Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Who Invented Baseball?

What's going on in this space? See the introductory remarks at:

Dear Abner,
If you didn’t invent baseball, who did?
Puzzled in

Dear Puzzled,
Alexander Cartwright gets a big kick out of having become the anti-Doubleday, especially because he didn’t invent the game any more than I did. Oh, he helped organize the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, and he was a pretty fair player, I’m told. But nine men, ninety feet, nine innings, three outs, three strikes—none of these “innovations” may be placed on his account.

Baseball has always seemed to want a father, an American origin, and a time and place for the brainstorm that is supposed to have given us the game. But Henry Chadwick had it right when he echoed Topsy’s sentiments in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “Baseball never had no ‘fadder’; it jest grow'd.” This may be unsatisfying to you as it has long been to those who placed a Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for no good reason, but it is so.

Mind you, Cooperstown is a lovely place, and though baseball wasn’t invented there, it ought to have been. As you may imagine, others have been asking me my opinion about the place, and I expect I will have more to say on that subject soon.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Future of Baseball

What's going on in this space? See the introductory remarks at:

Dear Abner,
From your lofty perch, as you look far into the future, what do see as the most significant baseball question to be answered in the 21st-century?
Roy Hobbs

Dear Roy,
Where’s the joy? That’s the question baseball must wrestle with as it risks mutating into just another entertainment vehicle for media platforms current and not yet invented. Baseball can draw more fans and make more money, go worldwide, and even become the national pastime of some locales long devoted to what Americans call soccer. But the danger is that as the game tilts further toward becoming an event FOR media, whose purpose is to entertain distant observers, its essence may be lost (not irretrievably, mind you, I’m only referencing the professional game here).

What is that essence? Community, and family, and an appreciation of the past. It’s the national pastime not because it’s the most popular sport but because it’s the one that connects. Lawrence Ritter liked to say that the best part of baseball today is its yesterdays, and he will always be right about that.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Who Was the Greatest Hitter?

What's going on in this space? See the introductory remarks at:

Dear Abner,
Ted Williams is often called the greatest hitter who ever lived. Was he?

Dear Howard,
Thanks for throwing this curve my way. It’s a question better addressed by you folks down there, because you may be looking at statistics, even the new-fangled ones that purport to reach across the eras to revivify dead worthies of distant times. We don't have to worry about access to them, but we're perhaps not in an ideal position to judge Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, or Albert Pujols.

Now as to poor Ted, whose remains are beyond cold: he is up here with me and Babe (and he doesn’t much fancy coming back into baseball’s version of an Ichabod Crane tale), and between the two of them there isn't much to choose; one or the other is certainly the answer to your question.

For such a cantankerous sort in life, Ted is now a model of modesty and deference, simply thrilled still to be talking hitting but now not only with gents like Ruth and Cobb and Hornsby, whom he brushed up against in life, but also Dan Brouthers and Willie Keeler. And when they all get together (we have a regular gathering of the .400 hitters), Ted seems is most often looking for advice from little Ross Barnes, who made his entry into the club by mastering a form of batting not seen in baseball since 1877 — the fair-foul hit, whereby he’d spin the ball off his bat to bounce once fair and then off into foul territory. Sometimes, I'm told, this would even yield a double! It was to guard against this impish sort of stroke that the first and third basemen back then played on the bag.

Right now Ted may be learning the art from Ross with a purpose in mind, as we are planning a match of the 1946 Boston club (those players that are available, of course) against those of 1874. And this time Ted will wish to have a ready answer in case of a Williams Shift.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Were the Black Sox Guilty?

What's going on in this space? See the introductory remarks at:

Dear Abner,
What is made in Heaven of the Black Sox who threw the 1919 World Series? Are all the eight men out up there as well as down here?

Holds a Brief for Buck Weaver

Dear Brief Holder,
Oh, they were guilty enough to warrant their punishment, even though ballplayers had been throwing games left and right for decades. The 1919 World Series wasn’t even the first in which gamblers took a hand, nor was it the second. Have another look at 1903 and 1914 especially.

The principal gripe of men like Buck Weaver and Fred McMullin may have been that they were left holding the bag without getting any of the swag. The other six pocketed some money, if not all that was promised, so what is there left say, except extenuating circumstances ... Shoeless Joe’s naivete and remorse, Eddie Cicotte’s backlash against owner Comiskey’s penury.

