- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Mark RozzoOne of the best Yankee books.
—(The New Yorker, 13 November 2000)
SAVING A NATION
Major-league baseball drew 70 million fans to ballparks during 1998. A cumulative audience a dozen times larger than that caught games on the radio or television. The desire to consume the national pastime has not waned in the face of nasty disputes between labor and management, escalating ticket prices and salaries, and decreasing fan contact with the players.
Observers from George Will to Ken Burns tout the game's moral qualities. According to the Bill Bennett school of national pastime celebrants, when we watch baseball, we don't see physically gifted young men testing their skills against similarly talented opponents. Instead, if we're blessed with a certain kind of insight, we see lessons about the rewards of dedication and good character unfold on the diamond. In his 1990 bestseller Men at Work, Will wrote, "For an athlete to fulfill his or her potential, particularly in a sport as demanding as baseball, a remarkable degree of mental and moral discipline is required."
The strain to correlate athletic excellence with moral superiority suggests an unexamined faith in Puritan beliefs powerful enough to bury concrete reality. Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, and Cal Ripken may be ballplayers and paragons of virtue, but the counterexamples to Will's mythology within Yankee history alone are many. Hal Chase, a brilliant gloveman when he wasn't corrupting his teammates, threw games. In his offseason job as a policeman, Jake Powell, an outfielder on the great teams led by Gehrig and DiMaggio, relished cracking black skulls. Babe Ruth, baseball's finest player, had appetites so large that his own teammates considered him an animal. Mickey Mantle, the greatest switch-hitter ever, was an alcoholic who ran around on his first wife. Billy Martin was a mean, racist drunk who held grudges and battled authority his whole life; he remains the team's greatest manager since Casey Stengel. If nobody on the 1998 Yankees cheated on their wives or girlfriends while they were on the road, it would have been the first time in franchise history.
Nice guys may not always finish last, as Leo Durocher, the original dark prince of managing, asserted. However, the converse propounded by baseball's ethics police, that first-place finishers are all nice guys, is no more accurate. In any case, the vast majority of baseball fans are not drawn by the moments when the game's narrative resembles that of a cheap movie-of the-week. Those Capraesque elements may heighten the drama or comfort those closet Puritans who fear their devotion to the game is decadent and wasteful, but they are hardly essential. Nevertheless, the endless pull of the mythology that surrounds the game ensures someone will soon publish The Book of Baseball Virtues. With any luck, Steinbrenner will be the author.
When Mayor Giuliani urged schoolchildren to skip school to attend the Yankee victory parade, he asserted that he learned more from baseball than he ever did in a classroom. Giuliani did not specify whether the national pastime taught him to bristle at criticism, bully opponents, trash the First Amendment, coddle self-centered billionaires, or all of the above. Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray notwithstanding, baseball evidently did not teach the mayor how to win with grace and lose with dignity. However, the game certainly helped him nurture the special kind of intelligence that believes tens of thousands of schoolkids ditched classes to go to the Yankee parade in search of moral guidance. What else could explain Giuliani making public financing of four baseball stadia (plans include hundreds of millions for a new park for the Mets to match the Yankees and tens of millions for minor-league parks in Brooklyn and Staten Island) a higher priority than repairing abysmal public school buildings throughout the city? Save the kids, build a pro team a ballpark.
The prudes overstate baseball's moral quality and healing powers because they misread the game's history. Baseball was not expected to lift us up; it was designed to satisfy our base physical nature. Baseball's early popularizers did not intend the game to be an analogue to its older cousin, England's cricket. One of cricket's central functions in English culture was delineating highminded forms of leisure for the elite. Baseball's appeal was meant to be wider. Albert Spalding, player, sporting goods manufacturer, and owner, proclaimed:
Baseball is a democratic game ... Base Ball is the American Game par excellence, because its playing demands Brain and Brawn, and American manhood supplies these ingredients in quantity sufficient to spread over the entire continent.... Cricket could never satisfy the red-hot blood of Young and Old America.
