Innocent of the game’s history, sociology, or metaphysics, I learned my baseball in the late 1950’s the old-fashioned way: sitting beside my grandfather Weigel in the lower deck of Baltimore’s cavernous old Memorial Stadium, in the days when the Orioles seemed to have taken out a 99-year lease on sixth place in the American League.
You did not have to buy tickets six months in advance, or cadge them from a friendly corporate public-affairs officer, in that simpler age. Nor were you likely to have your beer (or, in my case in 1959, your popcorn or your Coke) knocked over by some broker’s portable-phone antenna. Creature comforts were not much prized, either. “The stadium,” as everybody called it, had no “luxury boxes”; indeed, in the lower reserved section, and throughout the upper deck and bleachers, it had no seats, period—just wooden benches, against whose splinters we protected ourselves by buying an Evening Sun as a cushion on the way into the park.
In short, on those humid summer nights when Baltimore felt like a suburb of Calcutta you did not come to the stadium to be seen, or to be “entertained,” or to sip white zinfandel in an air-conditioned cocoon, or to make a real-estate deal: you came for baseball. And under those happy conditions, my grandfather taught me (and, later, my brother) the game.
He was not a voluble man, my grandfather Weigel, and he remained wholly untutored in what H.L. Mencken would have called the “wizard pedagogy” of John Dewey and Teachers College, Columbia. But such was the efficacy of his instruction that, by the time we were eight or nine, my brother and I knew, in addition to the players and the rules, at least the rudiments of the pastime’s inner architecture, its subtleties, stratagems, and surprises.
To take the most obvious, and most basic, example: we knew that the poor boobies who complained that “Nothing ever happens in baseball” simply did not know what they were talking about. For my grandfather had taught us, not only how to watch, but how to see what was going on. So we learned that there was more to pitching than balls and strikes. There were endless variations of speeds and locations; there were some things you did with some batters and other pitch sequences you avoided like the plague; umpiring was, at best, an inexact science, and the ophthalmological quirks of individual arbiters had to be considered.
Then there was defense. For whatever their other (and manifold) failings, the Baltimore Orioles that Paul Richards began to build in the 1950’s could use the leather. So I came to appreciate the skills and baseball intelligence of a string of astounding shortstops that ran in apostolic succession from Willy Miranda to Chico Carrasquel to Ron Hansen to Luis Aparicio; these were also the days when Brooks Robinson began to redefine the playing of third base.
And from all of this—the minute adjustments in the positioning of fielders; the footwork and timing around second base during a double play; the stretch at first (never done better than by “Diamond Jim” Gentile); the coordination between outfielders and infielders to cut down errant baserunners—I learned that, where the sadly uninstructed saw only inaction, there was, in fact, a hell of a lot going on.
My baseball education was furthered by other classic educational materials: the radio, the sports pages of the morning and evening Sun, boys’ baseball novels, baseball cards (ten for a dime, with bubble gum, but without cash-resale value). But it is to the personal instruction of my grandfather that I owe the most. And, as I have found myself replicating his efforts with my own children, I have come to appreciate the impact of his tutelage on my life more and more. For we learn baseball the way we learn religion: through stories, family traditions, and rituals. The refinements of doctrine, essential as they are, come later. First, we are converted.
This experience of an oral tradition—the narrative dimension of the game, which transcends and in fact creates the context for the true fan’s other mania, namely, statistics—explains a lot of the grip that baseball has had on the national psyche for over 125 years. The recreation of personalities, situations, plays, entire games, or, for that matter, entire seasons; the endless arguing about “what if”; the ongoing comparison of feats ancient and modern; the yarning, the embellishing, even the wild exaggerating: in all of this story-making and story-telling, we are engaging in a national conversation that crosses the lines of class, race, age, and ideology like no other in our culture. I can happily talk baseball with people I find otherwise obnoxious, and with whom I agree on virtually nothing else; my teenage daughter can now hold her own in friendly arguments at the ballpark with perfect strangers four times her age. The video revolution has ruined vast areas of our culture. But as long as there is baseball, millions of Americans will know how to tell a story.
