Thursday, 18 July 2013

An Appreciation of Baseball History...and How British Football Can Learn

We can learn a lot from baseball history.
One aspect of baseball is unequaled in any other sport: its preservation and celebration of history. There is an historical narrative to baseball, decorated with lovable names and encrusted with dramatic events, which is cherished and maintained by its devoted stewards. In no other sport can a single game situation, a lone statistic, or the style of a certain player inspire close comparison with something documented sixty, seventy, even eighty years before. However, this is the very essence of baseball; a fabled story developed through appreciation of its own most sacred chapters.

A sport rich in nostalgia, baseball has an extensive history to share. There is a well-worn debate as to the geographical origins of the game but, in less recognisable forms, it was initially played in the mid-nineteenth century. Since, it has captivated and enthralled small American hamlets and huge modern metropolises alike; indeed, it has become America's
National Pastime of choice.

The game of baseball has always inspired its followers to pick up a pen and write. Even in its earliest days, games and rules were documented; British born writer Henry Chadwick creating the first boxscore and early metrics such as Batting Average and ERA. In accordance with the sports natural progression, more writers began to see baseball as a subject lending itself well to narrative hyperbole.

In 1888, poet Ernest Thayer encapsulated the growing prominence of baseball in the American psyche with his classic
Casey at the Bat. This poem, using a fictional 'Mudville Nine,' provides a concise insight into the passion and meaning increasingly endowed upon baseball; the crowd living and dying with every pitch until an overconfident Casey strikes out to end the game. A cornerstone step in the evolution of America's baseball fascination is forever enshrined in that most celebrated poem.

A further poem, penned in 1910, is equally evocative. The piece, written by Franklin Pierce Adams, centres around a famed Chicago Cubs infield combination, and was further emblematic of the burgeoning connection between baseball and prose:
Baseball's Sad Lexicon – Franklin Pierce Adams, 1910
These are the saddest of possible words:
“Tinkers to Evers to Chance.”
Trio of bear Cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double-
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
“Tinkers to Evers to Chance.”

The mere fact that this poem was even written demonstrates the unique yearning for expression which baseball elicits. However, the fact that, over a century later, this work still registers with even casual fans is remarkable. A majority of Chicago Cubs fans can recite the poem, and well know its intricate backdrop of perpetual pennant tussles with the old New York Giants. Such is the attention to fine historical detail which separates baseball from most other sports. As the game became more intricate and refined, so too did the coverage, which began to sell more newspapers than current affairs or politics. In a halcyon era, journalistic heavyweights such as Grantland Rice and Damon Runyon further embellished the game with sharp reporting. A whole new genre was added to the American literary sphere: baseball writing.

It is the finest of arts, I believe. The greatest books that I have read are all about baseball; works by Roger Kahn and Thomas Boswell, Roger Angell and David Halberstam, Lawrence Ritter and Eliot Asinof, Peter Gammons and Dan Shaughnessy filling my extensive baseball library and bringing the entire history of a nation to life. I don't profess to know excessive amounts about French-born American historian Jacques Barzun, but I know he was correct when he asserted that “...w
hoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

You may be thinking,
“why have you chosen to randomly write about baseball history?" Well, all is explainable. A recent visit to the British National Football Museum in Manchester revealed just how far our national sport languishes behind with regard to its preservation of history. Sure, we can browse the first official rulebook of Association Football, and look at replica mock-ups of the Jules Rimet Trophy won heroically at home in 1966, but it is all far too superficial. As a footballing culture, we acknowledge the surface details, and are aware of a vague outline of past events, but do not penetrate to discover the finer nuances.

If I want to know how many strikeouts a three-fingered starting pitcher recorded during 1909 National League play, I can readily find that information. 172. If I want to know why he only had three fingers, that detail is there too. He [Mordecai Brown], slipped whilst feeding material into farm machinery  thus losing two digits. Now, this may seem a little surreal, but the point demonstrates how poorly football has been preserved throughout history. Such is the nature of football history, I'm aware of only the most famous players from 1909, but any records for goals scored or assists are extremely elusive. Many will say that those records are out there, and can be found with a deep and intensive enough search. But this is the point exactly. In the baseball sphere, this data is available with a few clicks of a computer mouse, a quick flip through a
Bill James Baseball Abstract. In the football world, there is no such pride in detailed historical preservation.

There would be ample benefits to a clearer trove of football history. The pub debates about Messi and Pele could be much more easily reconciled, if we had more incisive and accurate reporting from both eras, and serious statistics extending far beyond 'World Cups won,' and 'International caps.' In baseball, the equivalent debates are backed-up with such invaluable sources. We can make a viable case for Mickey Mantle outshining Willie Mays; Don Mattingly being inducted in the Hall of Fame; and for Ted Williams breaking Babe Ruth's then-standing Home Run Record had it not been for years of Military service. In football, our debates are always subjective, or built upon the merest of facts, such as League Championships won or transfer fees. This has to change.

