A Notice/Warning. When I first caught the writing bug about eight years ago, long before this blog site existed, I wrote a lot of pieces about baseball and circulated them by e-mail to a growing list of baseball-fan friends, many of them fellow musicians. All in all, I wrote over 100 of these and kept them archived in a file on a computer at home. I’ve decided to revisit some of the better ones, make some changes and edits and post some of them here occasionally, mostly to have them somewhere public. This will also allow me to post things to keep the site going, while I toil away on some longer music pieces. A much busier work schedule and other distractions have slowed down my writing considerably, as some may have noticed.
Those way-back readers who have already seen these baseball essays may want to re-read them as there will be substantive changes and, hopefully, improvements made. For those who don’t like or care about baseball, my apologies, simply delete them when they’re posted. There’s no law that says you have to read them. However, as baseball reflects many things beyond itself, some of you may find them interesting and get something out of reading these pieces. I hope so, anyway. Here’s the first in a semi-regular series:
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At the very core of baseball’s evolution is the age-old confrontation between pitcher and hitter. This can be seen in the micro-view of one at-bat or a series of at-bats in a single game, or in the macro-view of broad hitting and pitching trends over many years. There have been periods when pitching/defense have dominated the game – such as 1900-20, and 1960-70 – and periods where hitting/offense held sway, such as 1921-35, or 1995-2010. Given that batters hit alone against nine defenders, and that a 30% success rate – a .300 batting average – is still the standard of excellence, it’s obvious that the pitching and defense side of the game have tended to dominate.
Held unchecked, pitching and defense would naturally assert themselves almost to the point of strangling offense out of the game entirely. This pretty much happened in 1968, dubbed the “Year of the Pitcher.” Bob Gibson finished with an ERA of 1.12, Denny McLain became the first 30-game-winner in two decades, Don Drysdale threw 58 and 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings, and Carl Yastrzemski won the American League batting title with an all-time low average of .301. This just didn’t happen out of the blue, it represented the sudden culmination of a process in which pitching reasserted itself over many years, beginning in the late-forties. As the home run became the key offensive weapon in the fifties and other aspects of scoring went to sleep, hitters began swinging for the fences and striking out much more often. To combat this homer binge, relief pitching developed, the slider and other new pitches were introduced, and a whole generation of power pitchers came into the game – Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Jim Maloney, Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax, Gibson, Juan Marichal, Drysdale, et al. By the early 1960s, hitters found themselves over-matched.
Whenever Major League Baseball has faced a major crisis, often one created by the mismanagement of the greedy, short-sighted idiots who have run it, hitting has gone off the charts. These conveniently-timed explosions of offense have had the effect of drawing fans – who had been holding their noses – back to the game, saving it in the nick of time. This is perhaps not surprising, because Americans love relentless action and scoring in their sports, which is why the NBA and NFL have been so successful and soccer has been largely a bust in the U.S. Baseball has always had a difficult balancing act in creating enough action to sustain interest from fans increasingly accustomed to instant gratification, while also striving to maintain its innate subtlety and stately pace.
Baseball faced its first really serious crisis in 1920, when the so-called Black Sox affair exploded into a full-blown scandal. But the throwing of the 1919 World Series by eight members of the Chicago White Sox wasn’t just a bolt out of the blue, it was the bursting of an ugly game-fixing boil that had festered in baseball for at least fifteen years. Starting around 1905, there had been many suspected instances of players “laying down” for a quick payoff, with first baseman Hal Chase as the Professor Moriarty at the center of most of it. It’s easy enough to find the players solely culpable in all of this, and I certainly don’t find their corruptibility excusable. It was the owners, however, who created the economic environment which fostered all this. They held all of the fiscal power in the game, and abused it by severely mistreating and underpaying the players, who, after all, were the ones attracting paying customers. The disenfranchisement of ballplayers by the owners (of whom White Sox owner Charles Comiskey was the most notorious) invited the gambling problem, which was exacerbated when they largely turned a blind eye to it. After all, business was booming, so who cared about a ballplayer throwing the odd game once in a while? A team throwing an entire World Series, however, was another matter entirely. It rocked a nation, and when the scandal blew open in early 1920, the corruption problem could no longer be denied or ignored.
