February 24, 2009

Same Old, Same Old

All this talk about steroids got me thinking about 1908.

And by that I mean the 1908 baseball season, which apparently was the greatest in the game's history. If you don't believe me, read Crazy '08 by Cait Murphy.

Despite having a horrifically bad title, this book does a marvelous job of illustrating not only that wonderful season but the historical backdrop against which it took place. You may not be aware of this, but 100 years ago, life was ridiculously different. There was no TV, radio or airplanes. Vaudeville was all the entertainment rage, even inviting players to do monologues or bits in the offseason, but most people couldn't afford it. They were too busy breaking their backs on a farm or dying slowly in a coal mine.

It was not a big deal for a pitcher to throw over 300 innings a year, and if you didn't have a few dozen complete games, you probably weren't very good (in 2008, except for CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay, no one threw more than five). Players like Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson were some of the bigger names, and the famed double-play trio of "Tinker to Evers to Chance" was leading the then-good Chicago Cubs to World Series after World Series. Hell, Babe Ruth wasn't even around yet.

To put it simply, although the rules of the game itself were not much different, the conditions were almost foreign. A team playing "out west," for example, was the St. Louis Cardinals. However, even in this stranger, simpler time, rules in both the social and legal sense were being broken constantly, and often, in much more serious fashion than today.

For one thing, racism certainly reared its ugly head. Cobb, one of the game's premier players, was a well-known asshole to almost everyone he met, minorities especially. A Cuban player named Luis Padron was invited and then sent home from Chicago White Sox spring training in 1908 for being "too dark". Black teams would often defeat the major league teams in exhibition games, and still, no thought at all was given to integration. Although the struggles Jackie Robinson went through were well-documented and ample, one wonders if the absolute indifference of baseball in general towards including black players is even more of a slap in the face.

Even more prevalent were issues with gambling. Everyone knows of the Black Sox scandal of 1919, but around this time period, professional con men and other hustlers were making their presence felt in ballparks around the East Coast. And with the low, low salaries players were making, a lot of them were finally starting to listen. A particular, popular player named Hal Chase with the New York Yankees eventually grew a reputation as the most corrupt player in baseball, and he was just the first of many.

Now, as long as sports are played by human beings and not robots, there will be cultural, economic and political controversies amongst the players, owners, and everyone else involved in the game. However, the most interesting part of Murphy's book, by far, is the reaction of baseball's leadership to these problems. Much like Bud Selig and others turned a blind eye to the events of the late 1990's and early 2000's, 1908 and the subsequent years featured baseball refusing to clean itself up, until the Black Sox forced the owners to appoint a commissioner and turn the game's image around.

In a very revealing quote on a separate issue, Murphy notes "how mendacious the game can be in the pursuit of what it sees as its interests -- a tradition that shows no signs of changing." Written before A-Rod's confession and Selig's assertions that he has done well by the game despite all of this, it is an apt description of the general stances baseball has taken throughout the years. It seems fair to say that the policy has been to sweep any and all damaging material under the rug, no matter how bulky and piled-up that material may get over time. Even if the shit will inevitably hit the fan, delaying such matters is always Plan A. So far, no Plan B has been determined, but if the end result is "profit", no one in charge seems to mind.

As Murphy says near the end of the book, "Integrity is something that needs to be maintained, not just asserted, a distinction lost on baseball's magnates." For quite a while, baseball has paraded itself as a game to the public and as a business to its owners and players, and despite similar stances from other sports leagues, they've done a particularly boneheaded job of it. If the Mitchell Report is this generation's Black Sox scandal, though, maybe baseball is showing that it could care less. That was supposed to tear the fabric of the game apart, and all it's doing is taking down Roger Clemens. Maybe that is the difference between 1908 and 2009 -- back then, people actually took this to heart.

Which is probably a compliment to our generation, as none of this really matters. Complaining about A-Rod just fills time on ESPN and column space on ESPN.com. I've yet to find anyone who responded to this story and didn't say either, "Good, he's an asshole," or "I don't really care." If you aren't a Yankees fan, I can't see how it would really affect you. I just think it's interesting to note that, even though ESPN and other sports commentators would have you believe that it's the most awful thing to ever happen, as if A-Rod was some kind of savior that we all adored, there have been assholes, cheaters and lowlifes occupying the baseball diamond and the owner's box for over 100 years. If one of your favorites is suddenly unmasked to be one, well, join the club.

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