Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Fifth Inning

Continuing on with the journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us to the decade of the 1930s.  The United States, indeed, the world, was facing off against the Great Depression during the 1930s.  As a result of high unemployment rates and widespread poverty, few could afford the price of tickets to attend professional baseball games, and as a result, attendance fell drastically.  Baseball did what it could to try to draw fans back in, from the first All-Star game to the creation of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  However, the financial difficulties that faced the nation at this time were too great.

Even as the Depression was getting underway, the Yankees signed Babe Ruth to the biggest contract in baseball history in the early 1930s.  It was a move that seems only too-appropriate, given Ruth’s ostentatious lifestyle.  Meanwhile, Lou Gehrig continues to stay merely in the shadows of the spotlight, in spite of his consecutive game streak and consistent high level of play.shadow ball

Subtitled “Shadow Ball,” the Fifth Inning of this series by Ken Burns focuses on black baseball.  (The subtitle, by the way, is not a reference to race, but rather to the illusion that these games weren’t being played with a ball at all, because it could barely be seen.)  While white baseball suffered during the Depression, black baseball flourished.  Many black teams came under control of racketeers, as they were among the few who could afford to fund baseball during this time, but interestingly, this seemed to be to the advantage of the Negro Leagues.  And the crowds flocked to watch the black teams play.  Listening to the nostalgia in the voices of former negro leagues players, you can tell there was a true love for the game, even in spite of inequality, the hard road trips, and the racism they faced.

We learn about Satchel Paige, considered by some to be the greatest pitcher in all of baseball.  He had such an arsenal of pitches that few could hit off Paige.  Some saw him as black baseball’s equivalent of a Babe Ruth, in that he drew large crowds to ball games.  He even seemed to hold true to this comparison in his off-field personality.  He hated to drive slow and cultivated a persona for those around him.  Buck O’Neil, however, indicates there was much more to Paige than often met the eye.

Babe Ruth himself became the center of attention yet again during the 1932 World Series in Chicago when, in Game 3, he appeared to call his shot.  No one will ever know for certain whether he really did, or if Ruth was merely engaging in a different gesture altogether, but it was a moment that, as we all know, has remained a part of the baseball psyche for decades.  As the decade went on, however, Ruth’s level of play would decline, as it always does as a ballplayer gets older.  When the Yankees made it clear they would not offer him a manager position, he did a brief stint with the Boston Braves, then retired from baseball.  Meanwhile, new stars stepped into the spotlight.  Not just Lou Gehrig, but also figures like Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Dizzy Dean, and Bob Feller.

As for home run hitters in the Negro Leagues, catcher Josh Gibson was well-known for this ability.  While many called him a black Babe Ruth, Burns notes, there were some who thought they had the comparison backwards, and that Babe Ruth was actually a white Josh Gibson.  Indeed, the list of accomplishments for Gibson certainly seems to pass those of Ruth, including a season with seventy home runs, some of which exceeded 575 feet in distance.  The Negro Leagues’ version of the Yankees were the Kansas City Monarchs, led by first baseman Buck O’Neil.  In his commentary, O’Neil speaks about the camaraderie between the players and the fans.

We learn about the 1930s Brooklyn Dodgers, “dem bums,” and we learn about the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, the “Gashouse Gang.”  In 1936, Joe DiMaggio made his first appearances as a rookie with the New York Yankees.  DiMaggio would help lead the Yankees to four World Series.  Also in the thirties, we see the first night game in Major League Baseball (though night games had been played in the Negro Leagues for some time) and the increasing popularity of radio broadcasts, especially those by Red Barber, created new fans, as more and more people came to understand the game.

During the off season, many black players traveled south to Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean.  In doing so, they were able to play baseball year round.  They also discovered that the racial attitudes south of the United States were very different.  They were paid more and welcomed more warmly by the locals than they were back home.

Discrimination didn’t stop with just the black population.  Hank Greenburg came into prominence as first baseman for the Detroit Tigers.  He wasn’t the first Jewish player in the game, but he was probably the first to really make a name for himself.  Greenburg faced a considerable backlash of anti-Semitism, but his stellar play eventually helped to win fans and players over.  Greenburg felt his role was of particular importance in light of the actions of one Adolf Hitler in Europe.

In 1939 came Lou Gehrig’s ALS diagnosis, and thus the end of his streak and his baseball career.  On July 4th of that year, Gehrig gave his “Luckiest Man” speech at Yankee Stadium.  Two years later, he passed away from the disease, which now bears his name.

1939 also saw the opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the induction of the first Hall of Fame class.  It was the 100-year anniversary of the myth of Abner Doubleday‘s founding of baseball in 1839.  The disc then ends with Buck O’Neil describing the long-awaited matchup between Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson — Negro League Baseball’s best pitcher versus it’s best hitter.  O’Neil’s account left me with a smile.


This day in baseball: Colby Jacked Series

On October 20, 1910, pitcher Jack Coombs, a.k.a. “Colby Jack,” threw a six-hit complete game to defeat the Cubs, 12-5.  The Philadelphia pitcher’s performance came on just one day of rest and gave the Athletics a 3-0 lead in the World Series.  Coombs would win three of the A’s four victories in the Series.

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Jack Coombs, c. 1911 (Library of Congress)


Yankees fan

My mom and I recently returned from a week-long trip to Saskatchwan (hence the sporadic posting lately).  Honestly, I’m still exhausted and recovering from our little jaunt, but promise to get back on the ball with my posts pretty quickly.

