We are players or spectators of other sports,
but citizens of baseball. Its Nielsen ratings
and attendance figures go up and down, but it remains
inextricably part of the American imagination.
Ted Williams began his autobiography by saying that when he was a kid, his only ambition was to have people say, as we walked down the street, “There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.” My own autobiography could start the same way. It would end differently, though.
In this I can confidently speak for millions of American males. Every little boy has his dreams of baseball glory from the first time he feels the delicious shock in the wrists of bat smashing ball and sees the ball rocket away into the outfield, faster and farther than he knew he could propel it. That’s enough to keep him going through the long summers when he’s picked last in the sandlot games, assigned to bat last, and ordered to play right field, where he gets yelled at by his teammates when he lets an easy grounder roll past him.
Not to play means missing out on the common experience of the male sex. And once you get into it, it’s easy to get absorbed. In Ypsilanti, Michigan, I spent long winters studying baseball statistics to while away the endless cold grey days until the snow melted. Then, around mid March, we started our new season in the park, or any empty field. At that time of year it didn’t feel good to connect. In the chill, hitting the ball stung your hands, and catching it hurt worse, so that you’d suck your breath through your chattering teeth. You tried to snag the ball in the webbing of your glove, even if you were a good fielder, because having it smack your palm was almost unbearable.
Our neighborhood games were played with no more than seven boys on a team: slow pitch, no catchers, no umpires. We’d lob pitches in so that everyone could hit and put the ball in play. Anyway, we were all afraid of fast pitching, though this fear was one of those things you didn’t confess, like wetting the bed or getting beaten up by your sister.
But we had to face fast pitching in Little League, which turned out to be the fatal hurdle on my way to Cooperstown. To stand in there unflinching at balls whizzing in at upwards of thirty miles an hour simply required steelier nerves than mine. One who possessed such nerves was my teammate Eric Johnson, a big boy with thick glasses who could hit a speeding bullet, but couldn’t catch a rolling beach ball. I can still see Eric staggering in center field, trying earnestly to get a fix on a lazy fly ball — it was a close game and the bases were loaded and oh Lord I knew what was coming. Only it was worse than I expected. The ball landed smack on the center of his skull. It was like an explosion: the ball, his cap, and his glasses blew apart simultaneously. As poor Eric groped for them all, in no special order, about seven runners streaked past me at third base.
The nonpareil of our league was Alan Bara, who at 12 had the poise and motion and narrow-eyed good looks of a big-leaguer. He already belonged on a baseball card. He’d take a perfect level cut into the ball, and it would rise on a line over the fence and just keep going. He also pitched, firing fastballs that would hit the catcher’s mill with a bang — the only pitches in the league that made a sound. Years later the local paper reported that he was hitting just over .200 in a medium-grade minor league. That gave me some inkling of what the competition in the majors must be like.
Fan Without a Country
My biggest treat was to go to Briggs Stadium, forty miles away, when the Yankees were in town. The best part wasn’t the game. It was watching Mickey Mantle take batting practice. Other players sometimes cleared the fences. Mantle would drive ball after ball deep into the upper deck, or even over the roof. Because of him I was a Yankees fan, defying kith and kin and local loyalties.
Baseball wasn’t just something we played and watched. It was something we lived. We were players, fans, historians, statisticians, philosophers, citizens of baseball. The game was the ground of our comradeship and the stuff of our meditations and the only future we could imagine for ourselves:
Lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day tomorrow as today
And to be boy eternal
My best friend, Terry Larson, was the same way I was, with two enviable advantages. He owned The Official Encyclopedia of Baseball. And his parents took the morning paper, which meant that Terry arrived at the school bus stop every sunny morning with the latest scores and other news. One cool, sunny May morning Terry announced that Harvey Haddix had pitched 12 perfect innings the night before, only to lose in the 13th. Good old Terry always knew something I didn’t. Or at least he knew it before I did, which gave him a certain edge, a momentary authority. We played catch, invented table games based on hitting and pitching stats, read John R. Tunis’ baseball novels, and laughed at the game’s great anecdotes. When our interest in baseball waned in adolescence, our friendship did too. We stayed on good terms, but we had less to talk about, no shared passion.
