February 13, 2004
You Could Look It Up
WelcomeThe article below marks the debut of Steven Goldman's new weekly column, You Could Look It Up, appearing every Friday at baseballprospectus.com. You Could Look It Up will cover baseball history as it relates to and illuminates the events of the present.
In addition to his newly-minted role as Baseball Prospectus Author, Steven also pens the Yesnetwork.com column the Pinstriped Bible. Steven has been writing professionally about baseball since 1997, when his work first began appearing in Yankees Magazine. Shortly thereafter, the earliest incarnation of the Pinstriped Bible (then called "The Big Inning") appeared at Yankees.com. The PB was the first original column on a team baseball site. In the days before MLB.com swallowed up the individual team Web sites like so many guppies, Steven's work appeared on the official sites of the Orioles, Tigers, Mets, Devil Rays, Angels and several others. A rough count of his baseball-related works finds over 500 columns, historical articles, and spot-reporting. Steven's Yankees history column, The Monument Park Project, was singled out by USA Today Baseball Weekly as some of the best baseball writing on the Web. After the advent of MLB.com, Steve spent 18 months working for The Man, not only continuing the PB, but writing extensively about the history of the game, including a featured history of the Negro Leagues. When the YES network came into being, it was natural that the PB would find a permanent home there.
Steven's book, Forging Genius: The Education of Casey Stengel, will come out this summer unless Chris Kahrl says otherwise. Steven is presently working on a novel about baseball, set during the Great Depression.
This is the very first installment of You Could Look It Up. The title, with its old-time, pulp feel, is meant to evoke a portal to anywhen in the history of baseball, to flannel times and polyester times, lilywhite Washington Senators uniforms, rainbow-striped Houston Astros uniforms, all coming together, a great overlap of Ruths and Ryans and A-Rods. You Could Look It Up is a gateway to varied, hectic, multihued yesterday, a vantage point from which we might discern truths that have been lost to common knowledge, human stories that still evoke laughter or tears, and unrestful ghosts in black and white photographs who still haunt our own forcibly uncomplicated, Manichean times.
Hey--don't turn away just yet. We ain't talking any of that mushy "Field of Dreams" poetastry. Ray Liotta's right-hand-hitting, city-slick Joe Jackson is not to be found in these pages. But it's here that on any given day you might find Shoeless Joe, hand extended for a dollar or a fly ball, as Leo Durocher steals grounders and his teammates' watches, all the while trying to do his best imitation of Rabbit Maranville, whose beltline basket catch was necessary because the sheer whiskey content of his exhalations could divert the flight of the ball above chest level. There's Joe McCarthy, a manager who never ripped a player in public...until the day he did; Casey Stengel, who always ripped his players in public and ripped them in private too, but was given to numerous, unpublicized sentimental gestures; and his protégé, Billy Martin, who said that a winning manager knew that some ballplayers were mules and some racehorses, and you could beat the mules all you wanted and they would never be racehorses--yet beat both the mules and the racehorses. All of these people have something to say to us, because of what they did, and, as importantly, who they were.
Will Shakespeare wrote that what is past is prologue. We've all heard that one before. George Santayana said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, which may be one of the operating principles of the universe, but that's not the whole story either. You can look at the past because it illuminates the present--if Joe Torre had remembered Durocher's admonition, "You don't save a pitcher for tomorrow. Tomorrow it may rain," or Stengel's frequent use of pinch-hitters in the early phases of a ballgame, he would have the 2003 championship to his credit. If today's ballplayers remembered Paul Waner they would strike out less and hit for better averages and more home runs. Baseball players are also people, and the most charismatic of them have not only the power to teach but to captivate, and make us wish that we were around to know them.
