Curt Flood, Camden Yards, Pete Rose, and Other Reflections on Baseball
by George Will
Buy it from Amazon from Barnes & Noble
Bunts are modest and often useful things, although they are not always well understood, even by those who are supposed to know when and how to lay them down. In a baseball story in McClure's magazine in 1917, back when the ball was dead and bunting was an essential and admired skill, a manager marveled at a player's misconceptions:
"So I asks him, 'Young man, can you bunt?' 'Mr. Ryan,' says he, 'I don't like to brag about myself, but I can bunt farther than any other man on the team.' Them's his very words. Can you beat it?"
The origin of the word "bunt" is lost in the mists of history, which of course does not inhibit either speculation or certitude. In the Church of Baseball, the mere absence of conclusive evidence is no impediment to belief. Baseball fans are forever in the grip of originitis, a mild mental illness that manifests itself in a powerful craving for usually unattainable knowledge of when this or that practice originated. Baseball's most venerable "knowledge" is the most preposterous: It is the Abner Doubleday myth, the story that in the summer of 1839 young Abner sashayed into Farmer Phinney's pasture at Cooperstown and said, "Let there be baseball," or words to that effect. There is even a theory about the origin of the use of batting gloves. It is that in 1968 Ken Harrelson, then with the Bostons (concerning that way of speaking, see the essay about Bill Rigney in this volume), assumed he was not expected to play in a particular night game. So he played 36 holes of golf before going to the ballpark, where he arrived with blistered hands and found his name on the lineup card. (That is what you get for assuming.) So he wore his golf gloves to bat.
One theory about the origin of the word "bunt" is that it evolved from the word "butting," which is what Tim Murnane of the Boston Red Stockings called it when he used his flat-sided bat -- such bats were legal back then -- to put a ball into play without swinging. Another theory is that "bunt" derived from "buntling" to designate a baby hit. That is a particularly charming theory, so let's accept it until some spoilsport refutes it.
I have titled this collection of baseball writings Bunts because they are mostly small, most of them having been written for newspapers, magazines and book review publications. Baseball, unlike basketball or hockey or soccer, is a game of episodes, not of flow, and so lends itself to snapshots. These essays are verbal snapshots taken of baseball during a quarter of a century of usually exhilarating, sometimes exasperating but always affectionate observation of the game. The subjects of these essays range from the nobility of Curt Flood, to the torments of Billy Martin, to the self-destruction of Pete Rose. They range from what baseball has done exquisitely right -- Camden Yards, for example -- to what it has done ruinously wrong -- labor relations. Two of the longer essays, the one on broadcaster Jon Miller and the concluding survey of the game at the end of the century, were written for this volume.
Connie Mack, who spent sixty-four years in Major League Baseball -- fifty-three of them in dugouts, and fifty of those wearing a business suit and necktie and stiff collar and managing the Philadelphia Athletics -- said near the end of his life, "I have never known a day when I didn't learn something new about this game." There is indeed a lot to learn. The writings in this volume contain much of what one fan has learned from a lifetime constantly refreshed by sips from the meandering stream of baseball's life.
I am sometimes asked when it was that I first came upon that stream which irrigates my life. I answer that I do not know, because I have no memory of life before baseball. My mother recalled that at age six, after listening to a broadcast of a 1947 World Series game that the Yankees lost, I asked her if the Yankees' mothers would be sad. (She said, "No." She should have said, "Not for long.") My interest in baseball was fed by radio. I grew up in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, a university community, and radio was my connection with metropolitan America. As we lived more or less midway between Chicago and St. Louis, the family Philco crackled with the broadcasts of the Cubs (Burt Wilson), White Sox (Bob Elson), Cardinals (Harry Caray) and Browns (Buddy Blattner). Baseball was in the air.
For half a century, and especially in the almost quarter of a century covered by the columns and other essays in this volume, the national pastime has been a full participant in the three great dramas of the nation in that period. These dramas have concerned relations between the races, the temptations and stresses of prosperity and the aggressive assertion of new rights. In this period I have come of middle age, and baseball has grown up.
These rites of passage are supposed to be tinged with melancholy -- farewell to innocence and all that -- and baseball has in fact paid a price for its growth into an institution more complex and less intimate than it was. In a sense, baseball has become both more and less close to those of us who care about it. It is closer to us in the sense that we know more about its internal workings as a business, and we know more about (and there is more to know about) what the players and managers are doing during games. On the other hand, a certain social distance has opened up between the people on the field and the people in the stands. Players and managers are highly paid celebrities, with all the attendant demands on them, and often a certain wariness from them. The stakes of success and failure are much higher than they were.
So much has changed, but the most remarkable thing is that the essential feature -- the enjoyment fans derive from a close connection with the game -- has not. The following writings wend their way through the delights and, yes, exasperations of one fan's experiences with this American delight. The volume ends with a summing-up, an examination of baseball's evolution through the century. It is nice to know that my last words in this volume will not be the last word on anything, because baseball is a work in progress. If you don't believe me, just remember -- and heed -- the fan's familiar cry: "Wait 'til next year!"
Copyright © 1998 by George F. Will. Excerpted with permission.