of the local papers:
The curtain’s going to drop, old chap
For Time has taken toll,
And you could never play a part
Except the leading role.
You might go on and play and play,
But why go on for folks to say
“There’s old Ty Cobb, still on the job,
But not the Cobb of yesterday.”
The record shows that the Georgia Peach not only played that season, but added two more with the Philadelphia A’s before hanging up his spikes–batting over .300 each time. The point, however, is well taken: it has been said that, amid all the physical and mental exertion, the toughest thing for a ballplayer is knowing when to quit. And, as does no other sport, baseball often provides a decisive statistical indication of that moment when the sun has dropped below the horizon of a career.
The story is told of another Hall of Famer, Adrian (Cap) Anson, relating an incident which occurred a few years before his death in 1922. The old Chicago veteran was involved in a Windy City accident which nearly claimed his life. This prompted a close friend, half-jokingly, to ask what he would like as an epitaph when the time came for him to be laid to rest. With little hesitation, the reply came: “I guess one line will be enough–just write this on my tombstone: ‘here lies a man that batted .300.’ ” Pop Anson, of course, had finished his career on that note, batting .302 at the ripe age of forty-six.
But how many have gone out that way, clearing that time-honored barrier, satisfied with a strong effort at the plate during their final major league campaign? And, for those closing their big league careers in that manner, how was such a decision made—what marked the end? These two questions provide the starting point for a glance backward into a century of baseball history.
At the outset, four points must be made. As implied above, our investigation does not begin with any so-called “modern era” of baseball (1893? 1900? 1901? 1903?). In 1968, the Special Baseball Records Committee declared that major league baseball has been played in America since 1876. To approach completeness, even with changes in the game and some records still being researched, our story must begin at the beginning and recognize the continuities.
Second, since many players have appeared briefly for a “cup of coffee” on major league rosters, or played only occasionally, some criterion of involvement is necessary. For our purposes, the measure of a “regular” player is not number of games, but a number of plate appearances equal to 2.5 times the scheduled games. That is, for a 154-game season, 385 appearances provide a cut-off point; for 1877, when the schedule called for 60 games, the figure becomes 150 plate appearances.
Next, not all players end their careers voluntarily—some do; most don’t.
(1) Some leave the game for health reasons.
(2) A few have been permanently suspended—barred from major league ball.
(3) Far more frequently, players have continued their careers in Organized Baseball by catching on with a minor league team.
(4) Finally, there is a story behind each of the thirty-six regulars who batted .300 in his last major league season; four of these–one from each of the categories listed above–will serve to epitomize the group. And within each group, four others will have their tales told in brief.
Some players are familiar, others obscure–but all reach beyond the statistics to provide a brief glimpse of the wealth of baseball history. Eight players played regularly in their final campaign, batted .300, and retired voluntarily from Organized Baseball.
Cap Anson has been mentioned above, retiring in 1897 after twenty-two legendary seasons with Chicago. In Anson’s obituary, Grantland Rice best summed up what lay behind his retirement: “The light in his batting eye was still carrying a bright glow when his ancient arms and legs had at last given away and ended his career upon the field.” His involvement with baseball was to continue in a variety of management and business ventures, including an unhappy stint as manager of Andrew Freedman’s New York Giants.
Bill Lange stands as the finest everyday, all-around player to retire from baseball at the peak of his career. Born in San Francisco, he developed there both his baseball skills and a lifelong attachment to the Bay Area. In 1893, aged twenty-one, he began his seven-season major league career with the Chicago Colts. By the time player-manager Anson retired, Lange was already being hailed by some as “the greatest player of the age.”
His physical tools were impressive. In an age of generally smaller players, he stood 6’2″ and weighed over 200 pounds. Moreover, he was lightning fast as a runner, as well as being agile in the outfield.
The 1897 season was vintage Lange. In the spring, he was helping to coach the Stanford baseball team. On March 5, he received a telegram summoning him to the Colts’ training camp in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Determined to remain in the West until local favorite Gentleman Jim Corbett’s fight with Bob Fitzsimmons in Nevada, his first stalling tactic was to send a wire refusing to report until he received a $500 raise. But the raise was quickly granted (provided he come immediately and tell no one of the bonus). The fight was scheduled for March 17. So he managed to “sprain his ankle,” wiring the news on March 12 that it should be all right in a week. It was (Corbett wasn’t), and Lange finally reported in time to hit .340 with 73 stolen bases.