Forced to conclude they could no longer govern themselves or the game, the team owners decided to create the office of The Commissioner of Baseball, eventually settling on Judge Kenesaw Mountatin Landis to fill the position. He was a tough, shrewd character from Kentucky who loved to drink bourbon, play golf, curse and smoke cigars. He had a Mount Rushmore face, a regal bearing, the voice of God, and an iron-clad set of principles. Unfortunately, one of these principles was a Southern-bred adherence to racial segregation, but that’s a story for another day. More to the point here is that Landis could not abide the mixture of gambling and sports. In accepting the office, Landis drove a hard bargain, insisting on a hefty salary, a lifetime contract, and absolute power in overseeing the game. The owners, thoroughly cowed, had no choice but to accede. He set about cleaning up baseball, banishing for life not just the White Sox eight, but fourteen others who had been found guilty of game-fixing and other shady doings. Though none of the White Sox eight was ever convicted of any wrongdoing in a court of law, Landis made it clear that baseball had its own law, one that held to a higher standard. He also made it clear to the owners that he regarded them as a cabal of spoiled, greedy and incompetent fatheads who had nearly ruined the game, and that he would never be their lackey.
As if it needed more problems, baseball suffered another black eye in 1920 when one of its best and most popular players, Cleveland Indians’ shortstop Ray Chapman, was killed by a pitch from Yankee spitballer Carl Mays. The ball came in and struck Chapman, who didn’t budge an inch, right between the eyes with a sickening impact, and he was dead before he hit the ground. The shock waves from this tragedy were profound, but once again it was a disaster waiting to happen, born of more cheapo stupidity on the part of baseball’s masters. Forever cutting corners, baseball had for years maintained a policy of keeping the same game ball in play as long as possible, resulting in balls that were discoloured to a dingy grayish-brown and deadened to the point of mushiness. This was worsened by the fact that loading up the baseball with spit or tobacco juice, or defacing it with sandpaper or a belt buckle, were perfectly legal. The reason Chapman didn’t move to avoid Mays’ pitch was he literally didn’t see it coming. Again acting late and only when absolutely necessary, baseball made two changes to remedy this. They pledged to keep a regular supply of fresh, clean baseballs in play, and banned the spitball and other doctored pitches. Showing remarkable sense, they factored in a grandfather clause for pitchers like Mays, Burleigh Grimes and a few others to whom the spitball was their bread and butter.
While all this horrific drama was brewing, Babe Ruth had burst on to the scene with an impact we can only imagine, even in this day of mega-hype and media saturation. Think Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady and Tiger Woods all rolled into one, but with infinitely more colour and personality, and you might have some idea. In 1919, having switched from pitching to playing everyday in the outfield, Ruth hit the then-unthinkable total of 29 home runs. In 1920 he was sold by Boston to the Yankees and, playing in the home run-friendly Polo Grounds while Yankee Stadium was being built, he proceeded to hit the fantastic total of 54. Given the pile of its own excrement baseball was choking on, it’s little wonder that eyes turned to Ruth as a savior who could wash the bad taste from baseball fans’ mouths and draw them back to ballparks like moths to a flame.
The clean, fresh baseballs were easier to see and carried farther because they weren’t so deadened from overuse, which served to amplify the sensational exploits of The Bambino. It’s been speculated that the change to the new baseballs had more to do with promoting Ruth’s slugging than with preventing further deaths like Chapman’s. Either way, it had a salutary effect on the game. I’m not suggesting baseball’s owners invented Ruth – they couldn’t have, even if they’d been smart enough to do so, which they weren’t. But they certainly knew enough to take advantage of his sensational talents in order to save the game. It’s no accident that Yankee Stadium was designed for a left-handed home run hitter like Ruth. It was called “the house that Ruth built”, but in reality it was just as much the house built for Ruth.