I quit playing and following baseball in the early Sixties, just when Roger Maris was hitting 61 home runs, Sandy Koufax was ripening into the greatest pitcher who ever lived, and the Yankees’ long dominance of the game was finally coming to an end.
When I started following it again, in 1966, I felt like a Japanese soldier who had spent several seasons alone on a desert island. Returning home, as it were, I was struck by what a large part of America’s daily life talking baseball is. A cheerful part, too. In the Detroit area it helped that the Tigers had a solid team in those days. In 1968, with Denny McClain winning 31 games, they got many of their victories in the late innings and won the World Series in wonderfully hair-raising fashion.
I needed baseball in 1968. It was gratifyingly sealed off from the real world, which was being dominated that season by Lyndon Johnson, Abbie Hoffman, and Ho Chi Minh. Baseball offered an experience that was public, but apolitical. So it has always been. A few years later, playing and just talking baseball became a chief connection with my own kids. For them, even in my twenties, I was the grizzled bard of the game, recounting the great archaic legends. Even now my twenty-year-old son Mike tells me the baseball news every morning, just like Terry used to do.
An Accessible Past
Baseball is inexhaustible. In loving it you are also loving many other things: summer, youth, skill, grace, camaraderie, courage, tradition, fair play, and whatever fragrances your own memory supplies. Baseball already has its history and mythology, but its statistical lore gives it a special dimension, making its whole past accessible. And arguable.
Are today’s players as good as the old ones? Much better, according to Bill Deane, a baseball historian. He figures that fewer than a third of 1901’s big-leaguers could make the majors today. The talent pool is bigger now: the male population has tripled, and you don’t have to be white to play. The players are notably taller. The very fact that the old heroes’ stats were more extreme than today’s suggests that the competition was less intense.
No pitcher today would be counseled, as the old ones were, to “save your best stuff” for crucial moments. Try to imagine a pitcher throwing forty or so complete games today, or an outfielder hauling Babe Ruth’s paunch. Rogers Hornsby might still win six straight batting crowns, but nobody thinks he’d sustain a five-year average of over .400 against today’s pitching (and relief pitching). It’s more likely that Wade Boggs would have hit .450 in the Twenties. A new and sophisticated form of statistical analysis called “sabermetrics” is resolving many of the old debates about such matters, though some factors — like the vast improvements in fielders’ gloves — elude reckoning.
One intangible though visible change is in players’ attitudes. Old-timers insist that their generation was simply more dedicated to the game. A sulker like Darryl Strawberry was inconceivable in those days. Beyond that, Williams recalls that in his time players used to study and discuss the techniques of hitting endlessly during off-days; now they don’t. DiMaggio has said similar things, more bemused than querulous. The frequency of the strikeout in modern baseball shows the declining premium placed on just making contact with the ball. Williams and DiMaggio both hit home runs nearly as often as they struck out. Last year’s home-run leaders, Fred McGriff and Kevin Mitchell, hit 36 and 47 homers but fanned 132 and 115 times.
Has big money taken the edge off the desire to excel? Maybe. Probably. But how much? Unanswerable. The highest salary now is around $4 million. Even adjusting for inflation that tops the $5,000 Ralph Kiner in 1946, when he led the National League in homers with 23. He also got $4,000 in 1947, when he hit 51, after the Pirates’ general manager had refused his request for a raise with airtight logic: “We finished last with you, we can finish last without you.” Mantle generated millions in profits for the Yankees when he won the Triple Crown in 1956, for which he was payed $32,500. When he went in to negotiate a raise, the general manager, George Weiss, pulled out a private detective’s detailed report on Mantle’s nightlife, remarking what a pity it would be if it fell into Mrs. Mantle’s hands. (And they complain about George Steinbrenner.)
It’s hard to begrudge the players their new prosperity. But there’s no question they are allowed to be more temperamental than formerly, thanks to free agency. This has got to be a joke. In 1976 the Tigers put 47-year-old Al Cicotte on their roster for four days, strictly as a favor (he needed four games to be eligible for a pension). He hadn’t pitched since 1962, and his circumference required a specially tailored uniform. When his pal Ralph Houk, the Tigers’ manager, jocosely assured local sportswriters that Cicotte probably wouldn’t be seeing much action, Cicotte roared: “Play me or trade me!”
When comparing the quality of today’s baseball with that of yesteryear’s, it’s important to bear in mind the St. Louis Browns. Through most of their existence, the Browns occupied a rung somewhere between seventh place and the Gulag Archipelago. But it’s an ill wind that blows no man good, and World War II, by draining baseball of most of its talent for three years, reshuffled the standings so thoroughly that in 1944 the Browns won their first and only pennant. (When a newly captured American pilot related this news to his fellow Americans in a German POW camp, they assumed he must be a German plant. He was ostracized and tormented until a subsequent captive confirmed his story.)
At least nobody argues that baseball was at its best during the war. The majors were filled with athletes who had been classified 4-F by their draft boards, and the Browns had the distinction of using a one-armed outfielder named Pete Gray. After the war, they once used a midget as a pinch-hitter — an inspiration of owner Bill Veeck, who himself had only one leg. Veeck tried to rebuild the team by replacing veterans with young players, but that effort came a cropper when, before one game with the Yankees, the Browns’ hard-bitten manager, Zack Taylor, found that several of his rookies were missing. He finally spotted them over in the Yankee dugout, seeking autographs. “Damndest thing I ever saw,” Taylor snorted.
After finishing last again in 1953, the Browns were sold and moved to Baltimore, leaving behind the most dismal peacetime record in baseball history. If they had existed during the Hundred Years War, they might have been formidable.
Anyway, when someone tries to tell you baseball was better in the old days, ask him if he’s including the St. Louis Browns. They Browns pitching staff alone helps explain why there used to be so many .400 hitters back then. If they put an asterisk beside Maris’ 61 home runs for having been hit over 162 games, they should put one beside DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak for having been compiled against the likes of Eldon Auker, who that year gave up 268 hits (and 85 walks) in a mere 216 innings, with a 5.50 ERA to boot.
Good Books, Lousy Movies
Baseball has inspired many good books and lousy movies. The latter include several recent hits: The Natural, Bull Durham, and Field of Dreams. They all have the same fault: they don’t respect baseball. They rely on the smirky, the maudlin, the miraculous to generate emotion. They try to force the audience to react, going for the guffaw or the lump in the throat without earning honest sentiment. In Bull Durham, the team slut displays her sophisticated awareness of quantum physics by repeatedly using the phrase “quantum physics.” She makes no mention of Heidegger or Derrida, from which you can safely infer that the scriptwriter has never heard of them, because he’s surely have stuck their names in too. It’s that sort of movie.
Not that a baseball movie has to display expert knowledge of the game in order to be good. Eight Men Out, a straightforward account of how the 1919 World Series was fixed, is an honorable failure (it’s just a little flat and unfocused). But a baseball drama has to find its power in the normal achievements and emotions of baseball itself, without impossible heroics or smutty farce. Winning a close game is dramatic enough to hold a crowd’s attention in a stadium, and ought to be able to do the same in a theater. Tunis’ boys’ books found plenty of tension in the typical situations of sport: conquering fear, coming back from an injury, putting the team ahead of yourself.
The baseball book of the season is George Will’s Men at Work, a study of what Will calls baseball’s “complexities and nuances,” formerly known as the fine points of the game. (If they kept stats on fancy words, “nuances” would be crowding “parameters” for first place in 1990.) Whatever you want to call them, Will writes about them with a fine eye for the telling statistic and a deep sense of what statistics don’t tell you. Like all the best baseball writing, the book assumes that baseball deserves intelligent attention and doesn’t need to be talked down to.
In his introductory and concluding pages, Will flags a little. He argues, for instance, that being an intelligent fan is “a form of appreciating that is good for the individual’s soul, and hence for society.” Feeble rationalization. Like any true baseball lover, Will wouldn’t care if baseball dissolved your moral fiber and got you arrested by the secret police. Baseball justifies itself, like music. It doesn’t have to be good for you, like a sermon, into the bargain.