Baseball-as-oral-tradition also helps explain why there has never been a great baseball movie. William Bendix as the Bambino in The Babe Ruth Story is a sad memory to be erased; William Bendix as a Marine who dies happy in Guadalcanal Diary because he has just heard on the radio that the Dodgers have won evokes something of the place that the game, and our personal loyalties within the game, hold in our lives.
Given the breathtaking scope of his ambition, which was to propose nothing less than a comprehensive interpretation of post-Civil War America through the lens of a documentary history of baseball, I suspect that Ken Burns also intended to break this pattern of cinematic failure, and to turn out the best baseball film ever. Everything about Baseball, the nine-part (or “-inning,” as he calls it) Burns documentary that appeared for over eighteen hours on PBS in mid- and late-September, seems intended to evoke the label “epic”: its length, its pacing, its structuring of the story, the solemnity of the narration. And no one who loves the game will gainsay Burns’s genuine accomplishments.
As in his previous work on the Civil War, Burns displays, in Baseball, an uncanny ability to combine narrative and music with the slow scanning of a still photograph to make an individual or an event from the days before moving pictures come vibrantly alive. John J. McGraw, longtime manager of the New York Giants and one of the great figures of baseball’s golden age, is a case in point here.
Burns also uses old newsreel footage to great dramatic effect. In his fourth episode (chastely titled “A National Heirloom” on TV, but more aptly styled “That Big Son of a Bitch” in the film’s companion book1), I watched the Babe Ruth whom many had thought washed up in 1923 hit a home run on his first at-bat in the inaugural game at Yankee Stadium, and the proverbial chills ran down my spine. More subtly, Burns indulges a puckish sense of humor at times, as when Mozart’s overture to Le Nozze di Figaro provides the aural setting for a devastating narration of the wreckage wrought by “George III” Steinbrenner on the proud Yankee franchise.
But a tension, barely visible at the beginning yet increasingly evident over the course of its nine episodes, runs through Baseball—because, one suspects, it runs through Ken Burns. And that is the tension between a baseball fan determined to produce an epic history of the pastime and a child of the 1960’s intent on driving home a certain interpretation of the American national experience of race (and, to a lesser extent, class). So as Burns’s nine-inning narrative unfolds, I found the baseball in Baseball increasingly and jarringly interrupted by the politics (which, not surprisingly, are entirely congruent with those we have come to expect from PBS).
The net result, alas, is not the epic that Burns wanted to create. Baseball has many magnificent moments. But the itch to admonish and to chastise (and in the nagging manner that makes upmarket liberalism so . . . well, so annoying) proves irresistible. And it most particularly damages Burns’s telling of the pivotal tale in the drama, the story of Jackie Robinson. Thus, after eighteen hours, I found myself thinking of Baseball, not as an American epic, but as something more akin to a 7th-grade social-studies book from a progressive publisher, with lavish illustrations and a very politically-correct text.
Before getting further into the unpleasantness, however, let us pause and be grateful for the things that Ken Burns and his colleagues get right.
Baseball wisely ignores the oceans of ink spilled over the pastime’s “pastoral” character, and quite rightly positions major-league baseball as a quintessentially urban phenomenon. Many of its players may have come from the farms and the mines, especially in the early days. But when we say “baseball,” we mean a city game whose most memorable moments have taken place, not in a massive concrete doughnut built alongside a freeway in the middle of nowhere, but in real ballparks whose architectural idiosyncracies were determined by the quirks of the street-grid in the city neighborhoods in which they were built.
But the “urban” quality of baseball has to do with the game itself, not simply with its surroundings. From the beginning, professional baseball has exhibited the character, distinctive to cities, of elegance and roughhouse combined in about equal proportions. The game mixes the athletic grace of a second-baseman “turning two” with the spike-sharpened aggression of a runner bent on breaking up the double play; within a single inning, a control pitcher’s mastery of the narrowest edges of the plate can be complemented by the mad abandon of a centerfielder climbing a seven-foot wall to snag a potential home run.