During baseball's early days before and after the Civil War, the game's players included recent immigrants from Ireland and Germany who took to the game even more fiercely than the descendants of England. Primarily Catholics, many of these young men toiled at physical labor for six days a week. The more successful WASPs could play baseball during the week if they wished. These established Americans freely gave up their entire Sabbaths to the church, while the new arrivals pushed for Sunday baseball. For those men, who loved a game that allowed them to display their prowess, it was Sunday afternoons or nothing.
As baseball's popularity grew among young men, the increase in the quality of play drew thousands of spectators. New York City hosted many of the best clubs in the game's early days, and, when players and managers realized spectators would pay to watch games, Union Grounds sprouted in Brooklyn right after the Civil War. The game's original stadium was enclosed to allow admission to be extracted from thousands of Brooklynites. The Brooklyn Atlantics, Union Grounds' home team, were the initial passion of a borough that would remain baseball-mad for a century.
The dimensions of that appeal come through in an account of an early game at Union Grounds, the championship match between the Philadelphia Athletics and the Brooklyn Atlantics. The following story appeared in the September 12, 1868, New York Clipper.
... The spacious ballfield was filled with admirers of the national game, and it was estimated that at least 15,000 persons were present. Every seat within the enclosure was filled by one o'clock and those who came later had to take their chances for good positions. As usual at all the grand matches on this ground, several thousands managed to witness the game without dispersing the required admittance fee.
And it was curious to note the devices resorted to by the outsiders to get a look at the contest. Owners of trucks and other vehicles ... stationed their establishments close to the high fence surrounding the ground and let out standing room only to those who preferred this method of looking on. Others secured the prominent peekholes in the fence while others, after the game was underway and the attention of the officers was centered in the exciting contest, boldly took up their positions on the fence and held them til the close.
Crowds came early, and late arrivals initiated a continuing tradition of sneaking into the park. The intense desire to see big games has existed for well over a century. That emotional current always involved the excitement of witnessing a defining event as it happens, and sports adds the thrill of the unknown, the narrative to be written. Neither of which necessarily involves any moral uplift. The uncertain narrative which fosters interest also creates the opportunity to bet on that which hasn't happened (and, presumably, isn't fixed). That particular base appeal goes back to the earliest games, as demonstrated in the Clipper:
... The result of the game is another illustration of the uncertainties of baseball. Before the commencement of the game and up to the sixth innings, the Atlantics were looked upon as sure winners. The betting was 100 to 40, and, even at these long odds, the Philadelphians were very shy. Considerable was invested on the game, however, one way and another ... 15 was laid against 100 that the Athletics would win by the odds of two to one, and these long-headed chaps were winners to a large amount.
The long line of betting on baseball that runs from today's online point spreads back through Pete Rose's banishment to the fixing of the 1919 World Series traces its way to the game's earliest days. Union Grounds set aside a special seating section for gamblers, enabling them to bet easily throughout the game. While football, pro and college, has replaced baseball as America's national sports lottery, at least a part of the game's current appeal involves a gambler's high. Unlike the crowds in 1868, most of today's action revolves around fantasy-league owners who bet on their ability to select more productive players than their fellow Mittys. The millions who spend months playing these games have found a cheap way to access the real American Dream. Why imagine you can play like Mike Piazza when you can instead fantasize about owning him?
The Wall Street Journal is, of course, the daily diary of that national fantasy of ownership, but even the masters of the universe indulge themselves occasionally with a politically loaded, wildly inaccurate glance at more frivolous pursuits. The editorial singing the praises of baseball as national moral elevator swings and misses twice. That many San Diegans were gracious in defeat is unrelated to baseball and instead reflects the cultural chasm between the two coasts. New Yorkers are not good losers. The last time New York lost a World Series, Steinbrenner demonstrated his limited notions of sportsmanship. The Boss embarrassed himself, his team, their opponent, and the game itself when he apologized to Yankee fans for the defeat instead of accepting it with dignity.
