Baseball Lit 101: A Casual Seminar

by Samuel Hux (August 2019)


He Called It, Robert Thom, 1932



Parents named Smith should never name a kid “Robert.” The black-and-white photo on the jacket of Baseball in the Afternoon suggests a redhead, but he couldn’t be called “Red” for obvious reasons, given the fame of the sports columnist Red Smith. So, in spite of his productivity, and the recognition he received from peers during his lifetime, this Robert Smith is, today, practically anonymous. Try to find him among the dozens of prestigious Robert Smiths on Wikipedia and he apparently never existed. The New York Times obituary, after he died in 1997 at the age of 91, is too skimpy to bother with—telling us he wrote some novels and a couple of baseball books without mentioning the one noted above. What an injustice: as Ecclesiasticus in The Apocrypha instructs us, we have a duty to honor the dead. The ethics of memory, I call it.


there when a vacationing restaurateur tried to introduce himself to Shor, Shor dismissed him with “I don’t know ya!” and vacationer’s wife threw her highball in Shor’s face. “The bartender . . . leaned close to me and muttered, ‘Too bad it wasn’t a Bloody Mary.’”


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Does this sound merely chatty? Then I mislead. It’s conversational—and being so it makes you want to join in: Well, I knew that Charles Comiskey was the first infielder to play off the bag, but it had never sunk in that the shortstop had to cover practically the entire infield, was a kind of rover. But can you tell me how early the batting order evolved, the exquisite logic of lead-off, clean-up, and all that? And being conversational it makes you want to argue: No! for all his virtues Frankie Crosetti does not belong in the Hall of Fame. And since the book is one half of a conversation (when “scholarly” defenses are down), screwball opinions like that one are part of the charm.


Anderson celebrates sixteen pennant races between 1908 and 1993—which certainly has a certain poignancy: since the NFLization of baseball in 1994, with three divisions per league, meant that “wild-cards” (read “pennant race losers”) had a chance to make the World Series, then 1993 was “The Last Pure Pennant Race.” Now, one can quarrel with Anderson’s selection of races—and since one can I will. What about 1945, when Hank Greenberg, back from the Army (after being the first player drafted), homered against the St. Louis Browns to insure the Detroit Tigers a game and a half victory over the Washington Senators? Or perhaps 1944 is a better selection: when the last place Senators beat Detroit on closing day to help the Browns to their only pennant, one game over the Tigers. What 1945 has to recommend it is the fact that it was the first World Series I was aware of. And how can one quarrel with Anderson’s modesty? “If one or two of your favorite races isn’t there, maybe it’s my mistake, but I tried to choose the races with the best plots.” How can one quarrel? Easily. Best plot? Then why not the 1915 Federal League, the outlaw thumbing its nose at the establishment—when the St. Louis Terriers finished one percentage point, but no games, behind the Chicago Whales, and the third place Pittsburgh Rebels finished a mere half game out?


Even better than Anderson at telling a story is Bill James—but a different type of story. Rather than lively action summaries, brief biographies (of shortstop George Davis, 1890-1909, who is not in the Hall of Fame, Joe Tinker, 1902-16, who is, Ernie Lanigan and Lee Allen, early baseball historians and sometime librarians of the Hall, and others), and narratives of Hall selection machinations (fascinating, but too complicated for easy recapitulation). James I’m sure would appreciate being called a good storyteller, but I’m not sure he’d welcome the judgment that old-fashioned narration is his strong suit rather than his statistical obsessions (not a word he’d use). His ten double-columned page bio of Ernie Lombardi in the second Historical Baseball Abstract is worth the price of the book. He can be somewhat condescending toward “older baseball writers” who wrote “from their memory and a few clipping files . . . They got a lot of things wrong.” One of the older writers he singles out is Robert Smith! I’m sure he did get some things wrong. So what? One does when one writes out of a loving personal memory. When James makes like a cliometrician, he often ignores his own caveat that you must be careful how you interpret statistics. And a stronger caveat ought to be how you create them: James has a system he calls “Hall of Fame Standards,” whereby Willie Mays is the greatest player of all time (84 out of possible 100). That may not be exactly absurd, but it is flatly wrong! (Disagree? Write me a letter.) Any system of measuring talent which does not find that George Herman Ruth (who was on his way to Hall of Fame distinction as a pitcher before converting to Home Run King) was the greatest baseball player who ever lived, self-destructs. There are self-evident truths.


You might say that one theme of The Politics of Glory is Phil Rizzuto’s lack of qualifications for the Hall of Fame, except that in a sense it is the theme: James calls Rizzuto “the central figure in the book.” Since it is now ironic that Rizzuto made it the year that James published, I might add that James protected himself: after focusing on Rizzuto’s “common skills” for five full chapters, he concluded the book largely completed in 1993 (there’s that date again) with “A last note: On February 27, 1994, the Veterans Committee elected Phil Rizzuto to the Hall of Fame. He won’t be the worst player there.”