For now, here is a little joke to help tie us over.  Poor Yankees — though I imagine, in a lot of ways, they and their fans might get a kick out of being hated so much.

~*~

Two boys are playing hockey on an inlet on a pond in suburban Chicago when one is attacker by a rabid Rottweiler. Thinking quickly, the other boy takes his stick and wedges it down the dog’s collar and twists, breaking the dog’s neck. A reporter who is strolling by sees the incident and rushes over to the boy. “Young White Sox Fan Saves Friend from Vicious Animal,” he starts writing in his notebook.

“But I’m not a Sox fan,” the little hero replied.

“Sorry, since we are in Chicago, I just assumed you were,” said the reporter, and he began writing again.

“Cubs Fan Rescues Friends from Horrific Attack,” he continued writing in his notebook.

“I’m not a Cubs fan either,” the boy said.

“I assumed everyone in Chicago was either for the Cubs or the Sox. What team do you root for?” inquired the reporter. “I’m a Yankees fan,” the child responded.

The reporter turned the page in his notebook and wrote “Little Bastard from New York Kills Beloved Family Pet.”


This day in baseball: Marquard’s streak ends

Left-handed pitcher Rube Marquard of the Giants won 19 decisions in a row to start the 1912 season.  This tied a single-season mark set by Tim Keefe in 1888 and remains a record that stands to this day.    Marquard’s first loss of the season came on July 8th, when the Cubs defeated New York, 7-2.  Marquard went on to win a total of 26 decisions for the season, helping the Giants on their way to winning the NL pennant.

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Rube Marquard, 1912 (Library of Congress)


I thought I’d say a few words about the power of sports

When I heard about the passing of Yordano Ventura, at first I wasn’t sure the headline I saw was accurate or true.  A quick Google search proved that it was, and my emotions ran from disbelief to shock, then quickly to sadness.  Obviously, I didn’t know Ventura personally, never met him in person, and had he opted to do something with his life other than play baseball, would likely never have heard of him.  Even knowing all this, upon reading the news of his death, I couldn’t help but feel a genuine sense of loss.  After all, I had watched this young man pitch through some of the best seasons I’ve had the privilege to watch as a Royals fan.  In spite of his temper (or maybe because of it), he was a fan favorite in Kansas City, and many of his fans continue to grieve as the week goes on.

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It’s one of those events that gets me thinking about baseball, about sports in general, and its role in our world.  When the Chicago Cubs visited the White House last week, Barack Obama commented, “Throughout our history, sports has had this power to bring us together even when the country is divided.”  The fact that baseball’s popularity grew exponentially following the American Civil War is a testament to this.  During both World War I and World War II, baseball became a form of entertainment that provided Americans a much-needed escape from the realities of being a nation at war.  Jackie Robinson’s journey into the history books shows that baseball can even impact the social climate of our country.

For me, personally, the world of sports continues to provide a sense of balance and purpose to my day-to-day life.  I am a notoriously active person, which helps to offset the forty-plus hours a week I spend sitting at a desk at work.  I love the competition of running road races, the challenge of tackling obstacle course races, and the feeling of accomplishment when I have become strong enough to need to go out and buy a new set of dumbbells.  In the past, I’ve slid into bases, played tackle football in the backyard with my brothers, and had my ass kicked in martial arts studios.  The benefits to my physical and mental health are too numerous to list here (though that might be a worthwhile topic for a future post? We’ll see…).  Then, when the workday is done and the chores are finished and the day’s workout is completed, there’s the escape of turning on a Royals game or a Packers game and getting lost in watching others compete while I unwind.

For kids and adults alike, there are organized recreational teams to encourage a sense of community as well as to promote our overall well-being.  And, again, we also find community in the teams we root for (or against), and in the time we can spend in watching those teams and players compete.  We become so engrossed with these games that we become emotionally involved in them.  We sometimes become obsessed.  We track our favorite players, we feel anxiety or elation over the performances of our teams, we buy their jerseys and wear caps bearing their logos and we do so with pride.  Hell, the Super Bowl has become such a big deal that we throw house parties, complete with booze and a junk food feast, sometimes just so we can watch the commercials.

The death of Yordano Ventura revealed the incredible sense of community among Royals fans.  The way my Facebook feed exploded with shock and grief revealed just how profound an impact this one man playing for this one team really had.  The tributes in memory of Ventura made at Kauffman Stadium are overflowing onto the parking lot.  Baseball, and sports in general, they mean something to us, and they impact us on a deeper level than we oftentimes fail to acknowledge.  In a time of tremendous political and social turmoil in our country, maybe it is time for sports, whether it is baseball or football or hockey or whatever, to exercise its power of healing yet again.


Infographic: 2016 World Series Cubs

This infographic from CSN Chicago provides a timeline of when and how some of the more notable names on the Cubs roster were acquired, starting in 2009, en route to the 2016 World Series.

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This day in baseball: Naming Wrigley Field

In a Chicago Tribune article on December 3, 1926, the Cubs mentioned that Weeghman Park would now be known as Wrigley Field, in honor of club owner William Wrigley, Jr. The north side ballpark was originally named after the previous owner of team, Charles H. Weeghman, who had built the steel-and-concrete ballpark for the Chicago Whales.  Weeghman had moved the Cubs to the new venue after the two teams were merged under his ownership when the Federal League team folded.

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