All of which, to my mind, says “city,” not “field of dreams.” And as Baseball reminds us, the professional game has always been surrounded (and threatened) by three oppidan behaviors—drinking, brawling, and gambling, the last of which ruined the career and the reputation of one of the contemporary game’s additions to the all-time pantheon, Pete Rose.
Ken Burns’s film also rightly stresses, without falling into a dour Calvinism, that baseball is in large part about failure. A successful hitter fails seven times out of ten; a successful team loses 40 percent of its games. All of which teaches players, (real) fans, and managers (if not owners) a certain serenity. It is the kind of serenity that comes only on the far side of great passion, to be sure; but it is serenity, nonetheless.
Earl Weaver, the Orioles’ manager during fifteen of the team’s glory years between 1966 and 1983, used to tell nervous sportswriters, “Relax. This ain’t football. We do this every day.” Someone—was it Ray Miller, Weaver’s pitching coach?—once said that you cannot play baseball with clenched teeth. The game is hard enough without tying yourself into a knot of anxiety, and baseball is a damned hard game to play well. And its hardness—its technical difficulty, and the unforgiving way in which it winnows wheat from chaff—is the truth at the heart of the failures that define the rhythm of games and seasons and give baseball its distinctive moral texture.
Thus no serious student of the pastime will quarrel with Burns’s revisiting of such historic gaffes as “Merkle’s Boner,” “Snodgrass’s Muff,” Mickey Owen’s dropped third strike in 1941, and Bill Buckner’s tragic imitation of a croquet wicket in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series.
But the ubiquity of failure in baseball casts into greater relief the triumphs of the game’s heroes, whose character and accomplishments Burns frequently captures with the deftness of a skilled miniature portraitist.
Among the best of his sketches of the pastime’s greats—themselves an entire gallery of Americana—are those of Cap Anson, a magnificent player and manager and an unreconstructed racist who drew the “color line” in 1888; Christy Mathewson, the “Christian gentleman” from Bucknell who was a nonfiction Frank Merriwell; Honus Wagner, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ “Flying Dutchman,” a gentle giant who some still swear was the greatest player ever; Ty Cobb, “possessed by the furies,” the antithesis of Mathewson and Wagner; the aforementioned McGraw; Grover Cleveland Alexander, the gifted but alcoholic pitcher who saved the sixth game of the 1926 World Series despite a massive hangover; Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; Carl Hubbell, master of the screwball, who struck out Ruth, Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin, seriatim, in the 1934 All-Star Game; the elegant Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio; Willie, Mickey, and the Duke (Mays, Mantle, and Snider); Hank Greenberg, pride of the Tigers, who came within an ace of topping Ruth’s single-season home-run record; Ted Williams, perhaps the greatest pure hitter ever; Stan “The Man” Musial; Carl Yastrzemski, who single-handedly drove the Red Sox to the 1967 American League pennant with what some believe was the greatest month a player ever had; Brooks and Frank Robinson, the heart and soul of the Oriole dynasty of the late 60’s and early 70’s; Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, flamethrowers both; Roberto Clemente, a magnificent athlete driven by demons of resentment; and Hank Aaron, the steady, undemonstrative slugger who broke Ruth’s career home-run record.
Baseball also explores the passions, foibles, and genius of some of the off-the-field figures who bent the game to their wills: Albert G. Spalding, the Gilded Age magnate who fancied himself the equal of Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Rockefeller and manipulated the game into building him the country’s greatest sporting-goods empire; Ban Johnson, the autocratic founder of the American League; Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner who restored the pastime’s integrity after the “Black Sox” fixed the 1919 World Series, but of whom Heywood Broun once wrote, “His career typifies the heights to which dramatic talent may carry a man in America if only he has the foresight not to go on the stage”; and Branch Rickey, whose distinctive combination of Methodist piety and a shrewd marketing eye led him to break Anson’s “color line” by bringing Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers.
