baseball ethics, baseball history, coaches and trust, Uncategorized

Size as Well as Race Has Been a Source of Bigotry in Baseball

I was almost twenty years in writing Key to a Cold City.  I should clarify that the work began about twenty years ago, and then the project was pushed aside for a long time.  Now that I’ve retired from teaching, I’m paying renewed attention to some of those undertakings that never quite got off the ground.  This was the most challenging of them all.

The book had its origin in a lazy day of looking through the first baseball cards I ever collected: sets clipped with scissors off the backs of Post Cereal boxes in 1962 and 1963.  Believe me, there was a lot of pleasant nostalgia in revisiting those days of early childhood.  Yet as an adult, I found myself puzzled that so many young players with brilliant stats had simply dropped off the radar in the intervening years.  Even today, kids know (more or less) who Willie Mays and Hank Aaron are… but Vada Pinson?  George Altman?  The statistics in the latter cases could have come from the cards of the former two: Pinson and Altman were that good in the early Sixties.  What happened?

I wondered, as I compiled more and more such cases, if racial prejudice had not utterly disappeared after Jackie Robinson’s arrival on the big-league scene in 1947.  The book began in the hypothesis that it had passed somewhat underground without actually evaporating.  Oh, there were white players who raised similar questions.  Why didn’t Don Demeter blossom as his stats promised?  Why did two-time batting champ Pete Runnels seem to spiral into oblivion in the middle of a brilliant career?  These cases, however, were fewer and also less severe most of the time.  I mean, Pistol Pete did have enough of a chance that he carried home two batting titles!

I’m not offering a review of my own book here.  I’ve made access to it available through these links: Amazon Kindle and Amazon paperback.  (I managed to ratchet the cost of the latter way down by ditching the little bit of red ink used in four graphs; the graphs themselves are relatively unimportant, the red letters should remain distinct as a lighter gray, and the price reduction was an incredible $30!)  I will only say further here of the book’s contents that I find racial issues to be immensely complex.  I’ve developed a real dislike—even a kind of smoldering fury—at how the “r” word is tossed about every time a person of color is caught in a sleazy act.  Real racism shouldn’t be deflated in this manner: its existence shouldn’t validate a “get out of jail” card for grafters and shysters.  Guys in the Sally League were having to dodge bottles and batteries as they tried to follow play from left field.  Their ordeal was nothing remotely like that of a corrupt city mayor who gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

The specific reason I bring the issue of racial prejudice in the Fifties up here is that I truly believe skin color to have been a secondary factor in the discrimination I researched—a kind of ready-made “yellow star” for front-office dopes who couldn’t express their more abstract concerns.  White owners and managers at that time wanted machine-like offenses powered primarily by the home run.  The black players who were filtered to them through the Negro Leagues were well versed in bunting, chopping, hitting to all fields, base-stealing… all things that the MLB brain trust associated with a sloppy, silly, out-of-control game.  I’m sure that the association fed right into the stereotype of the kid of African descent as wild, fun-loving, and disorderly.  Here’s the point, though: the stereotype didn’t produce the distaste for creative, unpredictable baseball—the distaste came first, and (what do you know?) the young black players on trial were prime offenders.

Now, some of the recruits learned to adjust their game.  These are the household names: Mays, Aaron, Banks, Robinson.  Jackie was actually never a slugger of this caliber: I concluded the study very much convinced that Branch Rickey would have used his Negro League style as an excuse to send him back down if “the experiment” had damaged ticket sales.  It was Rickey who ruined George Altman’s prospects by pressuring him to pull the ball over the fence.  A great many other players who had dropped off history’s radar apparently had the same trouble.  Guys like Curt Flood and Floyd Robinson who could have been the next Pete Runnels were instead trying to muscle up and emulate the young Willie McCovey.  Another Willie by the last name of Kirkland was in fact given a very long leash, considering his series of miserable batting averages, because he showed promise in generating “jacks”.

I know I will irritate some people if I say that this situation comes very close to many we see at SmallBallSuccess.com.  Racial prejudice is supposed to be the ultimate misery that anyone may suffer… but to a boy or young man whose whole life is playing ball, not getting a fair chance to play ball is the ultimate misery.  Kids like Jake Wood and Ted Savage, though they were obviously five-tool players, were benched or demoted because, it was said, they struck out too much—but they were striking out too much because management was telling them to pull the hell out of everything!  That’s the precise situation in which my son found himself during his senior year in high school.  He eventually became a successful college pitcher; not every boy of smaller build has that kind of versatility.  Albie Pearson and Dick Hauser scored tons of runs during the brief time they were given to audition in the big leagues.  Though white lads, however, they seemed to be simply reserving a slot in the line-up until a taller prospect arrived at their position.  A promising Georgia boy called “Coot” Veal was taught four or five different batting styles by the “experts” until he didn’t know up from down, all because he came up as that most loathsome of creatures, a front-foot hitter.  Veal, too, was Caucasian; but I found case after case of young black prospects having to submit to precisely the same “lean back and hack” brainwashing that destroyed their success at the plate.

Well, hitting off the front foot happens to be one of the techniques we preach on this site.  The Negro Leagues, in fact, were a veritable repository of Deadball Era tactics that white baseball had consigned to the dustbin of history.  Funny how, half a century later, the game still seems to be waging that war against smaller players who employ offbeat styles to get on base.  They’re not welcome.  The 6’8” slugger who strikes out once a game and can do nothing to thwart a radical shift is on every GM’s Christmas list.

