Baseball statistician, Bill James, spoke at the University of Kansas last night as part of the James Naismith Lecture Series. I had the privilege of attending the lecture, which centered around “Transitioning from Naïve to Professional Research.” The talk was delightfully engaging, thought-provoking, and amusing.
If you’ve never seen him in person, Bill James is a big man. He stands over six feet tall with noticeably broad shoulders, and he a full head of hair and a large beard that only seems to add to his enormity. He is, of course, even bigger in the baseball world.
But James actually didn’t talk a lot about baseball. He couldn’t entirely avoid it, being such a prolific baseball writer and the founder of sabermetrics. He did talk about the determination of strong versus weak MVP pools, mentioning this article, which, among other things, argues that Eric Hosmer deserves to rank second in the AL MVP race over Aaron Judge. His statement noticeably surprised a lot of folks (and delighted a lot of folks; Lawrence is only about an hour from Kauffman Stadium, after all). “Eric Hosmer’s contribution to the Royals,” James said, “was greater than Aaron Judge’s contribution to the Yankees.” When he puts it that way, it makes sense.
James’s primary discussion, however, revolved around ideas. He compared ideas to seeds on a tree. The seeds of a tree scatter, and though are thousands upon thousands of seeds that can come off any given tree, if just one of them takes root and becomes another fully-grown tree, that is an astonishing percentage. 99.9% of tree seeds scatter and all they do is become food for animals or clog our sewers and gutters. In the same way, we as human beings come up with hundreds of ideas every single day, and the vast majority of those ideas are throwaways. But if one of those ideas takes root, it can potentially change the world.
Everything around us, he said, once started as an idea. “The Kansas Union was once an idea that somebody had. The University of Kansas was once just an idea that somebody had.” It’s a perspective-altering thought.
This thought has direct relevance to James’s own life. When he graduated from KU in the 1970s, James says he knew his job prospects weren’t great. More than anything, he just wanted to find a job “that didn’t involve taxi cabs, heavy lifting, or armed robbery.” Spending his spare time working with baseball statistics, he said, was something that folks around him would comment was interesting, but that not enough people in the world were interested in it enough for him to ever make a living off it. We know now that those folks’ assessment was proved wrong, and James’s work with statistics became the idea that not only changed his own life, but revolutionized the world of baseball.
This isn’t everything that Bill James spoke about last night, but these are the ideas that particularly struck me. It was one of the more engaging lectures I’ve had the opportunity to attend, and I like to attend these kinds of things whenever I can. The fact that I’m a baseball fan certainly influenced my perspective, but as you can probably tell, it was the kind of talk that even non-fans could appreciate.
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.
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.
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.
The Yankees really are a popular target. I’m no Red Sox fan, either, but somehow, I still struggle to feel bad for the Yankees.
‘I am a Yankees fan,’ a first-grade teacher explains to her class. ‘Who likes the Yankees?’
Everyone raises a hand except one little girl. ‘Janie,’ the teacher says, surprised. ‘Why didn’t you raise your hand?’
‘I’m not a Yankees fan.’
‘Well, if you are not a Yankees fan, then what team do you like?’
‘The Red Sox,’ Janie answers.
‘Why in the world are you a Red Sox fan?’
‘Because my mom and dad are Red Sox fans.’
‘That’s no reason to be a Red Sox fan,’ the teacher replies, annoyed. ‘You don’t always have to be just like your parents. What if your mom and dad were morons? What would you be then?’
‘A Yankees fan.’
The Red Sox get into the Series thanks to the fact that the Yankees – who were leading the American League championships three games to none, and have all-stars at every position, not to mention a payroll larger than the gross national product of Sweden – chose that particular time to execute the most spectacular choke in all of sports history, an unbelievable Gag-o-Rama, a noxious nosedive, a pathetic gut-check failure of such epic dimensions that every thinking human outside of the New York metropolitan area experiences a near-orgasmic level of happiness. But there is no need to rub it in.
~ Dave Barry (2004 year in review)
This past weekend saw the conclusion of the 2017 MLB regular season. Today, there is no baseball. Tomorrow, October 3rd, the Twins will be in New York to take on the Yankees for the American League Wild Card. Then on Wednesday, October 4th, the Rockies are headed to Arizona to compete with the Diamondbacks for the National League Wild Card.
The postseason has begun.
For my team, the Kansas City Royals, there is no postseason this year. And with the futures of players such as Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer now up in the air, things are definitely changing.
Ned Yost has agreed to return for one more year, and mainstay Alex Gordon is signed for a few more years, but Royals fans are in agreement: we are at the end of an era.
I just hope we aren’t staring down the barrel of another 30-year stretch of “rebuilding.”
On September 27, 1914, Cleveland’s Nap Lajoie became just the third player in baseball history to reach 3,000 hits, joining Cap Anson and Honus Wagner. His 3,000th hit was a double off New York’s Marty McHale as the Indians won 5-3 at League Park.
In the first game of a double-header on September 10, 1919, Cleveland right-hander Ray Caldwell no-hit the New York Yankees, 3-0. After having been released by the Red Sox in July of that year, Caldwell won five of his six starts with the Indians, posting an ERA of 1.71.