More significantly, the idea that baseball broke the color barrier "long before the government got into the act" is laughable. The reality of whites and blacks laying down their lives during World War II in the U.S. military (the government's largest employer) created the historical context for this progress. One of the arguments used in that era, "if he's good enough for the navy, he's good enough for the majors," illustrates this nexus. Some of the earliest protests of the incipient civil rights movement demanded the removal of baseball's color line. Beyond this cultural suasion, legal efforts to mandate integration were under way almost two years before Jackie Robinson donned a Brooklyn Dodger uniform. On July 1, 1945, the Ives/Quinn law forbidding discrimination in employment came into effect in New York. Soon thereafter, Mayor LaGuardia established a commission to explore baseball's color issue. The panel existed to pressure the game's owners to change their misguided stance. Two days after the panel's first meeting, Branch Rickey met with Jackie Robinson for the first time. The Wall Street Journal editorial deliberately glosses over this reality in an attempt to reify baseball's role as past and future exemplar of American moral exceptionalism. In the middle of the American Century, baseball's lords were hardly moral leaders and included some of Jim Crow's fiercest defenders.
Baseball isn't statistics; it's Joe DiMaggio rounding second base.
What draws fans to the game is rarely the riveting stimulation of having a financial interest at stake. It's not the illicit charge of sneaking into a ballpark, either. Neither is it the game's sanctimonious appeal nor its latent powers to heal a distressed nation. Baseball's true charm derives from statistics, stories, and performances. Basketball, football, and every other popular American spectator sport draw their appeal from the last two elements. Each has its legends and personal histories as well as the dance created when the game is played. Baseball alone works another magic on its devotees, hooking them with the music of numbers.
The quantitative appeal of baseball developed after Henry Chadwick, central in establishing more uniform rules for the sport in the 1860s, invented the batting average and the box score. Chadwick created the game's first key statistic and a condensed repository for vital data during an era categorized by Stephen Jay Gould as a period when "another trend, equally irresistible, swept through the human sciences—the allure of numbers, the faith that rigorous measurement could guarantee irrefutable precision." This period fostered numerous pseudosciences based on rigorous measurements. For example, craniometry, which asserted that differences in brain size correlated to difference in intelligence, flourished. White male craniometrists discovered that white males had the largest brains ... Eureka! Craniometry has been thoroughly discredited; batting averages have retained their authority.
More significantly, the box scores that contain those averages, along with a wealth of other information, have become ubiquitous and serve as an important gateway, especially for young boys, to a budding interest in numbers. The gender difference in performance in mathematics is likely reinforced by baseball. By the age of four, I was scanning the box scores and calculating updated batting averages and ERAs in my head. This would be one piece of evidence to my parents that I should be placed in gifted math programs. Even though I was more proficient at other sports, I got hooked on baseball as a fan because I was a numbers junkie.
No other sport has this kind of appeal. Everyone knows the Babe hit 714 home runs during his career and 60 in his best year. They also know that DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games and that Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive contests. No similarly magic numbers attach to elite performers in other major sports like Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, or Wayne Gretzky.
I can randomly select Americans who don't even care about sports, ask them who owns the single-season record for home runs, and they'll know. Not only will they know McGwire's name, they'll know how many he hit and who finished second. They'll also know whose record McGwire broke and who held the record before the taciturn right fielder from Fargo.
If Chadwick was baseball's statistical pioneer, present-day author Bill James is responsible for the renaissance of the national pastime's numerologists. James, a revolutionary thinker, refused to accept the myths the game had developed over a century. Managers that make safe decisions are said to have gone "by the book," although no written testament, new or old, exists. Frustrated with conventional wisdom about baseball that went unchallenged in the dominant discourse by baseball insiders and a pliant media, James used statistical analysis as a tool to expose poor decision making or players with unrecognized value. The term he coined to describe his work, "sabermetrician," was a tribute to the Society of American Baseball Researchers (SABR), an organization of formal and informal historians devoted to detailed analysis of the national pastime.
