Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Boys of Summer

People have been playing games that involve a stick and a ball for millennia. Popular legend has it that baseball was invented in Cooperstown, New York in 1839 by Abner Doubleday. This is simply not true. There was a German book published in 1796 that contains seven pages of rules for “das englische Base-ball”, complete with a diagram of the diamond shaped infield. This reference also debunks another myth, that baseball evolved from the old English games of town ball and rounders. Apparently, baseball, town ball, and rounder’s all developed simultaneously.

Baseball is unique. It has a balance and symmetry to it that is lacking, as I see it, in other sports. It is the only sport in which the defense has the ball. Players must play both offense and defense, so they can’t become overly specialized. I'm a purist; I do not believe in the designated hitter. The game should be played the way God intended, with pitchers taking their turn at the plate.

Baseball is extremely versatile. I have played it with my kids in the kitchen using a wadded up piece of paper and our hands. When living in California, I played it with my now older kids in our tiny front yard and the street, with an intervening row of bushes, using a wiffle ball and regular bat. We played on organized Little League teams with uniforms and umpires and everything. Or you can play “one-on-one” baseball. You can play it anywhere, anytime, using anything, and have a blast!

In any event, to me, there is nothing more American than baseball.

It started as a northeastern city game in the mid-1800’s. During the civil war, its popularity spread as soldiers played it in their idle time, and introduced the game to people from all parts of the country.

The first World Series was played in 1903.

I love the mystique around the legendary baseball players and the game’s lore.

There was Babe Ruth, who was one the best pitchers the game had ever seen before he became the “sultan of swat”. A little known fact is that Babe Ruth won two World Series games in his second year in the Major Leagues, as a pitcher. He altered the nature of the game by becoming the first, and one of the best ever, power hitters. Prior to that, hitters were expected to get singles consistently and push runs in. The Babe ignored that precedence and did it his way. Then there was his famous “called shot”, in which he pointed to the right field stands and then hit a home run right there.

There was the unforgettable scene of a dying Lou Gehrig proclaiming that he was the luckiest man in the world.

Ted Williams left professional baseball in the prime of his career to join the military during World War II. He was not drafted, he signed up. He lost four years of prime time, voluntarily. One wonders what his statistics would be if he had gotten those four years in. He became a fighter pilot and literally went down in flames. He tells the story about a decision he made then. His plane was badly shot up and flames were coming out of the engine. If he ejected, he was guaranteed to live, but the pilot would frequently suffer two broken legs in this procedure as the plane’s canopy often didn’t get out of the way in time. So he could eject and be assured of surviving, but risk never playing baseball again. He decided that if he couldn’t play baseball, he didn’t want to live. He took the plane down in flames, landed in a field, and as he was running away, the plane exploded in a ball of fire.

Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, known as the Yankee Clipper for the graceful way he sailed around the bases, had his famous hitting streak of 52 consecutive games with a base hit that was a national obsession at the time, and a record that has never come close to being matched.

On of my childhood heroes was Mickey Mantle. His father was such a baseball fan that he named his son after the great Mickey Cochran. His father also died at age 36 of a heart attack. Mickey thought he was going to die young also, so he lived the high life. When he was in his sixties, he commented that if he had known he was going to live so long, he would have taken better care of himself.

Mickey replaced Joe DiMaggio in center field for the New York Yankees – some pretty big shoes to fill. As great a player as Mickey was, he never quite lived up to expectations. He was supposed to be Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio rolled into one. It just didn’t happen.

One reason was that he was not a disciplined hitter. He was always swinging for the fences, even when there were runners in scoring position and a clean single would have won the game. Consequently, because he struck out a lot trying to hit home runs all the time, games that he could have won with his bat were lost.

Another reason Mickey Mantle didn’t live up to expectations was that early in his career, while chasing a fly ball, he tripped over a water spigot used to water the outfield grass. He twisted his knee badly, and it was never the same. After that, before every game, he wrapped his entire right leg in adhesive tape, and he played in constant pain. Players from visiting teams who were unaware of his situation and happened to see what he had to do in game prep were horrified. Catchers noticed that he groaned in pain every time he swung the bat. Still, he became one of the game’s all time greats. Think what he could have done with two good legs.

The hot dog was invented in New York in the 19-teens when a sausage manufacturer wanted to find a way to sell his sausages to people going to or at the game. He came up with the idea of wrapping a sausage link in a piece of bread. The world has never been the same.

A man who didn’t have the money to buy game tickets for his children wrote the song “Take me out to the ball game” for them instead.

And the tradition continues right here in Pulaski with our own Rookie League team. Go out to some games this summer, and think about the long history of the game being played before you.

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