Good-bye, Mr. Sunshine

Mr. Cub honored in 2009 by Mr. President

Mr. Cub honored in 2009 by Mr. President

Ernie Banks is gone. He was the first African American to play for the Chicago Cubs, and has forever since been “Mr. Cub.”

A Hall of Fame inductee (1977), Banks is best remembered for his boundless enthusiasm: Let’s Play Two! Only the eternal optimist would want to subject himself to a broiling-afternoon doubleheader (National League Chicago played no night games then) on most of the Cubs teams he played for. Banks never appeared in a postseason game, and therefore remained something of a Chicago phenomenon. The Cubs have not won a championship since 1908.

Banks had tremendous power and in many ways is the prototype of the modern-day superstar-power shortstop: Cal Ripkin Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, Troy Tulowitzki.

God got a good one.

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Baseball and African-American Life

Is baseball different from the other sports?

Is baseball different from the other sports?

Gerald Early’s meandering yet compellingly honest essay, “Baseball and African American Life”, asks, “Why have Negroes not truly accepted baseball?” The answers are complex and perhaps inconclusive.

A first questioning is, “In what way?” Jackie Robinson opened a door that was chained and bolted since the dawn of baseball in America, the period prior to the Civil War and especially after as the popularity of baseball spread concurrently with Emancipation and Reconstruction. Freedom from bondage, civil rights, race relations, the ultimate existence of a united states in fact are of a piece and at the core. To this end, Early invokes William Wells Brown’s reaction to cultural Eurocentrism as well as James Weldon Johnson, a seeker of the preservation of black culture against its appropriation (jazz for example) by white America—after all, Rube Foster created the Negro National League at the start of the Harlem Renaissance in 1920.

Such are connections not coincidences.

And there is Amiri Baraka, who in tumultuous 1968 writes:

We knew, despite the newspaper and the radio, who that was tearing around those bases. When we saw Mule Suttles or Josh Gibson or Buck Leonard or Satchel Paige and dug the Homestead Grays, Philadelphia Stars, New York Black Yankees, Baltimore Elite (pronounced E-Light) Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, Birmingham Black Barons, and even the Indianapolis Clowns! we knew who that was and what they (we) could do. Those other Yankees and Giants and Dodgers we followed just to keep up with being in America. We had our likes and dislikes. “Our” teams. But for the black teams, and for us Newarkers, the Newark Eagles was pure love.

For Amiri Baraka, Jackie Robinson is a traitor—harshly put: an affirmative-action abomination. Integration ruined the unique African-American baseball experience.

How extreme are these feelings?

How many African Americans, to this day, attend Major League Baseball games?

Are the individuals that do wearing the mask?

On exiting a St. Louis Cardinals game, encircled by white fans and having attended unaccompanied, Early encounters three black youths. One sneers, “How was the game, brother?” “‘I don’t know’ I lied, ‘I wasn’t at the game. I don’t follow baseball’.”

The stats and lore, so beloved by SABR geeks as well as more casual fans, by Martin and me surely, are largely a white construct deriving from a sport that predates 1947 by more than a century. Part of the lore is the dynastic handing down of the game from father to son: Teenage Bob Feller pitching to his dad behind their barn; lead-miner Mutt Mantle teaching little Mickey to switch hit. It’s the white-world Father Knows Best setting, which informs even blue-collar white society— the ghetto family lives far from the Elysian Fields of white ball.

In Right off the Bat, a chapter is devoted to “Race and Empire.” We work in broad strokes and (to mix or coax a metaphor) without an overabundance of navel-gazing or embroidery. There are: the colonial dispensation; the enslavement, total exploitation of Africans; the British boarding-school mise-en-scéne from which cricket culture emerged—the high and difficult technique of cricket and the individualism-versus-team effort of baseball being offshoots of white-English colonialism. (We also touch on the 1940s “League of Their Own” women’s-only baseball universe, which remained segregated: never “to integrate” with the other gender.)

Black men in a predominantly white business….

Early invokes August Wilson’s 1986 play, Fences, about a Negro League player, representative of an oppressed (invisible) minority, and the contradictions of character required to participate amid and within the white mainstream. The fences, Early points out, are not only symbolic of that mythical one that encircles (that word again!) a field and a ballpark, “the pastoral Eden of the white mind,” but also a symbol of the boundaries of social non-acceptance placed on the black athlete and by extension the shoulders of every African American.

