Welcome to The On Deck Circle
I always end up reading a lot more about baseball during the off-season than I do during the season, perhaps because my highly competitive fantasy baseball league takes up most of my free time from late March through September.
I especially find myself gravitating to any books about baseball history. As someone who taught history in high school for a dozen years, I’m always intrigued about how the history of baseball shadows the history of our country, at least since the end of the Civil War.
Like the history of our nation, the history of baseball is part statistics, part first-person narrative, and part mythology. Sometimes, these three elements swirl around together to create a new, dynamic compound called Memory.
Memory is what keeps most of us (those of us who love baseball), hooked on this sport. That is to say, we remember what we loved about baseball in our youth, and we try, sometimes a little too hard, to pass these memories on to our own children.
This historical connection is also why we take the statistical element of this game so seriously. Numbers, whether in the form of dates, or used as a measurement of success or failure, have always been an important element of our historical memory.
Just as we remember what happened on July 4th, 1776, or on December 7th, 1941, we also remember that the Brooklyn Dodgers won only a single World Championship in 1955. Babe Ruth was the first baseball player to hit 60 home runs; Norman Schwarzkopf won Operation Desert Storm in 100 days.
Some of these numbers or dates have even been set to music, or read as poetry: “Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue, in fourteen hundred and ninety-two.” “The Outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day….”
Numbers allow, even encourage, the impression of objectivity and historical certainty that allows mythology to take shape. And mythology is at the core of what almost all historical arguments, including arguments about baseball history, are about.
Here in Greenville, South Carolina, for example, the Confederate Museum looks and feels like most any other American war museum. The tour guides who received me in this quaint and interesting place were not, however, content to just show me around.
What I received from the two gentlemen who sidled along with me from room to room was a heartfelt, emotional soliloquy about how most people, especially people who are not kith or kin to the South, simply don’t know The Truth about the history of the Civil War. The South was purely the victim, not the aggressor, and had only sensible, reasonable grievances that fell on deaf ears in Washington, thus the final step of secession.
Growing up as a child in the north, I often heard a different story regarding the causes of the Civil War, and these often frail, old female teachers held President Lincoln up as a secular saint.
Essentially, these disparate people living in two different parts of one nation were not arguing over history–we know where the first shots were fired and who won the war–they were arguing about mythology: Heroes and Villains, Bravery and Treachery, or, as my six-year old son would put it, Good Guys and Bad Guys.
Baseball is not immune to these sorts of arguments. In fact, who does or does not belong in the Hall of Fame, that Great Cluttered Closet in Cooperstown, is, at its core, an argument about baseball mythology:
Does Jim Rice belong on Mt. Olympus with Honus Wagner?
Could Andre Dawson step onto the field of battle with Lefty Grove the way Hector and Achilles fought to the death thousands of years earlier?
Is the crafty Trevor Hoffman baseball’s historical parallel to the Swamp Fox of the Revolution, Francis Marion, a man whose historical reputation lies primarily in the realm of mythology?
There are actually two questions here, important to both American history proper, and to baseball history:
- Who deserves to be remembered?
- How do they deserve to be remembered?
The answers to these questions comprise the collective historical mythology that we pass down through the generations, from father to son.
In my next blog entry, I will focus on these issues as they pertain to the never ending debate over who truly belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Thank you for reading.