This piece by Joyce Kessel was published in 2011 in Spitball Magazine. There’s a strong sense of nostalgia, especially in the language about attending minor league games.
I grew up a National League fan of the Pirates, Cards, Reds & Giants, not even knowing many decades before my Buffalo Bisons played in the Senior League well before becoming a minor league stalwart. So I’d pray for sunny skies over Forbes Field rather than Cleveland’s “Mistake by the Lake.” My rare defection to the American League came when the Orioles gained Frank Robinson in that lopsided trade and after, who couldn’t have appreciated Cal Ripken?
My dad & I would troll the minor leagues where for some reason affiliations didn’t seem to matter as much, at least not to me, who took in the green expanses beyond dirt as the glowing diamonds they were meant to be, even in parks that were bare shadows to Little League fields today.
In bandbox fields and open air bleachers we’d watch players with numbers, but no names on their uniforms, trading cards in their future or past or not at all, their talents raw and wild.
I learned a geography of Rustbelt cities: Toledo Mudhens, Columbus Clippers, Rochester Redwings, Syracuse Chiefs, Geneva Cubs, Oneonta Yankees, Niagara Falls Rainbows, a day’s ride away, hoping they’d play two, and mastering the geometry & hieroglyphs of scorecards.
Frank Robinson of the Cincinnati Reds was unanimously voted the National League Rookie of the Year on December 1, 1956. After making his major league debut that year, Robinson had tied the then-record of 38 home runs by a rookie.
The Eighth Inning of Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us into the 1960s. In this decade of the American Pastime, we find that it is being recognized less and less as such. Football has risen to prominence, and a lot of folks come to argue that football, not baseball, has now become the true national game. Additionally, the sixties were quite a stormy and unstable period in American history, filled with race riots, activism, anti-war protests, hippies, and Woodstock.
The game of baseball also finds itself experiencing some changes. In 1961, Babe Ruth’s single season home run record is threatened, then broken, by a man who is far from being a fan favorite. Roger Maris is described as moody and sullen, avoids talking to the press, and starts losing his hair as a result of the pressure he is under as he inadvertently finds himself chasing Ruth’s record.
Pitching sees a rise in dominance as the decade progresses, thanks to commissioner Ford Frick’s commandment that the strike zone be expanded to counter the explosion of home runs. Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson are among those who rise to preeminence from their positions on the mound. As pitching becomes the ruling force in the game, there comes a decline in home runs being hit. This, in turn, contributes to the decline in fan interest in the game.
This time period also sees changes as far as the growth of the league. The success and profitability of the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the west brings the league to consider other ways in which to spread the game throughout the country. Four new teams were added to Major League Baseball. We see the birth of the California Angels, the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins, then a newer Senators team moved to Arlington and became the Texas Rangers. The New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s (later the Astros) also joined the National League. The Braves would move from Milwaukee to Atlanta and the Athletics moved to Oakland. After just one season, the Seattle Pilots left for Milwaukee and became the Brewers, and towards the end of the decade the Royals were established in Kansas City and the Expos in Montreal. (I’m sure I must be missing one or more others here, and for that, I apologize.)
At the beginning of the decade, Ebbets Field met its fate with a wrecking ball painted to resemble a baseball. Jackie Robinson, who had once played at Ebbets, now worked and fought for civil rights, and Branch Rickey, who was the force behind integration in Major League Baseball, passed away in 1965. The Polo Grounds became the home of the New York Metropolitans, led by the one and only Casey Stengel, now getting along in years. Suffices to say, the Mets weren’t very good in those early years. Eventually, Stengel would retire from baseball. After that, the same wrecking ball that took out Ebbets Field would also bring down the Polo Grounds. The Mets moved into Shea Stadium, and by the end of the decade transformed into the “Miracle Mets,” winning the 1969 World Series.
In this inning, we meet Pete Rose and see bits about Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Whitey Ford, Roberto Clemente, and many, many others. Sandy Koufax seemingly retires almost as quickly as he broke into the league and became the youngest player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. In Baltimore, Earl Weaver became manager of the Orioles. One of the greatest managers of all time, the Orioles became the dynasty of the decade under Weaver.
In this decade, we also meet Marvin Miller. Miller became the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966. The players loved having Miller speaking on their behalf, but baseball owners, unsurprisingly, hated having Miller around. He was a man who Red Barber would call “one of the two or three most important men in baseball history.”
By the end of the disc, we learn about Curt Flood’s battle against the reserve clause, which at this point is only just beginning. Flood learned that he was to be traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia, and in the face of the racism he knew he would face in Philadelphia, he decided to oppose the trade. This flew in the face of the entire history of baseball business.
I think my favorite feature of this disc comes in all the arguments defending baseball. In spite of George Carlin’s comedy routine that makes baseball seem like a slow, sissy sport, baseball continues to be referred to as America’s National Pastime for good reason. Sure, football is faster and perhaps more suitable to the 30-second attention span that now dominates our culture (though, more recently, football also seems to be declining in popularity). But baseball’s place in the American psyche runs deep, and in a lot of ways, it is the very nature of its leisurely pace that makes it so appealing.
Gene Budig is a former American League President. He’s also a former chancellor of the University of Kansas, where I happen to work. Budig’s tenure as chancellor happened before my time at KU, but when his book Clearing the Bases came out, it was made available to employees of the university. A few weeks ago, a lady I work with came across a long-forgotten stack of the book, and knowing that I am a baseball fan, offered one to me.
Clearing the Bases: Nine Who Did It with Grit and Class offers biographical sketches of nine individuals who had an impact on the game of baseball. The book discusses Cal Ripken, Jr., Bobby Brown, George Brett, Joe Torre, Bob Feller, Mike Ilitch, Marty Springstead, Bill Madden, and Frank Robinson. Budig gives information about their backgrounds, their careers, and their accomplishments. Furthermore, Budig knew each of these individuals personally and offers his own candid insights into their character and impact.
Perhaps my favorite part about these biographies, however, is that they also make mention of community contributions that each of these men have made. Bobby Brown, for example, went to medical school and became a cardiologist. Joe Torre and his wife created the Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation, and he campaigns against any type of domestic abuse. Bob Feller served for four years in the United States Navy, right as he would’ve been in his prime as a baseball player.
Furthermore, Budig doesn’t talk merely about baseball players. He includes figures who have impacted the game in other ways. Marty Springstead was an umpire. Michael Ilitch owns the Detroit Tigers, the Detroit Red Wings, and founded Little Caesar’s Pizza. Bill Madden is a sportswriter.
This book is a fast read, too. I made my way through it in one afternoon and enjoyed every minute of it. Budig’s writing style is engaging and certainly not the over-complicated rhetoric that one often sees with academics. It appears there was a second edition of the book released a couple years after this one, titled Swinging For the Fences. I do not know whether there are any significant differences between that edition and Clearing the Bases. So far as I have been able to tell from what I’ve seen online, they appear to be the same book. That would be another title to watch for, if you are considering giving this one a read.
I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshiped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology.
You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring… which makes it like sex. There’s never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best year of his career. Making love is like hitting a baseball: you just gotta relax and concentrate. Besides, I’d never sleep with a player hitting under .250… not unless he had a lot of RBIs and was a great glove man up the middle.
You see, there’s a certain amount of life wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds. Sometimes when I’ve got a ballplayer alone, I’ll just read Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman to him, and the guys are so sweet, they always stay and listen. ‘Course, a guy’ll listen to anything if he thinks it’s foreplay. I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe, and pretty. ‘Course, what I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball – now who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God’s sake? It’s a long season and you gotta trust it. I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.