How Baseball Explains America – or used to

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Hal Bodley’s How Baseball Explains America (Triumph Books) does indeed explain why baseball is the national pastime.  Or is it the national past-its-time?  Bodley, long-time baseball insider for USA Today, convincingly shows that from the dawn of the republic and for at least a century and a half since, this sport defined us as a nation.

He cites General Washington at Valley Forge playing catch with his aides and watching his men enjoy a form of baseball.  On a rare comfortable day at the Forge.

What explains America more than this?  President Franklin Roosevelt writes Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis a month after Japan strafed Pearl Harbor:  “I honestly feel it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.”

So when 95 percent of big-leaguers signed up to fight for their country, enough remained at home to turn out a product that, though much inferior (a one-armed outfielder, for example), provided solace to the masses looking for recess in a horrifying, grueling war.

In chronicling renowned events, Bodley injects interesting details most readers would not know.  The end of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak on a day when “he grounded out on a close play,” then “hit in each of the next 16 games, thus hitting in 72 of 73.”

Baseball explains America’s fast-blooming and enduring love of television.  By 1947 all of the then 16 big-league teams except Pittsburgh televised some of their home games.

George Will writes, in an eloquent forward to this book, of the 1958 All-Star Game, in which Casey Stengel’s American Leaguers won 4-3, in two hours and 13 minutes.  That was truly the golden age of baseball, but what Bodley celebrates, perhaps a bit too much, is the current age of gold as in billions of dollars, mostly from broadcasting rights.

He calls Bud Selig “the best commissioner baseball has ever had.”  To me, this is like saying Santa Anna is Mexico’s greatest general (secured the Alamo 20 minutes after storming it but later lost Texas, California, everything in between).  Truly faint praise here, the bar being Kenesaw Mountain. 

The judge had a portentous name and a magnificent head of hair but not all that much happening under it.  He cleaned up baseball in the ’20s and made damn sure it stayed as white as his flowing mane.  He was an ardent segregationist.  By being so, as Bodley astutely points out, he held back racial justice for all of black America.

After Landis died in 1944, his successor as commissioner, A.B. “Happy” Chandler, supported Branch Rickey’s decision to bring Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.  All the remaining 15 MLB teams opposed the move, but Chandler held firm.

Bodley writes of his dad “trying to explain to me how important this moment was – even though it is just on the baseball field – for our country as a whole.  . . .

“Had he failed, many would have seen that as the race failing.”

It’s hardly coincidental that one year after Robinson smashed the color barrier, President Truman desegregated the Armed Forces.  Two years after that the National Basketball Association had its first African American players.  Then, in 1954 came the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision that forced integration of schools.

Civil rights seemed to advance in painful lethargy for many who lived through that era, but history will see it as remarkably fast – once Robinson, Rickey, Chandler — yes, the sport of baseball — did their part.

To his credit, Bodley cautions not to get carried away.  Robinson was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but not by much.  He needed 75 percent and got 77.5.  “I’m certain his percentage would have been much higher had racism not reared its ugly head and tainted some of the BBWA members’ voting.” 

Somehow 22.5 percent of the ballwriters found reason to deny a man who despite racial slurs and death threats ringing in his ears hit .311 for his career, was Rookie of the Year (at 28, delayed at least five years by racism), MVP, six-time All-Star, twice the National League stolen-base leader, sparkplug to six pennants and  a world championship.

Fortunately, Bodley looks at baseball from other perspectives than his own as a bank president’s son.  A poignant chapter about Oakland portrays talented young athletes doggedly climbing out of an economic black hole by honing their baseball skills.  Nothing, at least since The Great Gatsby, explains the American Dream better than this.

Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland: “There is no there there.”  But there has been an astonishing number of extraordinary ballplayers — Lefty Gomez, Jackie Jensen, Vada Pinson, Curt Flood, Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson, Willie Stargell, Dave Stewart, Rickey Henderson, all growing up there.

Bodley writes of George Powles coaching a generation of African American superstars at Oakland’s McClymonds High School.  Some became historic and/or legendary. Flood sacrificing a brilliant career by swinging at the reserve clause and ultimately bringing in the era of free agency.

Stargell in the on-deck circle “with a sledgehammer, adding to the intimidation.”   

The irrepressible Henderson stealing 1,406 bases in a career of 25 years.

There’s much to love about this concise and precise book (though an index would be helpful).  But more – or perhaps less — should have been said about how baseball now defines America.

Bodley lauds Selig for an unprecedented boom in revenues. And it is true the retiring commissioner did a wonderful job with realignment.  He designed for each league a Central Division of mostly smaller-market clubs that can contend for a ring against the titans of the coasts.

But Selig, unlike Landis and Chandler, cared little about the integrity of the game.  When the most cherished record in American sports – 61 home runs by Roger Maris — came under assault from testosterone junkies, Selig barely paid lip service to steroid control. He blames the players union for blocking drug testing, but he had no interest in suppressing the number of bombs the fans loved to see.  Though claiming to be a history buff, he did not care if juiced-up records contaminated the sacred book.

Also, he did nothing to quicken the pace of a game that usually reaches three hours.  It’s not just ADD-addled millennials protesting, it’s seniors like the great Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe and ESPN’s Sports Reporters:  “People don’t want to get home at 1 a.m.”

Selig has pleased his constituents, but he’s presided over a 22-year period when pro and college football blew far ahead of baseball in popularity while basketball, soccer, hockey and – of all things — lacrosse drew closer.  Bodley sees more leadership there than I do.

Baseball provides more American history than all other sports combined, and Bodley and his many interviewees – including Robinson’s widow and President Clinton — tell it well.  But baseball soon may be explaining this about America: How big businesses and entire industries fail when they focus too narrowly on the past without considering the future.

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