Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown: June 8, 2007
CLOSING IN ON 400
June 8, 2007
Sometimes, the numbers become hurdles. I still remember Early Wynn struggling for that elusive 300th win. When the White sox won the pennant in 1959, Wynn went 22-10 (3.17) and needed just 29 more wins to reach 300, and certain admission to Cooperstown's Hall. He picked up 13 wins in 1960, the last summer that Wynn was able to be a rotation regular. In 1961, he went 8-2 in just 17 games (16 starts), leaving him eight games short. Then came 1962, and despite appearing in 27 games (26 starts), Wynn managed just seven wins (against fifteen losses). His ERA ballooned almost a full run, up to 4.46, and in November, he was released. Back for spring training, he was cut again. But the Cleveland Indians, the team for which he had earned more than half of his 299 wins, signed him on for a last hurrah. In twenty games (five starts), Wynn finally got #300 in 1963, and was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1972.
He probably would have made it anyway. How about Al Kaline, the Detroit Tiger star outfielder from 1953-74? He spent his final season playing in 146 games as a Designated Hitter, needing 14 home runs for an even 400. He got 13. Close enough, he was a no-brainer for the Hall. Trying for #400, and for 3,000 hits (he got that, plus seven more) his average sunk to .262, dropping his career BA to .297. Oh well. Mickey Mantle had a similar fate, hitting 18 HRs in his final summer, to end up with 536 -- but batting just .237, dropping his career BA from .302 to .298.
The record book is full of folks who came close. Dave Cash had 699 at bats in 1975. Billy Hamilton scored 196 runs in 1894. Sure, 700 and 200 would have been nice, but hey, 699 and 196 are not too shabby, either. Keep your eye upon the doughnut, not the hole.
I have no idea what I'll do for the 400th issue of NOTES, but this I know -- like Early Wynn's 300th win, it will not come as soon as it might have. And that is because I'll be on the road for a week or so, away from the internet and my home computer. (I often make notes on the road -- literally, in a sprial notebook -- but I don't compose there; don't know why, I just don't.)
In this issue, I lead off with that review of Baseball Before We Knew It that I promised last time, and if you missed #398, you might want to look it up, for a more complete review.
Then another Requiem -- this time for the writer Mark Harris. NOTES has a long tradition of requiems, and for a full listing (and the last one), look up #354 in the archive. I am hopeful that my book Cooperstown Kaleidoscope will include all of them. My requiems are never dirges, I hope, but celebrations of the deceased, as they pass from the world into history. They are, like wakes and funerals, for the living. And they are penned in the hope that we can all be enriched by remembering, embracing the best memories, and then letting go.
Then I revisit a Tough Call, one of the most famous in baseball history, made in 1908 ... it's the "Merkle's Boner" call, but I want you to know about two guys who were not at the Polo Grounds that day -- Warren Gill, and umpire Bill Klem. Klem's expert opinion was not consulted -- and we all know what happens when dissent is ignored.
Finally, this issue has some belated April Fool's satire -- or is it? 2007 is shaping up as the year Barry passed Hank, and it will have a dozen sub-plots involving individuals and teams, as the race to October unfolds. But perhaps 2007 will ultimately go into the books as the year of the Mitchell Probe (we hope not!) -- because that is unfolding, too, offstage and out of earshot, except for the occasional leak. Selig's Folly? We hope so, but it's 'way too early to tell. I imagine Mitchell and company just might go in a different direction ... anyway, be sure to read In the News, batting cleanup below.
GIMME THAT OLD TIME RELIGION
"It was good enough for Christy, it was good enough for Honus, it was good enough for Ty Cobb, and it's good enough for me."
I started to review David Block's Baseball Before We Knew It in the last issue of Notes, and if you are coming in without reading that essay in #398, I suggest you start there. Because I'm not going to repeat myself here.
Block's is a funny book. For me, the best chapters were on the Doubleday myth, and on Abner himself. I suppose a few readers will be crushed to learn that Abner could not have invented the game, as the story goes. But it is comforting to know that behind Santa there was a Saint Nicholas with a life of his own, and so it is with Abner. And it's a pretty fascinating life, taking in not just the Civil War, but the theosophy movement as well. It appears that just as Cooperstown turned out to be a pretty good village to name as baseball's cradle, so did Abner turn out to be a good call as Inventor.
