The Magazine

The Old Ball Game

The mystic chords of the National Pastime.

Aug 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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On this sports spectrum, Lee Congdon is a veritable wingnut. He feels that baseball has been diluted by the increase in the number of teams from 16 in his youth to 30 today, with a corresponding thinning-out of talent. He prefers the older vintage ballplayer, whose natural talent was reinforced by toughness and dedication and, often, amusing eccentricity. He quotes the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Preacher Roe saying that the best advice about pitching to the Cardinals great Stan Musial was “throw four wide ones and try to pick him off first base.” He cites the competitiveness of the take-no-prisoners pitcher Early Wynn who, when asked if he would deliberately throw a ball at his own mother, replied: “I would if she were crowding the plate.”

A purist in his baseball values, Congdon does not like extending playoffs to wild card teams, has no taste for interleague play, despises the designated hitter instituted by the American League in 1973—“an obscenity,” he calls it—and not yet adopted by the National League. The newer baseball stadiums put him off; only Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston pass his muster. He doesn’t approve the rule against pitchers deliberately brushing back hitters crowding the plate. He is opposed to better—perhaps the more precise word is fancier—food being served in some ballparks; he mentions the truffle fries and martinis served at the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar at the new Yankee Stadium. 

These are extreme views, highly unprogressive, and doubtless deserve to be argued against—though not by me, who happens to share every one of them.

About the use of steroids among baseball players, Congdon is an even harder-liner. He believes that no player found to have used steroids should be allowed in the Hall of Fame, and that all of them ought to have their records wiped off the books, tout court—into the dustbin of history with all these audodidact pharmacists. To illustrate how widespread the use of steroids was, he brings up the almost commonplaceness of ballplayers in the steroid era hitting 50 or more home runs in a season—a feat never accomplished by such chemical-free ballplayers as Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, Ted Williams, Ernie Banks, and Eddie Matthews. His paragraphs on steroids are infused with anger.

Congdon recapitulates the year, 1998, of the great (ultimately fake) home run derby between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. For a portion of that summer I was housesitting for a friend in the village of Laconnex, near Geneva, and each morning upon arising I eagerly booted up his computer to see if McGwire or Sosa had hit any homers the day before. Both players, we now know, were jacked up on steroids. Turns out that I, along with millions of others, as the old Brooklyn Dodger fans used to say, was robbed, or at least had, and it’s not a good feeling.

Growing up, as (again) did I, on the splendid boys’ sports novels of John R. Tunis—The Kid From Tomkinsville, Highpockets, The Kid Comes Back, Rookie of the Year, All-American, Iron Duke, and others—Lee Congdon brings a moral mindset to his love of baseball. While telling gripping sports yarns, Tunis’s novels inculcated the tenets of the old liberalism at its finest: teamwork, courage under pressure, fair play, hatred of prejudice. All but the last-named virtue has little today to do with sports; in fact, athletes and their coaches and managers spend a good deal of time seeking out the niggling small advantage that will defeat or otherwise discourage the opponent. Sportsmanship has less and less to do with contemporary sport. 

One of the results is that ballplayers have come to reflect, as Congdon contends, “our baser rather than our nobler selves.” With a few notable exceptions in the contemporary era—Cal Ripken Jr., Rick Sutcliffe, Orel Hershiser, Andre Dawson, Carlton Fisk, possibly Derek Jeter—athletes tend to be disappointing human beings. Perhaps this comes of their being men who, even as boys, owing to their much-prized physical talent, nobody ever turned down for anything. In the current era, where money from enormous television revenues and posh endorsement contracts arrive for them in wheelbarrowish quantities, the emergence of character in an athlete is even more difficult than when all he had to deal with was adulation.

For those of us frivolous enough to have put in a vast number of hours watching men and women chase or smash balls of various sizes, furiously crash their bodies against one another, and commit other remarkable physical acts, the notion of being a fan has become a more and more dubious proposition. The proposition, baldly put, is this: Why are we more loyal to, and ardent on behalf of, teams than are the men who play for them?

This is one of a series of questions that all, alas, have the same answer. Why do athletes use steroids? Why do they seem more prone to injury—or is it that they are more protective of themselves?—than athletes of an earlier era? Why are they largely devoid of loyalty? Why has an afternoon at a major league baseball game for a family of four become a $200 or $300 extravagance? A sports journalist once stopped the television sports producer Don Ohlmeyer because he had a question for him. “If your question is about sports,” Ohlmeyer replied, “the answer is money.”

As a historian, Lee Congdon could not have been expected to resist making parallels between the game of baseball of his boyhood and the game today. Nor was he likely to have avoided going on from there to measure the decades when the game of baseball seemed golden against those rather more tarnished—by drugs, staggering contracts, feckless behavior, ugly, electronic-scoreboard-distracting ballparks—decades of recent times.

Not merely baseball but life generally was better in the 1950s, Congdon maintains, and he makes his argument in a balanced way, taking on the worst cases. Even though racial segregation was still prevalent in the ’50s, for example, he notes that black life may have been qualitatively better, with lower crime and unwed birth rates. “With far more reason to be bitter,” he adds, there was less in the way of self-defeating grievance-collecting among blacks then than now. In the 1950s, families, black and white, seemed stronger, life safer, growing up less wracked by the foolish notions of psychology and sociology for too long now in vogue. Whatever its gains in personal freedom, the 1960s, Congdon writes, “has left mountains of human wreckage in its wake.”

Congdon’s larger argument is that baseball, when it was part of the culture, provided an important storehouse of memories, which, under current cultural conditions, soon figure to disappear. These memories, he holds, are all the more important as a stay against the thought that life is pure progress, ever onward and upward. “Fascination with the older game,” he writes, “cannot be divorced from a growing recognition on the part of at least some Americans that history does not move in an ever-ascending direction.”

The young, we are told, are bored with baseball, finding more immediate—baseball fans would argue, also much less subtle—excitement in basketball and football, and even in so-called extreme sports. The number of American black athletes, who until recently comprised a third of major league players, has diminished, while the number of Central and Latin American and Asian players has risen. The day may not be far away when major league baseball is no longer a game played preponderantly by Americans.

The United States could once claim to be a national culture, with the majority of its population knowing and singing the same songs, viewing the same television shows, playing and watching and passionate about the same games. This national culture has been eroding over the past half-century, splintering off into many cultures: youth culture, black culture, Hispanic culture, and more. The result is that one can no longer confidently say that a game, an art, a phenomenon, is essentially American.

What can confidently be said is that a major trade has taken place over the decades since the 1950s: that of stability for widened tolerance, of moral equanimity for less restricting moral relativism, of a unified culture for a polycultured society. Perhaps, in this trade, there are players to be named later of whom we haven’t yet been informed. If there are not, if this is all there is to the deal, then it has to be judged a trade that not even Lee Congdon’s boneheaded Chicago Cubs front office would have made.

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author of the forthcoming Gossip, The Untrivial Pursuit.