SABR's members are among the sport's superfans. Instead of barhopping like neighboring diehards in the stands, they haunt libraries between games. SABR's membership is overwhelmingly Caucasian and male, with a high percentage Catholic, too. The impact of SABR, whose members have authored hundreds of books, is so diffuse that it is difficult to characterize. The articles in SABR's Baseball Research Journal often reexamine, if not reclaim, long-lost baseball history, however, many of its members' publications have been an effort to create a new sense of order (perhaps an innately Catholic enterprise) out of quantitative analysis. While James has spent his career seeking untested myths to smash, some of his peers seem stuck in rigid examinations of minute questions that deny the human narrative suggested by the numbers. Almost every week a member of SABR publishes his precise ranking of the greatest players of all time based on a new formula he invented that is more accurate than any seen before. Statistical analyses of the debate over the merits of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams seem about as likely to resolve that dispute as a calculator estimating how many angels there are on the head of a pin.
Many of James's baseball books have become bestsellers. Unfortunately, the mass media absorbed James's success as testimony to an unquenchable American thirst for data. Newspapers, sports weeklies, game telecasts, and even highlight shows have evolved into a delivery system for a blizzard of numerical junk. If you need to know how David Cone pitches on Tuesdays in May when the temperature dips below fifty degrees, there is undoubtedly a quant out there willing to sate your interest. This authoritative presentation of hundreds of pieces of data in the daily sports pages, journalism's zone of male escape, suggests a nation of clandestine accountants.
Baseball's obsession with magic numbers like "most home runs in a season" reflects an American yearning for simple quantitative explanations. The evening news compresses the complex reality of the economy into a ritualized recital of the wanderings of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Certain cable channels keep the Dow on screen perpetually so millions of spectator-speculators never miss a moment of the national keno game. No matter that the chasm between Main Street and Wall Street remains huge and the Dow offers an incredibly imprecise window even on the limited landscape of equity investment. We want our Dow, and we want it now.
Numerology reaches its apex in the never-ending national survey. The powerfully mediated belief that polls offer an accurate snapshot of what we the people want (whether for breakfast or for president) persists in the face of present-day errors. None of the predictions by pollsters before the 1998 midterm elections were even close, the litany of postelection excuses was unconvincing, yet no media giant chose to cast aside their resident Nostradamus. Numbers generated by the wizards offer an illusion of concrete evidence too powerful to abandon.
Concurrently, America's statisticity has certified structural social advantages. Our key myth of America as a land of equal opportunity, a classless meritocracy with the possibility of upward mobility, underlies sport's unconscious appeal. The level playing field native to our spectator sports resides in our collective imagination waiting to be confirmed by quantitative tests that measure the citizenry. In a nation where economic outcome is determined less by breeding than by educational background (although, of course, legacy greatly impacts school choice), IQs, SAT scores, and the like determine our place in the national education lottery from preschool to grad school. That scores can be improved through costly preparation shows tests measure not aptitude alone but also temporal and economic resources. Nevertheless, these biased social filters retain great authority and an aura of objectivity because they can be reduced to numbers.
It can hardly be news that boys marshaling statistical evidence in arguments about whether Tony Gwynn (with his higher batting average) is a better hitter than Mark McGwire (with his many home runs) are quick to reduce intelligence to a single measure. What's shocking is that adults are rewarded for doing the same thing. The most noxious recent example of the deep roots of American faith in numerology had to be the overwhelming influence of The Bell Curve. Because authors Murray and Herrnstein cloaked their racist assumptions and necessarily racist findings (to wit, IQs accurately measure intelligence, whites have higher IQs and thus are smarter than blacks, IQs are immutable and, therefore, public money used to educate those in the inner cities is being wasted) in a quantitative framework, they avoided much criticism. The pair were accepted in the mainstream as scientists objectively revealing the flaws in misguided if kindhearted public policy. The authors' expansive use of mathematics to legitimize their argument intimidated many of those under attack. While the vast majority of The Bell Curve's readers did not understand how the authors massaged their data, the intended audience surely appreciated the brute force of the numbers. The figures were not just evidence—they were the truth itself. The gospel of American numerology would be far less dominant without the reassuring drumbeat of baseball's box scores.
