Put me in, Coach
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”
By now everyone is familiar with the firing of baseball analyst Curt Schilling by ESPN for his public stance on the North Carolina bathroom law kerfluffle. It wasn’t Schilling’s first run-in with the network over his (to their eyes) unacceptable political views, but it seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the former Arizona and Boston fireballer. ESPN has reportedly gone so far as to scrub Schilling’s iconic “bloody sock game” performance from an upcoming documentary on the Red Sox.
This has, of course, led to the predictable side-taking, with the sides being loosely defined as: 1) good, fire the bigot 2) free speech, man!, and 3) keep your politics out of my sports. In the interest of full disclosure, my own view is that ESPN is a private enterprise and can fire people for whatever reasons they want, but they sure seem to only fire people with views not in line with liberal heterodoxy, and this may help explain their plummeting ratings. But it’s actually #3 I’d like to focus on, and in baseball in particular.
The idea that politics intruding into baseball is a recent happening and somehow a sign of the decline of the game is an idea which serious baseball fans know to be incorrect. The national pastime has been inexorably linked to the politics of the day, for good or ill, for all of its history.
The very myths of baseball’s origins are political. The growing popularity of the game led to the 1905 Mills Commission, which included two U.S. Senators and various baseball dignitaries tasked with definitively discovering how our national game began. The story they found? Our national pastime was invented by a patriot who had graduated West Point and served in the Union Army during the Civil War. That Abner Doubleday never claimed to have invented baseball, that the Mills findings were commissioned by one Albert Spalding (yes, the founder of the sporting goods empire), and that the story was so attacked by baseball writers in their glory years in the 1920s and 1930s, when they were truly ink stained Gods, that Doubleday STILL has not been inducted into the Hall of Fame which resides in the small NY town in which he ‘invented’ the game….well, these things seem to stand at odds with the findings of two United States Senators.
The very first Commissioner of Baseball, appointed in 1920, was a man named Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He had been appointed a Federal judge in 1905 by Teddy Roosevelt, and was in fact a sitting Federal judge until 1922. He is of course best remembered for his decision, made shortly after becoming Commissioner, of giving lifetime bans to those involved in the Black Sox scandal of 1919. What is less remembered is that in 1907 he fined Standard Oil, which the Roosevelt administration sought to break up, $29 million for violating federal laws relating to freight tariffs. Landis was reversed on appeal. He also imposed harsh sentences on draft resisters during WW1. He was appointed Commissioner by baseball owners as a blatant attempt to regain public trust in the game, an attempt that must be judged as successful, and as political.
During the Second World War, baseball stars not only politically supported their country but actively fought. Stan Musial, Bob Feller, Ted Williams (who would also serve in Korea), an unknown catcher named Yogi Berra and many others served, some with great distinction (if you know nothing about his service, Bob Feller was a bona fide war hero). To attempt to satisfy the demand for baseball while the boys were fighting, women’s leagues were formed. You’ve seen the movie.
It’s no accident that Branch Rickey choose a black ballplayer who had been in the Army tank corps as the first black Major Leaguer (though Jackie Robinson never saw combat). Pee Wee Reese’s actions in belated support of his teammate were nothing if not a political statement in the wider culture, regardless of the fact Reese saw it as merely supporting a teammate. Ballplayers don’t get to choose what statements are political. The press and the public make that call.
The late 1960s into the 1970s brought a wholly different politics to baseball. In 1963 Juan Marichal was involved in the Greatest Game ever Pitched against Warren Spahn, but what is Marichal remembered for now? A game in 1965 in which only the second Dominican born pitcher ever in the majors hit John Roseboro in the head with a bat during a scuffle after a couple beanballs. Uncommented on at the time was the fact that Roseboro lived quite close to the then-occurring Watts riots in L.A. and Marichal’s home country was engaged in a violent civil war. Oh, and the teams were only separated by a game and a half at the time. Politics doesn’t necessarily always preclude trying to win. In 1969 Curt Flood took MLB to the Supreme Court, eventually leading to free-agency as we know it. In 1970, Doc Ellis threw a no-hitter tripping on LSD. The culture was reflected by the game, not the other way round. Although sometimes the culture intruded on the game, and the game fought back.
The 1980s gave us cocaine (Strawberry, Howe), the 1990s gave us steroids (Canseco, Bonds, McGuire), but the common thread is that the Federal government thought it fit to insinuate itself each time. Or they saw an opportunity and used baseball as an inroad, as another way to assert control over the culture through the sport. The government continues to see the national pastime as a vehicle for their message, like they have since those two Senators decided Abner Doubleday invented a beautiful game on some sunny summer day in Cooperstown, NY, sometime before the Civil War.
The point, I suppose, isn’t that politics in sports (and baseball in particular) is bad and something to be avoided. The point is that the desire to de-politicize sports is a Sisyphean task, and a thankless one to boot. America is political. And baseball, thank the Gods, is American.
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Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.