As so often happens with trail-blazers like Louis Armstrong or Roger Bannister, once Ruth opened the door and showed that the impossible was possible, it didn’t take long for many to follow his lead. As Ruth’s home run totals climbed to 59 and 60, a whole new generation of sluggers was born and they began hitting 40 to 50 homers or more a year – Lou Gehrig, Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Hack Wilson, Rogers Hornsby, Chuck Klein, Hank Greenberg and many others. The lively ball era was in full swing, so to speak, and offensive totals soared across the board – not just home runs, but batting averages, doubles, RBI, runs. This reached a peak in 1930, which could be called the “Year of the Hitter.” Bill Terry hit .401. Hack Wilson hit 56 home runs and set an RBI record with 190. Chuck Klein hit 59 doubles. Four hitters (Klein, Gehrig, Wilson and Babe Herman) each had over 400 total bases. Five others (Ruth, Al Simmons, Klein, Kiki Cuyler and Woody English) each scored 150 or more runs. And on and on. This blitzkrieg of offense brought fans back to baseball in droves, at least until the Depression settled in. Many have portrayed the hitters of this period as superhuman, the best ever to play the game, etc. But, apart from Ruth, who really was superhuman, they were simply very good hitters suddenly adapting to conditions which allowed them to flourish: no more trick pitches, livelier, easier-to-see baseballs and Babe’s new toy, the uppercut swing. Baseball had been pulled from the brink of ruin and had changed, utterly and forever.
Baseball’s next big crisis centered around labour relations and arose from a prolonged process ultimately leading to free agency, which threw the game’s old economic order into sudden turmoil. Salaries jumped tenfold overnight, and player movement exploded. The owners bemoaned the new system, while falling all over themselves trying to outbid each other for players’ services.
However, having utterly had their way with the players for nearly a century, the owners were not about to take all of this lying down. Baseball endured a protracted series of labour conflicts, spiraling salaries and other black eyes which served to undermine the game and our faith in it. There was the 1981 strike which wiped out about 40 games, followed closely by the cocaine abuse scandal. The sad unraveling and banishment of Pete Rose, which led directly to the shockingly premature death of Commissioner Bart Giamatti in the horrible year of 1989, capped off by the Bay Area earthquake World Series. Then came the whole collusion fiasco, another brainy stratagem by baseball’s overlords. All of this culminated in the unthinkable: the strike/lockout of 1994, wiping out an entire baseball season. As crises go, it doesn’t get much worse than this, hopefully. All of this dismal business left baseball’s fan base feeling angry, bitter, disillusioned and alienated. Now both the owners and the players were behaving like greedy villains, and they had ripped away our game and torn out our hearts in the process.
When baseball returned in 1995, it did its best to win back the fans. Attractive new retro-style, baseball-only parks with grass fields were built, a vast improvement on the ugly Astroturf monoliths of the 1970s. Players made nice with the fans, routinely tossing balls into the crowd after recording outs. The Yankees (yet again) and the Atlanta Braves became crowd-pleasing dynasties. The three-division, wild-card system was introduced, creating more play-off games and October excitement. Inter-league play was adopted and also heightened interest. M.L.B.’s public relations machine went into overdrive, instituting a series of do-goody public service and charity initiatives, with advertisements playing up the game’s connection to American tradition and values, whatever that meant. New expansion teams like the Marlins and D-Backs enjoyed sudden success, while hope and excellence returned to Cleveland, known for years as “the mistake by the lake.” The Angels finally won a championship in 2002, while the Red Sox and White Sox exorcised longstanding demons with thrilling Series wins in 2004 and 2005, respectively.
Mostly what happened though, was a hitting explosion reminiscent of the 1920s. Starting around 1996 and gathering steam into 2003, balls began just flying out of parks at a stunning, whiplash-inducing rate. Mark McGwire, now playing with the Cardinals and suddenly resembling the mascot of the “Big Boy” fast food chain, hit 52, 59, 70, and 65 homers from 1996 to 1999. Just to keep him company and provide the spur of competition, McGwire’s ever-smiling and cuddly sidekick Sammy Sosa hit 66, 63, 50 and 64 bombs between 1998 and 2001. Wow, I thought to myself, I’d never realized just how weak pitching had become in the N.L. In 1998, when they each broke Roger Maris’s 1961 mark of 61 home runs, organized baseball and the sports media played it like the huge, warm-and-fuzzy flag-waving moment it was, and we all basked in the glory. Our game and our boys were back, and baseball had redeemed itself. Hallelujah! God Bless America! We all bought it and delighted in it, because we badly wanted and needed to believe in the game again, to have the thrill of it wash over us and reclaim us, to heal our psychic wounds. We needed heroes, but it all began to smell a bit off a few years later when Barry Bonds, looking like the Michelin Man in blackface, hit 73 home runs and Roger Clemens, after a mid-career slide, suddenly turned into Bob Feller, c. 1939.