Baseball's numerological appeal should not be seen as distinct from the game's other sources of allure. What makes 56, the number of games Joe DiMaggio hit in consecutively, instantly recognizable for fans has nothing to do with qualities inherent to the number itself, such as its divisibility by seven. The number's familiarity emanates from the prodigious lore surrounding the Yankee Clipper, the images of Joltin' Joe's on-field exploits in the memories of those who saw him play and those who discover him anew on videotape, and the story of the streak itself: the close calls, the national interest, the media frenzy, and the pressure DiMaggio felt. Barely subterranean, 56 reemerges every time a current hitter gets a streak into the mid-twenties.
The game's narrative appeal works on connoisseurs and diehards alike. It's not enough for a good fan to watch Orlando Hernandez pitch and marvel at his wondrous delivery with its visual echoes of former Latin American aces Luis Tiant and Juan Marichal. The spectator must also know the legend of Hernandez's path to America (escape from Cuba by raft in shark-infested waters), his nickname (El Duque), his famous relative (half-brother Livan was 1997 World Series MVP for the Florida Marlins and became a local hero in anti-Castro Miami), his pain (the family, including young children, he left behind), his joy (in a city with countless temptations, El Duque openly embraced his new wealth and fame), his uncertain age (pegged at somewhere between twenty-eight and thirty-four, this very lack of quantitative certitude—where were the guy's career stats?—suggested a condescension toward foreign irrationality, a Cuba so backward that it couldn't even maintain accurate birth records or box scores), and his lucky break (David Cone was bitten by his mother's dog, allowing the Yankees a glimpse of El Duque in the majors). In the end, El Duque's narrative perfectly fit the archetypal American journey from rags to riches. After New York celebrated the World Series victory with a parade for all the Yankees, two New Jersey cities directly across the river from Manhattan in Hudson County (home to more Cuban Americans than anywhere in the U.S. besides Miami) threw their own party for El Duque, icon for thousands of recent immigrants.
Much of El Duque's story was compressed, ignored, or reworked to better reflect myths with broad cultural currency. If El Duque's constructed narrative shows a little wear under closer examination, not so his artistry afield. No Yankee pitcher has ever been this much fun to watch. The sharp turn, the impossibly high kick (rumor has it he can wrap his leg behind his head), shocking, too, in its speed, and, then, the loose arm flying through a half-dozen release points from eight o'clock to midnight. All this emanating from the taut body of an uncommonly handsome man with an otherworldly sense of composure. The Duke is surely not one of us, baseball's fans, nor even one of them, his average major-league peers. He is an icon of male grace and dignity like Joe DiMaggio, Ken Griffey, Jr., or similarly blessed teammate Derek Jeter. He is baseball royalty.
Some may prefer David Wells's scruffy, soft-bellied, open-shirted, Everyman mess. In a thicket of unattainable idols like McGwire, Sosa, and Clemens, Wells's presence allows us to imagine we could still play in the big leagues. Until Boomer starts his pitching motion, he is Pigpen, an ugly cacophony of images and sounds trailing behind him. Then, in an instant, the whole coalesces into a model of precision and beauty unimaginable from the pieces present at any other time the big guy is breathing. Even as the game's players become more distant thanks to steroid-pumped bodies and carefully tailored public utterances, Wells remains one of us.
If the quantitative and narrative appeals of the game serve to certify our depth as spectators, to confirm our adulthood, then the performative appeal reconnects us with a childlike state of wonder. What's more breathtaking than watching Derek Jeter glide three steps to his right and climb a few rungs up an invisible ladder while twisting to fire a ball to a glove sixty yards distant at eighty miles an hour? Or more wondrous than seeing Darryl Strawberry flick his long arms at a low fastball and turn it around even faster than it arrived on a tremendous arc into the upper deck? Witnesses reduced to simple awe, we respond with wild celebration.