For fans who long ago stopped believing in Abner Doubleday, assuming instead that baseball evolved out of the British game of rounders, Block delivers a harder punch. Turns out baseball is older than rounders. Damn.
The book is worth reading just for the Doubleday-Spalding-Abner Graves-Chadwick history, it really is. It is about time that someone visited all of those guys (and more) with the intention of sorting out the relationships, politics, and economics, and telling their stories based on documentation.
I think how one enjoys the rest of the book will depend on the reader's taste. Personally, Block kept my interest about as far back as the Civil War, but that's me, not the book. Family trees are usually interesting as we go back, according to how well we knew our grandparents, say (if we knew them at all), or our great-grandparents, and so on. It's partly the math, I'm sure: we only have four grandparents, eight greats. After that, we have to track sixteen, then thirty-two, and you get the idea.
I feel like I "know" baseball in the Deadball Era about as well as I knew my grandparents. I can go back another generation a little bit, but it's already murky, with few photos to help. After that, forget it.
Block boldly goes back farther than anyone else has dared, stalking Europe (mainly France and Germany) after scouring Great Britain for family bibles and tombstones, so to speak. If you are into geneologies and digging up old ancestors, this book is for you. If not, then skim, but be sure to savor the images from a 13th century Spanish manuscript of medieval songs; an illuminated miniature from a 1301 calendar; and some wonderful engraved woodcuts, mostly from the 19th century -- these are all tucked in between pages 148-149. They might not be baseball, but they are something.
To say that documentation is Block's strong suit is an understatement. I found myself checking the endnotes throughout the book -- Where did he get THAT? As I said, my interest dropped off once his time machine passed 1860, but I did keep going all the way till the end. My greatest distraction, as time went by, was that I increasingly questioned whether the games he was finding and describing were really connected to baseball. Is ping-pong like baseball? Well, yes -- you hit a ball with a piece of wood. But it's unlike baseball in many more ways, and those are the detours of imagination that showed down my trip.
OK, I will repeat something I said last issue:
How important are creation myths, anyway? Do we really need to know the origins of everything? What about life? What about baseball? Exactly.
Just as we can all live comfortably without taking the creation myths of our various religions literally, we will survive the debunking of the Doubleday Invention. It is enough for most of us to believe that creation "happened" -- that before there was something, there was nothing. No one was there with a videocam, or even a notebook, when the cosmic egg was hatched, but that's OK, if it was documented, we wouldn't need to believe anything, we'd have proof. That's what faith is for. With or without that leap of faith in creation, we can then go on to examine the evidence for evolution, in fossils, genetics, and all the sciences. That's what reason is for.
David Block's book is a feast for our reason, without harming our faith (unless we misplaced it in the Doubleday thing). Personally, I was happy to see that many, maybe most of baseball's roots are in games played by kids -- I think that's where I want to believe baseball was born. On sandlots around the world. And I want to believe that a gang of medieval kids, from France or Germany or England, would feel right at home if they were transported in Block's time machine to a 19th century American village -- let's say, Cooperstown. Put a bunch of kids together with a ball and stick, and they'll figure out the rest, and the game might be different in an hour, or the next day. And I'd like to think they wouldn't throw the ball at each other (unless they are "soaking" someone for a putout), and they wouldn't hit each other with the sticks. That indeed would be a return to the Garden, to the world before we knew it.
REQUIEM FOR AN ARTHUR
I suspect my first contact with the recently deceased Mark Harris was, like many fans, the film adaptation of his novel, Bang the Drum Slowly. It immediately became my favorite baseball movie, and remains at the top of the list. My next contact was the book Diamond: the Baseball Writings of Mark Harris (Donald I. Fine, Inc, 1994). Diamond -- and a card, #19, in a set of baseball cards called Major League Writers produced by Mike Shannon (not the ballplayer) -- made me aware that Bang the Drum was just a volume in a Mark Harris library of novels, and as I learned more, I came to realize that the incomparable pitcher Henry Wiggen had starred in his own book, The Southpaw, and was also the "author" of two other sequels.
