By Michael Miner
Not Quite Cricket
Europeans, like people everywhere, read foreign news for assurance that the world is behaving as always. Wars are being fought where they belong, while the places you might visit next summer are keeping up their eccentricities. Bill and Hillary and Ken and Monica hold Europeans spellbound; but because they learned in school that fundamentalist zealotry episodically fogs our reason, they're less perplexed by what's happening than we are. Of course, Europeans welcome evidence that Americans are also maintaining their healthy roots. Baseball is known as one of those roots, and the home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa received surprising coverage in London papers whose readers had never heard of either of them.
American papers quickly entwined the two stories, reporters soaking up everything McGwire had to say about either androstenedione or his service to national dignity. Just last Saturday George Will lauded the two sluggers' "inspiriting grace note to a splendid season...in this tawdry year of our political life." (On the opposite page of the Sun-Times, gloomy Garry Wills was going on about the damage Kenneth Starr's "witchhunt" has done to the First Amendment, a matter beneath Will's notice when baseball players are behaving splendidly.)
The London press also linked the two stories. The Guardian headline, "US Obsessions: A beleaguered president, a triumphant baseball player," ran over a six-column picture of McGwire clobbering his 61st home run. The Observer termed the "contest" between Sosa and McGwire "a happy apotheosis to the President's problems." The Telegraph had McGwire remarking, "People have been saying it is bringing the country together. So be it. I am happy to bring the country together." The Telegraph headline announced, "McGwire's 62nd gives America the hero it needs."
Everyone was cheering him on. "Even supporters of opposing teams want McGwire to put wood on leather," Hugo Gurdon observed in the Telegraph. "They boo their own pitchers if they 'walk' him--that is, deliberately throw wides which he cannot reach, allowing him a free saunter to first base." When McGwire cracked his record-setting homer the Times told Britain with a straight face that he'd "long since escaped the sports pages, shoving the Monica Lewinsky affair from the headlines."
The first concern of Fleet Street correspondents determined to convey the home-run derby's drama was to explain what a home run is. Under large color photos of Sosa and McGwire, Ed Vulliamy of the Observer alluded to the old mark, Roger Maris's "61 clean rounds of the diamond--the village green of America's pastoral sport that belongs to the heart of the city." Then he wrote, "A home run is a short, perfect moment--one of the most perfect in any sport. It is a final statement against which there is no argument, whereby the ball is batted into the bleachers or the street beyond, and the run itself is no more than a token, a lap of honour."
Rupert Cornwell explained in the Independent that in four-tenths of a second "the batter must size up the trajectory, decide whether to hit it, and then bring a three-inch wide cylindrical bat onto the ball and despatch it at least 100 yards on the full toss within the arc--to use cricketing terms--between midwicket and cover." He revealed, "The heroes of the trade are called sluggers."
When McGwire hit number 61 the Guardian's Martin Kettle described the swat as "one of those classic moments in American sport that becomes imperishable legend throughout the United States--while remaining all but incomprehensible to the rest of the world."
I called Kettle, the Guardian bureau chief in Washington, and asked him why, if the moment was incomprehensible (and presumably of little consequence to the noncomprehending), he bothered reporting it.
"I sold it as a news story, not a sports story," Kettle explained. "It's a bit of America." Indeed, his account ran on page three of the news section, under a troubling piece on the possible spread of mad cow disease to sheep.
Kettle said I needed to understand that England has become "a colony of America. Our historical roles have been reversed. What goes on in the mother country inevitably is of interest to us. We long to be able to talk to Americans. We long to be taken seriously by the Americans. So we need to know what they're likely to want to talk about. [The English] might think the only thing America is talking about is who did what to whom. But actually people are having a great time watching baseball this year."
There's also a presumption that young readers--or young nonreaders, whom British papers, like American papers, are desperate to attract--might be curious about any sport that preoccupies America, Kettle said. "Most British people don't know anything about baseball," he allowed. "Most British people have only heard of one baseball star, and that's Babe Ruth. Most British people could not name a current baseball player until the last month. I'd say Cal Ripken, for example, is an unknown figure."
But then, he wondered, how many Americans had heard of cricket's Babe Ruth? He meant the Australian batsman so extraordinary that whenever a record of his is broken there's "a whole generation of people deeply resentful. Even if they don't literally put asterisks in the record book, they have mental asterisks to say these players aren't really in his class."
Of course he was speaking of Don Bradman.
Maris's Black Mark
The Sosa-McGwire saga didn't require a villain, but any good story gets even better if one's lurking somewhere. In 1961 Roger Maris set the home-run record that both McGwire and Sosa broke, and it's part of baseball's mythology that Maris got no pleasure doing it. He was a simple farm boy plagued by reporters, a detail today's reporters don't belabor. The nemesis they've dwelled on was commissioner Ford Frick, who rewarded Maris for his labors with an asterisk.
