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Breaking the Slump

Charles C. Alexander

Baseball in the Depression Era

(Columbia University Press)

God, I Love Baseball

In my last review of a baseball book, I complained about the lack of muscle and marrow in Richard Peterson’s Extra Innings, a rather flat tour of the surfaces of baseball literature. I praised two chapters to high heaven, but lamented its formulaic overall structure and its rather unambitious aim to simply converse with other baseball writers. These last two points seem to automatically give Peterson two strikes in the kind of game I umpire: easy conventionality and an immediate limiting of one’s audience. If his book were baseball fan-friendly, all would be well, but it requires a great amount of baseball literacy. I am all for baseball, and I am all for literacy, but with such specialized-yet-scant skimmings of the literature, it takes a very specific and very patient kind of reader to find something to latch onto.


To be sure, Peterson set himself no easy job, and I gave that a nod in the title of my review. I should also note my own perhaps-unusual background. I have a decade of serious writing under my belt and nearly two of baseball (in various capacities); but I have nearly zero experience with baseball literature. While I might profess to be an able enough body with the matter and the manner (baseball, writing), I can’t say the same for the union (let’s just make it one word: baseballwriting). At any rate, heading into Charles C. Alexander’s Breaking the Slump, I was aware of a few pitfalls of writing about baseball, and hoped Alexander could avoid most of them. To quote the militant writing proverb, at root, where Peterson tells, Alexander shows.


His focus on baseball during the depression era (about 1930-1941) is surely an asset, and becomes the driving livelihood of his book. Not only does he dig into a fine array of the social, cultural, economic, racial, and obviously athletic issues of those 12 years, giving us an often hilarious, occasionally heartbreaking, and almost always vigorous narrative of baseball and the lives of baseball players, but this narrative also establishes an accessible and important doorway for modern baseball folks to walk through. I’ll get into a few of those issues shortly.


What Alexander has not successfully avoided is an often mundane procedure of season-by-season highlights, anecdotes, statistics, and game summaries. At more than a few points, I find myself merely scanning for trivia, breezing through box scores. But it is with this book that I must realize and slightly revise my judgment of Peterson: I don’t think such a procedure can, or even should, be avoided in this type of writing. It is, after all, history, and historians do have an impulse (perhaps a loyalty, a responsibility) towards chronology.


However much the post-modern experimentalist in me cries, you’ve got to go season to season, game by game. Alexander says it better:


“Baseball has always been a cyclical thing — a season-by-season, career-by-career experience for both those playing and those following the sport. One best understands baseball history, I’m convinced, by treating it the way people understood it as it was happening . . .”


And so he lets us be spectators as well as insiders as we read, which is one of books’ and their makers’ most wonderful gifts to the world.


Along the cyclical way, many contemporary fans will have an opportunity to bemoan and bemoan again the (stereo)typical modern baseball player who holds out for an extra million dollars almost annually, never runs out a groundball, whines about having to sign autographs, momentarily (or longer) admires the soaring arc of his own home run before finally tip-toeing into his trot (which only adds to the absurd amount of time required to play nine innings), and wears enough protective gear on his front batting arm to make him look part-robot. By and large, I am one of these fans.


Yet I must insist that this image is a stereotype. In my six years of experience with minor league ballplayers in Norfolk, Virginia (between the ages of 16 and 22, first as a batboy, later as a clubhouse attendant), I saw nothing in the occupation of playing professional baseball that gives a guy more or less of a work ethic or respectful attitude towards the game. I met a bunch of assholes, and I met a lot of beautiful human beings. Granted, this was triple-A ball where the money and fame is far less than the big leagues, but I don’t believe the percentages of “grateful or ungrateful” men are any different than what I’ve encountered in construction work, academia, backyard cookouts, dingy rock clubs, or games of horseshoes.


There are innumerable easy targets and oversimplified before-and-after comparisons one can make: we’ve gone from players working in the off-season (as butchers, fishing and hunting guides, policemen, on freighters, in jewelry stores, running farms, hotels, auto-repair shops, milk-delivery businesses) to giving TV tours of their mansions and modeling clothes. We’ve gone from players working out at the local YMCA to private trainers, and players who value suppleness of muscle to sheer muscle mass.


Players (even Babe Ruth) used to be at the mercy of management; now, that relationship may have been overcompensated for, with “zero loyalty” and players shuffling around midseason for a push to the World Series. Games used to average less than two hours; now we’re lucky to get through nine innings in three hours (the two major reasons for this are commercial breaks for television and more frequent pitching changes). Ballparks used to bear “the name of the men who’d financed their original construction or subsequent renovation and expansion,” but now the vast majority are named after some large corporation which inherently has less identifiable personality than an individual human being (this is the most maddening trend for me — SafeCo Field? God help us.)


