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May 24, 2006
You Could Look It Up
Barrett and Pierzynski: American Primitives
We're sending a squad up.
Uh, uh, negative, negative. We have a reactor leak here now. Give us a few minutes to lock it down. Large leak… very dangerous.
Who is this? What's your operating number?
Han blasts the comlink, and it explodes.
Boring conversation anyway.
--"Star Wars," (1977)i
After last weekend's Michael Barrett fisticuffs, I did a radio show and was asked if I had ever seen anything like that before, one player sucker-punching another at the end of a play. The answer is yes, the broad outlines are familiar, though it wasn't anything that I, or many of us, have seen.
On July 4, 1932, the New York Yankees and the Washington Senators were playing the first game of a holiday doubleheader (one of those good baseball traditions that has gone out of style) at Washington. Both were good teams with October on their minds; the Yankees had finished second in 1931 and would win the pennant in 1932, while the Senators had finished third (with 92 wins) in 1931 and would do so again in 1932 before winning the pennant in 1933. The Senators were trailing the Yankees 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh inning, when Washington outfielder Carl Reynolds tried to score the tying run and collided with New York catcher Bill Dickey.
Reynolds' teammates were shouting that he hadn't touched home plate so he scrambled to his feet and turned back to where Dickey was still on the ground. Reynolds had a reputation as a hothead, which probably figured in what happened next, as did a play the previous day, another collision at the plate in which the 25-year-old Dickey had also been knocked unconscious. Hearing footsteps, Dickey thought that Reynolds was coming to attack him. He jumped up and socked Reynolds in the jaw, breaking it in two places. Similar to Delmon Young's case earlier this season, Dickey was at first suspended indefinitely before the American League president settled on a one-month suspension without pay and a $1,000 fine. As for Reynolds, he spent the next month with his jaw wired shut.
The foregoing will be familiar to readers of Baseball Prospectus's Mind Game, which used the 2004 championship run by the Red Sox as a springboard to investigations of a number of topics, including on-field fighting. On July 24 of that season, Jason Varitek scuffled with Alex Rodriguez, something that many members of the Red Sox as well as observers like Stephen King suggested was the turning point of the season. For the Red Sox, brawling with the Yankees (though the Varitek-Rodriguez incident was more of a momentary spat than a brawl) was somehow empowering.
This is a very seductive idea and a very American one. It's not that Americans lack the skills for a good rhetorical bout, but that the art of negotiation is something that the culture doesn't prize as highly as the sudden stroke, the force majeure. We like to hit people, or at the very least fantasize that hitting someone cuts a problem to the quick in a way that talking can't do. Americans rejected the League of Nations and to this day many of them hate the United Nations. Membership in diplomatic organizations restricts our ability to unload a good haymaker when that irresistible urge arises. There is a streak of primitivism in American culture, "a persistent preference for the 'wisdom' of intuition, which is deemed to be natural or God-given, over rationality, which is cultivated and artificial."ii
In this context, the wisdom of intuition includes the belief that positive things can be accomplished by hitting people. We enjoy just talking about the idea. In September, 1945, Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes was meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov. Molotov remarked to Byrnes that he negotiated as if he had "an atom bomb in his side pocket." That's right, Byrnes replied, "and if you don't cut out all this stalling and let us get down to work, I'm going to pull an atomic bomb out of my hip pocket and let you have it."iii This is the real American Dream. From adventurer presidents to Wall Street buccaneers, we fancy ourselves men of action. Rather than overweight, chocolate éclair-stuffed, beer-inflated couch potatoes, we're John Wayne--and never mind his middle-aged gut (see "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," in which a spiteful director John Ford purposely let the camera lovingly linger over every chubby inch of the Duke's torso).
We explored this idea in Mind Game, compiling a comprehensive list of every major brawl in baseball history, along with the records of each team in the ten games before the brawl and the ten games after. After reviewing 100 years of fighting, we, much like Edwin Starr looking at war were forced to conclude, "Good God, y'all! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!"
Fortunately, the Cubs are a bad club, and so no one is expecting Barrett's boxing to give the team a shot at redemption. Since the punch, the Cubs have kept losing and the White Sox have gone on winning. "Fighting makes you win" is such a great idea. If only it worked!
i Laurent Bouzereau, Star Wars, the Annotated Screenplays, 69.