(The last major-league clubs to integrate were the good [Yankees, 1955], the bad [Philadelphia Phillies, 1957], and the otherwise OK [Detroit Tigers, 1958; Boston Red Sox, 1959].)

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Hat Size: $303K

That's one expensive baseball cap.

That’s one expensive baseball cap.

It was 80 years ago today that MLB taught Japan to play. Well, not exactly. But the 1934 barnstorming tour including the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx, did begin a process of popularizing baseball in the Far East. (Although no one realized it yet, the time frame marked the beginning of a new era of stars-to-be: Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Bob Feller were shortly to electrify the public as the Ty Cobb-and-Ruth Generation faded.)

The collectibles’ market kills me. The hat Ruth wore during those depression days of touring recently fetched $303,277 at auction.

As for the games themselves, the major-league guys won all 22 by a whopping combined score of 250 to 45. (Though according to Geoffrey C.Ward and Ken Burns, the American team won 17 of 18 against the amateurs.) The sole bright spot for nevertheless ever-enthusiastic Japan was high-school pitching sensation Eiji Sawamura, basically the Bob Feller of Japan—at least for one day. (Eiji tragically died in 1944, serving in the Japanese Imperial Army.)

Below is the home movie by Double X, which records a modicum of the barnstorming glamour.

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Geopolitics Aside

Ruth in Cuba

Ruth in Cuba

The stunning announcement today concerning the opening of full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba likely carries large implications for professional baseball, both within these two countries and for the internationalization of the sport (and business) based on the year-round model of cricket. Imagine a Major League Baseball franchise in Havana. Imagine elevating fields in Cuba to the standards of those in the U.S., Canada, Japan, South Korea, Puerto Rico, much of Mexico and Central America. The baseball talent cultivated in Cuba must be, per capita, the greatest and highest in the world, perhaps excepting Panama. Babe Ruth found barnstorming Cuba much to his liking—not to mention betting on jai-alai—during his time there under always-truculent manager John McGraw. It is no exaggeration to say the restoration of ambassadorial and other ties among the two countries may be the biggest combination of diplomatic and sports news in our lifetimes.

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The United States of Jeter

imagesA lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.

As summer unofficially ends, the 2014 MLB season concluded with a terrific run of postseason playoff games, it seemed the majority of them decided by a run too deep into the East Coast nights and early mornings. It was appropriate a couple of Wild Card teams faced one another in the World Series, and appropriate the Series went the distance, to the penultimate batter of the year winding up on third base and perhaps unwisely held by a KC third-base coach. Congratulations to the San Francisco Giants. As predicted in these blogs, the even-numbered year worked its magic on Bruce Bochy, Dave Righetti, Kung-fu Panda, and especially on Madison Bumgarner, who practically rewrote the World Series record book.

The season was marked by almost every club in the hunt, a disturbing and discouraging number of injuries to key players, an excessive resorting to extreme-defensive shifts. Low-run production in the post-HGH era represented a kind of detumescence: a return to a more normal and balanced form of the sport. Yet, there have been whispers of changing the rules, creating, as in pro basketball, illegal defenses to increase offense as fans, in spite of the competitive field-leveling of parity, were staying away from stadiums. (What baseball pundits found so revolutionary about extreme defenses was old hat to anyone from the cricket world, with the looser defensive positioning and designations of that game.)

The season also was marked by that long good-bye to Derek Jeter. It all became hopelessly, inevitably repetitive and culminating in its sincerity. Other players had had season-long farewells and “Days,” in recent memory and long ago. David Halberstam writes of Joe DiMaggio’s in 1949, several years before his retirement. But as one photo shows the still-unsteady (a rough season health-wise) Clipper looming over the pile of gifts including a bicycle (probably for Joe Jr.), the 2014 version was about as materialistic as could be imagined. Naturally, Jeter places most of the cash received by each American League (and some N.L.) team into his foundation, a terrific cause, and undoubtedly objects are being auctioned for the same reason. Yet, there was something unbearably scripted about it all, even to the great player’s deflecting of the spotlight. The postseason, which Jeter—though ending his Yankee Stadium career with a flourish—missed for one of the few times in his amazing career, proved a perfect antidote.

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A Letter from a Fan

Occasionally, out of the ether, a missive arrives that tells us that our writing hasn’t fallen on deaf ears. We were delighted to receive an email from Parth Taneja, a law student in Washington, D.C. The letter (slightly edited for length and clarity) is self-explanatory . . . and very welcome.

