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Baseball Is The American Game

This is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. You got it?
Joe Riggins manager in Bull Durham (Trey Wilson)

Baseball is the American game, great or otherwise, because it reflects so perfectly certain aspects of the American character that no other sport quite portrays. It has few of the elements of pure sportsmanship, as that dubious word is commonly accepted, and it is not notably a game for gentlemen. But it does embody certain native-born fundamentals, including above all others the notion that the big thing about any contest is to win it. It also is built upon the idea that anything you can get away with is permissible, and it is the only sport (at least the only one since the Roman populace sat in the thumbs-down section at the gladiatorial games) that puts an invitation to homicide in one of its enduring sayings: “Kill the umpire!” (The thing has actually been attempted, too, more than once.) It is pre-eminently the sport for the professional rather than for the amateur, the sport in which the well-mentioned dufter neither is given nor especially wants a part.

Almost everyone in the country has played it at one time or another, but almost nobody except the professional dreams of going on playing it once full manhood has come. It is a spectator sport in which each spectator has had just enough personal experience to count himself an expert, and it is the only pastime on earth that leans heavily on the accumulation of page upon page of inherently dry statistics. It is also an unchanging pageant and a ritualixed drama, as completely formalized as the Spanish bullfight, and although it is wholly urbanized it still speaks of the small town and the simple, rural era that lived before the automobile came in to blight the landscape. One reason for this is that in a land of un ending change, baseball changes very little. There has been no important modification of its rules for well over half a century. The ball in use now will go farther when properly hit, and the gloves worn on defense are designed to do automatically what personal skill once had to do, but aside from these things the game is as it was in the early 1900’s.

Even the advent of night baseball, which seemed like pure sacrilege when it was introduced two decades ago, has made little difference; the pictorial aspect of the game —which is one ol its most important features—has perhaps even gained thereby. The neat green field looks greener and cleaner under the lights, the moving players are silhouetted more sharply, and the enduring visual fascination of the game—the immobile pattern of nine men, grouped according to ancient formula and then, suddenly, to the sound of a wooden bat whacking a round ball, breaking into swift ritualized movement, movement so standardized that even the tyro in the bleachers can tell when someone goes off in the wrong direction—this is as it was in the old days. A gaffer from the era of William McKinley, abruptly brought back to the second half of the twentieth century, would find very little in modern life that would not seem new, strange, and rather bewildering, but put in a good grandstand seat back of first base he would see nothing that was not completely familiar.

And perhaps the central part ol all of this is the fact that in its essence baseball is still faintly disreputable and rowdy. Its players chew tobacco, or at least look as if they were chewing it; many of them do not shave every day; and they argue bitterly with each other, with their opponents, and with the umpires just as they did when John McGraw and Ed Delehanty were popular idols. They have borrowed nothing from the “sportsmanship” of more sedate countries; they believe that when you get into a fight you had better win, and the method by which you win does not matter very much. Anything goes; victory is what counts.

Take John McGraw, for example. When he was playing third base and there was a runner there, and someone hit a fly to the outfield, McGraw would unobtrusively hook his fingers in the player’s belt so that the take-off for the plate, once the ball was caught, would be delayed by half a second or so. He got away with it, too, and no one thought the worse of him, until one day a baseruner unbuckled his belt in this situation and, legging it lor home, left the belt dangling in McGraw’s hand, tangible evidence of crime. Note, also, that baseball knows about the bean ball - the ball thrown at the batter’s head to drive him away from the plate and hamper his hitting process. A big leaguer was once killed by such a pitch; it has been condemned by everybody ever since then, and it is still a regular feature of the game.

In its essentials, then, baseball is plebeian, down-to-earth, and robustious. Even half a century ago it was dwindling to the rank of secondary sport in the colleges. Professors who have adjusted themselves to the presence on the campus of soi-disant students who are paid to attend college so that they may play football have a way of considering the football player one cut above the baseball player. The former may be a hulking behemoth of pure muscle, wholly incapable of differentiating between Virgil’s Eclogues and Boyle’s law, but he does not seem quite as uncouth as the baseball player—who, in his own turn, may also be on the campus as a paid hand, the difference being that he is being paid by some major-league team that wants to see his athletic skills developed, while the football player gets his from ardent alumni who want to see the college team beat State on Homecoming Day next fall. There has never been any social cachet attached to skill on the diamond.