But it is the players, what was said of them, and what they said, that are of enduring interest, and Burns serves up a good-sized helping of the pastime’s more memorable bons mots. Here we are made to recall the scouting report on Walter (“Big Train”) Johnson: “He knows where he’s throwing because if he didn’t there would be dead bodies strewn all over Idaho.” And Dizzy Dean’s answer as to why he dropped out of the second grade: “I didn’t do so well in the first grade, either.” And the observations in epistemology vouchsafed by the Old Perfesser, Casey Stengel, and his star pupil (and prize player), Yogi Berra: “I made up my mind, but I made it up both ways”; “Baseball is 90-percent mental; the other half is physical.”
Baseball also does a good service by introducing several generations of Americans to the Negro Leagues, to slugging catcher Josh Gibson, speedster James “Cool Papa” Bell, and pitcher-manager-entrepreneur Andrew “Rube” Foster, and to noble teams like the Homestead Grays, the Kansas City Monarchs, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and the Baltimore Elite Giants. And Burns draws a handsome portrait of Satchel Paige, perhaps the only Negro League great whose name even the casual fan would recognize.
But the finest work in Baseball’s rendering of the Negro Leagues experience is done by John J. (“Buck”) O’Neil, a former Monarchs first baseman and manager. O’Neil holds a position in Baseball similar to Shelby Foote’s in Burns’s earlier film on the Civil War: the man whose stories and comments you always want more of.
O’Neil has, I think, precisely the right analysis of the Negro Leagues: they never should have happened, but, damn, they were great. The former judgment is, of course, the more frequently encountered these days. (In fact, it distorts the historical analysis in Burns’s film, which by presenting black baseball essentially over against the dominant white world, treats it as a form of deprivation.) But Buck O’Neil refuses to have the meaning of his career forced onto any Procrustean bed of political correctness. “We loved it,” is his summary comment on the not-always-easy life of segregated leagues and off-season barnstorming. “Why would you feel sorry for me? . . . We did our duty. We did the groundwork for the Jackie Robinsons, the Willie Mayses, and the guys that are playing now. So why feel sorry for me?” Why indeed?
Finally, Baseball reminds us of the game’s remarkable capacity for self-regeneration. The corruptions of Gilded Age baseball led to the reformation of 1876, the establishment of the National League. When the Black Sox scandal threatened the game’s future by trifling with its most precious asset—fan loyalty—Babe Ruth emerged as the people’s choice. The decay of the sport during World War II was followed by a fifteen-year run of excellence that many consider without parallel in the game’s history. The doldrums of fan apathy in the late 60’s and early 70’s ended at 12:33 A.M. on October 22, 1975, when Carlton Fisk’s home run off the left-field foul-pole at Fenway Park ended the greatest World Series game ever played and launched a nationwide revival of interest in the pastime.
On the other hand, Baseball misses some important things. Burns seems little interested in pitching, and two of the most game-changing developments of recent decades—the invention of the slider and the split-fingered fastball, on the technical side, and the strategic emergence of the “closer,” or late-inning relief specialist, as an essential weapon in any winning team’s arsenal—simply go unremarked. Similarly—with the obvious exceptions of Willie Mays’s catch off Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series, and Brooks Robinson’s grand larceny at third during the 1970 Series—great defense plays little role in Burns’s baseball imagination.
The uninitiated will also learn little about the strategy of baseball from Baseball. This is a curious oversight (given the number of brilliant managers still living, and in some cases, working, who could have been interviewed) that risks confirming the complaint of the ignorant about “nothing happening” in those long moments between home runs.
Nor does Baseball tell us much about the minor leagues, a once-vast and flourishing network of professional teams now experiencing something of a renaissance after decades of troubles. Burns’s tight focus on New York and Boston gets him into trouble here. Thus we are not told that, for years, the Triple-A level Pacific Coast League (in which players of real ability spent entire careers and made serious money) prepared itself to become a third major league, only to have its thunder stolen when Walter O’Malley and Horace Stoneham moved the Dodgers and the Giants from New York to the Coast.