When the game reaches its apex, as it did in the bottom of the seventh inning of game one of the 1998 World Series, these three trains—statistics, narrative, performance—run simultaneously. During a brilliant playoff run, the Yankees nevertheless produced two possible goats to blame if things turned sour. Chuck Knoblauch became Public Enemy Number One in New York City when he suffered a brain cramp while covering first base after a bunt during the top of the twelfth inning of the second game of the Cleveland series. The first-base umpire called the Indian batter running inside the baseline safe after he was hit by Tino Martinez's throw. Instead of picking up the ball and making sure the runners didn't advance, Knoblauch argued the call for ten seconds, long enough for a runner to score. During his next at-bat in the bottom of the same inning, 50,000 Yankee fans greeted him with a chorus of boos. After the game, Knoblauch refused to admit he'd done anything wrong. The New York tabloids destroyed him, and the second baseman held a press conference a day later to admit his mistake and quiet the media feeding frenzy. Even after the Yankees beat the Indians (with Knoblauch playing well for the rest of the series), he remained under the microscope.
Knoblauch, a leadoff hitter whose compact, wide frame suggests performance-enhancing drugs, had set a personal record for home runs during 1998 while getting on base far less than his new team expected. Torre complained uncharacteristically about Knoblauch's affection for his newfound uppercut swing, and Knoblauch was seen as a disappointment during a flawless season. During game one of the World Series, the Yankees trailed by three runs entering the bottom of the seventh inning. Concerned fans wondered if their team could recover from another playoff home loss. Suddenly the Yankees had two men on base, and Padre manager Bruce Bochy pulled his ace Kevin Brown, with Knoblauch at the plate. Brown's replacement, Donnie Wall, missed high with two fastballs to the second baseman. Wall's next pitch, a half-foot lower, encountered Knoblauch's most pronounced low-to-high stroke, a swing that would have enraged Torre earlier in the year.
The ball soared into the New York night as Padre left fielder Greg Vaughn drifted back to the wall, waiting to time his jump to steal the ball out of the first row of seats. The ball hung in the air long enough to allow fans to wonder whether Knoblauch had wiped the slate clean. As the ball continued to hover, some even recalled the twelve-year-old who'd reached out from the first row of the opposite corner to turn a warning-track out into a crucial home run two years ago during the Orioles' series. Security and a new railing in the right-field stands prevented similar shenanigans over there, but in the left-field corner, no restraints had been put in place. Steinbrenner would not give up any advantage, no matter how unfair, unless forced into it. Would another fan win one for the Yankees? As the ball finally descended, Vaughn leapt and propelled his massive frame almost into the first row. The ball landed a half-dozen feet beyond his reach, the stadium erupted, and the dugout emptied to embrace a teammate whose sentence had been commuted.
Four batters after the three-run home run, brother goat Tino Martinez stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded and two out. First baseman Martinez was never punished like his infield partner for a lousy throw on the controversial play. But he was subjected to intense scrutiny after his abysmal batting performance in the playoffs continued a trend of poor postseason play for the Yankees. Reporters openly questioned Torre's loyalty in keeping Tino in the lineup, and team insiders spread rumors that the team would try to acquire slugging Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn in the offseason even though Martinez was under contract.
Tino's burdens were complicated by the presence of a new Padre hurler on the mound, Mark Langston, his old foe in the Angel-Mariner rivalry. With a two-and-two count, Martinez watched a low fastball cut the plate in two. Strikeout looking, game tied into the top of the eighth, right? No, home-plate umpire Rich Garcia, who'd had a big strike zone all night, squeezed Langston and called the pitch a ball. Angry at Tino's reprieve and afraid of walking in the go-ahead run, Langston served up a batting-pitch fastball in the heart of the plate. Tino unleashed his short, quick swing and sent the ball into the top deck of the right-field stands before you could blink. A different moment than Knoblauch's, without an instant's reflection, it cemented the U-turn in the contest's narrative. Tino too had been released, and the party was on. Fifty-seven thousand stood as one. The Stadium has never been louder. Seven innings in, the 1998 World Series was effectively over.
Baseball's three-fold appeal is made possible by its temporal fluidity. The dead spaces between pitches allow broadcasters to spew numbers and fans time to reflect on the common stories about the actors in the on-field drama. Sometimes, even when the ball is in play, the pace of the action shifts from real time to that of a novel, slow enough to allow the sweet interplay of memory with the present motion. Lifelong fans recognize in those moments a quality they don't find in other sports. Events infused with immense complexity yet instantly readable, like Knoblauch's moon shot, reward their interest.