Let’s begin the new millennium with an ominous invocation by Lawrence Yogi Berra: ‘You’ve got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might not get there.’ Baseball doesn’t know. It’s lost contact with its roots. It doesn’t even know that it doesn’t know.
For one thing, it’s not the National Pastime. Not anymore. How could it be if American kids don’t play it? When it was, every kid had a glove and bat. They played in sandlots with a passion for the game. Every town had a team, every mill, every fire department. Now kids play in highly organized family-dominated Little Leagues—or not at all. They dress in numbered uniforms with pants down to the ankles. The ball fields are well-lit, with fenced grandstands, P.A. systems, and electronic scoreboards, a replication of the biggies that delights the mothers. Batters step out of the box after every pitch to zip/slap their batting gloves, fully believing that’s what they’re supposed to do. But they don’t know about playing pepper or the marvelous intensity of getting together with five or six to take rounds of batting practice, shag fly balls, take infield workouts. A Cuban kid will have hundreds of at bats in a season, but an American Little Leaguer seldom gets more than a few dozen.
What happened? When did the game change? Why, for example, this preposterous hunger for autographs and souvenirs? How is it that people buy memorabilia at auctions as if they were artistic treasures? Three million dollars for a Mark McGwire home-run ball! Fifty thousand for Babe Ruth’s bat! Twenty-five thousand for Pete Rose’s jock! We’ve become a nation of collectors and spectators.
Almost 50 years ago, Columbia professor Jacques Barzun uttered his famous words: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”
Best we now stand that quote on its head: “Whoever wants to know baseball had best understand America.”
America has turned baseball into a celebrity-dominated entertainment spectacle played in sky-domed stadiums outfitted with corporate-owned luxury box suites built with public funds. The teams are owned by big-business billionaires, run by market-minded general managers spending huge sums to buy home-run hitters and 95 mph pitchers, hoping to draw the biggest crowds. (A home-run derby between McGwire and Sammy Sosa, both on losing teams, will outdraw a game involving winning teams every time.) Then they destroy the traditions of loyalty to hometown fans by trading and selling their star players the way kids used to swap baseball cards. It follows that free agents with their own high-powered representatives will play by the same greedy rules.
Even the World Series has become an arrogant misnomer that has long since lost its basis in reality, denying the existence of baseball in a dozen other countries. Perhaps the most trenchant sports story of the year was the way Cuba took on the Baltimore Orioles even though some of its best players had long ago left home to play ball in the States. And how can teams from Japan be excluded? Or the Dominican Republic, where the great game flourishes? Or Australia? It’s as if we hosted the Olympic Games without foreign teams.
Nonetheless, nothing in the sports world can match the extended dream of the Fall Classic. Not the national tennis opens nor championship heavyweight fights, not even the Super Bowl with all its hoopla. Nothing matters but the greatness of the game itself.
To a fan, watching the Series demands a crowd. The next best thing to being there has to be a sports bar where you can share the inevitable tensions with others. No matter that you’re smothered by the sugary drivel of the announcers; the game itself is there for you.
As it happened, at the bar I went to, I found a stool beside an old African American gentleman who’d been a player. As the two teams were lined up on foul lines for introductions, I broke the social ice with what, to me at least, seemed an appropriate comment:
“Good to see all those blacks and Hispanics.”
He grunted as if this were not worthy of comment. Moments later, he gestured to the screen as the camera panned the crowd during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“More blacks on them foul lines than in the seats,” he said.
I stared at the sea of humanity. It was true. I did not see a single black face! How could that be? Was the Series too pricey? Were seats too difficult to get?
He shook his head indicating how badly I had missed the boat.
“White man’s ballpark, mister. White man’s teams. Still the white man’s game.”
“Hey, it’s integrated!” I argued. Wasn’t baseball the finest integrated profession in America? Didn’t the 1947 opening of that door become the pride of the nation?
Talented blacks and Latinos had rushed baseball out of a growing mediocrity, but their people were not around to enjoy them.
“I played in the Negro Leagues in the old days,” he said. “Traveled all over, had to eat racist shit everywhere but on the ball fields. There was great teams. Lots of great ballplayers. Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell. The black folks came. Full house in every town. Everyone knew we was as good as whites. When Satchel pitched against the New York Black Yankees, 60,000 black fans filled the Stadium. Man, it was something!
“Then Jackie broke the color line. Then Larry Doby, Willie McCovey, Newk, Campy. White clubs bought the rest of the best. Even old Satch. And pretty soon there ain’t no more Negro Leagues. TV and white clubs owned it all. Maybe it was good for the blacks in the big show, but it do no good for the 50 million in the ghettos. Blacks stopped playing the game, and then they stopped going to spectate, too.”
He sipped beer and shook his head.
“That ain’t integration, that’s disintegration.”
There was more to come. I could see his next thoughts ready to jump out of him.
“Whites just too dumb to see the answer.”
“Oh? What answer?”
“Sheeeit, they could fill them fancy ballparks every game.”
“Segregate baseball. Make the American League all black and Hispanic, owned and operated, everyone right down to the batboy. National League, all white. All games be interleague, black teams ‘gainst white. Split the grandstand down the middle: black on the first-base side, white down the third. It be racism that packs them in, bring on the big revival of the game. The World Series would be the greatest sporting event in history!”
“Blacks would win,” I offered. “Then what?”
“White folks would go all hot to change things. They’d teach baseball like they teach computers and such. Remember when the Russkies sent up that first Sputnik? Sheeit, them white scientists would be making clones of Joe D!”
“The whole thing is crazy,” I said.
“Mister, one step forward sometimes bigger than two steps back. Gotta shake things up, show what bullshit this integration is, how it’s just a showcase like every black man knows. It’d show everyone what a racist country this is.”
“Well, it could never happen,” I said.
He smiled. “Ain’t that a fact,” he conceded.
When the Series ended, we watched the celebrating Yankees hugging and kissing, no concern over color or national origin, a triumphant display of brotherhood among millionaires to the delight of the media. It transcended race. It had nothing to do with race. Those 50 million in the ghettos would eat the same shit they always ate.
“It couldn’t happen,” I said again.
“Have a nice day,” he said, then left.
It was such a preposterous conversation I had to laugh. Still, it was the sort of thing that could get the Hot Stove League going. Maybe it could shake things up.
There, too, Yogi had another quote that applied:
“If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
ELIOT ASINOF IS THE AUTHOR OF EIGHT MEN OUT AND THE FORTHCOMING BASEBALL NOVEL, OFF-SEASON.