Category Archives: Baseball

Yet another way baseball could save America

One of my grandfather’s baseball teams. That’s him squatting on the right. Note that some guys wear jerseys that say “P.O,” while others don’t.

My wife brought this story to my attention this morning, knowing I would like it: “Companies worried about worker turnover could try baseball.”

It’s about how measures that employers instituted at workplaces a century ago might help with today’s Great Resignation problems. A number of things were done to make workplaces more pleasant, but this was my (and the headline writer’s) favorite step:

Goodyear President F.A. Seiberling … embraced employee welfarism with a wide-reaching program in Akron, Ohio, that included an improved working environment, a thrice-a-week employee newspaper, a housing development and even a company baseball team to make workers feel like part of the “Goodyear family.” Confronted with the same problems, his crosstown competitor Harvey Firestone followed suit.

These companies met others on baseball fields in a league they organized that spanned at least two other states. The brick stadium where the Firestone Non-Skids played (named for the company’s first treaded tires, “non-skids”) seated 4,500 cheering workers, and it still stands in front of the old company headquarters. The idea was that when employees sat in the stands and cheered for the company, they’d be more loyal, and as a result, they were encouraged to do so. Goodyear told workers in 1920, for example, that attending the games alone wasn’t enough; “moral support, organized cheering, [and] boosting 24 hours a day” were critical as well.

The quality of baseball had to be good enough to attract these fans, though. In rising industrial cities like Akron and Michigan’s Flint and Grand Rapids, where there were no professional teams, fans typically watched amateur clubs compete. Industrial teams played as part of that environment, and so increasingly, companies hired men who were good baseball players. During World War I, Frank Stefko remembered hearing from a fellow soldier, Glenn “Speed” Bosworth, that Goodyear was hiring ballplayers in Akron, so after the war, he traveled to the Rubber City from Scranton, Pa. The personnel office said the company didn’t have openings until he mentioned Bosworth’s message. “Oh, you’re the ballplayer!” They hired him on the spot….

It worked. Employee morale and longevity improved, as did productivity. Employers did this not just to be nice guys, but because it was good for business. It also helped stem union efforts — until the Depression led to cutbacks in such expenditures, so the great heyday of unions arrived in the 1930s.

My wife knew I would like the story because of my grandfather. She never met him — he died of lung cancer when I was four — but he found some time to teach me some basics of baseball before we lost him.

And playing baseball on the workplace team is a big part of his legend. I’ve told you all this before, but I’ll tell you again, because I love these kinds of stories from the days when this was a baseball-loving country. Here’s something I wrote about it before, with a picture of the house where my grandmother lived with her family before her marriage:

Here’s how she met my grandfather — she would see him walking past her house on the way to the train station each day in a suit and straw boater, carrying a bag. She thought he was a salesman, and the bag contained his wares. Actually, he was a ballplayer, and bag contained his uniform and glove. He worked for the Post Office, but he only worked there so that he could play ball for its team. He was a pitcher. Gerald “Whitey” Warthen would eventually be offered a contract with the Senators, which he turned down to work in his father’s business.

A couple of minor corrections: He worked, I think, for the Railway Post Office, which I take it was some subset of the P.O. we all know. More importantly, he wasn’t just a pitcher, as I have learned since reading about him in recent years in old copies of The Washington Post and other local papers. He was also an infielder. Basically, he played anything as long as it was baseball. Oh, and before he launched on this working-for-baseball period, he had been captain of the team at Washington and Lee.

Anyway, I guess I am genetically predisposed to see baseball as a great way to attract employees. Unfortunately, the end of that story in the Post sounds a discouraging note:

Today, companies are also experimenting with ways to boost worker welfare in the context of the Great Resignation. Baseball spectatorship has been replaced by team-building activities that include workplace climbing walls, wine-tasting events, table tennis, family picnics, free lunches and special doughnut days. At the turn of the last century, employers experimented to identify which perks resonated with workers. While the jury is still out on whether such programs will be successful today, companies are following in the footsteps of NCR, Goodyear and Kellogg’s in experimenting with programs that employees find meaningful and useful — enough so to stay in their jobs.