Maris and Frick returned to the nation's sports pages this summer, Maris sympathetically and Frick as the anal, Kenneth Starr-like despot who confiscated Maris's hour of triumph. Here's Bob Kravitz in the Rocky Mountain News: "I wonder how the full-scale assault on [Maris's] record--and it is his record, regardless of how many distinctive marks Ford Frick sought to affix to it--is sitting with him....Could he make today's home run hitters understand how much it hurt when Frick, then the commissioner and a one-time Babe Ruth biographer, deemed it appropriate to diminish Maris' record by adding what he called a 'distinctive mark' (an asterisk) to Maris' 61?" And here's Michael Rosenberg in the Chicago Tribune: "Maris was considered an unfit heir to Ruth's throne in some corners--namely, all four corners of baseball Commissioner Ford Frick's office."
Guy Curtright in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution: "Commissioner Ford Frick's ruling to protect Babe Ruth--his old friend--had sapped much of the excitement out of the last few games of the 1961 season." Jerome Holtzman in the Tribune: "When Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961, the baseball establishment refused to acknowledge he had set the one-season home run record. The 1962 Official Baseball Guide, in reviewing Maris' heroics, headlined its four-page report:
"RUTH'S 60 HOMERS STILL TOPS
"Maris Set 162-Game Season High With 61"
Rick Telander in the Sun-Times: "To understand the way Roger Maris' quest...differed from Mark McGwire's--and Sammy Sosa's--consider this: Baseball commissioner Ford Frick announced in midseason of 1961 that if Maris needed more than 154 games to break Babe Ruth's mark, Maris' total forever would be accompanied by an asterisk. That might seem inconsequential in today's record-bloated climate. A funny little snowflake next to your total. But what it said in 1961 was clear: Maris, you're a fraud. The logic was perverse. Frick, who had been Ruth's pal, biographer, and apologist, made no comment about any other possible record that might be set in that first season of 162 games."
And Hugo Gurdon in London's Telegraph: "When Maris broke Babe Ruth's record, almost no one wanted him to. His hair fell out in clumps as he closed in on the great man's milestone. Because it took him more games than 'the Babe,' the official record books put an asterisk next to his 61. The asterisk is said to have driven him to an early death."
As Holtzman accurately recalled, there was no asterisk. There was simply a double listing--Maris, 61 homers in 162 games; Ruth, 60 homers in 154 games. An ex-sportswriter like Frick might not have guessed he'd make so many enemies by trying to be informative. But then, sportswriters tend to respond to statistics like numerologists, not statisticians.
Contemporary sportswriters who want to excoriate Frick could begin by asking what a sportswriter was doing as commissioner of baseball in the first place. (Then they could ask what sportswriters are doing choosing MVPs and Hall of Fame members.) But to rip Frick for being troubled by the new 162-game schedule is to fail to exercise historical imagination.
Today a 162-game schedule is the only one we know. In 1961 it was brand-new, so new in fact that the National League wasn't even using it yet. The American League had expanded to ten teams for the '61 season; the National League remained at eight.
The 154-game season had been introduced to both leagues in 1904. The longer American League schedule, therefore, junked one of baseball's sacred dimensions: teams played 154 games a season as surely as they played nine innings a game. And as Telander wrote, there wasn't a "record-bloated climate." Records were few and monumental--Ruth's 60 homers, Hack Wilson's 190 RBIs, Ty Cobb's 96 stolen bases--and Frick wasn't alone in hesitating to surrender the most hallowed of them all simply because sluggers had been given eight more games to break it in. (The National League expanded and lengthened its schedule in '62; Maury Wills promptly stole 104 bases and, no, there was never the same anguished debate over that since-eclipsed record.)
If Maris's 61-homer season had been twice the old length, an asterisk would strike us as much more than he deserved. Instead it was lengthened by 5.19 percent--and in the added games the record was tied and then exceeded by 1.67 percent. Frick didn't say Maris's 61 wouldn't count at all. He said the record book should note the change that made it possible.
The American League tampered with baseball's basic structure in '61, and the tampering promptly came back to haunt it. In a similar way, the big leagues introduced wild-card teams to its playoff structure in 1995, and in 1997 a wild-card team won the World Series. Some of us thought the Marlins wound up with a championship they hadn't earned the right to compete for. After 37 more years of wild cards, that line of thought will seem ridiculous--which doesn't make it illegitimate today.
If you admire ingenious syntax, consider this passage from an Irish Times piece on Rupert Murdoch. "However, already past retirement age, corporate insiders note that his sons, Lachlan and James, and daughter, Elizabeth, are being given growing responsibility." Note that "already past retirement age" doesn't describe the corporate insiders, and it doesn't describe Lachlan, James, and Elizabeth either. It refers to Murdoch, present in the sentence only as "his." If you're a copy editor frothing at such illiterate incompetence, deal with the fact that, in context, the sentence's meaning is perfectly clear.