More famous, however, was his 1896 campaign. Despite stealing 84 bases and batting .326, it was his fielding that would become legendary. AI Spalding, when selecting his all-time major league team years later, chose Lange even over Tris Speaker. “Both men,” he reflected, “could go back or to either side equally well. Both were lightning fast in handling ground balls. But no man I ever saw could go forward and get a low line drive like Lange.”
During the 1899 season, his last, a romance with Miss Grace Geiselman of San Francisco blossomed. After the campaign, wedding plans were made for the spring, and in October (with his fiancee in Europe) Bill Lange announced his retirement from baseball. He left to take up a position in a large real estate and insurance firm in his native city, accepting a partnership with his father-in-law to be.
In the following years, he played occasionally and became involved in scouting (sending nephew George Kelly to the majors) and in the business end of baseball in California. He died in 1950, mourned in his native San Francisco and by all in Chicago who ever saw him play.
Ty Cobb, after twenty-four seasons of American League baseball, issued a statement on September 17, 1928, declaring that he was in his final campaign: “I prefer to retire while there still may remain some base hits in my bat. Baseball is the greatest game in the world. I owe all that I possess in the way of worldly goods to this game. For each week, month, and year of my career, I have felt a deep sense of responsibility to the grand old national sport that has been everything to me. I will not reconsider. This is final.” His aching legs and old wounds made his final season, the last of two under Connie Mack, “hellishly hard.”
Ted Williams, thirty-two years later, closed out his magnificent career with the Red Sox with a 425-foot home run at Fenway Park on September 28. Earlier in the season, after hitting his 500th home run, he had remarked: “I want to play out the year if I can. I hope I can get through it. I know I can’t play all the time. I need a rest about every fourth day. But I think I’ll be able to hit the rest of the year. I believe I can still help the club.” And hit he did, rebounding from his only sub-.300 season in a career which touched four decades. After his final game, in the dressing room: “I’m convinced I’ve quit at the right time. There’s nothing more I can do.” Except, perhaps, fish…
Lou Brock ended his stellar career with a major league record 938 stolen bases, 21 in his final season of 1979. In spring training he had declared, following a disappointing 1978, “I think this will be my last season in baseball. Even if present conditions change, I don’t think I want to go on. The mental tear is too much. The writing is on the wall … I am convinced that a real champ, a thoroughbred, can rebound. I’d like a chance to prove it.”
In September, after he had collected hit number 3,000 the previous month and was still going strong: “The most important thing was to crown my career with a fine performance. I’ve always wanted to leave baseball in a blaze of glory.” He retired to become Director of Sports Programming for a Cable TV concern and to pursue other business and civic involvements.
Four ballplayers ended their major league careers still batting a steady .300, but overcome by poor health, even death.
Dave Orr was the 250-pound first baseman on John M. Ward’s 1890 Brooklyn team in the Players League. In his eight major league years he never batted under .300–including a .373 mark in his final year–though often hit with nagging injuries. On July 12, he had two ribs broken by a pitched ball in a game against Boston. He continued to play for a time, but the pain continued. Late in the season, during an exhibition game in Renova, Pennsylvania, he was stricken with a paralysis which affected his whole left side. He hoped to find the therapy in Hot Springs, Arkansas, which would allow him to return in 1891, but he never fully recovered. He served in various positions attached to baseball, including a job as caretaker when Ebbetts Field was being built.
With the exception of Lou Gehrig, perhaps the player best remembered for a career tragically halted by terminal illness is Ross Youngs. At 5’8″, he was stocky, powerful, and aggressive. College coaches pursued him for his abilities in track and football, but he wanted to play professional baseball.
Immediately after graduation, in 1914, he became a seventeen-year-old trying to hold his own in the fast Texas League. The Austin team let him go, and he drifted into lower leagues for two seasons. In 1916, however, he enjoyed a .362 campaign in Sherman, Texas of the Western Association–and his contract was purchased by the New York Giants. John McGraw brought him to spring training camp at Marlin, Texas, in 1917 but sent him to Rochester, bringing him back at season’s end to hit .346 in seven games.