It's inescapable that, as football fans, we have been dealt an unfair hand by the inadequate style of reporting and historical preservation in the past. If chronicled better at the time, the games greatest characters, players, and achievements would be
further emblazoned in our knowledge. But this is why we must learn now. We cannot leave a similar legacy for the next generation; we must fundamentally change the ways in which we report, understand, and cherish the footballing narrative so enjoyed by billions. In an age of 140-character restriction and 6-second videos, we're already fighting an uphill battle to create a much deeper store of football history, but we shouldn't give up. It's never too late to focus on the finer details, pay homage to them, and share them in exquisite prose. Baseball has done so for nearly two-hundred years. 

Monday, 1 July 2013

How Baseball's Darkest Era Continues to Harm

Slugger...Davis has become a superstar.
As the season's first half draws to a close, Chris Davis continues to astound baseball. The imposing Orioles first baseman has morphed from reliable contributor to full-blown superstar during a tearaway three-month stretch of historical proportions. With a humble demeanor and a workmanlike approach, Davis is presently batting .333, getting on-base at a gaudy .403 rate, and slugging .724. You like the more traditional statistics? Well, Davis has those covered too! He has 79 RBI in just 81 games and, on Saturday, became just the third player in American League history to reach the thirty home run plateau before the end of June. The other two? Babe Ruth and Ken Griffey Jr.

So why isn't Davis receiving the media fanfare and international acclaim which such performances have in the past precipitated? Sure, glossy features have been written about him on the main national websites, and the hyperactive world of Twitter has shown an interest; but Davis is yet to receive the oft-notorious media scrutiny which usually accompany such great seasons. This is yet another cruel manifestation of a baseball record book, culture, and fandom, forever changed by it's darkest era.

Even now, the legacy of widespread steroid usage is distorting the sport of baseball. In the summer months of this exciting season, Chris Davis should be focused on breaking the most sacrosanct single-season records. However, they have been set so far off in the stratosphere, many feel with the use of illegal performance-enhancing supplements, that a 'clean' player like Davis can barely hope to attain them. Whilst acknowledging that Barry Bonds has never been successfully prosecuted for steroid usage, I hold with the hard-line of baseball traditionalists who feel that only a slugger supercharged on a cocktail of drugs can hit 73 home runs in a single season given a previous personal best of 49, or conceive of breaking Hank Aaron's career record of 755 after amassing just 445 through their age-34 season.

Nonetheless, those are the records which, quite inexplicably, still stand in the Major League Baseball record books. The home run records, for both season and career, are the most hallowed marks in the sporting lexicon; they are, however, entirely unattainable after decades of abuse from juiced-up sluggers playing a different game.

It's often argued that Barry Bonds became envious of the fame lavished upon Mark McGwire when, in 1998, he initially broke the single-season record for round-trippers. Nonetheless, McGwire later admitted that performance-enhancing substances aided his assault on the record, an admission which still causes grief to baseball purists. If McGwire could hit seventy only with the help of steroids, then the odds that Barry Bonds was suddenly able to crush seventy-three under his own steam are minimal to non-existent. This is the most saddening scourge of modern day baseball.

If we delve a little deeper, ever more serious problems emerge. Barry Bonds has seven Most Valuable Player Awards, more than any player all-time; more walks than any player all-time; the best single-season marks in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and intentional walks. If, as the overwhelming majority suspect, Bonds' procurement of such records was fueled by an extensive profile of steroid usage, what are baseball records worth any more?

There is a small minority, mostly residing in San Francisco, which claims that steroid usage is relative; that it was so embedded in the sporting culture of a specific era as to be inconspicuous. Many believe that McGwire, Canseco, and Giambi used steroids to gain an edge just like Roe, Shocker, and Leonard used a spitball. However, the use of performance-enhancing drugs transcends the arena of baseball like no other method of gaining a sporting advantage; it is an ethical issue, a moral issue, an issue which can impact the health, lives, and psyche of a whole generation.

I do not profess to have all the answers. Whilst I still see Roger Maris as the single-season home run king, and Henry Aaron as the rightful owner of sports greatest crown, the record books do not. I would like every at-bat of a proven steroid-abuser expunged from baseball history, not merely the at-bats from a certain 'juicing period.' Of course, this will never happen. I would like Major League Baseball to go far beyond an asterisk when attempting to rectify it's bloated record book. Even this merest wish will likely never occur. Therefore, I will be rooting for Chris Davis in the second half of the season, as we all would have been had the past twenty-five steroid-infected years of baseball never happened. I want him to break the true single season records, in a clean and admirable fashion.