If I focus on the Rizzuto story, it’s only because James’s polemical emphasis is like an invitation. For all of James’s Scooter-fixation (and there are other instances: comparing Rizzuto’s power numbers to Vern Stephens’s is like lining Ozzie Smith up against Cal Ripken), James is dead right more often than he’s wrong. No, Chick Hafey, Freddie Lindstrom, etc., don’t belong in the Hall of Fame. Which doesn’t mean that a couple of dozen who aren’t don’t—like Indian Bob Johnson of the old Athletics, who is Jim Rice, whom James projected in the Hall by 1995 (he made it in 2009). And one might mention (I will mention) the absence from the Hall of Dom DiMaggio, who, as Tom Clavin notes (The DiMaggios), had more hits during his career as regular (1940-42, 1946-52) than anyone else during those years, including his brother Joe , Stan Musial, and Ted Williams, and scored more runs than anyone but Williams.


For all his virtues, I must say I occasionally worry about James’s values. After arguing convincingly that the ancient shortstop George Davis belongs in the Hall—indeed has, according to James’s cockamamie “Hall of Fame Standards,” the highest score of anyone outside—James concludes thus, “George Davis is dead. He is forgotten. I can’t see that it would accomplish a hell of a lot to vote him a plaque now.” This from a fan? Far be it from me (but not too far) to speculate seriously on James’s political persuasion (but if he isn’t an orthodox liberal, I’ll eat your beret). I sometimes wonder if baseball fans are not by nature conservative, culturally so at least, and sometimes think the only real liberals who are true fans have to be literary intellectuals bemoaning the tragic history of the Boston Red Sox (until recent years) or the Chicago Cubs (until even more recently). In any case, what a bizarre notion, that you don’t honor the dead! Fans have to. That requirement as well admits of no exceptions.


I think I should offer some explanation for so much on Bill James in an essay which began as a celebration of a man named Smith. It has little to do with this book, but rather with some judgments in his revised edition of Historical Baseball Abstract. Hank Greenberg is only the eighth greatest first baseman? Nonsense! Only Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx were greater. This is, in effect, no less than punishment for Greenberg missing four and a half seasons while in World War II combat. I will not enter the controversy over centerfielders, for fear of apoplexy. But Joe Morgan is the number one second baseman? He was better than Eddie Collins, than Nap Lajoie, than Charley Gehringer? None of them surpassed Rogers Hornsby. Of course, Hornsby was not a great fielder, just an adequate one. But that does not matter when you consider how he hit, is just a damned perversity to argue that it did, and there is no real argument supporting James’s elevation of a very good player with a .271 lifetime batting average. If you hit .358 lifetime (and would have averaged higher if you had not played until age 41), with an on-base percentage of .434, and, dividing your career into 162 game seasons (the method), with 22 homers per season and 114 runs batted in and 113 runs scored, and during a decade ending when you were 33 compiled batting averages of .370. .397, .401, .384, .424, .403, .317 (what happened!?!), .361, .387, .380 (that is, over .400 three times, and under it by three points another time), then you are immortal and there is no argument about it. Case closed, slammed, shut the hell up.


Joe DiMaggio comes in fifth in James’s book, behind Mays, Cobb, Mantle, and Tris Speaker among centerfielders. I’m not going to compare Speaker and DiMaggio. Speaker was simply a different kind of player, a lesser Cobb, one who, like Cobb, could have as easily batted lead-off as third. But a comparison with Mays and Mantle is in order: great defenders all and, although speedy, their stolen base numbers are irrelevant since they played in an era of station-to-station baseball. Recall from above Willie’s and Mickey’s batting averages, power figures, and run production. Here are DiMaggio’s: BA .325, runs 130, HR 34, RBI 143 (!).


And while we’re at it . . . as long as people in my lifetime have made up all-time All-Star teams, the two locks for outfield have been Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, with the third name up for grabs: Speaker for a while, Joe D some said, Mays now a popular choice, although Hank Aaron, I think, has a better claim than Mays. Lest anyone nominate Barry Bonds, I say No!—after all, there was a real Aaron, not a steroid-Frankenstein monster. But I have always thought DiMaggio the best choice. He was a superb fielder, who didn’t have to make sensational catches because he was always positioned (governed by his superb baseball intellect) where the ball was coming down. His offensive statistics were simply superior to those of athletic geniuses like May and Mantle and, while Ted Williams may have been a better hitter overall, DiMaggio was a better batter, if I may invent a distinction. Williams would never swing at a pitch he didn’t like even if there were men on base waiting to be driven in but DiMaggio was mentally incapable of choosing not to advance a runner home. Nor is my choice a minority opinion. One of the virtues (no, the principal virtue) of Maury Allen’s Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio? (1975) is that he includes lengthy endorsements of DiMaggio as the best, interviews not simply with team-mates from the Yankees but with “enemies” and rivals like Bob Feller and Hank Greenberg—Greenberg especially, whose nine-page quotation was nothing less than moving. And I value the opinions of greats like Feller and Greenberg far more than the assessments of professional opinion-purveyors like James of anyone else.


