Monday, June 20, 2011

Stealing the Past

There are few sports topics that are more likely to provoke a reaction in me than the selective telling of baseball history in order to make the game all about a few teams in the Northeast.  I wrote about this topic in January when I noted the difference between the professional way that the NFL mythologizes its past and the way that baseball allows “an especially narcissistic generation of New York writers” (Scott Lemieux’s description) to reduce the sport to being all about the Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, and New York Giants.  I had two experiences this weekend that fall into this same category.

The first was reading a passage in Dixie about the importance of the St. Louis Cardinals as background noise at the tail end of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer.  Curt Wilkie describes how most sports fans in Mississippi (and indeed throughout the South) were Cardinals fans who listened to the games, either on local radio affiliates or on KMOX.  In 1964, the Cards staged an epic rally to overtake the Cubs and win the National League.  Wilkie, who was working for a newspaper in the Delta town of Clarksdale that was (not surprisingly) riven by racial problems as the establishment fought tooth and nail against integration, writes about the fact that the Cardinals were a unifying element:

Stan Musial had retired a year earlier, and the stars of the Cardinals were now black men": Bob Gibson, the intimidating pitcher; Lou Brock, the fleet outfielder; Curt Flood, an agile centerfielder; and Bill White, the powerful first baseman.  Race did not factor into their herioics.  When Brock stole second base, it was not a black man’s exploit, but a triumph by a member of the Cardinal team.  Even as we bickered over school integration in Clarksdale, whites and blacks were united in the Cardinals’ pursuit of the championship.

The Cardinals won the pennant on the last day of the season, a showdown game that was not available on TV.  We depended on Harry Caray for the news.  His play-by-play broadcast over the radio triggered my imagination, the same way that Amos ‘n’ Andy had delighted me a decade earlier.  When the Cardinals’ catcher, Tim McCarver, squeezed the pop fly that ended the game, I could see it in my mind, and there were celebrations across the battle lines in Clarksdale.

This makes for a great story.  At the same time that Mississippi was having the most backwards, violent reaction to efforts to end Jim Crow (or at least they were 1a in that department with Alabama), the residents of the state were all rooting for an integrated baseball team from a border state.  Why is this never a part of the story of baseball’s integration.  When the topic of baseball’s color line comes up, the discussion inevitably focuses on Jackie Robinson, in no small part because of the tendency to make baseball history all about New York City.  In the time between Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947 and the Red Sox becoming the last major league team to integrate in 1959 (and why does that little fact not come up, I wonder), the Cardinals had 17 black major leaguers, which was tied for the most in baseball and was one more than the Dodgers.  The role of the Cardinals of Gibson and Brock as the favorite team of the segregated South is a great story.  Why did a sports fan like me only stumble upon it when reading the memoirs of a Mississippi journalist?

Speaking of the 1964 Cards, Nate Silver wrote a great article for the Baseball Prospectus in 2007 after the Colorado Rockies mounted an amazing comeback in September to pip the Padres for the wild card.  Silver approached the question of the greatest comebacks of all time by looking at playoff odds over the course of a season and concluded that the '64 Cards made the most improbable comeback in baseball history. 

I was reminded of this article during the interminable rain delay at the Ted on Saturday afternoon.  As my four-year old and I sat under the overhang in the upper deck, watching rain pelt the field from a truly awesome, almost Biblical textured gray cloud directly overhead,* the Braves were playing an MLB documentary on the best comebacks in baseball history.  These sorts of lists are a dime a dozen, designed to provoke dumb arguments that are usually based on subjective reasoning.  Sure enough, this list caused exactly that sort of reaction in me.  According to MLB, the five best comebacks are:

5.  The New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers in the ‘51 pennant race;
4.  The Red Sox over the Angels in the ‘86 ALCS;
3.  The Mets over the Red Sox in the ‘86 World Series;
2.  The Yankees over the Red Sox in the ‘78 pennant race; and
1.  The Red Sox over the Yankees in the ‘04 ALCS.

Yup, the four most dramatic episodes in baseball history involved the Red Sox, with the top three involving opponents from New York.  Four of the top five involve New York teams, with the sole non-Northeastern interloper being a team from the tiny hamlet of Los Angeles.  We are all so lucky that we get to watch these stories franchises from the hinterlands of … the rest of the country outside of Peter King’s beloved Acela corridor. 

* – The whole time, I had “Chimes of Freedom” playing in my head.     

There’s no objective basis for this I-95 love-in.  Yes, the Yankees’ comeback in ‘78 was a great comeback, but it just sits in the middle of a list of improbable pennants won by teams that overcame massive odds to make the playoffs.  Yes, the Red Sox coming back from being down to their last strike in 1986 was a great moment, but is it any more improbable than a team coming back from two runs down in the ninth inning in Game Seven of the NLCS?  This crap matters in the characterization of baseball history.  I was sitting with a young, impressionable fellow.  If he is subjected the obscene concept of the Red Sox and various New York teams owning the best jewels of baseball history, then he might become a fan of one of those teams.  Smoking, early fatherhood, and drug use can be the only end result.  So please, MLB, for the good of all of your young, innocent fans, please acknowledge a world outside of a corner of the country. 

1 comment:

chg said...

I usually ignore those "Tell us what you think" surveys, but happily volunteered my opinions after this morning's visit to My main complaint was a more concise version of this post.

I remember calling their view of the sports landscape "provincial", and later characterizing the decision to present all the pro leagues (and especially MLB) as a conflict between Boston and New York as a "myopic strategy" that will undoubtedly pay off in the short term, but erode support for ESPN and even the leagues in the longview, warning that ESPN is increasingly viewed as a necessary evil and punchline in much of the new sports media that provides their stiffest competition.

I expect it will be completely ignored, but it made me feel good to communicate that to the marketing intern tasked to collect the data.