Here is my review of Diamond in NOTES #152, January 1998:
I was intrigued by Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author when I first read it in college, and it still hooks me, when I catch the film running on Bravo. Characters that intrude on our reality, our normal everyday lives, asking questions that cannot be readily answered?
Baseball has always been full of characters, perhaps less interesting today than in former days, and so baseball books succeed several ways. One is by discovering the characters of the game through research, then introducing them one by one to readers. Another way is by letting the characters speak up in fiction, and here, Mark Harris is a master.
"I still can't believe it," Harris writes in the preface to this collection. "There must be some mistake. I was not to have spent my life dawdling over baseball. Baseball was wasteful and pointless, leading a boy nowhere."
Baseball has led Mark Harris to the diamond mine, where he extracted such priceless jewels as Henry Wiggen, the Southpaw star of his three novels written back in the fifties (Henry made a comeback in 1979's It Looked Like Forever) -- and Bruce Pearson, who will forever look like young Robert DeNiro, thanks to the screen version of Bang the Drum Slowly.
Bang the Drum remains my favorite baseball movie, yet I've read none of Harris' novels. But the collection Diamond has whet my appetite, and I suspect I get to them sooner now.
Diamond devotes about one third of its pages to Bang the Drum, and its journey from Harris' imagination to print, to the U.S. Steel Hour (where a really young Paul Newman gave Henry Wiggen a face), to the film. But the rest is trained on characters we know from our own life -- Willie Mays & Jackie Robinson, Pete Rose & Bart Giamatti, characters Harris finds on the sandlot or "sees" on the radio.
"Everybody knows everybody's dying, that's why people are as good as they are." Wiggen has the punchline of Bang the Drum. It is sardonic, I think -- the fact is, people with a terminal illness, like Bruce Pearson, get treated better. Gentler, kinder. Harris' characters are wonderfully human -- a mix of hero and bum, saint and sinner. Reminders to his readers that ballplayers are, after all, not that different than the folks in the bleachers. Baseball led Mark Harris to the diamond, and also to the locker room, where naked men sometimes find the naked truth.
* * * * *
It only took six years and eight months for me to finally read Bang the Drum Slowly, and here's what I wrote about it in NOTES #358 (August 27, 2005):
... I've read other stuff by Mark Harris, but somehow his trilogy eluded me. It was worth the wait, Bang the Drum is now one of the best baseball books I've read. Published in 1956, I don't understand how I missed this one all these years. In the late fifties I was raiding my local library regularly, and devoured baseball titles.
No need to repeat the story here. Suffice to say that as soon as I finished Bang the Drum, I started looking for The Southpaw, the first book in the trilogy. And I'll add this: even if you have the film memorized, the book is a whole 'nother treat. Harris' writing has a tinge of Ring Lardner's You Know Me, Al, and the spelling, grammar and vocabulary are rich. Just a great read.
There was a much shorter gap between Bang the Drum and my next Harris novel, The Southpaw, and here's what I wrote about that one in NOTES #369 (February 5, 2006):
I found The Southpaw, in a trilogy of Mark Harris' baseball books published in 1977 under the title Henry Wiggen's Books. (The third in the trilogy is A Ticket for a Seamstitch.) ...
I didn't feel the need to re-tell the story of Bang the Drum Slowly last summer. And I don't want to give away the plot of The Southpaw here, either. Why? Because if you get hooked on the book, as I did, you don't want to know the ending.
Why? Because you are being taken on a wild ride in a pennant race. This trilogy is all first-person, written by the pitcher of the New York Mammoths, Henry Wiggen (the Michael Moriarty character in Bang the Drum). Readers get to know Henry as he moves toward the majors, from sandlot, school and semi-pro ball in Perkinsville. By the time he gets there, you really care about him, and want to see how he will handle the bigs. Not just how he will do on the mound, but everything.
