Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Baseball's "New" Elite

Sean Forman, the brains behind the wonderful Baseball Reference, also keeps a blog over there. It mostly covers news about the site, but he occasionally posts more general interest items as well. The other day he posted a link to an article in Baseball Digest that he found on Google Books that was a rather interesting read. It's nothing new around these parts, but is still worth seeing.

From the September 1950 issue of Baseball Digest, "The New Elite", an article by Bob Considine, condensed from an article in the July 195o issue of Flair called "The New Society in Sports":
"The modern big leaguer is hardly of the same species as the titans of the past, who played for whatever an owner chose to toss them because they regarded the game with the eye of a religious zealot. He leaves baseball at the ball park, and it is of no concern to him until he returns to it. It would never occur to him to cross blades with an umpire, or to take the extra chance which might result in injury. He finds it a little hard to believe that infielders once carried nails with which to jab Ty Cobb before Cobb could slash them down with his spikes; that Ruth occasionally went up into the stands to wring the neck of some obscene heckler; that Bill Dickey once broke Carl Reynolds' jaw with a single punch, because Carl slid into him too hard; that Rogers Hornsby would never go to a movie for fear it would affect his batting eye; that Newsom once pitched seven innings and ran out two hits with a broken kneecap; that Pepper Martin preferred to block savage grounders with his chest or chin; that Bucky Harris played through a World Series with a broken hand and often would stick his body in the way of a hard pitch, just to get on base; that Dizzy Dean, in the middle of the 1934 World Series, put himself into a game as a pinch runner and broke up a double play by letting himself get hit in the temple."
It's important to realize that the "modern big leaguer" referred to in this article is 1950 modern. That's "modern" as in Stan Musial, Roy Campanella, Enos Slaughter, Warren Spahn, and Duke Snider. These are players who today are considered paragons of the gritty, hard-working, "for love of the game"-era, but who are completely overlooked in the damning of a generation that Considine is in the midst of here. It almost makes you think that sportswriters are blind to the contemporary stars in favor of the stars of the past. Almost.

Let's continue:
"But whatever he is, he regards any action above or beyond the call of essential duty as the temptations of the mad, or the infantile derelictions of the incorrigibly corny. He laughs at sports writers who cling wistfully to themes of the 'bitter interborough rivalry' between the Giants and Dodgers. He'd rather be a benchwarmer with a rich club - rich clubs usually win pennants, despite the preseason predictions by League Presidents Will Harridge and Ford Frick that all teams have improved mightily and all have a chance to win - than be a regular with a futile organization such as the Washington Senators or Chicago White Sox. One of his greater ambitions in baseball is to endorse a cigarette, though he might not smoke a pack during an entire season. The kid at the exit gate with an autograph book is a pestilence to be brushed aside with a 'What's in it for me?' snort."
Considine seems to be saying here that money is too big of a motivator for "today's" player (the over-the-top wordplay does make it a little difficult to parse). The player wants that cigarette endorsement even though he's not a smoker, after all. That kind of thing is a terrible thing certainly, at least when you view it through Considine's eyes. I'm not sure I understand the comments about preferring to be a benchwarmer on a rich, pennant-winning team rather than being a regular on a "futile organization", though. Wouldn't we generally consider the former a sign of a good teammate and the latter the sign of a greedy player? Or is that a change in values over the last 60 years?

It is nice to see that other things have remained the same, though, beyond the writers' contempt for "today's" players:
"Landis might also have scowled at cafe society people in the Yankees' plushy Stadium Club, where Stadium boxholders now linger over drinks and go down to see the game as fashionably late as first-nighters at the theater."
Man, did anyone ever like the crowd at Yankee Stadium?!

Considine closes the piece by listing those players who he considers excluded from this criticism:
"But it isn't my purpose here to say that *all* is clay in this Year of Dismay. A bit of the robust remains; a bit of dogged flair prevails. Here is a list, however short, of current players who could have blended into niches in the happy, howling days now gone: Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, Joe Page.

Any questions?"
Aaron, Mays, and Mantle don't show up on the list because they haven't quite reached the league yet. The Musial's and Spahn's and Snider's mentioned earlier are conspicuously absent, though.

We hear and read a lot of lamentations and pining for the glory days of baseball on tv and in the newspapersblogs these days, especially in the wake of the steroid scandal. Many of us chalk this up to faux outrage and the writers' inability to see beyond the romantic illusions of their childhood memories. We tell ourselves that writers have been doing the same thing for decades. It's nice to find articles like this then, because it shows that presumption to be true. Writers have been doing it for so long now that not even players like Stan Musial were spared the wrath. Now, if we can only get them to stop.

(Who am I kidding? In thirty years' time, some writer will be decrying the use of synthetic muscles by Lamar Bonds Jr. and will harken back to the days when players like Manny Ramirez and Albert Pujols did everything they could to improve their natural muscles... I can't wait.)

1 comment:

Ian said...

Interesting how all the "good" players he named played in New York or Boston. And here I thought east coast bias was a relatively new phenomenon. Maybe it's more of a "rich club" bias.