Students of the game will also wonder why, in eighteen hours of film, time could not have been found to note the careers of Buck Ewing, Ed Delahanty, Billy Sunday, Napoleon Lajoie, George Sisler, Bill Dickey, Charlie Gehringer, Harry Heilmann, and Lou Boudreau, among the old-timers. I also found it strange that a film as self-consciously comprehensive as Baseball ignores, among the contemporaries, Johnny Bench, arguably the greatest catcher ever; Mike Schmidt, no match for Brooks Robinson with the glove, but overall perhaps the best third baseman in history; George Brett, the finest bat of his time; Harmon Killebrew, who ranks fifth on the career home-run list; and Dan Quisenberry, Rollie Fingers, and Goose Gossage, three exceptional relievers. I would also like to have seen a little more about umpires, who, apart from a cameo appearance by the legendary Bill Klem, are notable for their absence from Baseball.
But these are, as they say, judgments calls: the kinds of things to be argued about, good-naturedly, during the off-season. The central flaw in Baseball lies deeper and is far more serious.
Irritating exercises in political correctness recur throughout Ken Burns’s film. Stephen Jay Gould, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Studs Terkel, George Plimpton, Gerald Early (a Washington University professor of African-American Studies), and Mario Cuomo are all given ample opportunity to offer portside commentary on the game and its meaning for the country. But from starboard there is only George F. Will. Thus the standard PBS ratio of liberal to conservative commentators is maintained, and we are denied what would have been intriguing comments on baseball and America from such conservative aficionados of both as Donald Kagan, Leon R. Kass, Charles Krauthammer, and Hadley Arkes (author of one of the most spectacular of all historical mnemonics: “I can always remember when St. Augustine was born. It was 1,600 years before the Indians won their last pennant”).
Worse, viewers of Baseball are subjected to a series of dull homilies from Governor Cuomo, all variations on his 1984 address to the Democratic Convention, on the inability of Americans to form “community”: even as the film within which he is commenting constantly refutes his claim.
As a ballplayer, the young Cuomo never got out of the low minors. It would have been more interesting to hear from Representative Jim Bunning, a conservative Republican who won 216 major-league games as a pitcher for the Tigers, Phillies, Pirates, and Dodgers, or Senator Connie Mack, the Republican from Florida who is the grandson of one of the game’s greatest figures. But that would have cut against the grain of the film’s subtext, which is that a proper understanding of baseball’s history leads, without much further analytic ado, to a politically-correct understanding of 20th-century American history.
Given that hermeneutic preoccupation, it should come no surprise that Burns’s portrait of baseball’s ugly labor history is one in which the owners are unremitting scoundrels and the players hard-beset wage slaves, until the dawn of free agency and the birth of the mega-contract.2 I happen to think that there is considerable truth in the first half of that analysis: baseball’s owners have, historically, and down to the present moment, shown incredible ineptness and stupidity in managing the pastime. But Burns fails to explore how the explosion of wealth in baseball has corrupted players as well as owners, for the former show as little interest in the integrity of the game today as do the latter.
Why, for example, did the players not make reform of the game itself part of their demands in this year’s labor negotiations? Why did they not demand a say in reestablishing a commissioner with real authority to act “in the best interests of baseball”? Why, in brief, are they, too, so single-mindedly focused on the money?
These are not questions that fit easily into Burns’s gauchiste understanding of labor-management relations in baseball and America. But answering them seems as urgent today as condemning the arrogant and irresponsible club owners who do not seem to understand that they do not “own baseball.”
