Continuing on our journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns, we have now reached the Fourth Inning of this documentary series. Subtitled “A National Heirloom,” this part of the series focuses primarily on Babe Ruth. Bob Costas opens this disc with an anecdote about an argument between an American and a British man that comes to a head when the American man retorts childishly, “Screw the king!” The Brit’s reply to this: “Yeah, well screw Babe Ruth!” It’s a revealing anecdote, not only in terms of the greatness of the Great Bambino to the minds of American citizens, but also when thinking about the influence of baseball on American culture as a whole, even in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Prior to 1920, baseballs used in games weren’t changed out with the frequency that we see today. At times, entire games could be played with a single baseball, if that ball never left the park. Pitchers took it upon themselves to scuff, dirty, and otherwise sabotage the ball any way they could, thus ensuring it would fly erratically, making it more difficult to hit, and thus giving pitchers a distinct advantage. However, the death of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, the victim of being hit in the head by a pitch, changed all that. Umpires were now under orders to throw out a clean baseball the moment one showed any signs of dirt. This, combined with a now more tightly-wound baseball, marked the dawn of new era in the game, in which home runs ruled the day.
Burns launches into a biographical segment of George Herman Ruth’s early life. I was astonished to see that Ruth’s sister, Mamie Ruth Moberly, had survived long enough to contribute to the commentary of the documentary (she died in 1992). Ruth’s introduction to baseball came in reform school, having been sent there by his parents, who declared him “incorrigible.” His talent for the game, both as a hitter and as a pitcher, became quickly apparent, and he went on to be signed by the Baltimore Orioles.
From the Orioles, Ruth was soon sold to the Boston Red Sox, where he shined as a pitcher. From 1919 to 1920, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth, and a number of other Red Sox players to the Yankees. The sale of Ruth initiated what would become known as the Curse of the Bambino.
Ty Cobb, we learn, despised Babe Ruth and the change in baseball’s style of play that came as a result of Ruth’s performance. However, Ruth so dominated the game and the record books that Cobb’s disapproval fell on deaf ears. But Ruth’s dominance didn’t end on the field. Off the field, he proved a fan favorite as his rambunctious personality and eagerness to please made him a lovable individual. His excesses, e.g. blowing his pay on luxuries and frequenting whorehouses, were kept out of the papers, as the press knew he was simply too popular with the fans.
After he set that famous record of sixty home runs in a single season in 1927, Babe Ruth’s fame exploded. He became a mainstay in advertising, as companies sought to capitalize by attaching his image to their products. Everyone wanted a piece of the Great Bambino.
Burns breaks from his coverage of Ruth to discuss racism further. The Harlem Renaissance saw a flourishing of black culture, and Rube Foster established the Negro Leagues. The style of baseball encouraged by Foster sounds exciting enough to make me wish I had been around to watch some Negro Leagues games. Indeed, between Ruth in the MLB and style of the Negro Leagues, the 1920s must have a been a fun time to be a baseball fan.
During this time period, coverage of baseball underwent some changes. The sports pages became a daily feature of urban newspapers, and the personalities of baseball writers varied widely. Fans could also track games via animated scoreboards, displayed in the cities. The development of radio broadcasts of baseball games allowed fans to follow along with the action as it happened.
Burns makes a passing mention of some of the other big hitters of the era, such as Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker, and George Sisler. Of those sluggers mentioned, Hornsby got the most attention, but not nearly the amount of attention that Babe Ruth received. Walter Johnson received a nod for his continuing domination as a pitcher in what had become a hitter’s game, and in 1924, he helped lead the Senators to a World Series victory over the Giants. Lou Gehrig, a rookie during the 1925 season, received a nod as well, his consecutive games streak already underway.
During this time also, Buck O’Neil joined the Kansas City Monarchs, the best team in the Negro Leagues. Branch Rickey, meanwhile, developed baseball’s first farm system with the St. Louis Cardinals. Teams around the majors quickly followed suit and minor league baseball was thus born.
It was a booming decade for the sport. However, the disc concludes in the year 1929, when the stock market collapsed and the onset of the Great Depression was upon the nation.
Growing up, I never paid much attention to The Simpsons. Tragic, yes. I saw an episode here and there over the years, and always enjoyed the ones that I watched, but never made a habit of consistently watching the show. It’s not something that I went out of my way to avoid, so much as I simply did not go out of my way to make the time for it.