The reason, obviously, is that baseball came up from the sand lots—the small town, the city slum, and the like. It had a rowdy air because rowdies played it. One of the stock tableaux in American sports history is the aggrieved baseball player jawing with the umpire. In all our games, this tableau is unique; it belongs to baseball, from the earliest days it has been an integral part of the game, and even in the carefully policed major leagues today it remains unchanged. Baseball never developed any of the social niceties.

In the old days, when (as we suppose, anyway) most of us lived in in small towns, or at least in fairly small cities, the local baseball team represented civic pride, to say nothing of representing at the same time the dreams of a great many young men who wished to be much more athletic than they actually were. In very small towns, its games were usually held in Farmer Jones’s pasture, where the difficulty, in a hot moment of split-second play, of distinguishing between third base and some natural cow-pasture obstacle sometimes led to odd happenings; and in slightly larger places the county fairground or a recreational park at the end of the streetcar line provided the arena. In any case, muscular young men, wearing die singularly unbecoming uniforms that were standardized 75 years ago, presently took their positions on the grass, and the game was on.

It was, and still is, hotly competitive, and within reasonable limits anything goes. Until the umpire (there was just one, in the old days) could be suborned to give all vital judgments in favor of the home side, all well and good; no one ever blushed to accept a victory that derived from an umpire’s bias. Il he could be intimidated, so that close decisions would go as the spectators wanted them to go. that also was good. This often happened; an umpire who decided a crucial play against the home team was quite likely to be mobbed, and few pictures from the old-time sports album are more authentic or more endunng than the vision of an umpire frantically legging it for the train, pursued by irate citizens who wished to do him great bodily harm. It took physical courage to render impartial judgments in old-time small-town baseball, and not all umpires were quite up to it.

If the umpire could be deceived while the game was on, that also was good. A man running from first to third on a base hit would cut twenty feet short of second base if he thought he could get away with it, and no one dreamed of censuring him for it. If an opposing player could be intimidated, so that he shirked his task, that was good, too. Not for nothing was the greatest baseball player who ever lived, Ty Cobb, famous for sitting on the bench just before the game sharpening his spikes. An infielder, witnessing this, and knowing that Cobb was practically certain to ram those spikes into his calf or thigh in a close play, was apt to Hindi just a little at the moment of contact, and out of that split second of withdrawal Cobb would gain the hair’s edge of advantage that he needed. It was considered fair, too, to denounce an opponent verbally, with any sort of profane, personal objurgation that came to mind, on the off-chance that he might become unsettled and do less than his best. (This still goes on, like practically all of the other traditional things in baseball, and the “bench jockey”—the man who will say anything at all if he thinks it will upset an enemy’s poise—can be a prized member of a big-league team even now.)

Much To Love About Baseball

Columnist George F. Will has said, “Baseball is a habit. The slowly rising crescendo of each game, the rhythm of the long season—these are the essentials and they are remarkably unchanged over nearly a century and a half. Of how many American institutions can that be said?” He's right. While fields have gotten fancier (thank you to Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park for its new nursing suite for moms) and some players aren't tucking their pants into their socks anymore, there's still the same universal appreciation for the crack of the bat against the ball, the enticing smell of hot dogs, the wobbly first pitches by presidents and celebrities, the iconic songs—and the thrill of bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth.

Over two million people in ballparks across America are cheering on their teams, from the Salt Lake Bees vs. the El Paso Chihuahuas to the Tampa Bay Rays vs. the New York Yankees. There's so much to love about baseball in 2015; here's just a slice. If this doesn't make you break into a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” we don't know what will.

The recognizable voice of Harry Caray was heard for nearly 50 years as he broadcast games for the St. Louis Cardinals, Oakland A's, Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs. Former MLB catcher-turned-announcer Bob Uecker (of “I must be in the front row!” fame) has been a fan favorite for years. And today, Vin Scully, 87, still thrills folks with his play-by-play for Los Angeles Dodgers home games.