Evidently there IS crying in baseball, and it has appeared to work for six of the eight Black Sox, who are up here with me (you may guess which ones are not), as is Charlie Comiskey, who had a Hobson’s Choice to make when he learned of the Fix. Judge Landis, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Curve Ball

What's going on in this space? See the introductory remarks at:

Dear Abner,
Did Candy Cummings really invent the curve ball? If not, why is he in the Baseball Hall of Fame?

Dear Mystified,
Well, he thought he did, many years after the fact, and even made up a nice story about getting the idea after winging clam shells across the Gowanus in 1863. There were so many others who also thought they did, or had a case made for them, that this question may never truly be laid to rest alongside the men who are offered as answers. There were the college boys--Mann of Princeton, Avery of Yale, Ernst of Harvard, but like all bright lads of privilege they thought their deliveries a product of superior invention. James Tyng, who caught Ernst, describe the curve ball as a matter of scientific theory: “To get an out curve the ball must be held in the hand in such a way that its axis is perpendicular; that is, with the back of the hand toward the ground.” You must remember that he spoke in the age of underhand pitching.

Although the Ivy League discovered the curve in the mid-1870s, it had been in vogue among the professionals and sub rosa amateurs for some time previous. Jim Creighton, Dick McBride, Rynie Wolters, Phonnie Martin, Bobby Mathews, Fred Goldsmith, Tommy Bond, and of course Cummings ... the list of disputants goes on and on, and the argument was old when the game was still new, back when I was alive and not paying it much if any mind.

Yes, yes, you say, but you wish the answer. The ability to curve a ball was proportionate to the extent of cheating, if cheating is to be understood as violating both the spirit and the letter of the regulations. At a time when a pitcher was not permitted to turn his wrist in delivering the ball, the first to impart a covert spin was Creighton. He is not in the Hall of Fame, but then again, neither am I.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Introducing Abner Doubleday

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, April 3, 2008:
Love and baseball are two of life’s enduring mysteries — so predictable, so commonplace, and yet so full of surprises — no matter that there are people who profess to be experts in one or the other (if seldom both; Steve Garvey is a notable exception). What happens after we die has been another eternal conundrum ... until, for those who love baseball, now.

I can’t speak for conditions in the afterlife for those who believe in this religion or that one. But as I write to you, dear fan, on April 1, 2008, I can report on impeccable assurance that there is indeed a baseball heaven (relax, you’re not pitching tomorrow). Abner Doubleday has for reasons known only to him chosen me as his interlocutor to answer your questions on baseball matters past, present, and future.

Although he neglected to invent the game or even take an interest in it in all the days he walked the earth, in death Abner has become rather smitten. Who wouldn’t? All day long he swaps stories upstairs with the Babe, the Mick, Satchel ... and even Alex Cartwright, with whom he has formed a cordial tandem (more so than Abbott and Costello, who are still not speaking to each other).

Delighted as I am to have him indefinitely at my right hand, this column truly depends upon you. While Abner’s ethereal condition provides him with all the answers, it robs him of questions, which is not altogether a good thing; we all know such people.

To prime the pump, I have invited members of the Society for American Baseball Research and selected baseball cognoscenti to ask Abner’s advice on aspects of the game they have long found perplexing. If something has been troubling you and you would like to consult Abner or any of his associates in Baseball Heaven, send him an email (yes, the angels were onto this long before Al Gore invented the internet) by commenting below.


Dear Abner,
Tell us, Oh, Dear Abner, gaze into your crystal ball!!! Will this be the year for the Chicago Cubs to go (nearly) all the way? Will they win 134 games, clinch the NL Central in early June, sweep the NL championship in four games — three shutouts and one no-hitter — advance to the World Series and lose the seventh game in the most spectacular way ever? Precisely how will they lose that seventh game — will it be in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, a full count, three men on, and the score 3-2?
May Irwin, Queen of the Royal Rooters

Dear May,
Your bent for hyperbole bespeaks a certain skepticism about my predictive powers, but let’s put that aside for the moment. The Cubs are beloved by God and all his angels, even more than the Red Sox, who are now just another of the cyclically successful clubs. The Cubs will not win 134 games, and they will not lose the final game of the World Series in spectacular fashion. They will not win the National League championship, nor even their own division. They will muddle along in the hunt, continuing to test the faith of their faithful. Such is their glory. I would say that they will win when cubs have wings, but my friend Frank Chance might take offense.