As it turns out, readers find that out in a tight pennant race. When I read Bang the Drum, I knew the team would win the pennant (if it followed the movie), so there was less suspense.
Mike Shannon: "Often hilarious because of narrator Wiggen's penchant for unintentional double entendres, comic grammar, and malapropisms, the novels also deal seriously with the human condition while capturing the feel of the world of baseball."
And indeed they do. The Southpaw deals with race, greed, politics, even war (Korea). Shannon liked Bang the Drum best, but I think I'd rate The Southpaw over it, and that is high praise, because I really enjoyed the former.
One of the things about the books is their utter simplicity. Henry Wiggen is not far from a Tom Sawyer. He is not a complicated person, who over-analyzes things. But he doesn't gloss over things, either. And as the book moves along, we see him come of age, mature, change. So often today, we know athletes by their stats, or their salaries, or their sound bites. Henry Wiggen speaks directly to us, and it feels refreshing.
In fact, the Harris novels are downright nostalgic in a lot of ways. Steroids are not an issue. The players have to bow and scrape for a raise, the owners haggle over a few thousand bucks. Henry Wiggen loves baseball, loves to compete, to pitch in the big games. And that rubs off on readers. Reading Harris/Wiggen is like watching kids play ball, where there's no money at stake, and everyone is in it for the competition and the fun.
Here is a good excerpt to use as a closer:
That night me and Bruce Pearson went to this baseball movie around the corner from the hotel called "The Puddinhead Albright Story" that even Bruce could see for the usual slop that it was where nobody sweats and nobody swears and every game is crucial and the stands are always packed and the clubhouse always neat as a pin and the women always beautiful and the manager always tough on the outside with a tender heart of gold beneath and everybody either hits the first pitch or fans on 3. Nobody ever hits a foul ball in these movies. I see practically every 1 that comes along and keep watching for that one foul ball but have yet to see it.
Bruce Pearson knows that his pal Henry Wiggen is a writer, an author -- and he calls him "Arthur." Henry doesn't mind, and I don't think Mark Harris would, either.
At the end of Bang the Drum, Wiggen recalls Pearson's last request. Too ill to play ball any longer, Pearson leaves the team during the World Series, asking Wiggen to send him a scorecard. He says he would.
But then I never sent it. We wrapped the Series up on Sunday, my win again, and I took a scorecard home with me and tossed it on the shelf and left it lay. Goddam it, anyhow, I am just like the rest. Wouldn't it been simple instead of writing a page on my book to shoved it in the mail? How long would it of took? Could I not afford the stamps?
Pearson dies soon after, and the reader is left to ponder all the things we meant to do, but put off, and then it was too late. How long would it of took?
Well, I've put off reading It Looked Like Forever, but (if I may be permitted to slip into my imitation of Wiggen), I reckon it's OK, because the guy who wrote the first 3 books did them all in 3 or 4 years, back in the fifties, then took 22 more years for number 4 -- it seemed like forever, I'm sure, to Harris' fans. So I guess it will be O.K. for me to take a little longer between the readings. Then, I'll read Diamond again.
If you are reading this and have never read Mr Harris' books, any of them, then I'm very jealous of you. Because you got a treat ahead of you.
Thank you, Mr Harris, for everything.
A few issues ago, in #396, I reviewed Crazy '08, a book which features 1908, but mainly focuses on the National League race of that summer. The pennant went to the Chicago Cubs after a one-game playoff (October 8) against McGraw's NY Giants. That game may not have been necessary, had a call in an earlier Cubs game (September 23) gone a different way, giving that game to the Giants. And the call that made THAT game a tie, hinged on a game the Cubs played against Pittsburgh on September 4.
In that last game, the Pirates won, with the winning run coming in Pittsburgh's last ups. Baserunner Warren Gill (1908 would be his first and last season in the majors) saw that run score (from third base, on a clean hit), and he left the field, believing that the game was over. And it was, even though the Cubs 2B Johnny Evers retrieved the call and touched second base, with umpire Hank O'Day on hand to observe what looked like a force out. But O'Day declined to make the call, he was watching the runner score that winning run, not Gill -- game over.