Recently, I’ve decided to try to rectify this transgression, and I am currently about halfway through season two of this entertaining series. As with many forms of American pop culture, baseball was bound to find a way to make an appearance, and I didn’t have to wait long for it. The episode “Dancin’ Homer” features the time that Homer Simpson, drunk at a minor league ballgame, started dancing like a fool for the crowd, and thus earned himself a position as the team mascot.
What I did not realize is that the team for which Homer was hired to make a fool of himself, the Springfield Isotopes, became the inspiration for a real life minor league team’s name. The Albuquerque Isotopes are a Triple-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, having been previously affiliated with the Florida Marlins (2003-2008) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (2009-2014).
The real world Isotopes play at Isotopes Park, cleverly nicknamed “The Lab,” which seats 11,124. The stadium stands in the same spot as where historic Albuquerque Sports Stadium once stood, until it was almost completely razed in 2002. Some remnants of the old stadium were incorporated into Isotopes Park. The stadium also serves as home to the University of New Mexico baseball team.
The Albuquerque team does not have a real-life Homer Simpson to serve as their mascot, but rather features a yellow, orange, and red alien/dog/bear creature named Orbit.
In 2016, Forbes named the Isotopes the fourteenth most valuable team in Minor League Baseball. They finished the 2016 season with a 71-72 record, which, interestingly, was good enough for second place in the Pacific Coast League Pacific Southern division.
Rickwood Field opened on August 18, 1910 in Birmingham, Alabama. It was the first concrete-and-steel ballpark in the minor leagues and would go on to become the oldest surviving professional baseball park in the country.
I came across this story this morning, and I feel like it would be a crime not to share. The Lakewood BlueClaws, a Class A affiliate of the Phillies, will be wearing these jerseys for this Saturday’s game against the West Virginia Power.
Admittedly, these kind of look like something a grandma would wear, but being a cat person, it does make me happy to see something like this. Additional information about the CATurday event can be found on the BlueClaws website here.
If you happen to be in Birmingham, Alabama today, here’s a cool way to spend your afternoon.
Rickwood Field, which turns 106 years old this season, is currently America’s oldest professional baseball stadium. After the Barons, now a Chicago White Sox AA affiliate, moved out of the stadium in 1987, it seemed the park was on the verge of being torn down. However, in 1991, a group of young professionals joined forces to restore the ballpark, and then opened it to the public.
And today, the 21st annual Rickwood Classic will be played between the Birmingham Barons and the Chattanooga Lookouts. The event will honor Rickwood Field Hall of Fame alumni, including Rollie Fingers, who pitched for the Birmingham A’s in 1967 and 1968. The first pitch is scheduled for 12:30 p.m.
Tickets for today’s game are also available on the Barons’ website.
The longest game in the history of professional baseball took place in 1981 between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings, two teams from the Triple-A International League. The game lasted 33 innings and went on for a total of 8 hours and 25 minutes. Played at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the first 32 innings of the contest were played April 18th and 19th. The final inning of the game was played on June 23, 1981. Pawtucket won the game, 3–2.
A pair of future Hall of Famers took part in this marathon competition. Cal Ripken, Jr. batted 2–for–13 while playing third base for Rochester. (The following year, Ripken would be named Rookie of the Year in the American League.) Meanwhile, Wade Boggs played third base for Pawtucket, going 4–for–12 with a double and an RBI.
I came across this map, but to be honest, I have no idea who created it nor who posted it. I’m trying to figure out what the creator intended in making this map, because while it seems to divide the states up by their likely regional loyalties, many states have Minor League team logos showing when it does not house a Major League team.
The thing that stands most prominent, in my opinion, is that several states have no team logos on them at all. Rather, they remain pictured white and empty, as if the residents of that state had never been exposed to the concept of baseball. Never mind that Kansas plays host to the Wichita Wingnuts and the Kansas City T-Bones, or that Delaware is home to the Wilmington Blue Rocks. South Dakota has the Sioux Falls Canaries. I could go on, but if I were to attempt an exhaustive list, I would inevitably miss a team or two, so I will stop here and hope that makes the point that these supposedly empty states seem to have been unfairly treated on this map.
It’s possible that this map was merely some fan’s side project and that I am being unjustly critical. Still, the fact that there is a noticeable blank space right in the middle of the country does make that area appear devoid, neglected, or ignorant. It also appears that all of Canada has been designated to the Blue Jays, not just Ontario. It ignores all the Minor League teams that various parts of the country feature.