I hope this finds you well.  I am writing to convey my dear appreciation for the book, Right off the Bat. I bought this book in 2011 after listening to one of your media appearances.  It was shelved very nicely for the longest of times in my audiobooks section of my phone. About two weeks ago, I finished watching the baseball documentary by Ken Burns. Ken, I feel, is a true romantic about the sport. As a romantic of a sport similar to baseball, I appreciate the sentiment and emotion that he brought to the project. It was the same I felt when I was listening to your book.
As someone who is a relatively new migrant to the States, I feel to learn baseball is to learn about America. It is a sport so much like cricket, where you can take your son to show him the perfect cover drive by Michael Hussey or Rahul Dravid or talk about life with. Although I do not have a family, one day I hope to ensure they get to taste the finer things life.  Few things are finer than the two sports. Nothing better than sipping a nice Chardonnay while watching Joe Root make a hundred against the Australians, like I did last summer [2013] at Lord’s.
Anyhow, thank you for the opportunity to for allowing me to romanticize the great things in life. Good work with the book. I hope to share it as the manifesto of the similarities of the two games from here on in.


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Is This the End of the West Indies as a Cricketing Entity?

For reasons that were at once predictable and shocking, the past week has seen developments that it’s not being grandiose to say may lead to the end of the West Indies cricket team. In a dispute over money (isn’t it always?), the members of the West Indies cricket team, on tour of India, informed their board (the West Indies Cricket Board, or WICB), that they were no longer going to play—even though their own players association (or WIPA) had agreed to the terms of the tour and the payment. The Board of Control of Cricket in India (the BCCI) not only immediately canceled the tour (Sri Lanka will take the place of the West Indies) but stated that the Indian team will no longer tour West Indies, and that BCCI will consider options to sue the WICB for tens of millions of dollars.

This is, to put it mildly, a big deal. Because of the size of the television and sponsorship market, the BCCI can afford to throw its weight around. The potential revenue loss of an Indian tour of West Indies is, perhaps, $65 million—aside from any millions of dollars that the BCCI may seek in the courts. Furthermore, other boards—notably the England Cricket Board (ECB), which is due to send a team to the West Indies in April and May—may reconsider doing so, given the volatile relationship between the WIPA and WICB.

The West Indies was always an idea more than a reality. For years, the eleven best cricketers from Antigua, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados, and other islands, would cohere to form the West Indies cricket team. From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s,  the team played for regional and racial pride rather than an individual country or money. (The documentary film Fire in Babylon admirably captures what was at stake for the great West Indies teams of that era.) But, like the countries the team represented, West Indies cricket never commanded the money that England, Australia, and now India can. A revenue loss like this may bankrupt the WICB, forcing West Indies cricket to retrench, and making it impossible for the team to remain in the top rank of cricketing nations.

But even more is at stake than this. Cricket is a source of enormous national and supranational pride for West Indians—both at home and in the diaspora. It is a genuine infusion of income, especially when the England cricket team visit the islands, bringing hordes of pink-faced, beer-swilling, but wealthy fans who fill the hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, and grounds of the islands that host the matches. The loss of an England tour would depress the local economies dramatically.

But perhaps the most telling result of this situation may be for the future of cricket as a sport where individuals come together to represent their nation. One reason why the West Indies players went on strike is that their pay was being slashed. Another reason is that many of them—such as Dwayne Bravo, Kieron Pollard, Darren Sammy, Dwayne Smith, Chris Gayle, and Sunil Narinecan make hundreds of thousands of dollars playing in the Indian Premier League (IPL), a six-week tournament of the shortest form of the game of cricket (T20), which brings in huge crowds, large amounts of sponsorship money, and huge exposure and TV ratings. Other T20 competitions around the world offer similarly handsome pay checks. The West Indies’ players flamboyance and match-winning hitting have made them stars, and brings them  months of salary in a matter of weeks. They don’t need to play national cricket to make a living.

Made-for-TV games in front of huge markets, such as are in the Indian subcontinent, threaten to render irrelevant eighty percent of all cricket competitions between nations that aren’t in a big TV market, or don’t have the money to pay their cricketers enough to stop them playing in that big TV market. Unless money is spread more evenly across the game to the poorer nations, the collapse of the West Indies–India tour may portend the end of cricket as we know it.

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