As far as we know, no one called Gill a "Bonehead." The Cubs appealed the game, but NL President Harry Pulliam would not overrule his umpire.
When a similar play occurred on September 23 -- of course, this is the more famous incident, with another youngster, Fred Merkle on first -- O'Day was again the umpire, and Evers again the 2B making the force play. This time O'Day called the runner out, for failing to touch second. By the time he made that call, the field was filled with fans celebrating the Giants' victory. No one knows whether Evers had the baseball that had been in play, and there are several versions of exactly what happened to that ball. But home plate umpire O'Day made the call anyway: runner out at second, on the force, side retired, the run that scored does not count.
Paul Adomites has a fine article on this whole episode, "Giant Chain of Events," in the Spring 2007 issue of the magazine 108. There, he writes that O'Day explained (a safe six years later) that he called Merkle out not because he failed to touch second, but because the Giants' Joe McGinnity had interfered with Evers who was trying to make the play -- the same play he made on September 4.
President Pulliam again had a decision to make. With more at stake, he took his time, carefully gathering statements from the umpires. And again, Pulliam upheld O'Day's call, even though it was inconsistent with the call O'Day made on September 4. Because it was impossible to continue the game, it went into the books as a 1-1 tie. If necessary, the game would need to be replayed, and it was, October 8, with the Cubs winning the pennant, and then their last World Series.
What I find most intriguing is that someone called the O'Day call in "the Merkle Game" of September 23, "the rottenest decision in the history of baseball." When that statement was made, in 1951, it took in a lot of baseball, and, we can suppose, a lot of rotten calls. Who made the statement? A manager who enjoyed arguing with umpires? A player? No, it was perhaps the most respected umpire in history, Bill Klem. No one was better known for integrity, honesty, dignity, and impartiality.
We don't know if Klem was consulted in September 1908. Probably not, but if he was, he would have awarded the September 23rd game to the Giants. He believed that the intent of the rule that declared the runner had to touch second, in the situations of both Gill and Merkle, was to clarify matters in regard to infield outs -- not clean base hits to the outfield. Common practice of that day was also common sense -- as soon as that winning run scored, head for the clubhouse and hope you made it before the fans tore off your uniform. Probably Klem had to bolt the diamond a few times himself, and understood perfectly what Gill and Merkle did.
Because of the repercussions of O'Day's call on September 23, it was O'Day's interpretation of the rule that became official. It may be that "the Giants wuz robbed" -- but these were the Giants of John McGraw, popular in New York but not so much in the rest of the country. Probably this call, going against New York, was as popular in 1908 as a call today going against the Yankees would be.
We can admire the gutsiness of Hank O'Day for making the call that unfairly made Fred Merkle a scapegoat. OK, O'Day had the good sense to make it somewhat privately, and away from the crowd that might have turned into a lynch mob, had he made it a little sooner. Or we can argue that O'Day was inconsistent, having let Pittsburgh's winning run count on September 4.
As for Johnny Evers, he became baseball's brainiest guy overnight, and in 1912, he collaborated with Hugh Fullerton on a popular book (still available in reprints), Touching Second.
I suspect that we will hear more and more about "the Merkle Game" next year -- as its 100th anniversary comes around.
With that kind of finish in 1908, you would expect the Cubs and Giants to play the games against each other in 1909 with blood in their eyes, and on their minds. And they probably did, but the Giants would finish '09 at 92-61, twelve back of the 104-49 Cubs. But the Cubs finished second, behind the 110-42 Pirates. In 1910, the Cubs were back on top, before a three-year run by McGraw. Matty versus Three Finger: those were the days!
IN THE NEWS
Another leak in the steroid probe headed up by former senator George Mitchell suggests that there has been a dramatic change in direction taken by investigators. Discouraged by the lack of cooperation from active ballplayers, their confidence shaken by the knowledge that Selig was virtually the only MLB official who though that the probe was a good idea -- and now Selig has regrets -- Mitchell and his staff have pretty much abandoned the pursuit of drug and substance abuse violations.
Quietly, far away from the media glare, the probe shifted its focus last April 1 to a very different problem: gambling.
