The Gospel Truth

The Human Game | August 17, 2010

Baseball is much more than a funny game as Joe Garagiola quipped many years ago.

It is a refreshingly human game that brings to the forefront all the best and the worst facets of human nature.

We all know about the recent scandals with steroids and performance-enhancing drugs but even that is part and parcel of man’s human nature.

This flows from the very nature of the game.  They keep score. There are winners and losers.  Everyone wants to be a winner.

Saw the funny side

Conversely, no one wants to lose.  But some teams do–just ask the old St. Louis Browns players, survivors from the 1962 Mets and the 1988 Baltimore Orioles, the linear descendants of the Browns.

We have it in our nature to bleed every chance we can to ensure a victory.

Players are no different. When skill is lacking, sometimes players will opt for guile.  That’s why they have umpires.

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The one-armed Pete Gray in 1945

Years ago I interviewed an author, Martin Quigley, who had made a study of the physics of the curve ball and other pitches of that era that broke, dipped, dropped or made some unpredictable movement.

His book was entitled The Crooked Pitch — a double entendre he used because many of these pitches were also patently illegal from a rules’ standpoint because they had been doctored that is, foreign substances had been added surreptitiously to cause the pitch to behave in a funny manner.

These crooked pitches included the shine, mud, coffee and the most infamous–the spit ball.

These pitches were outlawed for all but a select list of current pitchers who were grandfathered in.

This all happened in the wake of the death of Ray Chapman, who in August of 1920 became the first and so far onlymajor league player to be liked during a game.

A Carl Mays side-winding fastball struck him in the temple, breaking his neck in the process.  After lingering for several hours he died the next morning.*

So dirty was the ball that Mays was using that Chapman could not see it.

Since then Major League baseball has done everything to stop this practice.

Early modern pitchers from the 50s-70s like Preacher Roe, and Gaylord Perry became notorious for teasing the public with does he or doesn’t he types of questions.

The doubt just added to their unpredictability.

In a book a few years ago, Derek Zumsteg documented just how players have cheated over the years.

When he was a player, Hall of Fame manager, John McGraw used to grab the belt of a tagging runner at third base, trying to impede his ability score.

The Cheater's Guide to Baseball
Cheating is part of the game

He got away with this for a long time until, one player loosened his belt and as he took off to score, McGraw was left with the leather evidence in his hand.

Several students of the game, such as Harold Seymour, Roger Angel, and Bob Costas have sung the lyrical praises of baseball but few touched on the more emotional and sympathetic side of the human the game.

I was privy to a rare semi-public moment in baseball sentimentality in 1991.

I was at a LA Dodger game  and as had been my wont I had brought my camera to snap anything in a uniform that moved.

Tom Lasorda, the Dodger manager and face of the franchise for several years was not expected on this trip because his only son, Tommy had died at the age of 32.

So I am standing over the LA dugout and Cardinal manager, Joe Torre comes out of the home dugout and starts walking right toward me.  He goes down into the Dodger dugout.

Not that this is a violation of the fraternization rule but it was quite unusual.

Seconds later both Torre and Lasorda pop out of the dugout and they start walking toward the Cards’ dugout.  Torre was comforting Lasorda.

A Rare Moment

I sent copies of my picture to both men and was able to get them both autographed.

Read Lasorda’s comment to me and you will see why this is one of my most treasured possessions.

It was writer Roger Kahn who chronicled the true human side of the players more so than anyone else with his 1972 book, The Boys of Summer.

This magnum opus of baseball literature explored the declining years of several members of the 1952-53 Brooklyn Dodgers.

It quickly became obvious that the focal point of the book w as racial pioneer Jackie Robinson who became the first black man to play Major League baseball since Moses Fleetwood Walker was exiled from the game in 1884.

Robinson’s health had deteriorated so much to the extent that by the book’s publication he was nearly blind from diabetes.

The other players paled by comparison.

There were the assorted physical difficulties, diseases, divorces, and financial reverses but none took center stage like Jackie Robinson who died shortly after the book’s debut.

Kahn’s lyrical title said it all.  It was taken from a poem by Dylan Thomas that lamented:  See the boys of summer.  See them in their tragic ruin.

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In their tragic ruin

Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers’ short-stop and Captain was also included in the book.

He was my first real hero and gave so much joy to my youth with his quiet leadership, easy manner, and dedicated play.

He had an instrumental role in assuring Robinson’s success.  A Kentuckian by birth, Reese had several prejudiced friends and neighbors.

His approval meant a great deal to Robinson.

