“The contest cannot in its essence exist”


A. Bartlett Giamatti, as president of the National League, 1987-88.

Boys will be boys, but now and again we’re reminded that that doesn’t always excuse them when they mistake crime for high spirits. Come to think of it, baseball got one whale of a reminder in 1987, when the president of the National League found himself unamused about cheating with an appeal placed in front of him.

Phillies pitcher Kevin Gross was caught with sandpaper in his glove, surely not for on-the-spot glove repair, then ejected from the game and suspended ten days. Gross appealed the suspension, but A. Bartlett Giamatti found nothing appealing about it.

And Giamatti handed down a ruling he swore he worked as hard on formulating as he did any scholarly exegesis while he was the president of Yale University. Within that ruling—he upheld Gross’s suspension—the future (and tragically short-lived) commissioner laid down the law.

What Giamatti wrote about one pitcher with a piece of sandpaper can apply to part or even all of a team flouting the rules against deploying high technology, rather than on-the-field gamesmanship, to steal opposition signs.

There were those who thought as the New York Times‘s sports columnist George Vecsey once observed, that Giamatti as president of the National League was “the nutty professor on sabbatical.” What did they think about Gross and his representatives causing his appeal hearing to last five hours and include “exhibits of considerable breadth, two entailing nearly one thousand notations,” as Giamatti recorded at the beginning of his ruling?

Gross and the Players Association claimed the ten-day suspension was “excessive.” Giamatti observed that Rick Honeycutt and Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry had been awarded ten-day drydockings for foreign things in the glove but that Gross and his representatives, conveniently or otherwise, didn’t include those in their mass of exhibits.

In due course, Giamatti told The New Yorker‘s Roger Angell why he approached his Gross appeal ruling with the kind of effort by which he laboured his writings and thinkings at Yale, where his academic specialty was Dante. “It was challenging,” Giamatti told Angell, “to try to be clear about cheating and what it meant, and to be fair at the same time.”

Challenge met with success. You can read the entire ruling in A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of A. Bartlett Giamatti. Here, though, is the critical point therein. Acts of cheating, Giamatti wrote in denying Gross’s appeal, are . . .

not the result of impulse, borne of frustration or anger or zeal as violence is, but are rather acts of a cool, deliberate, premeditated kind. Unlike acts of impulse or violence, intended at the moment to vent frustration or abuse another, acts of cheating are intended to alter the very conditions of play to favour one person. They are secretive, covert acts that strike at and seek to undermine the basic foundation of any contest declaring the winner—that all participants play under identical rules and conditions. Acts of cheating destroy that necessary foundation and thus strike at the essence of a contest. They destroy faith in the games’ integrity and fairness; if participants and spectators alike cannot assume integrity and fairness and proceed from there, the contest cannot in its essence exist . . . Cheating is contrary to the whole purpose of playing to determine a winner fairly and cannot be simply contained; if the game is to flourish and engage public confidence, cheating must be clearly condemned with an eye to expunging it.

Substitute “one team” for “one person.” Now you get why the Astros caught running a high-tech sign-stealing operation in 2017, against the rules prohibiting such operations, sent baseball, its fans, and its observers into the proverbial tizzy, after a former Astro in position enough to know (pitcher Mike Fiers) blew the whistle on and the covers off the Astro Intelligence Agency.

Reality check: The Astros—or whomever among them created their AIA—aren’t the only such electronic thieves, merely the latest to be caught red Octobered. If you ask whether Astrogate taints their run of three American League West titles and two pennants, you might also ask why a team that great, with as forward-thinking an organisation as theirs, needs technocheating in the first place.

These Astros are sharper than chefs’ knives at the plate and in the field. They exploit the slightest opposition mistakes with minds over matter. Tip your pitches? They sautee you. Slip out of position? They broil you. Hang a breaking ball? They slice, dice, and pureeĀ  you. They needed to take up high-tech heisting about as badly as Superman needed a gym membership.

Further reality check: When Giamatti rejected Gross’s appeal, he wasn’t foolish enough to ignore that cheating was (and is) baseball’s oldest sub-profession. Neither was Giamatti naive enough to believe denying one pitcher caught, frisked, arraigned, indicted, and convicted would put cheating in its grave.

Placed in the appropriate position, he could and did demonstrate that at least one baseball official could and did pronounce officially, when the case presented itself, that fair was supposed to be fair. Given the chance to take a stand and make it stick, for however long, Giamatti took the stand with firm eloquence. Saying, essentially, “If not now, then when?”

Unfortunately, even baseball’s most lyrical thinker this side of Sparky Anderson couldn’t make it stick. Neither could a Hall of Famer writing a syndicated newspaper column in 1926 who understood, and enunciated in plain English, the distinction between on-field sign-decoding and off-field high- or even low-tech espionage:

There is another form of sign stealing which is reprehensible and should be so regarded. That is where mechanical devices worked from outside sources, such as the use of field glasses, mirrors and so on, are used . . . Signal-tipping on the fields is not against the rules, while the use of outside devices is against all the laws of baseball and the playing rules. It is obviously unfair.

That was Ty Cobb. Whose reputation as the dirtiest most rules-be-damned player of his era came mostly from one writer whose Cobb-ographies have been debunked completely. If beyond-the-playing-field technological theft was bad enough for Cobb, it should be bad enough for us.

What Cobb called “obviously unfair” is obviously cheating. The Dante scholar who grew up to become president of the National League and baseball’s commissioner should have the last word on cheating, so far as anyone who genuinely loves the game should be concerned. Should but probably won’t. Unlucky us.

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!