That was the first of eight straight .300 seasons Youngs registered for the Giants, who captured National League pennants in 1921-24. For the first of these four pennant winners, he drove home 102 runs with benefit of only 3 homers. He was a “short Ty Cobb.” In the process, he also captured a spot in the hard-bitten McGraw’s heart reserved only for Christy Mathewson. The pictures of those two would adorn McGraw’s office wall for years to come.
In 1924, the Giants lost a hard-fought World Series to Walter Johnson and the Washington Senators. That winter, during a stay in Europe, Ross Youngs became ill, and carried the effects into 1925, in which he lost almost 100 points off his previous season’s average (.356-.264).
A cloud of uncertainty and concern hung over him at the Giants’ training camp in 1926. Youngs seemed sluggish and drained, somehow. When questioned, he laughingly replied, “I guess I’m getting old. It takes me more time to get in shape.” McGraw, however, was worried and depressed by all this (Mathewson had died in October 1925), and called in a doctor. He was told that “Pep” might not finish the season, that his condition would require a special diet and constant attention. “Muggsy”hired a male nurse to monitor his right fielder’s needs.
Youngs was determined to play as hard as he could for as long as he could. He joked about his male nurse and special care: “I used to laugh at Phil Douglas [the inebriate Giants’ pitcher] and his keeper–now I’ve got one.” He taught a seventeen-year-old rookie named Mel Ott to play right field. And, having played his final game on August 10, he closed his season at .306. He was no longer able to take the field, due to the progressive effects of Bright’s Disease, a degenerative kidney disorder which led to the retention of toxic uric acids. Despite the best care available in the 1920s, prolonged convalescence, and repeated transfusions, he died in San Antonio, Texas on October 22, 1927. He was thirty.
Perhaps the best summary of Youngs’ career is to be found in his eulogy by John McGraw, who had already managed the Giants for twenty-five seasons and whose baseball memory reached back to the Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s: “He was the greatest outfielder I ever saw … he was the easiest player I ever knew to handle … on top of all this, a gamer ball player than Youngs never played….”
Ray Chapman is the only player to be killed by a pitched ball in the major leagues. On August 16, 1920, in the midst of the best of his nine major league seasons, he was struck in the head by a Carl Mays submarine delivery. One of the finest hitting and fielding shortstops in the American League, he remained conscious for a time but could not speak, passing away at 3 AM the next day.
Roberto Clemente ended his career in 1972, reaching the 3,000 hit milestone on September 30. Before the season began, however, his spring training interviews had told a story: “There is no way I can play more than this year and next year. No way.” Even as his hitting remained strong and he won his twelfth Gold Glove, it appeared that the 1973 season might well be his last. It never came. On the night of December 31 the airplane in which he was riding, carrying medicine and supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, plunged into the Atlantic. Waiving the five year wait, baseball writers voted him into the Hall of Fame in 1973.
Two other players, both .300 batters but neither surviving midseason, deserve brief mention. Ed Delahanty, the great turn-of-the-century slugger, died on July 2, 1903 when he plunged off a railroad bridge into the darkness of the Niagara River–a mysterious end to a remarkable career (he was batting .333 for Washington at the time and that was below par for him!). Lesser known, but a fine player at age thirty, was Pittsburgh first baseman Alexander McKinnon. Batting .340 coming into a game at Philadelphia on July 4, 1887, “Mac” complained of not feeling well, and the next day was persuaded to go home to Boston: “I don’t believe I tried harder in my life to break a sweat than I did this morning, but it was no go.” He had typhoid fever, and died on July 24.
Four seasoned regulars enjoyed campaigns well over the .300 mark, but never played another inning in the major leagues–banished from Organized Baseball for conspiring with gamblers to throw games for a payoff.
The Black Sox scandal of 1919 immediately comes to mind–and, indeed, three of the plus-.300 group were mainstays of that team. The remaining figure, however, deserves special attention, as he played a vital role in what was baseball’s biggest scandal of the nineteenth century.