You see that? No baseball. That’s the sad state of America today. Baseball is no longer seen as a way of pleasing the masses. Is there any hope for us?

Centrifugal bumble-puppy, and other games

My grandfather’s team, circa 1910. That’s him squatting at the far right of the seated row. Notice that in those days, they didn’t even bother to go out and buy matching uniforms. They just came and played ball.

Over the weekend, I was out running errands after a long day of working in the yard, and I decided it would be a good day for us to have a takeout dinner. So once that plan was approved by headquarters, I called La Fogata and placed the order. I was told it would take 20 minutes.

I was easily within five minutes of the restaurant, so I drove in the other direction, looking for a way to kill time. I decided to visit the park behind North Side Middle School, and see what was going on there — I figured that this time of year, there’d be some action on one or more of the ballfields.

I was right. I drove through the parking lot, and had to pick my way slowly and carefully because of all the boys, who were generally within a couple of years of 12 I’d guess, and parents who were apparently returning to their cars after a game that had just ended.

And then I noticed something: Their progress back to their cars, and my progress through them, were both impeded by the gear they were hauling. And by the elaborate gear for hauling that gear.

The most cumbersome were the wheeled contraptions that held bags, coolers, bats and such. They looked like people preparing to sell things from a barrow. Those were the most noticeable, but everyone had an unusual amount of gear. The lightest were elaborate, specialized backpacks many of the players were wearing. The packs seemed full, and each had two bats sticking up from the pack, one on each side.

Back in the day, when I played ball, you brought yourself and your mitt to the game, and that was it. (Unless, of course, you were the catcher.) The coach would have a duffel bag full of bats and balls, and sometimes conscientious players (who were perhaps eager for more playing time) would help the coach by carrying that bag from coach’s car to the dugout.

But now, every player or player’s parent I saw was hauling at least as much as the coach would once have, and often more. I don’t even know what some of that stuff they were carrying and pulling was. But there was a very great deal of it.

Of course, all this brought to mind one of the books I’ve been rereading lately instead of the books I was supposed to read this year: Huxley’s Brave New World. If you’ll recall, in this super hyped-up extrapolation of Western consumer culture, all the games — like centrifugal bumple-puppy, and electromagnetic golf — require elaborate, expensive, easily-broken equipment to play. Everyone is conditioned from birth to want to play these games at every opportunity. Not to keep themselves in shape or exercise sportsmanship, but to keep them buying the stuff.

And I got to thinking about the various social influences that must have been at work over recent decades to convince these kids, and parents, that they had to have all this stuff to play baseball. Huxley had sleep-conditioning to bring about this effect. I don’t know what happened with these folks.

We used to have this wonderful, simple, pastoral game called baseball. Originally, there weren’t even gloves. Just a ball and a stick for everyone to share. And even after the gloves came along, for a long time players would leave them out in the field while batting rather than carry them back and forth to the dugout.

No more. Now there’s all this junk, and all this hauling back and forth. And don’t even get me started on the designated hitter…

Two generations later — about 1969. That’s me in the back, standing next to the coach on the far left. By this time the uniforms matched, but we mostly only brought those and our gloves.

It’s not boring. It’s baseball. And it’s perfect…

still baseball

Bryan started off his excellent “summer beach movie songs” post with a dismissive aside about “debating a replacement song for the national anthem.” I thought:

If America is decadent and unlikely to recover, which of these two phenomena would be more likely either the cause, or perhaps I should say the most stark effect?

  1. We are now a country in which people can mention “debating a replacement song for the national anthem,” and not be entirely joking.
  2. We are now a country, and have for some time been a country, in which football is more popular than baseball.