Then there are the throwaway lines in the script about “anti-Communist hysteria during the cold war”; the excessive attention lavished on Bill Lee, a flaky Red Sox pitcher who constantly appears in a “CCCP” (i.e., “USSR”) baseball cap (would Burns have featured him approvingly if he wore a cap emblazoned with a swastika?); the bland description of the urban riots of the 60’s—“American cities were set ablaze”—as if these were acts of God rather than acts of criminals; the morally offensive analogy between slavery and the old “reserve clause” (which, before free agency, bound a player to a team for his entire career); and the ritual bow to the 60’s as “a decade dedicated to change.” It is, however, in dealing with the central figure of his history that Ken Burns falls flattest.
Forty-seven years after he became the first black American to play major-league baseball in the 20th century, Jackie Robinson’s legend remains untouched by the passion for deconstructing heroes that has corrupted the United States for two decades now. That, in my judgment, is precisely how it should be, because the Robinson legend “rarely deviates from reality,” as one historian of baseball’s desegregation put it.
Branch Rickey did in fact pick Jackie Robinson to break the color line because he wanted a warrior with the courage not to lash back against the crude racial abuse he was certain to encounter. Robinson did in fact respond with some of the greatest baseball in history, while keeping his bargain with Rickey, his mouth shut, and his fists to himself. And things did in fact turn around—first on the Dodgers, and later throughout the sport—as a one-time institutional bastion of segregation became a crucial instrument in the social revolution that was the civil-rights movement in its classic period.
Moreover (and this is a point on which Burns is silent), after his baseball career ended and the ideological contours of race politics changed with the emergence of Black Power and black separatism, Robinson remained committed to the ideal he and Rickey shared. It was the ideal most memorably articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr., the ideal of an America in which men are judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skins. In the early 1970’s, when Roger Kahn masterfully recreated the Dodgers’ epic period in The Boys of Summer, Robinson came back into the public eye; he told Kahn that he had been getting letters again, “mostly from people who believe in the right things. Integration.”
Those who have been understandably exhausted by the claims of continuing victimhood advanced in the name of racial quota systems and an ever-expanding welfare state (not to mention the lunacies of “Afrocentric” school curricula and the anti-Semitism of Louis Farrakhan) are precisely those who should applaud George Will’s assertion that, while Dr. King was the most important black American in our history, Jackie Robinson was second—a “very close second.” For Robinson did, just as the civil-rights anthem promised, overcome, and the plain truth of the matter is that he overcame a lot: a late start in the majors (he was twenty-eight when he first joined the Dodgers); initially hostile teammates; vicious verbal abuse from fans, and the same—plus spikings and beanings—from opposing players; and above all, the enormous pressure of being first, and having to do it exactly right.
But Jackie Robinson not only overcame, he prevailed. His exceptional athletic skills were combined with a ferocious competitiveness that made him, to many serious observers, the dominant player of his era (which was, be it remembered, the era of Mantle, Mays, and Williams). Leo Durocher, who managed Robinson on the Dodgers and against him for the Giants, once said of him, “Ya want a guy that comes to play. This guy didn’t just come to play. He come to beat ya. He come to shove the goddam bat right up your ass.”
Because of that dramatic combination of will and ability, Jackie Robinson, the first African-American professional baseball player in the modern era, began, somehow, to transcend the conventional psychology of race even while remaining unmistakably, proudly, majestically black. As Roger Kahn put it: “Like a few, very few athletes, Babe Ruth, Jim Brown, Robinson did not merely play at center stage. He was center stage; and wherever he walked, center stage moved with him.”
That Burns’s Baseball comes nowhere near to capturing the enduring qualities of Jackie Robinson so well as Kahn’s The Boys of Summer is, in part, a further demonstration of the written word’s superiority to celluloid. But only in part. The rest has to do with Burns’s political correctness.
Most egregiously, on the issue of race in America, Burns informs us that
By 1934, the world economy was in ruins and fascism was on the rise. In Germany, the National Socialists had come to power and had begun to institute exclusionary laws against Jews in an eerie echo of Jim Crow statutes in the United States.
