By David Isle
“Correct thinkers think that ‘baseball trivia’ is an oxymoron; nothing about baseball is trivial.”
- George Will, professional idiot
Woody Allen once said that tradition is the illusion of permanence. I have sympathy with those who cling to the illusion of permanence, impermanence being an unsettling reality. When the tradition itself is illusory, however, I have less sympathy. Those of us who discovered tailored clothing only in adulthood all know the embarrassment of false tradition. Some sartorial edict we thought was the patinaed whim of some Regency-era aristocrat, revealed instead to be the inbred descendant of some spurious forum post.
This feeling must by shared by any baseball fan who takes an honest view of the sport and its history. Since baseball’s current fan base comprises almost exclusively older white men (the Viagra ads on every telecast give you all the data on viewer demographics you need), the sport has managed to convince itself that it represents all that is holy and good in the American spirit. Honor, teamwork, respect, and, of course, gentlemanliness.
You can see it in the uniform. If you look for it, at least. It’s the only sport that you play wearing a belt. The uniforms were originally flannel, which is perfect to signal the sport’s moral seriousness to men in gray flannel suits (even if flannel was originally made for underwear). Baseball’s premier organization and spiritual center, the Yankees, famously (used to) prohibit their players from growing facial hair, on the grounds that it was uncouth. They wear pinstripes, for god’s sake. Major League Baseball would have you believe that the league’s history runs straight from Christy Mathewson (known as “The Gentleman’s Hurler”) to Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man alive speech” to Jackie Robinson’s courageous integration of American sports to Derek Jeter. And moreover, that the sport instills the good christian values of bunting the runner over in every new generation of little leaguers.
This is almost all bullshit. Christy Mathewson was one of the original five members of baseball’s Hall of Fame. The leading vote-getter of this crew was Ty Cobb, perhaps the biggest asshole in the history of American sports. He not only slid into bases with his feet held high so that his spikes would do violence against opposing fielders, but sharpened his spikes before games to make them more damaging. He said of himself, proudly, that “In legend I am a sadistic, slashing, swashbuckling despot who waged war in the guise of sport,” which, to be fair, sounds like something the great dandy George IV might have said, minus the “in the guise of sport” part.
Ty Cobb, Baseball's biggest asshole (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Baseball can’t stop celebrating Jackie Robinson - they have Jackie Robinson Day every year, when all players wear his number, 42. The number has been retired by all teams. It’s a fitting tribute to a great man. But baseball players and fans in Jackie Robinson’s time weren’t quite so happy about it. The St. Louis Cardinals - another of the league’s most revered franchises - threatened to strike if Robinson played. Nor was baseball the first sport to integrate. The most popular American sport at the time was boxing, which Joe Louis had already dominated for a decade, including his shining moment as an avatar for American democracy against the Nazi hero Max Schmeling. The United States Olympic teams had been integrated long before, including Jesse Owens’s starring performance in the 1936 games in Berlin. Baseball was, if anything, a latecomer.
The Famous Number 42 (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Baseball today is a place people go to mourn the passing of an era that never really lived. Every little league field is surrounded by a few red-faced dads who want to relive their imagined glory days, mad as hell if their kid strikes out where they are sure they would have homered. Self-appointed “traditionalists” say the pro game has lost its integrity because nobody knows how to bunt or steal anymore, even though statistical analysis shows bunting to be folly and stealing usually not worth the risk. Many of the same people are still pissed about the Designated Hitter, condemned Ken Griffey, Jr. for wearing his hat backwards in the early 90s, and now denounce Yasiel Puig for flipping his bat after a home run. Just as there are people who think wearing a suit makes you a gentleman, there are people who think running out ground balls makes you a ballplayer. And that being a ballplayer makes you a True American.
It’s unfortunate, because baseball is such a beautiful game. I remember the exact moment I first saw a major league baseball field. Walking out of the tunnel and seeing that endless emerald green, the infield dirt so fine and fecund you can smell it from the upper deck. And this was at Shea Stadium - imagine what it must be like at a decent park. The classic uniform designs are absolutely impeccable. The Tigers, the Reds, the Dodgers, fine, even the Yankees - you can’t design uniforms better than those. Jil Sander would kill to put out a season like that.
It’s understandable to see something that perfect, and want to preserve it in glass. To make it into a parable, so that the rest of the world can be that perfect too. To George Will-icize it until we imagine the rules of baseball in the U.S. Constitution, with attendant myths of Thomas Jefferson bunting George Washington over to second. But that’s too much to expect from a sport. The best thing for Americans to do with baseball is the only thing that is no longer allowed: enjoy it.