On Baseball: Steve O’Grady, David Brooks, A. Bartlett Giamatti, Red Smith, Lou Gehrig, et. al

My colleague Steve O’Grady, a loyal Red Sox fan, has written several recent posts on baseball. [1] His most recent, Radke, Rogers and Tigers, Oh My includes the following statement:


It’s no secret that I don’t like the Yankees, but there are few managers I have more respect for than Joe Torre. His uses his relievers like I use rental cars – you wouldn’t want either after we’re done with them – but he’s handled the immense pressure of NY baseball with poise and class.


I couldn’t agree more. Joe Torre always speaks with great poise and rock solid integrity; the Yankees are lucky to have had his services, and they would be foolish to dismiss him, but that is of course their call.

David Brooks wrote a column in this past Sunday’s New York Times with the title, “Tell Me, O Muse, of the Amazin’ Mets,” which says in part:


No one can describe the agony I feel. No one can describe the forebodings of doom that mount pitch by pitch, inning by inning, as the New York Mets make their way through the National League playoffs.

Early triumphs build mountains of false hopes, but this merely forestalls and cannot avert their eventual extinction. Delgado may slug and Glavine may discover the genius of lost youth, but, as the poet says, doom is the omen in my heart convulsed. For the gods decree, and history confirms, that those without starting pitching do not win championships.

And sooner or later I will sit with the remote trembling in my hands, with hollow cheeks and lifeless eyes, as some other fan’s team celebrates its glory, and there will be children weeping uncontrollably on the floor of the ruined family room around me, and women’s knees will give way, and they will be kneeling and keening amidst the scattered piles of tear-stained popcorn, and men will tear their cheeks and beat themselves with clenched fists under the full impact of the devastation.

The Mets will lose, and I will make the lifeless trudge to the unforgiving fridge in search of liquid anesthesia.

Epictetus says that some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our desires and responses. But our bodies are not up to us. Neither are our possessions, or our reputations or, by extension, our teams. Serenity, he says, consists in embracing the things within our control and discarding the things that are not.

Aeschylus writes: “God, whose law it is that he who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

This is how a true Mets fan greets impending loss. And come to think of it, this is not bad preparation for what’s about to befall Republicans, either.


I’m also a Mets fan, but Tom Friedman, Mr. Smart Guy #5 himself, need not fear that David’s multiple quotes from the classics will gain him admission to my own ballpark of “Smart Guys” — David’s tastes are too republican for this Mets fan.

I’m a very excited Mets fan these days, as my son and I have tickets for the NLCS Game #2 this Thursday at Shea Stadium.


Let’s Go Mets![2]


Reading the above comments about baseball reminded me of my own favorite quotes, two due to others, two of my own, and the ultimate quote we all share. The two from others are:


A. Bartlett Giamatti on Baseball: “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”

Red Smith: “ninety feet between home and first base may be the closest man has ever come to perfection.” A close second would have to be sixty feet, six inches from the pitching rubber to home plate.


The two of my own are:


From a letter sent me as a child by the Detroit Tigers: “Master Shields, As far as we know Ty Cobb never wore a number while playing for the Tigers.”

From a pitcher whose name I forget: “I remember that game too, sir. I was the pitcher.”


I was a fan of Ty Cobb as a child, and I once wrote to my grandfather asking if he knew what number Ty Cobb wore. Bless his heart, my grandfather, Kyle Simpson, wrote a letter about this to the Tigers’ office and they sent me the letter cited above. It has become one of my baseball trivia questions: “What what Ty Cobb’s number?” I understand that players didn’t start wearing numbers until 1920 or so, and the numbers were initially chosen based on the batting order. That’s why Lou Gehrig wore #3 and Babe Ruth #4.

I heard the quote from a young pitcher whose name I forget a few years ago near a baseball field in Gedney Park, site of some of my town’s nicest ballfields. He was in the back seat of a car and his mother was in the driver’s seat. I got to chatting with here after a game, and mentioned that baseball could be a source of lifetime memories. For example, my son had won a game at a nearby field (Millword, next to Rocky’s deli) in extra innings by hitting a pitch over the third baseman’s head into left field. I said he and I would both remember that game for the rest of our lives. The boy in the back seat piped up, “I remember that game too, sir. I threw that pitch.”

But there is one quote we all share. It’s one of the reasons baseball-loving families have children and teach the game of baseball to their children. They will know that have done thieir job, taught the game properly, when they — or even better one of their children — on a day of glorious — or even not so glorious — weather; when someone takes a look outside, thinks about, it and utters the one quote that trumps all the others, the one that says all you have to know about baseball, why it is our national sport:


Let’s have a catch.


It’s easy to guess the name of my favorite ballplayer, once I tell you the following facts about me:

  • I am left-handed;
  • I played first base; [3]
  • I never missed a day of school from the start of third grade until several years into graduate school when I stopped keeping track.

The player is of course Lou Gehrig. Courtesy of Baseball Almanac here are a few quotes from about about Lou: Quotations From & About Lou Gehrig:


“The ballplayer who loses his head, who can’t keep his cool, is worse than no ballplayer at all.”

“There is no room in baseball for discrimination. It is our national pastime and a game for all.”

“What are you going to do? Admit to yourself that the pitchers have you on the point of surrender? You can’t do that. You must make yourself think that the pitchers are just as good as they always have been or just as bad.”