Perhaps DiMaggio is not rated as highly now since he played only 13 years—but I, a veteran myself, am not going to punish anyone for military service. And there is another figure to consider when evaluating Joe DiMaggio, which deserves a paragraph or two of its own.


Hank Greenberg was always adamant that the most important offensive statistic in his game was runs batted in. I agree. I know that there is a point of view which is embedded in some of the newer-fancier stats—that RBI are after all dependent on others, the people on base—so the honor should not accrue only to the one who drives them in. Okay. But men can be on base . . . and can be left on base. What you need is a clutch hitter. RBI are all about clutch hitting. And the honor accorded clutch hitting rightly does accrue to the one who does it.


An unofficial statistic which fascinates me might be called RBIEG: “Runs Batted in Exceeding Games”—that is, more runs driven in than games played over a full season. Big Sam Thompson did it three times in the 19th century, twice during the modern period (when pitching distance was stabilized in 1893). Since then, ten players have done it once: Hornsby and nine others (Jeff Bagwell, George Brett, Walt Dropo, Chuck Klein, Mel Ott, Kirby Puckett, Vern Stephens, Hal Trosky and Ted Williams). Four have done it twice: Hack Wilson, Manny Ramirez, Juan Gonzalez, and the now-forgotten Brownie Ken Williams. Greenberg did it thrice. Ruth and Lou Gehrig are at the top, Ruth with six seasons and Gehrig with five. Just below Gehrig, with four seasons were Jimmie Foxx . . . and DiMaggio. In just 13 campaigns, be it noted. (It ought to be noted as well the names of great sluggers who never managed this extraordinary achievement.) In any case, the competition among centerfielders is really between Cobb and DiMaggio.


And while we’re at it, once again—or I am—a digression which I cannot help but make. I don’t think Mickey Mantle was a better everyday player, all-things-considered, than Lou Gehrig, than Jimmie Foxx, than Hank Greenberg, than Rogers Hornsby, than Ted Williams, than Hank Aaron, than Stan Musial, or than Ty Cobb’s early rival the great Honus Wagner, and perhaps a few other for-instances, so consequently I don’t think—Bill James’s standards not-withstanding—that Mantle’s statistical twin Willie Mays was either. (Nor am I convinced that either of the twins was more valuable than Ernie Banks or Frank Robinson.) Another case—if only in my single judgment—slammed shut.


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Duff Cooley, accomplished turn-of-20th century umpire baiter (a “dedicated” one, Smith writes), hits a shot to deep center which even the speedy Bill Lange surely can’t reach. As Cooley rounds second with head down and nears third, umpire Joe Cantillon shouts “touch the base or I’ll call you out!” Cooley just knows he has a chance for an inside-the-park home run. Cantillon follows Cooley toward home plate and shouts “Slide!”—which Cooley dutifully does. “You’re out!” yells Cantillon. “What the hell you mean out? Where the hell is the ball?” “Lange caught it,” says Cantillon.


Robert Smith was a great baseball writer. His only equal, as far as I am concerned, was Fred Lieb, who pre-dated him a couple of decades. Lieb’s Baseball as I Have Known It (1977) is the same genre, which one might call “casual and stunning and fully engaging and always instructive reflections on a sport shared with reader by a gentlemanly conversationalist.” Sometimes Smith’s and Lieb’s books get jumbled up in my mind—which is a compliment to both writers, as you don’t confuse a Great with a So-So—so I could not recall where I read the most stunning revelation about Babe Ruth I know of, until I recently checked. It was Lieb (which I should have remembered since he spoke German), but it has Smith (mis)written all over it nonetheless, the sort of surprise Smith often shares (like the Cooley-Cantillon story above). “Once when Ruth and I were guests of the Gehrigs at their home in New Rochelle, I was surprised to overhear Ruth speaking to Mom Gehrig in German. He spoke almost as well as Lou Gehrig.” How many people have ever thought of the Babe as a bi-lingual American? Always one for the ladies, did the Babe flirt with Gehrig’s mother? Was the ex-delinquent more eloquent in German? Du bist wie eine Blume, gnädige Frau. I am as I write awaiting the arrival from Amazon of Robert Smith’s Babe Ruth’s America.


The following story I offer to Smith in sincere appreciation for his “tales from a bygone era” even though he’s no longer around to receive it. The Orioles are behind one run in the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded with two outs. Pat Kelly (an amazing .370 as a pinch hitter in his four years at Baltimore) works the count to 3 and 2 . . . then swings and misses on a neck-high pitch. Unperturbed in the clubhouse, he’s accosted by manager Earl Weaver: “What the hell are you smiling for?” “I smile because I walk with God.” “Well,” says Weaver, “I wish to hell you’d walk with the bases loaded.”


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Samuel Hux is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at York College of the City University of New York. He has published in Dissent, The New Republic, Saturday Review, Moment, Antioch Review, Commonweal, New Oxford Review, Midstream, Commentary, Modern Age, Worldview, The New Criterion and many others.

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast