19to21: March 31, 2009
19 to 21…yes, those are the centuries of baseball....
The Mount Rushmores of Baseball – the Preface
As previously promised, here is the first installment of a work in progress. Based on an essay from the 2007 version of “19 to 21,” The Mount Rushmores of Baseball is a book in the writing. For those of you who weren’t around in 2007, or who may have forgotten the original concept, here is the Preface to “The Mount Rushmores of Baseball” (If anyone has a connection to a good publisher who you think might be interested in such an interpretive history of baseball, let me know…) which should hopefully explain what this is all about.
Some years ago the Boswell of Baseball, Tom of the Washington Post, that is, wrote a book entitled, “Why Time Begins on Opening Day.” It’s a fine book, but, ultimately, Boswell got it wrong. Time does not begin on Opening Day. At least, baseball time doesn’t. On the contrary, baseball time is broadly recognized to run from the 19th Century to the present. And, since that time, baseball has never stopped. Neither has time. Nonetheless, there is no denying the attraction of each year’s Opening Day.
And that’s true of every season. Even though the Hot Stove League, with its many subplots, keeps baseball’s share of mind (and old PR term, in case you’re interested) during the “off-season,” the fact is the actual start of every new season also reminds us that baseball time never stops, just as, to quote Neil Young, rust never sleeps. And the subplots of the Hot Stove League are many. The Awards Season, with its always manifest controversies (AKA, “how could HE have been voted the MVP?). The Winter Meetings, packed with hype and type (both electronic and hard copy), followed closely, not by Larry Doby, but by the various atrocities of the Free Agency Follies, also known as, “why would anyone give Cesar Izturis THAT much money, or how does David Eckstein keep getting a job?” The annual Hall of Fame voting, which often, though not always, is a case of finding a new way to deny Ron Santo entry. And finally, Spring Training, when every year has its own Ron “Palm Trees” Stone or Roger Freed, who hits .500 in the Grapefruit or maybe Cactus) League, and then falls off to .163 when the regular season starts.
Still, despite the intrigue and insanity of the Hot Stove League, there is always a huge attraction to Opening Day, mainly because each one presents its own series of plot lines, usually involving; the hottest and most-hyped Japanese import since the Toyota, the return of a “retired” star, a quest for some major statistical milestone, at least one divisional race wherein any of four teams has the potential to win, speculation on which, if not both, of the New York teams will make a spectacular pratfall, breathless reports of injuries, various tests of the Commissioner’s cojones, and, prognostications galore, and last but not least, the question of whether or not last year’s World Series champion can repeat.
Of course, as of each year’s Opening Day, that’s all in the future. And this is about the past. And about recognition of those who have gone before Opening Day. It’s about an idea from Rod Nelson, who initially posed the concept in an e-mail.1 The Mount Rushmore of Baseball. A simple, yet brilliant concept. Let’s look back over baseball history… which, in reality, can actually be said to extend back past the start of the 19th Century… and decide who merits having their countenances carved on some prominent point, ala Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt in the hills of South Dakota.
Nelson originally proposed his own personal Mount Rushmore of Baseball as including Babe Ruth, Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson and Marvin Miller2. All good choices, but, upon further reflection, an awfully limiting set for the rich history of the National Pastime. Still, it is a brilliant idea, and not just because Nelson is a very sharp guy and one of baseball’s deep thinkers. There have been innumerable histories of baseball written over the years; everything from the landmark multi-volume historian series of Harold Seymour and David Quentin Voigt, to the interpretive tales of Charles Alexander and Joe Durso, to the analytical brilliance and wit of Bill James. Every one of these works, though greatly diverse in their approaches, inevitably bring the discerning reader to a seminal, though maybe or maybe not obvious, conclusion about the game…there are great figures, even heroic figures, in every era of baseball. Often, they are individuals who have affected major paradigm shifts in the game. Sometimes, they are individuals who can be said to have “saved” the game from various threats, either internal or external. Sometimes they are crusaders, sometimes bringers of information who have enlightened us all about the game, sometimes rules makers and even breakers, and sometimes, they are just heroes who stand astride the game like the Colossus of Rhodes (the one outside of Turkey, not Dusty). And they all, in some fashion, epitomize the transformations of the game.
Thus, even though there have been innumerable histories of baseball written over the past 100 years or so, perhaps there is room for one more. It seems like a reasonable task to look at baseball history, and the changes in the game, through the perspective of the great figures of the game, and how they either effected or represented to those changes and the game’s development. As noted somewhat indirectly above, these great figures need not be players. In fact, in many instances they are not players. Baseball executives, baseball authors/writers, baseball historians, baseball deep thinkers… they all have a place on this Mount Rushmore, because they all played key roles in the development of this marvelous game. So here is a history of baseball, as framed by its outstanding individuals.
Given the vast sweep of history, and the innumerable individuals who have made it (to say nothing of those who have written it), it seems restrictive to just pick four busts to be enshrined on the Mount Rushmore of Baseball. (Besides, that would make for a really short book.) Surely we all know that baseball, or what we now call baseball, has undergone innumerable changes in 200+ years? Differing eras, differing rules – everything from prohibiting the wrist snap on underhand pitching to the DH, differing styles of play, to say nothing of the changes in the players in the game... which means both those on the field and off the field. Without too much difficulty, it is possible to identify for purposes of this book, at least a dozen distinct eras of baseball, each of which merits an individual Mount Rushmore. Now you could, let’s say, pick Daniel “Doc” Adams, Henry Chadwick, Harry Wright and John Montgomery Ward for the 19th Century Mount Rushmore of Baseball. And Ban Johnson, Babe Ruth, Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson for the 20th Century Mount Rushmore of Baseball. And maybe Billy Beane, Bill James, George Mitchell and Albert Pujols for the still-infant 21st Century Mount Rushmore of Baseball. (Or you could make an entire different set of choices.) Or, like Nelson, you could pick Ruth, Rickey, Robinson and Miller as the one, true Mount Rushmore of Baseball (or Chadwick, Wright, Ruth and Rickey – a grouping that would be this author’s choice for the Big Four), it’s truer to the game, and more fun, to choose four each from…
The game and its rules changed and developed so rapidly from the mid-1840s to the mid-1890s that each decade during this period merits its own Mount Rushmore. As the game developed into the 20th Century, the various paradigm shifts become less common, and the eras relatively longer.
Now comes the hard part. Even broken into a dozen or so eras, the grand sweep of baseball history defies easy efforts to isolate just four giants in each era. For that matter, it is oftimes difficult to identify who should go into what era. Probably the most notable example of this is Branch Rickey. Should he be a candidate in 1921-1945 (for his groundbreaking work in the establishment of the farm system), or maybe 1946-1959 (for the 20th Century felling of the Color Line), or possibly 1960-1969 (for his role in bringing about expansion)? Not an easy choice, grasshopper.
This isn’t electing or pondering who should be in a Hall of Fame, it’s choosing four individuals from specific, distinct periods of the game’s history. Yes, there is a great deal of room for discussion on exactly who should go on each Mount Rushmore, and each reader may well have differing opinions from those put forth in this book. However, it’s my book, so I get to make the choices that will appear herein. And that’s without even addressing the problem of where to put the Mount Rushmores of Baseball. One possibility for the latter would be on the hills above the shores of a scenic finger lake in New York State, sometimes known colloquially as “Glimmerglass.” After all, the National Baseball Hall of Fame is already thereabouts. It might even make a good additional tourist attraction to that charming region and village. Alas, that won’t work, and not just because of the possibly unwanted new development it would entail, or because Cooperstown, N.Y. is one of the hardest places to get to in the entire United States, nor even due all the fancy summer homes that have already built on the edge of Lake Otsego (there goes the neighborhood). No, the problem with Cooperstown as the home for the Mount Rushmores of Baseball is that, while the Hall of Fame was invented there, baseball wasn’t, except in the minds of Abner Graves and Albert Spalding.
No, a better spot for the Mount Rushmores of Baseball might be to start carving up the Palisades of New Jersey, just across the Hudson from Upper Manhattan. For it was there, according to the best information we have at the moment, that the first game of what we now commonly recognize as baseball was played in 1846. Besides being more accessible than Cooperstown (though the Jersey Turnpike is hardly as pleasant a ride as the roads leading to Cooperstown), this location would have a subsidiary effect of giving New Jersey another notable attraction outside of; the Shore, various toxic waste dumps, and the town of Freehold, birthplace of the Garden State’s most outstanding native son, Bruce Springsteen. So, let Major League Baseball start buying up the Palisades, and put out in RFP to sculptors, builders, contractors and the like. It’s time to get started on what would be a real Hall of Fame, the Mount Rushmores of Baseball.
-- John Shiffert
To read more from John Shiffert, order a copy of his book "“The Breaks Even Out and Midnight Comes Quickly for Cinderella,” available through the PublishAmerica website at PublishAmerica/Shiffert