George Hall was born in Brooklyn in 1849, and polished his skills there during the baseball boom which followed the Civil War. There were no recognized professional teams or leagues in the mid-1860s. Amateur clubs and town teams had been in the field for decades, and as competition for the prestige and profit of a “winner” increased, under-the-table payoffs increased as well. Heavy betting and the periodic throwing of ballgames through intentionally careless play plagued the ballparks. Amateurism had become a sham—and into this turbulent atmosphere stepped a nineteen-year-old George Hall.
After an 1868 season with the Excelsior Juniors of Brooklyn, he caught on as first baseman for the Brooklyn Stars, one of the leading teams in the East. In 1870, he became center fielder of the Atlantics. But when the Atlantics decided to reorganize as an amateur club in 1871, Hall moved down the coast to play center field for the Washington Olympics of the new National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. He batted .260, but was just reaching his physical maturity, standing 5’7″ and weighing around 140 pounds. (It should be noted that, of the 150 or so NA players for whom vital statistics are available, only about a dozen were known six-footers.) He was a wiry left-handed batter with sure hands, good speed, and surprising strength for his size.
In 1872, the Olympics dropped back to “cooperative” status in the league, indicating an economy operation with players paid from gate receipts without guarantee. Faced with this, Hall moved to nearby Baltimore to wear the silk uniform of the Canaries. He batted .300 and.320 in 1872 and ’73, but with the high expenses of a twelve player roster, huge for that period, the team sank in red ink (in the latter season, Hall was the lowest-paid regular but drew $1000). The team scattered, and he joined Cal McVey in moving to the prestigious Boston Red Stockings–champions the past two seasons.
In Boston, though called a substitute, in deference to the legendary but aging Harry Wright, he played the latter’s traditional center field position in most of the league games (.329) and the several exhibitions. In July of that 1874 campaign, he enjoyed the team’s exhibition tour in England. For his season’s labors, however, he was paid only about $500. The following season, at age twenty-six, he signed with the Philadelphia Athletics.
The atmosphere in Philadelphia was significantly different from what he had known in Boston. The crowds were notoriously rowdy. Betting was heavier on games and innings, and the “baseball pools” were openly played on the premises. The undisciplined corruption which would eventually destroy the National Association was rife in Philadelphia.
During that season, Hall was also reunited with his tough, but moody, former teammate and manager in Baltimore, William Craver. After some years of taking a brutal beating as catcher (with no protective gear), Craver had developed skills as a second baseman. He had also cultivated other skills; in August of 1874, he had been accused by Billy McLean, a former New York City bare knuckle fighter and widely respected umpire, of “throwing” a ballgame. During his 1875 season with the Athletics, the Brooklyn Eagle named a starting lineup of “rogues” who “would think only of how much money to make out of a game,” and included Craver without fear of a libel suit.
By season’s end, the second-place Athletics were in financial difficulty and the fans were indifferent. The National Association itself collapsed, to be replaced by the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs.
In 1876, George Hall was stationed in left field for the reorganized Athletics and enjoyed his finest season, batting .366 and becoming the first NL home run king (5); the A’s, meanwhile, went 14-45 and, at the league meetings in December, were expelled for failing to play out their final scheduled games. Without a team, Hall signed with Louisville for the 1877 season, his last.
The Louisville Grays were a strong team. Holdover Jim Devlin was one of his era’s great pitchers, and in ’77 became the only one in major league history to hurl every inning of his team’s games. Hall joined a young and speedy outfield. The captain, however, was the aforementioned Bill Craver. And, when their third baseman developed a painful boil at midseason, Brooklyn native Al Nichols, who had batted .179 with a league-high 73 errors at that position for the 1876 New York Mutuals, was signed at Hall’s suggestion.
The Grays were league leaders and favorites well into the campaign but suddenly began losing late-season road games in suspicious ways. Amid Louisville Courier Journal headlines like “!!!-???-!!!” and tips on gamblers’ betting patterns, club vice-president Charles E. Chase initiated an investigation which led to confessions by Hall, Devlin, and Nichols, backed by incriminating telegrams from New York gambling connections. The three were promptly suspended by the Grays, along with Craver, who had refused to have his telegrams opened and was generally uncooperative and antagonistic. In December, the league reaffirmed these suspensions, as did all the clubs of the newly formed “League Alliance.” Having batted .323 while appearing in all his club’s games, Hall was banished for life. St. Louis tried to sign him and Devlin to ’78 contracts, but to no avail.
