Learning To Like Baseball

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A gaudy ribbon of chauvinism runs through baseball history too. A. G. Spalding was so determined to prove the game a uniquely American creation and not the descendant of the British schoolyard game of rounders it clearly was that he paid for a pliable commission in 1905 that declared baseball the brainchild of Abner Doubleday, a Civil War soldier from Cooperstown, New York, conveniently dead, who may never even have seen a game.

And after Pearl Harbor The Sporting News suggested that America “withdraw from Japan the gift of baseball which we made to that misguided and ill-begotten country. . . . No nation which has had as intimate contact with baseball as the Japanese could have committed the vicious, infamous deed of the early morning of December 7, 1941, if the spirit of the game had penetrated their yellow hides.”

STILL, THE GAME HAS SOMETIMES taught tolerance as well, and for all its resistance to change, at least once it has helped shape the nation’s attitudes rather than merely mirror them. Jackie Robinson’s lonely 1947 struggle to succeed as the first black major leaguer in more than six decades was greeted by bigotry so vicious and so relentless from players and fans and sportswriters alike that it is difficult even now to read or write about. Surely few Americans have ever suffered abuse with more grace and courage than Jackie Robinson did. Had he failed either to perform spectacularly on the ball field or to keep tightly reined the temper that went with his competitive spirit, the integration of baseball might easily have been delayed another decade. Everything depended, as Ted Williams says onscreen in our series, on Robinson’s having “tons and tons of guts.”

But it is also true that, however reluctantly, baseball began to integrate long before the rest of America had begun seriously to consider doing so. It would be seven years before Brown v. Board of Education settled the question of whether separate could ever really be equal and eighteen years before Congress enacted meaningful legislation to protect the right of black citizens to vote.

I SUPPOSE IT’S TRUE THAT IF YOU READ enough about any subject over time, historical patterns will begin to emerge, but one of the genuine pleasures for me in writing about baseball was discovering the number of precedents there seem to be for the concerns that currently consume our sports pages. Worried that too many hits are traveling too far? So were people in 1920, when Babe Ruth hit fifty-four home runs, more than all but one other entire team managed that same year. Concerned that big salaries will ruin the game? So were some fans —and almost all owners—as early as the 1870s. Yet despite their stunning size, salaries still constitute roughly the same fraction of a franchise’s overall expenses they always have—30 percent. Fearful that rowdy behavior will fatally tarnish the game? So was The New York Times in the 1880s, when it dismissed all baseball players as “worthless, dissipated gladiators; not much above the professional pugilist in morality and respectability [and who spend their off-season time] in those quiet retreats connected with bars, and rat pits, where sporting men of the metropolis meet for social improvement and unpremeditated pugilism.”

Memorable history usually boils down to biography, and my initial worry that the game’s past was simply too complicated for me ever to make much sense of was compounded by a concern that baseball players, for all their skills, would somehow not prove interesting enough as human beings to sustain my interest, let alone that of readers or television viewers.

I was wrong about that too. A little bromidic wisdom of the sort dispensed by, say, Honus Wagner—“There ain’t much to being a ballplayer—if you’re a ballplayer”—does go a very long way, and some stars remained stubbornly one-dimensional. When coupled with unrelenting virtue, even supreme talent makes for pallid copy, and however heroic they were on the diamond, paragons like Christy Mathewson and Stan Musial remain flat on page and screen alike.

 

But if it’s flawed, compelling heroes you’re after, look no further than the Hall of Fame. Some of baseball’s finest had the sorts of turbulent childhoods any psychobiographer would give his dissertation for. John McGraw, famous for his willingness to take on with his fists anyone of any size, turns out to have run away from home at twelve after his mother and four siblings had died of diphtheria, because he feared his grief-maddened father would beat him to death. Babe Ruth, largely ignored by his parents after they had signed him into a reformatory as “incorrigible” at the age of ten, spent most of his adult life reveling in the attention of an entire country. Ted Williams’s strange hostility to crowds that both fascinated and repelled Boston fans for two decades seems to have dated back to his boyhood, when he had to endure sidewalk lookers-on jeering at his erratic, neglectful mother as she blew her cornet, passed her tambourine, and shrieked about salvation on the streets of San Diego.