Of course, we all know now that designer chemicals and syringes were seriously in play, and that these records are tainted to some extent. 1998 could be known as the “Year of the Junkie.” Nobody can prove that baseball’s leadership was complicit in this, that they actually engineered or encouraged steroid use, or even knew about it at first. (Although let’s face it, as they have demonstrated in the past, the lords of the diamond are fully capable of this.) I do think insiders had to know something was up well before the PED whistles began blowing but kept mum about it, desperately trying to delay another inevitable black eye for the game. Better this should come out in a slow trickle, well after we were all hooked again thanks to homer madness. None of this has had as deleterious an effect on fan morale as might have been expected, owing to the fact that we’ve become desensitized to widespread steroid cheating in other sports. It’s just a reality of modern competitive athletics, so why would baseball be any different? Besides, none of the substances were illegal, let alone proscribed within baseball itself.
The odd thing is, with a drug-testing policy having been adopted and steroid use ostensibly under control, offensive totals continued to remain at historic highs for a while. True, we weren’t seeing freak-show numbers like 73 homers anymore, but the game still seemed tilted toward the hitters. This lead to a belief that other factors were also behind the latest game-saving hitting explosion. Among these were: the many new smaller:and hitter-friendly ballparks, thinner-handled bats, the use of metal bats in college and minor-league baseball (which actually benefited hitters once they converted to wooden bats), rule changes restricting pitching inside, a greater awareness of walks as an offensive strategy, and a dilution of pitching brought on by expansion.
All of these factors combined to make it a hitter’s game there for quite a while, but there are signs that this has normalized. Pitching seems to have reasserted itself and come back in quality, especially the last few years. We may be entering a golden age of balance and diversity in the game where great hitting and pitching co-exist, which would be nice for a change. Recent seasons have certainly demonstrated this, with a lot of good young pitching talent entering the game. Baseball scores reflect this too, as on a nightly basis we see a wide mixture of shutouts and low-scoring games, along with some slugfests and one-sided blowouts. Baseball has started to resemble its old self again, instead of the “tee-ball for adults” it became there for a while. I, for one, say amen to that.
If the history of baseball shows us anything, it’s that those in charge of the game will do anything to maintain the status quo and resist change, until implacable forces make it untenable to do so any longer. It took a tainted World Series to force baseball to address its gambling problem and the death of Ray Chapman to bring proper baseballs into the game. Many major factors contributed to the breaking of baseball’s colour line in 1947 – among them, the retirement of Commissioner Landis, World War Two, the vision of executive Branch Rickey and a player with the moral courage of Jackie Robinson – but even so, it wasn’t easy, it was never a sure thing. It took Marvin Miller, the formation of a players’ union and twenty years to effect free agency. Twenty years after that, it took the loss of a whole season to convince baseball to settle its labour unrest once and for all. And the use of PEDs wasn’t addressed until the problem became glaringly obvious.
It would be comforting to think that organized baseball has learned something from all of this and changed its tune, but that seems doubtful. There’s another labour conflict on the horizon, this time coming from baseball’s grassroots lifeline, the minor leagues. For years, minor-league players have sought more equitable pay, not in line with huge major-league salaries, but in relation to the minimum wage. Recently, a number of minor-league players willing to put themselves on the line have launched a class-action lawsuit against MLB and others, seeking to address this. To counteract them, a Republican senator has tabled a bill with the gratuitous and patriotically self-serving name of “The Save America’s Pastime Act”. As if the minor leagues had never been a part of America’s pastime and aspiring baseball hopefuls asking for more than $600 a month are suddenly rabble-rousing socialists threatening the very fabric of American society. If you’re having a hard time believing this, just take a look at the current Presidential election.
It’s uncertain at this point how it will play out, but MLB’s stance is predictably laissez-faire: it’s wishing the lawsuit would go away, while claiming to be unable to afford it. Organized baseball’s administrators have cried poor at every turn, and yet here the big-league game sits, flourishing and richer than ever. We’re always told that these are complex problems with complex solutions, but they’re not. It’s actually quite simple: treat people with fundamental fairness and decency for a change and find some peace.
This will likely get ugly and may result in MLB’s next major public relations nightmare. This narrative shows that whenever baseball has suffered one of these in the past, hitters have gone boom-boom, because that’s what people want to see. I used to think this was just a coincidence, but I no longer believe in coincidences.
© 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.