Journalists used to stay out of athletes’ personal lives (it’s true, there used to be more of a co-worker relationship between athletes and the press), but today are rabid with rumors of steroids and homosexuality. Fans used to take public transportation, but now there are epic parking lots for our (I’ll say it: usually childish, unnecessary, and bullying) SUVs. While this last one is probably due to genuine economic and geographical realities, I can’t help but notice the shift from communal to literally self-centered transportation.


So I have a dash of skepticism — and I do hope it’s a healthy, and not stiff, sterilizing amount — about looking back at the good old days. And it’s easy to moralize about how much softer and slower the game has gotten. I just hope that when fans or players or front office people read this book, they don’t begin the obligatory knee-jerk griping about today’s game, like some curmudgeon who has tunnel vision towards the past, and blindness for the present. The book is ripe with potential for comparing the two eras in search of insight, but I hope that people don’t start judging the two eras like successive children, because for all its modern flaws, I still, perhaps naively, believe baseball is the most beautiful, subtle, magical, and greatest game on the planet.


All that said, I would love to go back and watch a season of baseball in the 1930s. For the most part, Alexander has allowed us to do just that—there are the pennant races, the all-star games, the innovations, arguments, fights, tragedies (Lou Gehrig’s decline and death, Willard Hershberger’s suicide), controversies, crises, and one hell of a lot of colorful characters for what seems to most living people like an eternally gray age.


We also see a couple of timeless and timely issues: the age-old (and understandable, even though I am a Yankee fan) resentment of the New York Yankees’ dominance, and owners’ unwillingness to help out other ball clubs, which isn’t a far cry from today’s demands for profit-sharing.


Alexander suggests the sport was “a tougher, more demanding, more dangerous, and perhaps more desperate game in the years of the Great Depression than it would be in later times.” As for this assertion of his own belief, he leaves it for a parenthetical in the first chapter and a kind of wink to close the book. In between, he lets the players and managers talk, which is one of the greatest strengths of the book. I absolutely delight in reading about fights, which undoubtedly had more grit to them in the 30s, some of them involving umpires. I bust out laughing when I learn that Dizzy Dean found himself looking down the barrel of a gun one night while a pharmacy was being robbed, and days later received two things from one of the crooks: an apologetic telephone call and a package of half a dozen brand new neckties.


The other strength of Alexander’s writing is his refusal to dodge the racism of the day. The chapter on “shadowball” (which focuses on the various black teams and leagues in operation) and his assertion that . . .


“The reality is that in 1941 — as the United States prepared for a war that would be portrayed as a struggle for the preservation of freedom and democracy against totalitarian doctrines of racial supremacy — white Americans still understood baseball at the highest level as a white man’s game.”


These are crucial dimensions to an era that should never be romanticized into some ultra-wholesome, hard-working, exceedingly fair- minded lie of an image. He stresses:


“The United States was a country in which not only racial but ethnic and religious prejudices and stereotypes had always been and continued to be basic to the way people looked at and understood one another. And while the National Pastime was supposed to exemplify the expansive, democratic American way of life, inherited attitudes died very slowly — if they ever did die.”


Hank Greenberg tells us: “Everybody got it. Italians were wops. Germans were krauts, and the Polish players were dumb polacks. Me, I was a kike or a sheeny or a mockey . . . They reserved a little extra for me,” as Alexander chimes in that “Greenberg might have added that for city boys such as himself, Southerners were usually ‘hillbillies’.” And while some readers will surely find the single chapter devoted to black baseball insufficient, Alexander does succinctly expose the grand public ironies of something like the Sporting News, which proclaimed itself the “baseball paper of the world,” puffing up the segregated game of baseball as “the nation’s greatest force of democracy . . . the melting pot of the sons of all languages, the caldron of equal big opportunity.”


As much as any fan can enjoy and learn from this book about a 70 year old era, I think its worth is largely in pointing out the unwillingness of the human race to change and face up to its own hypocrisy, as I found myself scribbling “Plato’s cave” several times in the margins. The issues of race and ethnicity are most obvious to see and necessary to confront, yet it goes further, sinking into the everyday attitudes towards everyday facts of the game. Owners resisted night baseball like stubborn children resist getting haircuts (as Bill Terry once said, “We are catering to a fickle attendance in staging an unnatural attraction”.) It was an era in which pitchers were expected to finish every game they started, but Alexander calls St. Louis manager Ray Blades “considerably ahead of his time in the way he used his pitching staff, allowing his hurlers to complete only 45 games . . . Sportswriters around the league wrote critically of Blades’s frequent pitching changes, but withal Blades got more out of his staff and the rest of the team than anybody had expected.”


