Baseball takes the Fourth

2019-07-04 LouGehrig
Lou Gehrig, who said farewell eighty Fourths of July ago . . .

This year is a splendid one for baseball anniversaries, not all of them pleasant. A hundred years ago the Reds were cheated out of the thrill of World Series victory by the agony of the Black Sox’s chill of self-conscious defeat; fifty years ago, the eight-year-old, crazy Mets were crazy enough to win a division, a pennant, and a World Series. Just to name two.

Today America will have its annual red, white, and blue pyrotechnic racket celebrating the declaration without which this hardy if too often self-buffeted experiment would not be alive to watch twelve major league baseball games and a few hundred more minor league games.

And the Mets, crazy this year for reasons having too little to do with the craziness of 1969, get their first Fourth of July off in a non-strike-impacted season in their entire franchise history, after splitting a pair with the Yankees Tuesday and Wednesday. No such luck for the Empire Emeritus; they have landed in Florida to open a weekend with the freshly upstart but lately teetering (they’ve won 5 of 7 but lost 9 of 16 entering today) Rays.

Twenty seasons after the shenanigans of the 1919 World Series, America’s 4 July fireworks were handed a sober contrast in the old Yankee Stadium. Two weeks after receiving his diagnostic death sentence, the insidious disease that now bears his name, Lou Gehrig accepted the honour of his teammates past and present and did what he’d rarely done on the field prior to his self-imposed removal from the Yankee lineup.

He wore his heart on his sleeve. He also spoke without a script, without premeditation, without a speechwriter. You can hunt all you like but find no actual or alleged American leader that gifted by spontaneous soul:

Fans, for the past two weeks, you have been reading about the bad break I got. But today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky.

Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow?

To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.

When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift—that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies—that’s something.

When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter—that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body—it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed—that’s the finest I know.

So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.

Leave it to Hollywood to bowdlerise such transcendence the way it did when, despite availability’s freshness, they put a completely fictionalised version of Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech into Gary Cooper’s mouth, the crowning insult from a film that insults more than embraces Gehrig’s actualities. In a later generation a Hell’s Angels president lamented their press coverage by wondering, “All that bullshit, hell, ain’t the truth bad enough for ’em?” Film students and baseball fans alike have every right to ask of The Pride of the Yankees, “All that bullshit, hell, ain’t the truth good enough for ’em?”

On the same day Gehrig graduated from baseball excellence to soul transcendence, Jim Tabor, a Red Sox third baseman, hit two grand slams in a doubleheader nightcap against the Philadelphia Athletics. (One of them was an inside-the-park number.) He became one of only thirteen players to perform that feat, on a day he driving in eleven runs over the entire doubleheader.

In 1983 a Yankee pitcher, Dave Righetti, subsequently a respected pitching coach, kept the Red Sox from making their own Fourth of July fireworks. He threw a no-hitter, the first Yankee to do it since Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series and the first Yankee lefthander to do it since George Mogridge—in 1917, while the world war alleged to be ending all wars continued apace.

Righetti finished his no-hitter with a flourish. In 1983 Hall of Fame third baseman Wade Boggs struck out a mere 36 times. The bad news is that one of those strikeouts completed Righetti’s masterwork. Which reminds me that sixteen pitchers have struck out 3,000 or more batters and only two of them secured number 3,000 on the Fourth of July: Nolan Ryan (1980; his victim: Cesar Geronimo) and Phil Niekro. (1984; his victim: Larry Parrish.)

One year after Knucksie’s milestone the Mets and the Braves played a game that started on the Fourth of July and ended on the fifth of July. The good news for the Mets: Keith Hernandez hit for the cycle. The better news for the Braves: pitcher Rick Camp tied the game with a home run—in the bottom of the eighteenth. (“If this team needs me to tie a game, they’re in trouble,” Camp remembered later.) The best news for the Mets: They scored three in the top of the nineteenth before Ron Darling—now a Mets broadcaster, then a starting pitcher pressed into survival relief—struck out Camp himself to end the 16-13 win.

The Braves said nuts to that and went ahead with their postgame fireworks show anyway. Nothing keeps some people from their red, white, and blue racket making—not even the fifth of July and nineteen innings of baseball.

Sixty years to the day before that Fourth, two Hall of Famers—Lefty Grove (Athletics) and Herb Pennock (Yankees)—tangled in a pitching duel that went fifteen innings before Grove surrendered the game-losing RBI to Yankee catcher Steve O’Neill. The bad news: It was one of only ten RBIs O’Neill would have all season long. The worse news: it was the first game of a doubleheader.

Today, the eyes of baseball will fall most likely upon the Dodgers, who enter a home game against the Padres on a streak of five consecutive games won in the final plate appearance of the inning. The last two of the streak were won by Cody Bellinger, the Dodger outfielder doing his level best to give Dodger fans a taste this season of what Angel fans have tasted since 2012 from Mike Trout.

On Tuesday night, Bellinger received the fifth consecutive walk of the bottom of the ninth to win, 5-4. On Wednesday night, having opened the scoring with a parabola over the center field fence, and with his parents in Dodger Stadium, Bellinger stepped up in the bottom of the tenth and sent one into the right center field bleachers. Winning again, 5-4.

The two Wednesday blasts put Bellinger into the Dodgers’ record book. He knocked two Brooklyn legends—Hall of Famer Duke Snider, and eventual Miracle Mets manager Gil Hodges—to one side for the most home runs by a Dodger in any season prior to the All-Star break.

But the eyes of baseball are just as likely to fall upon the Nationals, in Washington, when they host the Marlins in the nation’s capital. The Nats have gone from basket case in the making to winners of 15 out of 17 and a resurrected National League East threat, and even their once-lamented 2019 bullpen seems to be shaking off its early season penchant for throwing kerosene balls.

An American president-to-be fired the pronouncement heard ’round the world 243 years ago. (If you’re scoring at home, that’s one year more than the total home runs a former Nationals manager hit during his own playing career.)

May [our Declaration] be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded to bind themselves, and to assume the blessing & security of self government.

Let today’s American political (lack of) class sully America’s birthday all it wishes, if only because the formal legal holiday allows even a single day’s relief from their suffocating mischief. Immune as almost completely they are to America as an idea as well as a country, let them stew all they choose that they can’t really impose that immunity upon still-sovereign Americans, enough of whom will re-embrace America the idea in hand with America the country today.

Descended from stock as varied in international origin as baseball players are in performance, approach, and style, still-sovereign Americans will spend a fair portion of her birthday watching the game that above all others begins with the act of a sovereign individual but scores with the act America the idea embraces in the abstract and, at her best, the actuality. Enunciated best by the Yale scholar of renaissance literature (Dante in particular) who eventually became baseball’s overseer, if for a tragically brief term:

Baseball is quintessentially American in the way it tells us that much as you travel and far as you go, out to the green frontier, the purpose is to get home, back to where the others are, the pioneer ever striving to come back to the common place. A nation of migrants always, for all their wandering, remembers what every immigrant never forgets: that you may leave home but if you forget where home is, you are truly lost and without hope.

Mr. Jefferson, meet Professor Giamatti. Preferably behind home plate, but anywhere you might see America’s best annual birthday present, that roaming to the frontier, that hope of coming home, its starting cry the one with which you, Mr. Jefferson, might have finished your declaration and America’s, had you been clairvoyant enough to see its advent: Play ball!

 

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