Dear Abner,
What’s up with the fans who keep hating on interleague play? I've never understood why they think it’s a good thing that fans in say, Seattle, never got to see teams such as the Dodgers or Cardinals, or players such as Piazza or Ozzie Smith, unless the teams happened to meet in the World Series (and given that the Mariners have been in the World Series exactly zero times in thirty-one years, that's a long time to wait). Interleague play does mean that teams have different strengths-of-schedule — but unbalanced schedules have that same effect anyway.
Likes Interleague Play

Dear Likes,
Cloud-dwellers like balance, harmony, and order, but we understand your wish for variety, even at the expense of fairness. Indeed, we not only understand mortals’ need to inject jokers into the pack — what’s up, as you might say, with the All-Star Game determining home-field advantage for the World Series? — we applaud it, for what may look like randomness down there is part of the Big Plan up here. Our view of the wild-card innovation and the World Series use of the designated hitter is in the same vein. [As a Seattle fan you should be sure to read this column to the bottom.—jt]

Dear Abner,
So just what was the Babe doing on that day in 1932? Was he pointing at me? Or was he really showing us where he meant to hit it?
Charlie Root

Dear “Charlie,”
I address you in quotation because both Charlie and the Babe are up here with me, so this ought to be an easy question to resolve. Alas, both are sticking to the stories they offered in life. Neither Charlie nor Babe is lying (such conduct is not forbidden up here, it is simply impossible) but both have become so hardened in their convictions that the literal truth (inferior, as I more than anyone might acknowledge, to the power of myth) is no longer available to them. Charlie says that Ruth was pointing to the bench jockeys in the dugout, who were giving him a rough time, signaling to them that despite taking two strikes he still had one strike left. “If he had pointed to center field,” he says, “I woulda stuck the next pitch in his ear.” Ruth said, “I took two strikes and after each one I held up my finger and said, ‘That’s one’ and ‘that’s two.’ That’s when I waved to the fence. No, I didn’t point to any spot, but as long as I’d called the first two strikes on myself, I hadda go through with it.” I could weigh in here and tell you precisely what happened, but why spoil such a good ... and in its way true ... story?

Dear Abner,
Orel Hershiser has a total of 204 wins as a pitcher, 106 of these after he had reconstructive shoulder surgery in 1990. It has been reported that the surgery made him a better pitcher. With allegations surroundingvarious current players and enhancement substances, should I contact my congressman and have him open an investigation into “Shoulder-gate” and other performance enhancing surgeries?
Wanting to Know in Knoxvegas

Dear Wanting,
Irony is little appreciated in this precinct, but I take your point to reflect on the current steroids question and the eternally vexed matter of cheating. These are subjects addressed in many of the queries I have received, and I will answer you only partway, perhaps in a manner unsatisfactory to you. We look upon aspiration as a positive thing, in fact it is both admirable and tragic, and thus defines the human condition. One may violate the law of the game or the land and still be clear of censure in Baseball Heaven. Are Orel Hershiser and Tommy John brothers under the skin with Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds? In a way, yes — as those who purchased Viagra or opted for Lasik surgery are tacit endorsers of performance enhancement. But there are worthwhile distinctions to be drawn. On another day I will bring Ken Caminiti over to share his views.

Dear Abner,
It seems to me that if we didn’t have all this ridiculous emphasis on statistics we wouldn’t be so upset over steroid record breakers. Then we could enjoy competitive championship baseball games on their own accord. Did you envision that every little nose pick on the field would be counted, historically codified and available at all times to deify or denigrate any player?
Kettle of Fish

Dear Kettle,
Whoa. I didn’t envision anything for baseball, let alone that I would be named its inventor by some spiritualists with an unfathomable agenda. I’m not blaming Al Spalding or Abraham Mills or even Abner Graves, but some others who, to put it delicately, are not available to me at this moment. I’ll get back to you with more on this, later, as the subject of my purported invention has been a popular topic with questioners. Now, back to your point: statistics came into the game to counter the seeming absurdity of men playing a boys’ game ... as if play were the business of the young and business the play of adults. The current vogue for sabermetrics lends an air of seriousness, even science, to what was, is, and forever will be something bigger than business. You can’t measure joy. And while we don’t worry about anything in Baseball Heaven, it does seem to those of us who have been here awhile — even Henry Chadwick, who more than anyone brought statistics into the game — that numbers have been elevated to a sort of religion, which was a bad idea even in Pythagoras’s time.

Dear Abner,
Who will win this year?

Dear Curious,
Ordinarily I would prefer not to venture into this speculative realm, but having sinned a little bit above, I will say that Providence (a National League club back in my day) smiles upon the following outcomes:

NL: East, Philadelphia; Central, Milwaukee; West, San Diego; Wild Card, Colorado.
AL: East, Boston; Central, Detroit; West, Seattle; Wild Card, Cleveland.
WS: Seattle over San Diego.