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Baseball Matters: Warriors Do Not Play Frivolous Games, or at Least They Don't Play Them Frivolously


There is some element of risk in asking a man with a long memory and far too much education to write about baseball. Politics and history and the environment may raise the hackles, but only a serious subject can provoke a truly prolonged emotional outburst. 

I have followed baseball with varying degrees of intensity for much of my life, running hot in one decade as pennant races took unexpected turns, veering to extreme cold in the next as repeated strikes exacted their toll. I will not go so far as to admit how old a baseball fanatic this makes me; I will say only that I can vividly recall witnessing Mickey Mantle hit a home run to win a game against the Cleveland Indians. Mantle was in his prime. 

I suppose the most difficult aspect of devoting real attention to this child's game is the soul-numbing responsibility of rooting for one team or another. No real baseball fan simply watches the games for the entertainment — the life-or-death aspect of cheering on a favored team is really the essential ingredient. Over the years, it is hard enough to watch the favorites bumble through unbelievable ineptitude, punctuated perhaps by occasional bouts of actual winning. The odds are against you; there are 29 other teams. 

Even harder than the losing are the calculated insults ownership foists on long-suffering fans. I actually changed teams once — management made a series of moves so brutal that I threw up my hands in despair. And then the Orioles, my new team, pulled moves still worse. Then came the last big strike in the mid-1990s. Like a lot of folks, I drifted for a good while after that. 

Certainly, Major League Baseball is guilty of insulting the intelligence of its entire fan base at one time or another — there is no point in denying that. The game prides itself on its long traditions, the fabled accomplishments of John McGraw, the unparalleled power and charm of Babe Ruth, the quiet dignity of Lou Gehrig, the pure artistry of Willie Mays. Yet the modern game seems to go out of its way to eradicate historical associations root and branch. Cincinnati will never open a season again, the holiday double header is a thing of the past and the leagues are no longer a mystery to each other — 10 percent of the schedule is interleague play. Playoffs have become greedily interminable and face the threat of snow-outs, and I needn't speak of the sanctity of long-revered records. The cheating is front-page news.

Yet baseball still fascinates, at so many levels. I have researched a great many topics in a long career as a historian, have written books on subjects as diverse as nature study, mystery writing and Prehistoric American life. Now I find myself drifting back to my childhood interest, to baseball, to the essence of what was once called America's pastime. The rich and well-documented lore of the game is difficult for the historian in me to ignore, the opportunity to contrast yesterday and today very enticing. 

Baseball is a multilayered game; there is much to discuss. 

Baseball at the strategic level is especially intriguing. At the tactical level — the actual playing of the game — matters can and do become a bit formulaic and dull. Bringing in that sixth left-handed reliever in the eighth inning when you're down by six and the game is already four hours old can get a little stale. (Please, somebody with common sense, abolish the "save" statistic. The whole game will change for the better.) Games used to be much shorter, but they were formulaic in their own ways, as well. (Take chances running the bases? Not with that .260 hitter with 30 home runs due up sometime in the next hour.) 

No, the real intrigue in baseball is in putting a team together, playing the people who are most effective in given situations, using the bench intelligently, establishing a strong rotation, making certain the bullpen gets sufficient rest. To the uninitiated, 25 guys seems a lot for a team that will place just nine on the field at any one time. To those who think (too much) about such topics, the problem is how few those 25 really are. When I decided to devote a portion of my research time to baseball, these were the attractive issues. How does a team's composition govern performance? How and why do teams change with each passing year?

I find the years at the edge of my memory to be the most absorbing. Many older fans refer to the era of the 1950s as baseball's Golden Age, an appellation that rings alarm bells for any serious historian. I do not think that baseball was necessarily preferable as played 50 years ago, but it was different. Starting pitchers often finished, striking out was far more rare and the stolen base was something of a surprise play. Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee were Major League Baseball's western frontier until 1955; just 11 cities had Major League teams in 1950. Radio and television had begun to make the leagues national property, but the product was still a limited one — in size (just 16 teams), in scope, in personnel. Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, but unspoken team rules limited black participation long after; the last holdout teams did not integrate until late in the 1950s. The Golden Age is more than a little tarnished, but the appeal is undeniable. There was Mickey Mantle, you see. 

The discerning will realize that I lean much to the American League side of things. The working title of the research I have begun is Crunching Casey Stengel — a study of baseball's strategic elements from 1949 through 1960. And, though I have a long way to go, I have already uncovered enough new material to generate many an arm-swinging, top-of-the-voice argument. Any historian would be quietly proud. 

To begin with an absorbing example, I have come to realize the key to understanding the starting pitching of Casey Stengel's time is the number five, for a couple of reasons. Unlike today, when managers hope to get five or six innings out of a starter every fifth day, Stengel and his competitors drove their best horses hard, employing four-day rotations and expecting the starters to last, the whole game preferably. But there were doubleheaders. Lots of doubleheaders. Teams averaged 16 to 18 double-dips a season, making a fifth starter absolutely necessary. 

As Stengel observed early in his managerial career, "[O]nce every four or five days you have to trust your job and reputation to a lunkhead ... ." Every manager much preferred five rock-solid arms, with heads to match. Typically, those five guys would pitch two-thirds of a team's innings over a season, and sometimes more. When Cleveland won the pennant in 1954, their five top starters accounted for three-quarters of the innings the team played. Five guys is what every manager had to have. 