Both thoughts are depressing, evidence of a great nation losing its way. Those two are enough to cause concern, without even mentioning the disaster of Trumpism. And the distressing nature of Phenomenon 2 was driven home by a couple of tweets Saturday morning…

First, this one at 9:47 a.m.:

Arghh. Here I am still looking desperately, and usually unsuccessfully, for some affordable ways of seeing some live MLB on my TV without having cable, and this guy has to remind me — gleefully, I infer — that very soon I won’t be able to turn on the blasted contraption without seeing football everywhere.

And just a few moments later, this one from my friend and former campaign comrade Ashleigh Lancaster.

Let’s concentrate on Ashleigh’s since, although it has sad elements, it is at least about baseball.

Since for some reason I was unable to embed Ashleigh’s (maybe because it was her retweet of somebody else’s), I’ll at least share my response to it:

I’m a fan of Ring Lardner, especially of his work on “You Know Me, Al,” but let’s face it: The lively ball didn’t kill baseball. Nevertheless, I respect his points about it — and it certainly helped lead to the unhealthy obsession with home runs on the part of many less-discriminating fans — and respect the debate itself as one of the things I enjoy about the game. It’s right up there with debates we can have about other abominations that have tried to destroy the game within my lifetime, such as the playoff system (we all know that in an orderly universe, the team with the most wins during the season wins the pennant, right?) and the designated hitter.

No, baseball has never been boring, and excellent pitching isn’t making it more boring. It’s not intended to be an unending stream of hits (most of them home runs, if the aforementioned less-thoughtful “fans” have their way). If it were, I wouldn’t be trying to watch it.

It’s a contest, a contest that batters are meant to lose most of the time — which makes it that much more exciting when they don’t. Of course, the best part of the excitement is watching the fantastic defensive feats of the players on the field reacting to the ball being put into play. (Something that you miss out on entirely when the ball is hit out of the park, by the way. Everybody just stands there. Now that’s boring…)

The pitchers are constantly trying to keep the guys from hitting, and the batters are all constantly trying to overcome the pitchers’ and catchers’ craftsmanship. And from time to time, everything explodes into action involving everyone else. But not too often. Just enough.

And it’s not boring. It’s perfect…

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Something off-putting about those ‘patriotic’ uniforms

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I thought about posting this on Memorial Day itself, but decided to wait.

For me — a guy who’s all about some patriotism and support for the military (and if there’s a spectator sport I love, it’s baseball) — there’s something off-putting about those special uniforms MLB players donned over the holiday weekend.

It’s not just that it’s so contrived, such a cheesy, sterile form of tribute to men who died in the blood and noise and fury and filth and noise of battle. They did not wear clean, white uniforms with camouflage numbers. They did not wear caps that look as much like what a deer hunter would wear as anything you’d see on a soldier.

But there’s also something… decadent, something last-days-of-Rome about it.

Of course, I’m guilty of romanticizing baseball. I think of it in very anachronistic terms as a humble, pastoral game played by plain men who did it for the love of the sport, guys who maybe had one uniform to their names, and that uniform made of wool that caused them to roast in the summer sun. (And they liked it, as Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man would say.)

I just can’t help thinking of all the money spent on these uniforms that these players will probably wear only once. Which makes me think about how much — way too much — money there is in professional sports today, so much that vast sums can be thrown away on PR gestures that, as I said above, seem inadequate to the kind of tribute our war dead deserve.

I’m not blaming MLB here. This occurs in a context in which the fans, the entire society, seem to have lost all sense of materialistic restraint.

You, too, can have a genuine copy of the jersey your hero wore for one game for only $119.99. Or, if you’ve really lost your marbles and have more money than anyone needs, you can have the actual jersey that a player wore, for $2,125! Unless someone with priorities even further out of whack outbids you!

It just all seems kind of nuts to me. And vaguely offensive. Does this make any sense to anyone?

distasteful

The Kid Who Batted 1.000 (almost)

My MLB At Bat app brought the above video to my attention today.

The brief description:

Jaime Barria and Brandon Belt face off in a 21-pitch duel to set the record for the most pitches in an MLB at-bat in the modern era

Here’s the NYT’s report on what happened: “21 Pitches, 16 Fouls, 12 Minutes: Brandon Belt’s Marathon At-Bat.”