Unlike any other sport, the national pastime offers as much in the way of people-watching as it does in athleticism. Baseball is a team sport, but only in the e pluribus unum sense of a unit created out of many unique, distinct pieces. Each game contains moments that allow for the expression of individuality: Luis Tiant with his ratcheting delivery; Joaquin Andujar holding a baserunner on second by winding up with his back to home plate; George Brett's Lau-sculpted helicopter; Dave Winfield's lumberjack cut, so forceful that he fell down once every at bat; Rickey Henderson's home run jig; Mickey Mantle running them out with his head down; Babe Ruth trotting around the bases on tiny ankles.
As Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot by watching: The quirks of style listed above give some small insight into the character of these quirks' owners. This is the essence of baseball's appeal--people you can know caught in the crucible of extraordinary moments. The result is great, human drama and stories that are timeless.
More than anything else, these stories are what make it so much fun to dive into the archives. As product, or, if you wish to be grandiose about it, as performance, or art, baseball games have all the staying power of a soap bubble. Individual games are disposable; they are played for anywhere between 66 (Tigers at Browns, 1911) and 86,563 people (Yankees at Indians, 1954) and then are lost. What comes down to us is a box score, which is only a list. It gives a picture of the ballgame just played only in the same way that a fossil gives a picture of a living, breathing dinosaur. One of the ironies of baseball is that although it often inspires lyrical paeans to its pastoral elegance, the actual games are highly disposable. With the exception of special events such as no-hitters and World Series games, it is not the contests themselves that are remembered, but the minutiae they leave behind--a home run here, a dramatic stolen base or diving catch there.
Even then, though, what remains would be worthless without Ty Cobb fighting off the ghost of his murdered father with sharpened cleats; Hal Chase, dying by inches, gasping for the embrace of the game he had so cruelly defiled; Connie Mack hoping his A's would cool off after a hot start so that he wouldn't have to give out raises at season's end; the sparrow under Casey Stengel's cap; the way Don Mattingly could flick a third strike out of the catcher's mitt; Rube Waddell losing his place on the mound because somewhere, someplace, he could hear a fire engine; Leo Durocher telling his players that he didn't care if Jackie Robinson was black or white or striped like a bleeping zebra, because he was going to help them win and that was all that mattered; Babe Ruth's called shot, fact or fiction; the tubercular Charlie Faust trying to get in "shape" to help the Giants win a pennant, Arthur "Bugs" Raymond drinking himself out of shape for the same team; Joe DiMaggio, watching with tears in his eyes, as Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games streak, crying not for Ripken, or even Gehrig, but for the lost world of 1936, when DiMaggio was a 22-year-old rookie with incredible powers and Gehrig, his teammate, was powerful, potent, invulnerable; Mark McGwire, Tony Gwynn, Larry Walker and the greatest players of this generation venerating a frail Ted Williams at the 1999 All-Star game; Pete Rose, not the current misanthrope, but the version that turned to Carlton Fisk during Game Six of the 1975 World Series and said, "Can you believe this game?"
The great manufacture of baseball is myth, legend, and emotion. Stengel, seeking to encapsulate his whole career for his Induction Day audience in 1966, got it right. He didn't say, "I played on three pennant winners and won 10 more as a manager." Nor did he say, "I averaged .284 and my lifetime winning percentage is .508." Instead, he said, simply, elegantly, "I chased the balls that Babe Ruth hit." No one could fail to understand the romance inherent in that statement.
Baseball Prospectus is the perfect point from which to look backwards. Sabermetrics indict baseball's conventional wisdom. When sabermetrics forced baseball to yield to the inexorable logic of statistics, the body of reason was given a skeleton, but still lacked flesh. History puts muscle and dermis on those bones and provides the evidence that proves theory to be true or false.
Starting on Monday, this column begins a special daily run through next week, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1984 season. Thereafter, you'll find You Could Look It Up in its regular space each Friday. I'll look forward to seeing you there for more lore of the game. As Charles Darwin said in On the Origin of Species, we will now discuss in a little more detail the Struggle for Existence.
Steven Goldman writes the Pinstriped Bible column each Tuesday for Yesnetwork.com.