Let’s keep up the fight.  You can’t argue with winning—and eventually even the densest of coaching know-it-alls will have to give you playing time if you’re always on base.

baseball ethics, fathers and sons, Uncategorized

Faith, Reality, and Baseball

One of the enterprises I wanted to pursue in retirement was my work on involving boys of short stature in baseball.  The game itself, and the instruction surrounding it, has turned as regimented and mechanical as everything else in our digitally obsessed society—yet learning complex games is no small part of a young person’s education.  The child learns fast and hard rules, he realizes that certain rules put him at a disadvantage to other players, he figures out how to turn a liability into an asset, and he emerges from it all—with honest, sustained effort—in a triumph of self-discovery and successful adjustment.  These moral lessons are terrifically important.

Football and basketball virtually require extraordinary natural endowments: skills there are an adorning cornice, not a foundation.  By no accident, these latter two sports are also much the most popular with spectators on college campuses.  As spectators, we seem to be growing ever more distant from the spectacle’s participants.  They almost represent a different species; and perhaps, with the aid of hormones and nanobot supplementation, they will soon become precisely that.

I think it well worthwhile, then, to persuade young people that they can excel at a game by identifying their particular (if not spectacular) strengths, perfecting these through practice, and offering a significant contribution to the team’s effort that draws more upon reflection and self-discipline than upon raw sinew.  That’s where baseball comes in—and where boys, especially, come in.  Contemporary Ivory Tower propaganda (which quickly filters all the way down to kindergarten, make no mistake) wails about “toxic masculinity”, labels all males as rapists-in-waiting, and applauds only the gender-uncertain who cede decisions, authority, and initiative to the Nurturing Mother. Now, mothers are great, as we all know; but boys, if they are to become independent and upright young men, need to learn a regimen that introduces them to self-control and vigorous persistence.

Unfortunately, the history of baseball has almost always garbled this hygienic message with incidental static, at least in the United States.  (In Japan and Korea, the game appears to have followed an educational trajectory more like what I should like to see.)  In America’s late nineteenth century, professional players were viewed as rowdies who shirked the productive labor of farm and factory.  Early in the next century, its practices were submitted to a considerable clean-up before any pay-at-the-gate contest was thought fit for ladies to attend. Even as figures like Babe Ruth (and Ty Cobb, too, before Fake News claimed him as one of its early victims) ushered in a heroic era, baseball’s practical and commercial parameters continued to gravitate against a positive moral message.  Games were played almost daily in numerous far-flung venues, so the players’ normal Circadian rhythms—eating habits, sleeping habits, and other bodily demands that needn’t be specified—were forever being nudged hither and yon.  As a result, late-night frolics and heavy drinking became associated with the pro athlete’s life.

Mill teams or municipal squads that squared off on Saturdays (never on Sundays!) somewhat counterpoised this unflattering image; but on the whole, women even of my mother’s generation did not wish to see their sons inking a professional contract.

Today the interference with the constructive message comes primarily from different sources.   The obvious one is the professional game’s saturation in money (following the demise of the nefarious Reserve Clause, which legally classed players as virtual slaves of their owners).  Fathers are so eager to see their sons get the free scholarship ride through college—with a shot at being professionally drafted—that, in a couple of cases I have seen personally, they start the boys on the syringe at the age of ten or eleven.  Even in less depraved cases, dads push their sons too hard to succeed in Little League, thinking that they are helping the boys get a huge headstart on money-making and all the happiness supposed to come with it.  But, Dad, if you will stop and think about that oath that the kids are uttering before each contest, it’s not drawn from the Gospel of Mammon.  On the contrary… search your Bible for the verse, “Love of money is the root of all evil.”

That our boys need a moral lifeline of some sort thrown to them has been underscored for me during the past two weeks by the grotesque volleys exchanged over a Supreme Court nomination.  I have my own very strong opinions about where the truth lies; but in the context of this discussion, I will say no more than that the addiction of both men and women to alcohol and sex as a routine path to social integration on elite college campuses is a national disgrace—and even more: an epidemic of moral degeneracy such as no nation can survive. To the extent that my own son was able to steer clear of debauchery during his college years, I believe his devotion to baseball was the cause.  I would like to write, “his devotion to the Christian faith”… but the organized Church, as represented by most mainstream denominations, is itself in vital need of an infusion of backbone.  St. Paul was fond of comparing the spiritual life to the athlete’s rigorous program of training—but I’m afraid that today’s Church more resembles the party-animal superstar whose contract guarantees him a fortune whether he stays in shape or not.

I posted a very sophomoric video a few days ago (which became 1st part and 2nd part when I overshot YouTube’s time restrictions) entitled “Faith, Reality, and Baseball”.  I truly hate addressing cameras… but I attempted to speak on these issues with what eloquence I could muster off the cuff.  Young men, I find, will actually watch such a presentation with infinitely higher probability than they will read an essay like the one before you; and some of them, even, will be quite generous to the stammering old fool trying to reach them through their generation’s preferred avenue.  It’s clearly not the singer: it has to be the song.  Let’s sing it louder.