- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2005

Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.

—Yogi Berra.

Caught up in still another scandal, what major league baseball needs just now is another Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner who cleaned things up after the Black Sox Scandal of 1919. Instead it has Bud Selig. That about sums up baseball’s problem.

Judge Landis ruled with an iron hand during his administration, or rather reign (1920-44). He started by banning eight Chicago White Sox players accused of accepting bribes to fix the 1919 World Series, and went on from there, kicking out one bad actor after another.

Baseball historians might criticize the judge’s severity, but no one doubts he restored the integrity of the game and public confidence in it. Nowadays it’s not just the baseball players but the baseball commissioner who has a lot to answer for.

Bud Selig appeared before a congressional committee the other day to explain what a great job the majors had done keeping baseball drug-free. The most impressive part of his explanation was that he managed to keep a straight face throughout. No wonder any reference to baseball as the national pastime these days is likely to be ironic.

Mark McGwire also appeared before the committee. Did he use steroids? It would seem a simple enough question. But he wasn’t answering it, on advice of counsel. He took the Fifth Amendment every way but formally. No mafia don could have stonewalled more stubbornly. It was all pretty depressing.

Baseball once was fun, even when its big names testified before congressional committees. At least their double-talk was natural, almost an art, rather than a product of legal advisers and PR consultants, a combination fatal to English prose.

Back in 1958, the late great Casey Stengel was called to testify before the Senate Committee on Anti-Trust and Monopoly. The subject: Baseball’s exemption from the antitrust laws. The chairman: Estes Kefauver, poor guy. He wound up playing straight man to one of the greatest acts in baseball.

After being given one evasive answer after another, the senator put the question to ol’ Casey point-blank: “I am asking you, sir, why it is that baseball wants this bill passed.”

“I would say,” Casey nonanswered, “the reason why they would want it passed is to keep baseball going as the highest-paid ball sport that has gone into baseball, and from the baseball angle — I am not going to speak of any other sport. I am not here to argue about other sports. I am in the baseball business. It has been run cleaner than any business that was ever put out in the 100 years at the present time.” And so meanderingly on.

In the ‘50s, Casey Stengel’s language was to baseball as Dwight Eisenhower’s was to politics: inscrutable. No one was better at saying nothing at great length. (Alan Greenspan does much the same service for American finance today.)

At an understandable loss, Kefauver finally gave up on Mr. Stengel, and turned for help to the other witness before his puzzled committee, the celebrated Mickey Mantle. “Mr. Mantle,” he pleaded, “Do you have any observations with reference to the applicability of the antitrust laws to baseball?”

At which point Mickey, a great clutch hitter, came through with the equivalent of a game-winning single behind the runner — short, sweet, unstoppable. “My views,” he explained, “are just about the same as Casey’s.”

Whatever was left of the hearing dissolved in laughter.

Casey’s thoughts about antitrust legislation or anything else remained lost in the impenetrable jungle of his language. I don’t think he was ever again called on to testify before Congress; the politicians had learned their lesson.

What a contrast with today’s legalese from the multimillionaires who play the game. Sophistication is the death of true, unselfconscious art.

Whatever once inspired such eloquence from ballplayers now seems lost beyond recovery. There was a time when Casey Stengel or Yogi Berra couldn’t open their mouths without uttering something that sounded like a cross between Zen and Groucho Marx. (“Good pitching will always stop good hitting, and vice versa.” — Casey Stengel, who had a million of ‘em.) Now we get testimony that sounds as if it had been vetted by a committee of legal experts.

Of course there’s a big difference between Casey Stengel’s voluble answers in 1958 and those offered last week by Bud Selig. Casey didn’t intend to be taken seriously.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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