- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 5, 2006

BASEBALL: A HISTORY OF AMERICA’S FAVORITE GAME

By George Vecsey

Modern Library, $21.95, 252 pages

As a child, George Vecsey would sit with his father on their lawn and listen to Brooklyn Dodgers games. “I remember three things about those nights: how nice it was to have my father home, the rude shock when I plugged the radio into the garage socket, and the fireflies floating around dusk,” he writes in the prologue to “Baseball.” “There are no fireflies like that anymore. No Brooklyn Dodgers, either.”

Telling tales of the good ol’ days, when baseball was the undisputed national pastime, has become especially common of late. It’s the way many fans and journalists have consoled themselves in the midst of baseball’s steroids scandal and the rising popularity of football, basketball and NASCAR.

The mythical past is just that, however — mythical. So it was a relief to discover that Mr. Vecsey resisted the urge to wallow in baseball’s golden years as he wrote the rest of his book.

“I could get mawkish and declare that the sport has gone to hell because of (a) money or (b) television or (c) the owners or (d) the players, but the truth is today’s players are consistent and familiar to us — our national sporting theater, our knights and louts and fallen angels, our saints and sinners, our samurai and shamans,” he writes. “We have known them a long, long time.”

Mr. Vecsey’s book is an honest romp through baseball’s history, and makes a case for why our love for the game should not waver despite its current ills. Baseball “has survived gambling plots, outlaw leagues, racial segregation, depressions, world wars, the early death of a stunning number of its heroes, financial failures of teams, inept ownerships, the bad taste of its sponsors and networks, blundering commissioners, inroads by other sports,” Mr. Vecsey writes. “It endures.”

This is a tale told in the voice of an old friend who, fortunately for us, has interviewed many of the game’s greats. Mr. Vecsey joined the New York Times in 1968, became a sports columnist in 1982, and has written a book about the history of the New York Mets and coauthored one with Bob Welch, the Cy Young Award-winner who battled alcoholism.

In this book, the author quickly tackles the most intractable of baseball’s myths, what the biologist and baseball fan Stephen J. Gould called the “creation myth”: that Abner Doubleday sketched out a diamond in the Cooperstown, N.Y. dirt one day in 1839 and invented the game.

That myth was propagated by Albert Spalding, a player turned sporting goods magnate turned promoter who helped form a commission in 1906 to investigate baseball’s roots. For patriotic reasons, Spalding wanted to prove that American baseball was sui generis. He soon found the evidence he needed: letters written by Abner Graves, a Denver businessman who described how he was present as a six-year-old boy when Doubleday invented baseball.

The only catch was that Graves was not the most credible witness. He wrote the letters 65 years after the fact and embellished his Doubleday tale with each subsequent telling. He eventually became convinced his wife was trying to poison him, murdered her and spent the last years of his life in an insane asylum.

Fast forward to 1937. As Americans prepared for baseball’s centennial celebration, an Italian demographer named Corrado Gini explored the wilds of Libya. He discovered a tribe of Berbers that had blond hair and played a game that resembled baseball. Gini concluded that Europeans had introduced the golden locks and the game to the tribe in pre-Christian times.

In other words, baseball was not a distinctly American creation. As David Block ably demonstrated in “Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game,” published last year, Greeks, Romans and Egyptians all played bat-and-ball games. The roots of modern-day baseball, he wrote, arose largely from a variety of English games, most of which date to the Middle Ages.

And with that, Mr. Vecsey embarks on his engaging tour. He guides us through the Black Sox scandal, in which eight players on the Chicago White Sox — the infamous Shoeless Joe Jackson included — either conspired with gamblers or knew of a plot to throw the 1919 World Series.

The Negro Leagues also get their turn (the Kansas City Monarchs carried a portable lighting system and played night games before major league teams did), as do the home run-hitting Babe and the front-office innovator, Branch Rickey.

Mr. Vecsey attempts to draw parallels between past and present. He notes, for example, that journalists handled the Black Sox scandal in much the same way they did today’s steroids scandal — that is, they were slow to expose it.

And he reminds us that performance-enhancing drugs are nothing new. “One of the most competitive players I ever met used to excuse himself before the game so he could drink ‘a major-league cup of coffee,’” writes Mr. Vecsey. The rookie reporter later learned that meant coffee spiked with amphetamines, called greenies.

But fans often can’t help but be seduced by the mythical past. Baltimore and Cleveland are among the cities that have built so-called retro ballparks, seeking to reproduce the idiosyncratic charm and character of turn-of-the-century venues like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park.

Even the Supreme Court once seemed to harbor an idealized conception of baseball. In 1972, the justices ruled that Curt Flood, the St. Louis Cardinals center fielder who challenged his trade to the Philadelphia Phillies, had no choice but to accept his fate.

The reason? The reserve clause. For years it had prevented ballplayers from negotiating contracts with other teams, and gave them no say if they were traded. The clause enabled owners to keep salaries in check, because it prevented bidding wars.

“Perhaps the justices had bought into the old Spalding mythology of baseball as the backbone of America, and feared the country would stop functioning if players somehow had the same vocational mobility as electricians or schoolteachers,” writes Mr. Vecsey.

In 1976, baseball finally backed down, allowing free agency and ushering in the era of multimillion-dollar salaries.

Mr. Vecsey’s personal anecdotes enliven his tale. He describes how, at age 12, he tried to buy a hot dog at Ebbets Field and discovered Jackie Robinson in line behind him (Robinson was injured and not playing that day): “I do recall the blue satiny luster of his Dodger jacket, the gray of his hair, the bulk of his body. How could a man that large steal home so audaciously?”

Later, as a young reporter with the Times, Mr. Vecsey phoned Robinson to interview him for a story about the status of blacks in sports (Robinson, of course, broke the color barrier in the major leagues): “Instead he interviewed me, in his high-pitched, cranky voice: just exactly how many blacks worked in our sports department? ‘Um, none,’ I replied. His point exactly.”

In 2004, Mr. Vecsey recalls, reporters in Fenway Park gathered around Johnny Pesky, once a shortstop for the Red Sox who, at 85, was a coach emeritus for the team. The Red Sox had just staged a comeback for the ages in the league series, beating the Yankees in four straight games after losing the first three. Now, as the Red Sox prepared to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, Mr. Pesky promised the reporters he would run naked around Fenway if his team won.

“Be assured there is no other sport in which an 85-year-old relic-coach can banter about frolicking naked,” the author writes. There were no reports of Mr. Pesky making good on his promise after the Red Sox did indeed win.

“Baseball” would have benefited from more such intimate portraits. Nevertheless, Mr. Vecsey manages to remind us that certain fundamental truths transcend time. The bases are still 90 feet apart. The pitcher still stands 60 feet six inches from the batter. Baseball is still baseball, and there is still much to love.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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