And each one lasted about five years. On average, a pitcher landing a spot in a starting rotation would enjoy five seasons as a starter, probably not all with the same team. A few, of course, would wash out after a single season, depressing that average, but not so much as you might think. The best anyone could expect out of a decent and durable starter was nine seasons. Anything beyond that was a miracle, Hall of Fame country. We canonize some pitchers not because they were great, but because they were very good for an unusually long time. 

What this meant for a team was that every season, year after blessed year, they were searching for new starters. The turnover rate was about 40 percent — they would be replacing at least one, probably two and very occasionally an entire staff with each new season. The Major League draft did not come into existence until 1965, so teams had to make do in any way they could — through an often-inadequate scouting and farm system, through (hopefully) shrewd trading and through the waiver wire. Why did New York teams fare so well in Casey Stengel's time? They had the most extensive farm support system, the most money. What they could not produce themselves they could obtain in uneven trades. In 1954, the Yankees sent 10 players to the Baltimore Orioles in return for seven warm bodies, only two of whom mattered. Both were starting pitchers.

One of the most wearisome criticisms of modern baseball is the hard business crust players have supposedly developed nowadays. Team loyalty is a thing of the past, so many claim. That is true only in the sense that players now possess the power to display their lack of team fidelity. General managers never had any. In Stengel's era, few players played out their careers with just one team. Chicago has fond memories of Nellie Fox, Luis Aparicio, Minnie Minoso, Early Wynn, Billy Pierce. Not one of these stars spent his entire career with the White Sox. All but Aparicio came from other franchises; all were eventually traded away. When fans scream about the lack of "player loyalty," they are merely begrudging him the right to market his own abilities, rather than standing helplessly by, allowing someone else to profit at his expense. The market for athletes was brisk in the 1950s. The question was who got the money. 

What was different were the measures of a player's ability. When fans extolled the virtues of Fox and Minoso, they talked batting average, they pointed to runs scored and runs batted in. They might talk home runs in Minoso's case, but softly in comparison to Mantle or Roy Sievers. Such statistics have become passé since the 1980s, when concepts such as runs created and on base percentage began to enter the language. 

And here is where the historian must exercise some caution. On base percentage (OBP) measures the number of times a player fairly reaches base per the number of times he comes to the plate, combining his hits, walks and hit by pitch totals. This has become important because players now walk 10 percent to 15 percent less than they did in Stengel's time. Too many players swing at too many bad pitches, making too many outs. OBP identifies the players refraining from this shocking habit, isolating their ability. But there were few free-swingers back in the 1950s; most everyone knew something of the strike zone. Pitchers walked more batters, and the walk average for each season describes an unbelievably elegant bell-shaped curve — most everybody in the middle, clustered close to the average, a few on the high side (Mantle, Ted Williams, Elmer Valo) and a small number who refused to walk much. 

Curiously enough, none other than Nellie Fox was often among that last group, and he was anything but a free swinger. Fox was legendary for his bat control, his ability to move runners, to hit the tough pitchers. Modern OBP analysis makes him suspect, but that only illustrates the danger of applying modern standards to players of 50 years ago. You can trade Nellie Fox and his low OBP for Elmer Valo if you want to (loyalty to the team is not going to stay your hand), but I don't think I would do that. At worst, Fox's refusal to walk cost his team maybe four runs a season. His glove more than made up for that.

But why should any of this matter at all? Who cares about that most arcane of statistics, Nellie Fox's OBP? What with global terrorism, rising energy costs and ongoing environmental degradation, why should anyone devote much effort to understanding the hidden nuances in a game — even one played this evening, much less the ones played half a century ago? The answer, I think, lies in an intriguing little book written by Japanese novelist Shizuka Ijuin. 

Like many Japanese, Ijuin is a dedicated baseball fan, but he is in no sense a sportswriter. He became acquainted with Japan's greatest slugger when Hideki Matsui requested him as an interviewer for a leading magazine. Matsui had read Ijuin's award-winning novels and liked them; the writer was stunned to discover that the star wanted to meet him. Ijuin naturally took an even greater interest in Matsui's career, following his exploits with the Yomiuri Giants, watching with crossed fingers as Matsui jetted to America to become an all-star with the New York Yankees. 

By this time, Ijuin was not tracking Matsui's career because of his accomplishments, but rather because of the strength of character the slugger has maintained. Ijuin's book, Hideki Matsui: Sportsmanship, Modesty, and the Art of the Home Run, was published this year.

Hideki Matsui is a most humble and human star, one who goes out of his way to accommodate baseball fans, a man who quietly raises millions for charities, and gives freely of his own fortune. 

For Ijuin, what has shaped Matsui's character is the man's response to the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a burden most baseball stars in his country much prefer to ignore. Matsui instead has chosen to acknowledge this horror in his country's past, to face up to the mistakes, the power hungry and blind hubris that led to this most inhuman of disasters. 

To Hideki Matsui, baseball is the antithesis of Hiroshima and all that went before; to make good he must fully embrace the essential humanity we all share. More than a good player, Matsui is a good man. Ijuin's portrayal, like all good literature, moves past the simple hero worship of too many sports books to probe the role of fan support in this deeply flawed human world. 

Baseball is a pastime, a frivolous game followed by legions of people who should have better things to do. Warriors do not play frivolous games, or at least they do not play them frivolously. 

Always remember that. 

Robert Kuhn McGregor, a historian at the University of Illinois at Springfield, is a frequent contributor.

No, the real intrigue in baseball is in putting a team together, playing the people who are most effective in given situations, using the bench intelligently, establishing a strong rotation, making certain the bullpen gets sufficient rest.

Robert Kuhn McGregor, a historian at the University of Illinois at Springfield, is a frequent contributor.

Illinois Issues, October 2007

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