In 1940, after two hospitalizing hit-by-pitches within three weeks, the always innovative Larry MacPhail “proposed that ballplayers — or at least his Dodgers — start wearing some kind of protective headgear at bat.” Frank Frisch reacted with these words: “The game’s become sissy enough, anyway. No, I wouldn’t have my men go for those bonnets. They’d look like a bunch of six-day bike riders who’d lost their bicycles.” The following season, after doctors said Philadelphia’s Pete Reiser would’ve been seriously hurt by a beaning in the back of the head if he hadn’t been wearing a plastic cap liner, no one complained about the head protection.


As for headgear and relief pitching, the wise wimps and smart sissies apparently prevailed, and likewise, once owners understood the money to be made from night baseball, fickle audience, unnatural attractions, and the element of show-biz (which some owners felt was a fundamental part of night baseball) be damned: turn on the lights, put on the helmet, and call for the bullpen.


Through and through, Alexander is both historian and writer. It’s refreshing to turn to a new chapter for a new season and be greeted with a sentence like “Babe Ruth shouldn’t have gone to Hawaii” or “Clark Griffith wasn’t called the Old Fox for nothing.” My absolute favorite is “For Dick Bartell, what one New York writer called ‘the post-depression baseball business’ began with a tomato, thrown with precise accuracy from the Ebbets Field upper deck, that hit the Giants’ shortstop squarely in the chest when he led off the season opener.” I declare this sentence to be in the same league as the opener of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.”


Anyway, this casual, wry wording works. It doesn’t get in the way of the events, but rather nudges them along, and the events and attitudes of depression baseball do matter. Alexander calls the Great Depression “the worst thing to happen to the American people since the calamitous Civil War,” an environmental (with the Dust Bowl) as well as economic disaster.


Yet baseball survived, and only struggled for a couple of years. Alexander offers this predominant attitude of owners at the beginning of the 1930s: “Investing in a baseball team had never been a highly profitable venture, but the modest return (if any) from operating a franchise had its rewards in high civic visibility, the sense of providing wholesome recreation for the general public, and — for most of the entrepreneurs who put their money into baseball — the satisfaction of being close to players, fans, and something most of them genuinely loved.”


I have to be careful here, but I also have to use my voice honestly. My hubris discourages me from settling for the easy complaints and quaint moralizing, as much as my heart spits on the possibility of a strike, and all the hot air a strike stirs up. The truth is, I believe around two-thirds of the American baseball world (fans, owners, players, reporters) really love and are loyal to the game and the game’s sustenance. But that other third doesn’t give a damn. It’s easy to condemn the players and owners as selfish, greedy, childish, and whatever else. The truth is that these days, a lot of fans are more into feeding off the game than feeling and fueling it with their sincerity; it’s a whole bunch (not all, not even most) of consumer-minded parents, their whiny kids, and a bushel of sloppy-minded, clone-prone drunks who are happy to be a remora that doesn’t give the shark anything in return. The issues in this book speak directly to the current labor issues of baseball, and more timelessly, to our relationship with the game itself.


The book also has to do with our relationship to each other, about which we can look to baseball: “throughout its history, baseball [has] closely reflected dominant American social values and practices, both good and bad.” Look at the people at the all-star game, pissed off they didn’t get an extra inning or two, after they’ve already had a couple of games, bleeding to squeeze every bit of copper out of their pennies. Look at Selig, who wouldn’t give those people the explanation they deserved.


The necessity of contemplating our past to understand our present and future should go without saying, and the past that comes to life in Alexander’s writing demands modern ears (when in fact, perhaps, our modern ears should be demanding the voice of the past.) “Baseball” as a concept is in a contorted spot, and so many of the voices inside and outside of it are squabbling. Just as Alexander’s purpose is to show what baseball was really like during the Depression, I hope that with a gritty acknowledgement of “the game’s” problems (most of which dwell off the field) we fans can still look to the field, the Green Monster, the short right field porch, the ivy on the wall, and the fountains beyond center field, with wonder, and instead of harping on the money and media, return to what goes on inside that diamond.

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