Following the scandal, Hall began, by choice, to fade into obscurity. While Devlin and Craver made repeated appeals in person to league officials like president William Hulbert, Hall’s fruitless appeal for reinstatement in December of 1878 was made by mail. He may have played ball in Canada–Craver tried to and Devlin did [also in San Francisco in 1880–jt].
Other evidence remains inconclusive. What is certain is George Hall’s eventual return to Brooklyn, where he labored quietly as an engraver for years. He died, at age 96, in 1945—unrecognized both as the last of the pre-National Association worthies and as one of baseball’s greatest wastes of talent. [Since initial publication of this article, Hall’s death date has been revised to 1923.–jt]
Four decades after the banishment of the Louisville Four, eight Chicago White Sox players were banned from Organized Baseball for life for their part in selling out the 1919 World Series to Cincinnati. Among these “Black Sox” were three regulars who had batted well over .300 in 1920, Happy Felsch, Joe Jackson (.382), and Buck Weaver.
Much has been written over the years about their relative guilt, or lack of such. The statement of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, however, set forth a standard of baseball which would end their careers in their prime. Issued after the conclusion of their trial on August 2, 1920 (in which they were acquitted), it read, in part: “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it,will ever play professional baseball!”
After Judge Landis’s decision, each of the three played semipro and outlaw baseball for a number of years. Felsch returned to his hometown, Milwaukee, working as a crane operator and laborer, and opened a tavern to support his six children. Jackson played baseball until 1933, continuing a valet business and, later, buying a liquor store. He remained active in the management and administration of several semipro teams and leagues. Weaver repeatedly made appeals to Landis for reinstatement, but all were bluntly denied. He continued to run a drugstore for many years, and later worked the parimutuel windows at a local racetrack.
By far, most of those major league regulars (twenty) who batted .300 in their final seasons continued their careers in the various minor leagues that once dotted the American landscape.
Perry Werden was one of the most feared minor league batters of the 1890s, and played portions of seven seasons in the big leagues. In Minneapolis he hit 45 home runs in 1895–a record that stood throughout all baseball until the 1920 onslaught of Babe Ruth. In 1897 he was drafted by Louisville (then a major league franchise), when he compiled his highest big-time average, leading NL first basemen in putouts and assists as well. The following season, however, he returned to Minneapolis, unfortunatelybreaking his leg and missing the entire 1898 season. Thereafter his power totals were reduced, but he continued to hit for a high average into 1906. He eventually made his home in Minneapolis.
George Sisler always insisted that his real career ended in 1923 when, after batting .420 the season before, he missed the entire season with a severe sinus infection which produced double vision. He returned to play major league ball in 1924-30 until, with his legs “gone,” he was unconditionally released by the Braves. He then batted .303 for Rochester and was released. The following year he dropped out of his player-manager position at Shreveport-Tyler when asked to take a large pay cut. He spent most of the 1930s as a businessman in St. Louis.
Buzz Arlett, like Harry Moore and Irv Waldron, as well as part-time .300 hitters Tex Vache (1925) and Monk Sherlock (1930), enjoyed only one season in the major leagues. He was, however, the greatest switch-hitter in minor league history, averaging .341 and blasting 432 home runs in 19 seasons (the first five largely as a pitcher). His first thirteen seasons were spent with Oakland of the Pacific Coast League. Depending on who ventured the opinion, Arlett was confined to the minors due to his fielding weaknesses, high price, temperament, or bad timing (the PCL President voided Arlett’s 1930 sale to Brooklyn after an altercation with an umpire). After his .313 NL season with the Phillies, who had purchased him for a healthy sum from Oakland, he was traded to minor league Baltimore.
Urban John Hodapp stands as the only ballplayer in this century who closed out his major league career as a regular batting .300–and ended the minor league tour which followed in the same manner.
Born in Cincinnati in 1905, “Johnny” had an uncle who took considerable interest in his baseball development. By the early 1920s, young Hodapp’s abilities stood out in several of the small amateur leagues which dotted the Queen City, and he turned semipro in 1923. Two years later, after a turn in the minors with Indianapolis, he appeared in 37 games with Cleveland. Although he batted only .238, his showing was stronger than that of three-year incumbent third baseman Rube Lutzke, and rapid improvement was expected. Instead, during spring training of 1926, he suffered a broken leg, limiting him to only five at-bats with the Indians that season.