Nevertheless, baseball does have its own kind of moral appeal. It’s free of the frequent ugliness of other team sports: the fights and fouls and pilings-on that are characteristic of football, basketball, and hockey, if not intrinsic to them. Bad-conduct penalties of any kind are exceptional in baseball. You (almost) never see a play in baseball cancelled by penalty — and even the (almost) is necessitated only by the notorious “pine-tar incident.” (Every fan remembers it.)
Baseball is a deeply orderly game. The distinctiveness of its component actions — pitching, hitting, fielding, and base-running — makes them available to separate attention, measurement, analysis, and judgment. Every player’s contribution to every play is recorded and given value. The statistics are rarely misleading. If you want to know who the American League’s best second baseman of the Thirties was, well, as Casey Stengel used to say, “You could look it up.” Try that with defensive linemen.
Other sports thrill; baseball also absorbs. It’s the most discussable game, and it’s the national pastime largely because we can talk about it so volubly long after we can play it. No other sport binds the generations the way baseball does.
Because it’s so thoroughly recorded, baseball has a genuine history. It also has a continuity that the other major sports don’t have. “The NFL keeps changing the most basic rules,” Thomas Boswell observes. “Most blocking now would have been illegal use of the hands in Jim Parker’s time. How do we compare eras when the sport never stays the same?” In fact, none of the other three sports is the same game it was as recently as the Fifties, for all sorts of reasons. Wilt Chamberlain’s season scoring records will never be broken, simply because nobody will ever play against as many white players as Chamberlain did. (If you want a sure-fire laugh, ask a basketball fan whether Michael Jordan is as great as George Mikan.)
The statistical discreteness of individual performance, set against the game’s stable history, gives achievement in baseball a permanence and stature other sports can seldom confer. And even racial integration hasn’t devalued the records; in fact, most fans — including experts — doubt Henry Aaron was a greater slugger than the man whose supreme record he broke. Lawrence Ritter reckons that with as many times at bat as Aaron, Ruth would have hit 1,064 home runs. Be that as it may, heroism in baseball is more perduring than in other American sports, and does much to account for the splendid literature baseball has produced. Nearly every fan has read John Updike’s description of Williams’ last game.
Old and Ever New
And of course baseball is always with us, 162 games a year. We get to know the players, unhidden by helmets and shoulder pads. Nobody calls it an “upset” when the worst team beats the best. Old as it is, baseball is forever making news. It just keeps rolling along, and even the Pete Rose scandal can’t pollute it.
Racial integration has worked better in baseball than in any other area of American life. The game has an unforced racial and ethnic balance. It succeeds because the rules are really impartial. Baseball is a refuge from “social justice.” What it offers instead is simple fairness. There are no “racist” balls and strikes, no “affirmative action” balls and strikes, only balls and strikes.
The umpires don’t care who deserves to win on moral, progressive, or demographic grounds. Their role is modest but crucial, and would be corrupted if they brought any supposed Higher Purpose to their work. They only care about the rules. The Supreme Court could learn from them.
The rules themselves are remarkably few. They’re designed only to facilitate performance, never to hinder it, beyond maintaining a certain equilibrium between offense and defense. In baseball we enjoy what we no longer find in politics: the Western genius for rule-making.
A large part of that genius lies in changing the rules as seldom as possible. Baseball is older than the income tax, but its rules can still be printed in a small pamphlet; the tax code runs to several thousand pages. If you’ve played baseball you can intuit most of the rules without reading them, and you don’t need a lawyer to explain them to you. They arise from the game’s internal logic and never seem to have been superimposed for alien or interested purposes.
In politics, men are elected to bend the rules in someone’s favor. It shouldn’t surprise us when they break them too. A key difference between baseball and democracy is that in baseball the winners don’t get to rewrite the rules. And it never occurs to the losers to blame the rules for their losses. Our deepest norms of order can still be seen in operation on the diamond when they’ve been adulterated everywhere else. Baseball is our Utopia — not in assuring us of the victories we dream of, but in guaranteeing ideal conditions even of defeat.
Originally published June 11, 1990 in National Review. Adapted from Joseph Sobran: The National Review Years.
Joseph Sobran (1946-2010) was a conservative columnist and editor at National Review.