Cooperstown acknowledged his role in the Robinson saga on his own plague, which also hangs in its hallowed halls.

So important was Reese to me that I interviewed him in the same room that Kahn did in 1972 on my wife’s birthday.

Reese felt he did not belong in the book.  And was probably right then but years later the ravages of age caught up with him.

Pee Wee Reese
Oh Captain, my Captain

His son Mark, whom I met that July night made a poignant documentary about his father’s heroic but losing battle with prostate cancer.

Pee Wee’s declining health had eventually proved Kahn right.

Like this country, I believe baseball is in danger of losing touch with its human roots.

Part of the problem is Sabermetrics, a neologism that emanated from the superior research of the Society for American Baseball Research.

I was a member of SABR from 1974 to about 1996.

I left it because it was giving too much weight to the numbers side of the game and they seemed to be lessening the importance of the human game.

It seemed as if they wanted to quantify every thing that was even remotely possible.

The NY Times now prints something called the baseball WHIP.

I really don’t understand what that means, unless baseball has now gotten into S&M and I don’t mean Slaughter and Musial!

I only liked the stats I could understand, such as RBIs, batting averages and even the more esoteric ERA for pitchers.  Anything past that was more a distraction than a help.

Baseball does not hold the same fanatical attraction for me today.  It seems to be losing its grip on the American imagination.  The game has gotten so scientific and the games take forever.

It has gotten that one of the two games without an absolute clock, I now limit how far into a game I want to sit through.

Now they want to introduce an instant replay feature, which will only make the games even longer.

Nearly 40 years ago it was my view as a college teacher, who offered what was  arguably the first accredited baseball course in the Midwest, that baseball reflected American life.

I think all the technology and excessive statistical analysis in baseball reflects the nation’s belief that the human side of the game is not as important.  You can’t quantify emotion.

We seem to have forgotten the baseball adage that in base ball to err is part of the human game…and of life as well.

* I heard a great trivia question on a recent trip.  A guy asked me “who was the pinch-runner for the dying Chapman?” The game was not cancelled or suspended. Send your answers and guesses to me at BBPROF@SBCGLOBAL.net.

And check out our St. Louis Browns website  http://www.thestlbrowns.com

A recent BFC luncheon

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7 Comments »

  1. Bill,

    First, in answer to your trivia question: Harry Lunte, a St. Louisan, was the pinch-runner for the felled Ray Chapman, who was hit by a pitch in a game on Monday, Aug. 16, 1920, and died the next morning, 90 years ago today. Several Hall of Famers played in that game, including the Yankees’ Babe Ruth and the Indians’ Tris Speaker and Stanley Coveleski. Here’s the box score:
    http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1920/B08160NYA1920.htm

    The spitball had been outlawed prior to that season except for two designated pitchers per team.

    I agree that there are many meaningless stats in major league baseball today, e.g., the quality start, batting average when putting the ball in play (duh, always higher than the regular batting average because of the staggering total of strikeouts these days) and OPS (on base plus slugging percentage). Even the save is preposterous because a “closer” can enter the game in the ninth with his team leading 3-0 and give up two runs while loading the bases and still get a save if he somehow doesn’t allow the tying run. But most of today’s preponderance of bogus stats weren’t created by SABR members, so don’t blame SABR. As a 24-year SABR member who’s going to stay one, I can testify that SABR has done much to help people better understand the human side of the game you write about by encouraging all kinds of research into such areas as biographies, team histories, social trends, finances, minor leagues, the role of women in baseball, Negro Leagues, etc.

    Come on back to SABR; we’d love to have you and some other former members rejoin us.

    Comment by Jim Rygelski — August 17, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

  2. Jim:

    Any differences I may have with your incisive analysis of SABR is probably more a case of apples and oranges than anything else. Most of your experience with SABR I trust is with the local Bob Broeg Chapter, which incidentally I was one of four “founding fathers.” It has always been a vital local organization, especially under your esteemed leadership and guidance. And I believe its local nature has allowed it to maintain the values of pure research and investigation of the “human game,” more than the national organization, whose politics and cultic figure Bill James have , perhaps, not distorted the national groups’ reason for being but at least taken it in a new direction. My beef is really with them. Thanks for all your time in commenting on this post. BBPROF

    Comment by bbprof — August 18, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

  3. Jim:

    As for Harry Lunte, you are absolutely right. When I was asked that in Calgary a few weeks ago, I had never heard the question before. My guess was Joe Sewell, who according to one article, was the “man who substituted for death.” He was, as you know, the SS who replaced Chapman in the next game. SAt the time of his fatal injury, Sewell was playing for the Pelicans in AAA (New Orleans). Lunte never played in the ML after September 23rd, though I think he was on the WS roster.
    Incidentally Sewell has several claims to fame, the most interesting is the fact that he has the lowest ratio of strike-outs to at-bats for a player, incredible in this and age of free swingers and from my BFC perspective, his brother was Luke Sewell, who managed the local Browns to their only pennant in 1944. Thanks again. BB

    Comment by bbprof — August 18, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

  4. Bill,

    Nice work on this piece.