Now that’s what I call some baseball — not these towering home runs the app usually tells me about.s-l225

It reminds me of one of my favorite books from my youth, The Kid Who Batted 1.000, by Bob Allison and Frank Ernest Hill.

I read it over and over when I was a kid, checking it out from the school library multiple times to do so. Then I went years without seeing a copy, and had thought it was something I’d never see again, until my wife found a dog-eared copy that had belonged to one of her brothers. So I got to read it as an adult, and enjoyed it just as much.

If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the story of Dave King, a farmboy who is discovered to have a weird talent: He can foul off any pitch thrown by any pitcher. He gets signed to a Major League team and leads it out of the cellar because he always draws walks — usually after wearing down and shattering the nerves of the opposing pitcher.

Finally, in the last game of the World Series, he hits a home run, thereby earning a batting average of 1.000 — albeit only in postseason play.

It’s great. If you can find a copy, I do recommend picking one up…

By the way, the real-life batter, Brandon Belt, didn’t quite equal Dave King’s achievement. After those 21 pitches, the Giants first-basemen flies out to right field…

‘Is that politics? There’s no politics in baseball!’

1200px-2017-World-Series.svg

Dragging this morning, because of last night’s ball game.

I’m going to confess that I did not stay up until the end, which is why the Dodgers lost. I’m 100 percent on this so far: If I watch until the end, the Dodgers win. If I give up and go to bed, the Astros win. Happens every time.

Nevertheless, I did stay up past 12:30 — I think the 7th inning had just ended, although I was so sleepy my memory is unclear — so I’m dragging. The Astros had just pulled ahead, 11-8.

This is something we need to do something about. I have some thoughts on how:

  • That game should have started at about 5 p.m., not 8. What? Those people in California couldn’t start watching their team in the World Series at 2 p.m. on a Sunday?
  • We could change the rules of baseball to bar teams from West of the Mississippi from the Series, or from post-season play altogether. That wouldn’t shut out any teams I’ve ever cared about, except the Cardinals, and I haven’t really liked them all that much since my wife’s cousin, Tim McCarver, left. (That was a team — Tim and Bob Gibson and Joe Torre and Lou Brock and Curt Flood and Steve Carlton and Orlando Cepeda…). Why do we need to have Americans living out West anyway? Manifest Destiny? Call that an excuse?
  • If any of those Westerners squawk about it, point out that if the game’s so late that I go to bed, their team is going to lose anyway. It’s proven. It’s science.

Changing the subject, I thought I’d point out to you football people that there’s no politics in baseball. The players line up — standing — and put their hats over their hearts and sometimes even sing along during the National Anthem.

I’m not talking about the merits or the lack thereof of all those football players dramatizing their politics during the anthem. I’m just saying that there’s none of that in the World Series this year, and it’s kind of a relief from all that divisive stuff coming at you from every direction. Just baseball.

Yeah, there was that “chinito” face that Gurriel pulled in the dugout the other night, and that wasn’t his best moment, and next year he’ll be suspended five games. But for now, everybody — including Yu Darvish — just wants to play ball.

That raises another issue. Anybody besides me think that maybe technology has gotten too intrusive when you can see everything that goes on in the dugout, in HD? Should players be held to the same standard in the dugout as out on the field? Put another way, shouldn’t a guy be able to rearrange his cojones, for instance, without the world watching? When he’s not out under the lights, I mean. All scratching and spitting out on the actual field would remain fair game…

Libertarians, help me out here…

Of course, there’s politics here if you want to look for it — if only Ring Lardner were here to help settle the latest “lively ball” controversy — but who wants to, while watching baseball into the wee hours?

It’s my birthday, so… more baseball pictures!

Baseball

I want to thank all those dozens of folks for wishing me joy of my birthday on Facebook.