“(Lou) Gehrig never learned that a ballplayer couldn’t be good every day.” – Hank Gowdy

“Gifted with no flair whatever for the spectacular, except as it might be produced by the solid crash of bat against ball at some tense moment, lost in the honey days of a ballplayer’s career in the white glare of the great spotlight that followed Babe Ruth, he nevertheless more than packed his share of the load.” – Sportswriter Bill Corum of the Journal American.

His greatest record doesn’t show in the book. It was the absolute reliability of Henry Louis Gehrig. He could be counted upon. He was there every day at the ballpark bending his back and ready to break his neck to win for his side. He was there day after day and year after year. He never sulked or whined or went into a pot or a huff. He was the answer to a manager’s dream.” – Sportswriter John Kieran in The New York Times

“I did not go there to look at (Lou) Gehrig. I did not even know what position he played, but he played in the outfield against Rutgers and socked a couple of balls a mile. I sat up and took notice. I saw a tremendous youth, with powerful arms and terrific legs. I said, here is a kid who can’t miss.” – Yankee scout Paul Krichell

“I had him for over eight years and he never gave me a moment’s trouble. I guess you might say he was kind of my favorite.” – Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy

“I never knew how someone dying could say he was the luckiest man in the world. But now I understand.” – Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle farewell address (1969)

“It may have been a child’s perversity, but I like to think now that I was in tune with changing times when I selected not the Babe (Ruth), but (Lou) Gehrig as my hero. Handsome, shy, put together along such rugged lines that he was once screen-tested – wrapped in a leopard skin – in Hollywood for the role of Tarzan, a devastating hitter with men on base, Gehrig served perfectly as the idol of a small boy soon to reach adolescence.” – Frank Graham in Farewell to Heroes (1981)

“I would not have traded two minutes of the joy and the grief with that man for two decades of anything with another.” – Eleanor Gehrig

“Lou Gehrig was a guy who could really hit the ball, was dependable and seemed so durable that many of us thought he could have played forever.” – George Selkirk

“Lou Gehrig was to baseball what Gary Cooper was to the movies: a figure of unimpeachable integrity, massive and incorruptible, a hero. Today, both are seen as paradigms of manly virtue. Decent and God-fearing, yet strongly charismatic and powerful.” – Kevin Nelson in The Greatest Stories Ever Told About Baseball (1986)

“Lou (Gehrig) was the kind of boy that if you had a son, he’s the kind of person you’d like your son to be.” – Yankee Sam Jones

“There was absolutely no reason to dislike him, and nobody did.” – Sportswriter Fred Lieb


I am of course too young to ever have seen Ruth or Gehrig play, but a family in my old building on West 93rd St. in NYC were friends of the Ruth family, and regularly went bowling with Ruth’s wife after the Babe died. I once met a man who was a grandfather to one of my son’s classmates in nursery school, and when I mentioned my fondness for Lou he said he had been a classmate of Lou’s at Columbia, and that Gehrig was as fine a man off the field as he was on it.

Here are some more quotes from A. Bartlett Giamatti:


“All I ever wanted to be president of was the American League.”

“On matters of race, on matters of decency, baseball should lead the way.”

“The banishment for life of Pete Rose from baseball is a sad end if a sorry episode. One of the game’s greatest players has engaged in a variety of acts which have stained the game, and he must now live with the consequences of those acts. There is absolutely no deal for reinstatement.”

“There are a lot of people who know me who can’t understand for the life of them why I would got to work on something as unserious as baseball. If they only knew.”

“There’s nothing bad that accrues from baseball.”


Notes:

1. I am a Mets fan because they play in the National League, the league that plays baseball. The other league, the American League, plays designated-hitter-ball, a game I detest. I don’t follow the AL that closely, but when I do I root for the Red Sox, for several reasons:

  • I have a good friend who grew up in Rhode Island and so has been a life-long Red Sox fan;
  • I have attended only one game at Fenway Park, during a technical conference in Boston in the early 80’s. On a whim, I walked over the park, bought a ticket, found myself sitting next to a die-hard Sox fan who educated me on the Boston Game, and Fenway remains the best ball stadium I have ever seen.
  • Ted Williams;
  • John Updike writing about Ted Williams;
  • Memories of a flight I took from LaGuardia to St. Louis on a Monday afternoon two years ago. The plane was filled with Red Sox fans wearing their caps on their way to root for their Sox at the World Series. As we all know, the Sox swept the Cardinals, ending the Series on a Tuesday night, and I had the distinct pleasure of starting an extended overview of open-source early the next morning. (This is the overview that can be found early on in this blog.)

2. I was not an active baseball fan back in the fall of ’69 when I drove a taxi part-time in NYC while studying for my Ph.D. oral exams, but I recall vividly one night when horns started blaring and people flooded out of bars and restaurants into the streets cheering wildly after the Mets had one a game — perhaps the key game — in the series. My active life as a baseball fan dates back to 1982 or so when I was writing my thesis and started to watch baseball on TV for occasional distraction. I may have watched a Yankees game or two, but Susan Flynn, a colleague at NYU and a true baseball fan, noticed the folly of my ways and set me on the course to Mets fandom.

That’s one of the beauties of baseball. The lessons of the game can become lessons of life. It’s better to be the worst player on the first team than the best player on the second team because you’ll learn more.

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One Comment

  1. Posted October 9, 2006 at 16:53 | Permalink | Reply

    if you haven’t had the chance yet, Halberstam’s biography of Ted Williams is fascinating stuff. such an amazing ballplayer, such a poor father, and he knew it. it’s also worth noting that while everyone knows about his charitable effort, the gulf between him and some others (e.g. DiMaggio) is wide indeed.

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