In 1927, however, Hodapp returned to bat .304 in halftime duty. His next season, finally as the regular third baseman, was even better: his line drives produced a .323 mark, complemented by 73 RBIs. By that time, Hodapp was reaching his physical prime, a sturdy six-footer at 180 pounds, batting and throwing righthanded.
Unfortunately, in the following years, his knees were a constant source of trouble. Moved to second base in 1929 (his position thereafter), he managed to bat .327, with the benefit of increased pinch-hitting roles. During the offseason, taking special care of himself, he prepared for the 1930 campaign.
Teamed with Earl Averill, Eddie Morgan & Co., Hodapp played in all 154 games, leading the league in hits (225) and doubles (51), driving in 121 runs while batting .354. Though not a smooth fielder, he did pace AL second basemen in putouts. The 1930 season indicated what a healthy John Hodapp could do.
The next campaign, however, saw the return of serious concerns about his knees. Though he managed a .295 mark, both his power at the plate and mobility in the field were noticeably diminished. By 1932, it was clear that ligament damage was involved. Given the surgical care of fifty years ago, Hodapp was warned that an operation could possibly leave him with a stiff knee–so he chose to make the best of his situation. That season marked the close of his career with the Cleveland Indians, and he finished out the torturous year in the White Sox outfield and as a pinch hitter. Chicago let him go after its 49-102 season, and Hodapp signed with an AL team which was even more inept, the Boston Red Sox (43-111).
The 1933 Red Sox improved to 63-86. But, most significantly, the beginning of the Tom Yawkey era marked the end of the major league trail for four great hitters: Bob (Fatty) Fothergill, Dale Alexander, Smead Jolley–and Johnny Hodapp. The game second baseman was leading the league at .374 in June but, plagued with continued physical liabilities, declined to a still respectable .312 with 27 doubles. On October 31, with the Sox making rebuilding plans, Hodapp was released.
Not yet 30, and still in love with the game, he did not seriously consider retiring. Instead, he turned to the minor leagues. Hodapp split the 1934 season between Columbus (.344) and Knoxville (.307). This one year back in the minors was enough to convince him he would not be returning to the majors. He considered umpiring but, by this time, his father was waiting for a decision on the business offer which had been open for a decade: Johnny Hodapp returned to Cincinnati as a director in the family funeral home, with his brothers. He passed away in 1979.
In 1945, three American Leaguers batted over .300 in qualifying for the batting title, two of them on the Chicago White Sox–who released both–Tony Cuccinello and John Dickshot–in anticipation of the return of the World War II veterans. Cuccinello, in 1941 the manager of the Giants’ Jersey City farm club, had joined the Braves for the 1942 campaign and, during his final stint with the White Sox, led the league in batting (“strictly from memory”) almost until the final day. His outright release came as a complete surprise for, as the UPI noted, “the old Cuccinello was better than the Cuccinello of old.” He remained in the New York area in 1946, playing semipro baseball and turning down other opportunities due to family concerns. He managed the Tampa Smokers in 1947, batting .067 in seven games. Soon after, he began a coaching and scouting career, notably with Al Lopez, which would last for decades.
“One of the great thrills of my life,” Ted Williams once observed, “was when I was 14 and discovered I could hit whatever my friend Wilbur Wiley threw.” Cap Anson would, no doubt, have smiled in agreement, remembering his mastery of the hurlers of another era. A selective survey of those major league regulars batting .300 in their final seasons, however, clearly underlines a fact of baseball life: for some players a strong season at the plate simply isn’t enough.
Addendum: SABR’s Jacob Pomrenke rightly notes, “Since this article was written, you can add to the list Kirby Puckett in 1995 and Will Clark in 2000. (Dave Nilsson misses qualifying by a lone plate appearance, but he hit over .300 in 1999.)
“Thanks, as always, to Baseball-Reference for the ability to search for such queries in a matter of seconds. And let’s never forget to appreciate the quality of Jim Smith’s original research–and others like him–at a time when Baseball-Reference and the like did NOT exist.”
Ron Ziffer added Kirby Puckett to this list. He hit .314 in 1995; illness forced him to leave the game.