The minors have some of the worst promotional ideas for getting fans in the seats. The Mahoning Valley Scrappers gave one lucky fan the gift of free liposuction on “All You Can Eat” Wednesday in 2009. the Bisbee Copper Kings' gave away popsicles in their recurring off-color nod to Ted Williams, whose head was cryogenically frozen upon his death in 2002. pregnant fans of the Brooklyn Cyclones threw out first pitches and were invited to run the bases; concession stands were stocked with craving-friendly fare like pickles and ice cream.

Some team names like the Milwaukee Brewers (based in Wisconsin's beer capital) are obvious. But others need a little explanation. The former New Britain Rock Cats got their new name this year via fan poll. Yard Goats beat out other just-for-fun names including Praying Mantis, River Hogs and Whirlybirds. Originally named the Colt .45s, the team adopted their new moniker, Houston Astros, in 1965 to honor Houston's “space age capital” status. Montgomery Biscuits (Ala.) Slogan: “History in the Baking” Albuquerque Isotopes (N.M.) The name originated in an episode of The Simpsons. Nashville Sounds Named after “Music City,” of course. Modesto Nuts Dubbed for nuts grown in the region. L.A. Dodgers Back in Brooklyn pre-move to L.A., the team was called the Bridegrooms and the Superbas before they became the Trolley Dodgers, named for the pedestrians that dodged the street trolleys.

The stretch—a break where fans stand and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”—is celebrating its 105th anniversary this year, if you believe the legend that says it originated in 1910 when President Taft (who was a big fan in spirit and size) got up to stretch during a game. Out of respect for the president, the rest of the crowd also stood. But written records show the tradition could date back to the mid-1800s. In any case, it's a nice opportunity to hit the concession stand.

For the Vintage Base Ball Association, founded in Ohio in 1996, there's no time like the past. At games across the U.S. and Canada in this now 75-team league: Players don't use gloves (gloves weren't used until the 1880s). Ungentlemanly behavior (like spitting) is subject to a fine. Vintage “base ball” games follow rules laid out in 1864 such as, “The ball must be pitched, not jerked nor thrown to the bat…”

The decade of the 1980s was baseball's end of the innocence. Oh, there were two labor stoppages, the Pittsburgh drug scandal, the Shakespearean peaks and caves of Pete Rose, an ill-conceived collusion aimed at freezing bidding for free agents, and the procession of four commissioners, but the game still had a traditional feel while adjusting to the free-agent system that went in place in 1976.

No one hit 50 homers, and when Andre Dawson hit 49 in 1987 and a kid named Mark McGwire hit 49 in 1987, it all seemed innocently heroic. There were five World Series that would be replayed for decades to come, because of a missed call in 1985, a missed ball in 1986, the indoors of 1987, Kirk Gibson's 1988 blast, and the tragedy and heroism of players such as Dave Stewart in the aftermath of the earthquake of 1989.

It was a decade that unveiled arguably the two greatest leadoff hitters of all time in Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines. It debuted pitchers we thought would be historic, and some were—Fernando Valenzuela, Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine. It was the dusk of 300 game winners – Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro. And it was played in traditional, functional stadiums whose entertainment was limited to the game, and the game only. The most memorable scoreboard moments came in the 1983 World Series when Eddie Murray's home run off Charles Hudson hit Murray's name on the board at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium and in the sixth game of the 1986 series when the Shea Stadium board congratulated “the 1986 Champion Red Sox.” Of the 28 parks in use when the decade ended in 1989, only six are still in use, and two of them, Boston's Fenway Park and Chicago's Wrigley Field, are tourist landmarks that have stood at their street corners since before World War I.

Because free agency was so new, owners were convinced only the big markets would win. Hence they tried rigging the marketplace, yet from 1980 through 1989, the only team to win two world championships was the Dodgers. The winningest single season team was the '84 Tigers. Mike Schmidt hit the most homers (313), Eddie Murray drove in the most runs (996), Jack Morris won the most games (162), and the lovable Cubs ('85 NLCS) and the Red Sox ('86 World Series) pulled the curses out of their historic closets.

And, in the end, because of what we later learned of Pete Rose, his breaking of Ty Cobb's hit record in 1984 and the way he couldn't just let it be a single – he had to hustle to second base – his isn't the lasting memory of the decade. That would be three particularly memorable home runs by Kirk Gibson.

The first came on June 14, 1983 at Tiger Stadium, off Boston pitcher Mike Brown, a titanic blast that cleared the transformer atop the right field roof—the transformer Reggie Jackson hit in the '71 All-Star Game—by nearly 20 feet and landed in a lumberyard across Woodward Avenue. The second also came at Tiger Stadium, in Game Five of the World Series, a shot off Padres Hall of Fame reliever Rich Gossage, which for all intents and purposes closed out the series and completed the Tigers' 111 – 59 season. The third, of course, came at Dodger Stadium off Dennis Eckersley, which Jack Buck described with, “I don't believe what I just saw,” and Vin Scully called as, “In the season of the improbable, the impossible has happened.”

Throwing the first pitch is an honor bestowed on many celebrities, politicians, children and Average Joe every year. Some are impressive, some get the job done and others, well others become stories that haunt the pages of newspapers, magazines and social media feeds.

President William H. Taft, who took the mound in 1910 for the first toss at Griffith Stadium, the home of the Washington Senators, is credited with the first ceremonial pitch. Many other notables have followed with a mixed bag of styles and results. Mariah Carey, tottering to the mound in high heels, famously bobbled her first pitch at a 2008 game in Japan; it was only airborne for a few yards. In 2014, actor Jeff Bridges rolled his first pitch like a bowling ball in honor of “the Dude,” his character from The Big Lebowski. New England quarterback Tom Brady showed us that even if you throw balls for a living, the first pitch can fluster a guy. His ceremonial throw bounced in the dirt at Fenway Park.

There are classic ballparks like Wrigley and Fenway, the two oldest in Major League Baseball, and then there are elaborate, new stadiums like Marlins Park in Miami and Target Field in Minneapolis. But no matter where you travel across the United States or whether you watch minor and major league action, there hundreds of fantastic ballparks to watch America's favorite pastime. No matter the facility's age.

With an official opening date of April 17, 1906, Centennial Field in Burlington, Vt., may be the oldest pro park still in use. It's home to the Vermont Lake Monsters, the Class A affiliate of the Oakland A's. The oldest stadium in the major leagues, Boston's Fenway Park, boasts what might be the most famous wall in sports, the Green Monster, known for its throwback, hand-operated scoreboard.

Fifth Third Field, home of the Dayton Dragons (a Class A farm team for the Cincinnati Reds) started the season this year with a record 1,000 sellouts in a row (and counting). It could be the most sold-out ballpark ever? Old stadiums got new life (and an attendance boost) when First Tennessee Park (Nashville, Tenn., Sounds), Joe Becker Stadium (Joplin, Mo., Blasters), and Monongalia County Ballpark (Granville, W. Va., Black Bears), all of the minor leagues, unveiled their new parks. The Miami Marlins debuted their shiny new stadium by the sea, Marlins Park, in 2012, complete with twin 450-gallon saltwater aquariums behind home plate and a pool behind the bullpen.

Baseball is conservative. What was good enough in Cap Anson’s day is good enough now, and a populace that could stand unmoved while the federal Constitution was amended would protest with vehemence at any tampering with the formalities of baseball. It looks as it used to look; the batter still grabs a handful of dust between swings, the catcher still slams the ball over to third base after a strike-out, and the umpire still jerks thumb over right shoulder to indicate a putout. (Dismayingly enough, some umpires now grossly exaggerate this gesture, using an elaborate full-arm swing, but possibly the point is a minor one.)

An inning begins; the pitcher takes his warm-up tosses, now as in the days half a century ago, and after three, four, or five of these he steps aside and’ the catcher whips the ball down to second base. The second baseman tosses it to the shortstop, two yards away, and the shortstop throws it to the third baseman, who is standing halfway between his own base and the pitcher’s box; the third baseman, in turn, tosses it over to the pitcher, and the inning can get started. Io vary from this formula is unthinkable; from the little leaguers tip to Yankee Stadium, it is as one with the laws of the Mcdes and the Persians.

Then action: players shifting about, pounding their gloves, uttering cries of encouragement (which, like all the rest, are verbatim out of the script of iyoo); and the batter approaches the plate, swinging two bats (another ironclad requirement), tossing one aside, planting his feet in the batter s box, and then swinging his single bat in determined’ menace. The fielders slowly freeze into fixed positions; for a moment no one anywhere moves, except that the pitcher goes into his stretch, takes a last look around, and then delivers —and then the frozen pattern breaks, the ball streaks off, men move deftly from here to there, and the quick moments of action are on.

In all of this there is unending fascination, coupled with the knowledge that wholly fantastic athletic feats may at any moment be displayed by any one of the players. Even an easy fly ball to the outfield or a simple grounder to short can call forth a nonchalant, effortless expertness that a man from another land would find quite incredible. (I once took an Englishman to see his first baseball game, and he was dumfounded by the simplest plays, marveling at what all the rest of us took for automatic outs.) In no contest can the split second be so important. A routine double play can make both outs with no more than half a second to spare, and if the half second is lost anywhere, the player who lost it will be derided for a clumsy oaf.

Primarily a team game, baseball is also the game for the individualist. The team play is essential, and when you watch closely you can see it, but the focus is usually on one man. A base runner streaks for second with the pitch, falls away while in full stride, and slides in in a cloud of dust, baseman stabbing at him with gloved hand, umpire bending to peer through the murk and call the play; an outfielder runs deep and far, arching ball coming down—apparently—just out of his reach, trajectories of fielder and baseball coming miraculously together at the last, gloved hand going out incredibly to pick the ball out of the air; a pitcher who has been getting his lumps looks about at filled bases, glowers at the batter, and then sends one in that is struck at and missed … always, some individual is trying for an astounding feat of athletic prowess and, now and then, actually accomplishing it.

Hence baseball celebrates the vicarious triumph. The spectator can identify himself completely with the player, and the epochal feat becomes, somehow, an achievement of his own. Babe Ruth, mocking the Chicago Cubs, pointing to the distant bleachers and then calmly hitting the ball into those bleachers, took a host of Walter Mittys with him when he jogged around the bases. (There is some dispute about this, to be sure; he was jawing with the Cubs, but purists say he did not actually call his shot. This makes no difference whatever.) It was the same when old Grover Cleveland Alexander, the all-but-washed-up veteran of many baseball wars, came into the seventh inning of a decisive World Series game, found the bases filled with Yankees, and struck out Tony Lazzeri, going on to win game and Series; and this was after a wearing night on the tiles, Alexander having supposed that his work was over until next spring. Many an aging fan shared in Old Alcx’s triumph.

These things are part of baseball’s legend, for the game never forgets its gallery of immortals. That it actually has a tangible Hall of Fame, with bronze plaques to commemorate the greatest, is only part of the story; the noble deeds of the super-players are handed down in bar-side stories, year after year, losing nothing in the telling. Some of the heroes have been supermen, in a way, at that. There was, for instance, Shoeless Joe Jackson, barred from baseball in midcareer because he let himself be bribed to help lose a World Series. (He did not do very well at losing; even under a bribe, he batted .375 in that Series—a natural hitter who just couldn’t make himself miss even when paid to do so.) A sand-lot pitcher tells of a day, a whole generation later, when, pitching for a textilemill team in the Carolinas, he found on the opposing team none other than Jackson—a pathetic, fat, doddering wreck in his late fifties, with a monstrous belly like some disreputable Santa Claus, still picking up a lew odd bucks playing semi-pro ball under an assumed name. The young pitcher figured Jackson would be easy; a low inside curve, coming in close to the overhang of that prodigious paunch, was obviously the thing to throw. He threw, Jackson swung, and swung as he used to thirty years earlier, and the ball went far out of the park, one of the most authoritative home runs the young pitcher ever witnessed. Old Jackson lumbered heavily around the bases, and halfway between third and home he turned to accost the young pitcher. “Son,” he said, “I always could hit them low inside curves.”

There were others cast in similar molds.… Rube Waddell, the wholly legendary character who, when cold sober, which was not often, may have been the greatest pitcher of them all: the man who now and then, on a whim, would gesture the entire outfield off the premises and then retire the side without visible means of support; Walter Johnson, who once pitched fifty-odd consecutive scoreless innings, and who to the end of his days had nothing much in his repertoire except an unhittable fast ball; Tris Speaker, who played such a short center field that he often threw a batter out at first on what ought to have been a legitimate down-the-middle base hit; and lean Satchel Paige, who in his great days in the Negro leagues had a way of pointing to the shortstop and then throwing something which the batter must hit to short, and who then would go on around the infield in the same way, compelling the opposition to hit precisely where he wanted it to hit. The legends are, in some ways, the most enduring part of the game. Baseball has even more of them than the Civil War, and its fans prize them highly.

Under the surface, baseball is always played to a subdued but inescapable tension, because at any second one of these utterly fabulous events may ta.ke place. The game may be distressingly one-sided, and the home team may come up in the ninth inning five runs behind, and in a clock game like football or basketball the margin would be physically unbeatable; but in baseball anything can happen, and the tiniest fluke can change everything. (Remember the World Series game the Yankees won when a Brooklyn catcher dropped a third strike with two men out in the ninth?) A commonplace game can turn into a hair-raiser at any moment, and things do not actually need to happen to create the suspense. A free-hitting, high-scoring game may be most eventful, but few strains are greater than the strain of watching a pitcher protect a i-o lead in the late innings of a routine game. Nothing, perhaps, actually happens—but every time the ball is thrown the game may turn upside down, and nobody ever forgets it.

All of this is built in, for the spectator. Built in, as well, is the close attention to records and statistics. Batting averages and pitchers’ records are all-important; to know that a Rogers Hornsby, for instance, could bat more than .400 in three different years— that is, could average getting two hits for every five times he came to the plate, 154 games a year, for three years—is important. It has been suggested, now and then, that big league playing schedules be reduced from 154 games to some smaller figure, and the suggestion has always been howled down: it would upset all the averages. Unthinkable; how do you compare today’s pitcher with Walter Johnson or Lefty Grove if today’s pitcher plays in fewer games every year?

The circumstances under which baseball is played nowadays have changed greatly, to be sure. Less than half a century ago, every town that amounted to anything at all was represented in some league of professional players, and these leagues—the minor leagues, of hallowed memory—have been dissolving and vanishing, as more and more spectators get their games by television or by radio and ignore the local ball park. The Little Leagues have come up, and semi-subsidized sand-lot leagues, and even college baseball is here and there enjoying a new lease on life—after all, the new players in the big leagues have to come from somewhere, and besides, young Americans still like to play baseball; but the old pattern is gone, and even the major leagues themselves have undergone profound changes and, to a purist from the old days, are all but unrecognizable. Where are the St. Louis Browns, or the Philadelphia Athletics, or the Boston Braves—or, for the matter of that, even the magnificent New York Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers? Gone forever, to be sure, with new cities taking over, and with a few old-timers muttering that the last days are at hand.

Actually, the last days are probably a long, long way off, for baseball even in its modern guise has not changed in its essentials. It is a rough, tough game, encased by rules that were made to be broken if the breaking can be accomplished smoothly enough, a game that never quite became entirely respectable, a game in which nobody wants to do anything but win. It will undoubtedly be around for a good time to come, and it will continue, in spite of its own press agents, to be in truth the great American game. Or so, at least, believes this old-time fan.

M.B. Roberts. America's Greatest Pastime: Why We Love Baseball. Parade. July 3, 2015.
Peter Gammons. 1980s: The Decade Baseball's Innocence Ended. Parade. July 3, 2015.
Maxim Staff. The Big Leagues: Maxim's Guide to Improving Baseball. Maxim [Print + Kindle] . April 2012.
Bruce Catton. The Great American Game. American Heritage. Volume 10, Issue 3. April 1959.

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