    Harry Lunte, of course, is the answer to your trivia question, but I see that other Google-competent readers have beaten me to the punch on that one.

    Baseball remains as the only human game that really attracts me. I cannot watch the NBA, except for the last two minutes of Game Seven (if there is one) of the Finals. I will also watch the Super Bowl, but only with the attention span of a rat as he simultaneously devours the cheese of Super Bowl Sunday treats,

    My fanatical attraction to baseball wavers with the plight of my Houston Astros, but I still enjoy the feel of being at the ballpark, even under the circumstances of our present lean time in the standings.

    I don’t worry about the length of games. As a kid, I neither played ball, nor watched professional ball, in the hope of getting home in the quickest time possible. “I don’t care if I never get back” worked pretty thoroughly within me. The game was my only grip on eternal joy. There was no clock – and I just enjoyed being there anytime I joined as either a player or fan.

    My own experience as long-time, still going SABR member also runs a little contrary to your own, although I know a few people who’ve bailed because of the stat-commandos. Our Larry Dierker Houston Chapter isn’t like that. We have some state people, but we mainly have a lyrical mix of “never get back” folks who also grew up on the sandlot and who still enjoy reading and mixing with others who still enjoy discussing some of the more poetic and prosaic aspects of the game. We’ve even organized our own vintage base ball team to play against other local clubs. Our 1888 style “Houston Babies” are similar in make-up to the St. Louis Perfectos and Unions that you have up there.

    What I have to stay way from in baseball are all the stories about salary dispute and steroid use. Those are the things that let the air of my magic balloon and pretty fast.

    I guess what I’m saying today boils down to this: Baseball is the only early life illusion I had that never completely died – and I would simply like to keep it that way. The day that baseball dies out totally in my heart is the day I may as well be gone too. It would be time for God to take me too.

    Thanks for writing this piece, I needed a nice little catharsis right about now and your column has opened the door for it.

    Comment by Bill McCurdy — August 19, 2010 @ 8:41 pm

  5. Thanks Bill. Your answer means a lot to me. Read one of my responses to Jim and you will se that the three of us “fanatics” are basically inches apart instead of miles. BB

    Comment by bbprof — August 19, 2010 @ 9:54 pm

  6. Well done, Pop. I loved this piece.

    Comment by Matt Borst — August 21, 2010 @ 1:58 am

  7. […] The Human Game August 2010 6 comments 4 […]

    Pingback by 2010 in review « The Gospel Truth — January 2, 2011 @ 7:22 pm


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About author

After graduating from Holy Cross, Bill Borst earned an MA in Asian History from St. John's University and a Ph.D in American History from St. Louis University. (1972) A former New Yorker, he taught for many years in the St. Louis area, while also hosting a weekly radio show on WGNU from 1984-2006. He currently is a regular substitute for conservative Phyllis Schlafly on KSIV radio. (1320) He is the author of two books on social history, "Liberalism: Fatal Consequences," and "The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy." He just retired as the Features editor of the Mindszenty Foundation Monthly Report. In his 11 years from 2003-2013 he wrote nearly 130 essays on Catholic culture and world affairs. Many in St. Louis also know him as the "Baseball Professor," because of a course that he offered at Maryville College from 1973-74. It was arguably the first fully-accredited baseball history course in the Midwest.The author of several short books on the old St. Louis Browns, he started the St. Louis Browns Historical Society in 1984. In 2009 his first two plays were produced on the local stage. "The Last Memory of an Ol' Brownie Fan," ran six performances at the Sound Stage in Crestwood and "A Perfect Choice" ran for two performances at the Rigali Center Theater in Shrewsberry. His third play, "A Moment of Grace," ran six performances at DeSmet High School in January of 2011with First Run Theater in January of 2011. He is currently working on a 4th play, "A Family Way," which is a comedy about a happy dysfunctional family. He can reached at bbprof@sbcglobal.net

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