"It's something that we noticed baseball never really dealt with," Mitchell explained, asking not to be identified as the source of the leak. "It seems that the old baseball czar Ban Johnson was the last guy to think the gambling ties to baseball were strangling the sport." As president of the American League, Johnson was unable to marshall enough support among team owners to thoroughly examine the extent of the gambling problem, and then take the necessary actions to solve it.
A Cook County grand jury convened in Chicago in September 1920 attempted to do just that. Even then, millions of dollars were wagered on baseball, especially in pools, and the integrity of the game was increasingly in jeopardy. But that body got distracted by one particular symptom, a case of bribery that tainted the World Series of 1919. Subsequently, "the Black Sox scandal" took over the headlines. Eight players were banned, baseball outlawed the tossing of games, and life went on.
"We have learned that the practice of baseball pools was completely ignored by baseball, when it had the chance in 1920. In fact, we are shocked that pools and betting on baseball continued to flourish, so that today, the problem is greater than ever," an aide to Mitchell stated.
"We also discovered," Mitchell continued to leak, "that MLB never actually investigated the so-called 'Black Sox scandal' itself. The 1921 trial appears to be an attempt to contain and cover-up, rather than to reveal what really happened. For example, there is some evidence that the baseball authorities in charge of the 1919 World Series knew about the bribery before the first pitch of Game One. But there were record gates predicted, and baseball really needed the money, so there was no way they were going to stop and look into what they called 'rumors.'" Nor was there any real investigation after the Series. The role of baseball's leaders in the cover-up of that World Series fix was completely avoided by the 1920 grand jury and the 1921 trial. "We want to start there," said Mitchell, "even though the trail is cold."
Asked to comment on this surprising development, Commissioner Bud Selig expressed his satisfaction with the change of targets. "It certainly allows all of us to breathe a little easier. My office's shredder will get a needed rest. I might even attend the game when Barry Bonds passes Aaron. This is great news, even if it is a leak."
Off the record, the Players Association expressed similar delight with Mitchell's shift of gears. "It only seems fair, to deal with the bigger problem, the one that's needed attention for over a century. We are happy that the steroid issue will be resolved by the medical community and the nation's legal system."
Because fans have been so upset with the apparent widespread use of steroids and other banned substances, it is anticipated that they will cooperate fully when Mitchell's investigators appear this summer and next October in their workplaces, to check for the presence of illegal betting pools.
"We are thinking that we can take this a step further," Mitchell added. "We want to start in the newspaper offices, be sure they are clean, so they can report our progress with clear consciences. We will also check to make sure writers are themselves not enhancing their performances with various substances. Again, we were shocked to learn that the Baseball Writers Association has no standards in place, regarding either gambling or steroids. Yet its members vote on who gets into Cooperstown. We think that is ludicrous. Hypocritical."
There is reason to doubt that the Mitchell probe will advance swiftly, however. Its initial round of subpoenas were sent out to Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other players banned by Commissioner Landis in 1921. "We want to talk to a certain Hal Chase, too," Mitchell said. "We understand that he was right in the middle of the gambling mess, for years, but always escaped any punishment. We think he can implicate many others, maybe even John McGraw. We are giving them all ample time to reply. So far, nothing, but they are probably consulting with their lawyers."
Whether the Mitchell probe will go beyond gambling, when it touches the average fan, is not clear. "Sure, we have thought about following the trail, from the office pools that look so innocent, to the more organized crime disguised as Rotisserie ball, and then to checks at random homes," Mitchell's top aide whispered, asking not to be quoted. "The Homeland Security guys are pressuring us to follow fans after games, and then check their houses for illegal stuff -- you know, anything that might enhance their performance as fans, even when they watch TV or listen to the radio. Wire-tapping has been mentioned, yes. I know it sounds bizarre, but how else can we really clean up the sport, to make it 100% All-American, safe and straight enough to bet on -- oops, I mean, to follow."
NFL, NBA and NHL officials are said to be watching the Mitchell probe carefully, and are likely to follow its model if it succeeds in cleansing baseball's image and restoring the confidence of advertsers and consumers.