Humphrey Bogart is alleged to have once observed that a “hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz.” Once thing is for certain; Bogey would have known. He was as welcome at the ballpark as he was at the Ritz and probably felt equally at home at both. Baseball is America’s National Pastime still, though only just. It has been in danger of losing its status for decades, but when it comes down to it there is still something uniquely mystical about the bond between the idea of America and the idea of baseball.
“I see great things in baseball. It’s our game – the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors,
fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous,
dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.”
Those words about America’s game were written by America’s Poet, Walt Whitman. There was some truth in them when he wrote them and perhaps a little less now, but not much. Remember back to the September 2001. Remember how baseball helped to heal a nation that had been cruelly hurt. Baseball didn’t fill in the loss we all felt, but it was the game of the moment. Had the attacks occurred a few months later could football have fulfilled its role as an outlet for so many Americans? The World Series of 2001 was one of the most exciting in recent memory. Can we ever really know for sure the impact that this little game had on the damaged psyche of this nation? If we had all known then how things would turn out, would we have maybe appreciated the last gasp of innocence that we bore witness to during that wild and woolly World Series?
“Baseball is very big with my people. It figures. It’s the only way we can get to shake a bat at a white man without starting a riot.” Spoken by comedian and activist Dick Gregory. Inside that prickly little sarcasm beats a nugget of truth larger than Gregory may have intended. Baseball is very much like America; it has a lot to answer for. Baseball and America both engaged in institutional racism that serves to call into question much of their respective legend and myth. The arguments will continue endlessly: Who was better, Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron? Joe DiMaggio or Willie Mays? As amazing as the statistics were of those who played prior to Jackie Robinson there must always be an unwritten asterisk. After all, how can we ever know how good the Babe really was when he never had to face down Satchel Paige? Baseball’s history is tempered by the realization that it institutionally denied access to people based on their color. Just like America. And at the same time, baseball must be applauded for offering opportunities for success for African-Americans that would never have been available otherwise. Just like this potentially great country itself.
“Baseball statistics are like a girl in a bikini.
They show a lot, but not everything.”
Former player Toby Harrah had this to say about baseball. More so than any other sport, baseball is about numbers. By the 1920s baseball already had more statistical categories than football has today, despite the addition of such questionable football stats as “hurries.” It is said that you can look at a box score and recreate every minute of a game without even having seen it. But as Harrah observed, it’s the parts of the body that a bikini covers up that most men want to see. Statistics don’t tell the whole story. And they can mislead. For instance, what if I were to try to convince you that one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history only had a winning percentage of .529? Could I convince you that a pitcher who barely won more games than he lost should be considered among the all-time greats? Okay, what if I were to tell you that this pitcher came within 10 losses of losing 300 games in his career? Would you still even listen to me? The stats are there: 292 career losses and a winning percentage not even as good as former Yankees hurler Ed Figueroa? Now what if I were tell you this pitcher’s name was Nolan Ryan? Baseball fans love stats, but you can’t see all the good parts if that’s all you care about.
One of my favorite baseball quotes is from a man not known for the game, and whom I think probably said nothing else of particular import. It was Barry Switzer who successfully turned baseball into a fitting metaphor for our society: “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” It is truly astounding that such an otherwise clueless individual could so accurately sum up American society. Every time I see George W. Bush I am reminded of this statement. Baseball and George W. Bush are forever intertwined, of course, due to his giving an indication of the depth of his leadership skills when, as owner of the Texas Rangers, he traded away Sammy Sosa. And, of course, his dad was a successful baseball player who was no doubt disappointed in his son just as he would later be disappointed in him as a statesman. But Bush is hardly alone. Switzer used baseball to perfectly encapsulate one of the problems with America. Too many do find themselves standing on the third base of life and mistake the accident of birth with accomplishment.