The implication would seem to be that Rein-hard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Eichmann, sitting around the conference table at Wannsee a few years later, were merely emulating the racial views of Cap Anson, Ty Cobb, and Kenesaw Mountain Landis: a grotesque diminution of the ideological horror and singular evil of the Holocaust, and an enormous slur on the moral character of the United States. (It is also a reversal of history: it was German eugenic theory that tended to inform American racial laws in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and not the other way around.)
A filmmaker who apparently thinks that Satchel Paige labored for the Kansas City Monarchs under the moral equivalent of the Nuremberg Laws is not a filmmaker, much less a historian, who is likely to do full justice to the Jackie Robinson story: what it meant for baseball, what it meant about America then, and what it could mean for an America in which racism, white and black, remains a social evil.
But that is not the worst of it. For to suggest that Jackie Robinson, a lieutenant in the United States Army during the war in which that army defeated Hitler, was in reality the victim of a Nazilike ideology, is to suggest that Jackie Robinson, an authentic America hero, was a fool.
On July 19, 1994, a game between the Seattle Mariners and the Baltimore Orioles was canceled because tiles from the ceiling of Seattle’s Kingdome had crashed down into the box seats some hours before game time. It seemed, then, an apt metaphor for baseball’s season of discontent: the pastime’s ugliest venue, a monument to invincible ignorance about how the game should be played, turned on the game and made the playing of it impossible. As it happened, of course, metaphor became prophecy when, on September 14, the World Series was canceled—a perfidy beyond calculation, but not beyond the ken of today’s owners and players.
No one knows just how much damage this season’s strike, and the cancellation of the World Series for the first time since 1904, has done to fan loyalty, which remains, even in a television era, the foundation of the game’s economic stability. But even were its economics and labor-management relations in order (and the latter is, arguably, an eschatological concept), baseball would still be in need of serious reform. For the major-league game has been corrupted over the last twenty years, on the field and in the stands, in ways that threaten baseball’s continuity with its past.
Nobody much cares whether the National Basketball Association today looks like the NBA of Bill Russell and Bob Cousy, since history is of little consequence in basketball. But if the baseball played today appears alien to the game as played by Ruth and DiMaggio, Willie Mays and Bob Gibson, then something close to the heart of the pastime—something that defines its singular place in our lives—will have been lost.
“Artificial grass” that turns infields into pool tables and domes whose ceilings hide fly balls; umpires who have unilaterally shrunk the strike zone; the mindless and greed-driven expansion of the major leagues, which has severely weakened the talent pool (especially among pitchers) and threatens to create a raft of inflated batting records; a post-season playoff scheme that violates one of baseball’s ancient moral norms by rewarding failure—all of these recent “innovations” imperil the integrity of the pastime. So, too, does the glitzy mix of sex-rock-‘n’-jocks which many owners seem determined to inflict on ballparks in slavish imitation of the NBA. And on this question of ambience, which risks the transformation of baseball into but one more “entertainment option,” the players, who have lifted nary a finger to reform the game that is so much theirs, are also silent.
“You can’t kill it,” says Buck O’Neil toward the end of Baseball: a confession of faith in the pastime’s future which I would like to share. But one thing major-league baseball teaches you is never to say “never” about major-league baseball. Those owners and players who think that the pastime is infinitely plastic in its capacity to accommodate their avarice, and who imagine that fans will remain loyal unto death under any circumstances of abuse, are betraying their stewardship—and risking the wrath of heaven.
1 Baseball: An Illustrated History, narrative by Geoffrey C. Ward, based on a documentary filmscript by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns. Knopf, 486 pp., $60.00.
2 Burns suggests that Curt Flood, the Cardinals' centerfielder who sued baseball in 1969 on 13th-Amendment (i.e., anti-slavery) grounds in an attempt to reconstruct the pastime's pre-free-agency labor practices, was a kind of proletarian martyr. In his last season with the Cardinals, 1969, Flood was paid $90,000, which was $81,742.40 more than the average auto mechanic, and $83,162 more than the average secretary.