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.
When Sir Christopher Wren (architect, astronomer, mathematician) died in 1723, his epitaph read as follows: “If you seek his monument, look around you.”
Wren had designed St. Paul’s Cathedral, as well as over fifty other churches and public buildings in and around London.
His legacy was his work; therefore, a statue honoring him would have been redundant.
A man’s life is revealed primarily in his work. It is what we do, and how well we do it, that defines who we are, and how we are remembered.
In addition to their work, some are also honored and immortalized in great works of literature, song, poem, or sculpture. A blind poet, Homer, has kept Odysseus’s memory alive long after his body has perished, in The Odyssey. The faces of four American presidents: Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt may survive the next Ice Age gazing at the horizon from atop Mt. Rushmore.
Even here in Greenville, South Carolina, a bronze statue of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson serves as a cautionary tale of Man’s weakness in the face of temptation. Jackson’s legacy was his life’s work, overshadowed by scandal.
This August, Bud Selig, Commissioner of Baseball for the past 17 years, will be honored outside of Miller Stadium in Milwaukee, with a seven foot statue of his own. At such a moment, it is useful and proper to examine a man’s legacy.
Generally, statues and monuments are erected posthumously, allowing a person’s legacy to be weighed and measured over time. In some cases, heroes of one era fade quickly and become irrelevant to the next. In other cases, one’s reputation grows into something far more substantial than anyone who was a contemporary of that individual ever could have foreseen.
Therefore, it is sensible, in most cases, to wait several years, or even decades, after a person passes away before something as permanent as a statue should be unveiled.
Not all statues remain permanent, however, even while the subject of the monument is still alive. The people of Iraq, for example, toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein, denying him immortality even as he was about to be deposed and eventually executed.
Happily, most monuments and statues do not follow behind such a malignant legacy, like a shadow behind a crypt. Instead, they tend to be of the innocuous variety, a bland businessman with no apparent overriding moral compass.
They tend to be more like a statue to Bud Selig.
Selig’s work, then, is his legacy, even as his statue awaits its grand exhibition to an upper mid-western public.
And what, exactly is Selig’s life’s work? There is the bureaucrat, and there is the leader. One has to assume that whoever decided to commission this statue views Selig as an important leader, at least to the local Milwaukee community. After all, bureaucrats are seldom immortalized.
Nevertheless, Selig has been overwhelmingly a bureaucrat. Now, we need bureaucrats to get things done, and Selig has done that.
Financially speaking, baseball has consistently prospered under his reign, even if some teams claim to be losing money. Selig’s introduction of the Wild Card system has significantly changed the playoff dynamic, ensuring greater competition and, therefore, more fan interest during the month of September than ever before.
Even interleague play, as difficult as it may be to justify in a serious, competitive sense, has, measured by attendance figures, brought more fans into the parks. And the players, of course, are richer than ever.
If baseball was in dire economic straights, it would not be populated by hundreds of millionaire athletes anxious to shoot drugs into their systems to ensure future access to ever larger sums of money.
And this is precisely where the other half of Selig’s legacy, that of the amoral enabler, comes in.
Now, one might argue that it is not the job of a businessman, even a CEO, to act as mother-superior to the broader community. What matters is the bottom-line; morality is irrelevant here.
And yet recent history, including this morning’s headlines regarding Toyota, remind us of the true cost levied on an organization that believes business and morality make strange, uncomfortable bedfellows.
Toyota is currently enveloped in a scandal not all that unlike baseball’s own steroid scandal of the past decade or so. Corners are cut; Secrets are kept; Denials are made; Eventually, a semblance of truth and contrition are offered. The pattern has become all to familiar in recent years, affecting Presidents, athletes, and businessmen.
Therefore, Selig’s monument is, inadvertently, an appropriate national symbol reflecting the excesses and selfishness of our contemporary society.
But is his statue an appropriate symbol in the classical sense of honoring a hero?
Commissioner Selig is plainly guilty of allowing, even encouraging, a performance-enhancing drug scandal to develop and virtually overtake our National Pastime on his watch.
His refusal to even acknowledge that a serious problem existed until Congress became involved reveals a depth of denial regarding not only the problem itself, but also his own responsibility in the matter, that can only be judged as gross negligence.
Obviously, Selig the Businessman was quite satisfied with the state of the game throughout the ’90’s and on up to the early years of this century. Therefore, what need was there for a Moral Leader to get involved who might only muck things up?
In my very first blog post, I stated that there are two essential questions important to both American history and to baseball history:
1. Who deserves to be remembered?
2. How do they deserve to be remembered?
The answers to these questions, I stated further, comprise the collective historical mythology that we pass down through the generations, from father to son. Because baseball is, after all, a shared experience that evolves away from the realm of history to that of mythology as the decades turn to dust.
Question #1 has apparently already been answered: A fellow bureaucrat in Milwaukee has a decided that Commissioner Selig deserves to be honored and remembered.
Question #2, therefore, becomes more specifically: How does Bug Selig deserve to be remembered?
Images of used needles, Congressional Committees, contrite apologies by players, and home run records rendered meaningless dot the landscape of Selig’s Realm.
Clearly, then, if you seek Selig’s monument, look around you.