I like the picture one of my cousins posted to mark the occasion. That’s it below at left. That’s me with my grandfather, Gerald Harvey Warthen, when I was about 4.22195386_482392475480410_9175248831617986939_n

This shot is meaningful to me because my grandfather was a serious baseball player. As a young man in Kensington, Md., that’s what he was all about. He had a job with the Postal Service at one point, just so he could pitch for their baseball team. He was offered a contract by (I think) the Senators’ organization, but ended up working in his father’s construction business instead.

But his legend endured in Kensington. My Dad grew up there being known as “Whitey” Warthen’s kid. That was his baseball name — like Ford and Herzog.

I did not, I regret to say, get to grow up with my grandfather, as he died of lung cancer within a year of the photo being taken.

Above, you see him as a young man with one of the teams he played for. He’s squatting at the right of the photo, with a steely gaze that says to me, “Enough of this stuff! Let’s play ball!”

Looking much less intimidating, you see me below with the only organized team I ever played on, the MacDill AFB senior Little League team. I guess I was about 14. I’m on the left end of the back row, standing next to the white-shirted coach. The only thing I seem to have in common with my grandfather here is that I, too, look like I’m ready to have the picture-taking over with. Or maybe it’s just that I’d removed my glasses for the picture, and couldn’t see anything.

I hadn’t played organized ball before that because we moved almost every summer. This was late to start, and while I’d been a good hitter in sandlots (where the idea was usually to put the ball across the plate and put it in play), I had a terrible time adjusting to people trying to throw the ball past me. I tended to swing late.

So it is that I’m particularly proud of my one highlight of that undistinguished year: I broke up a no-hitter in the fifth inning (of seven). This redheaded pitcher on the opposite nine was just overpowering everybody, but I got an opposite-field (still swinging late) line drive off him for a single. So they took him out of the game. That’s it — my one story of baseball glory.

Needless to say, no Major League team ever offered me a contract…

MacDill senior little league team

All-Time, Desert-Island Top 5 Baseball Movies

All right, let’s lighten things up a bit.

Our conversation about “Moneyball” yesterday was starting to turn in this direction, and I see the movie has inspired others to compile such lists — such as here and here and here — so here are my All-Time Top Five Baseball Movies:

  1. The Natural — American myth-making on the grand scale. If you wanted to put a movie on a spacecraft to explain to aliens what the game means, you’d choose this one. It’s perfect.
  2. Major League — Silly, yes, but a good complement to the reverential seriousness of “The Natural.” Hits all the buttons in explaining why the game is fun.
  3. The Sandlot — Maybe because it’s set in the days when I was a kid, and also spending hours on a sandlot — without uniforms, without adult supervision, just being kids — this really resonates as a depiction of the ball-playing experience of those of us who will never play in the majors.
  4. Eight Men Out — A masterly, credible evocation of how the game’s blackest scandal came about, told in a way that you can understand motives. Say it ain’t so, Joe.
  5. A League of their Own — This one’s about a lot of stuff other than baseball, but a great period piece with great characters. It would make the list if there were nothing in it but “There’s no crying in baseball!”

 

 

 

 

 

Actually, to be honest, I would have been happier with a Top Three list. There’s a drop-off for me after the first three. (But in keeping with the Hornby principle, I disciplined myself to come up with five.)

“Field of Dreams” almost edged out “A League of their Own.” But while it is emotionally affecting, and certainly invokes the love of baseball well, I find it hard to ignore its flaws. I’d read the book, and while it was awfully weird for the writer character to be J.D. Salinger, it was jarring when it was changed in the movie. And Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe (the title character of the book) was really disappointing, particularly as I’m such a fan of Liotta. It’s like he phoned it in, and it’s hard to believe the director let that happen. D.B. Sweeney’s characterization in “Eight Men Out” was much more persuasive. You actually believed in him as a conflicted illiterate from South Carolina.

As for the other Kevin Costner baseball movies — I never liked “Bull Durham.” It had a moment or two — a conference on the mound, the bit about “The rose goes in the front, big guy” — but beyond that it left me cold. Then, far less noticeable, there’s “For the Love of the Game.” All that has to recommend it is a pretty good evocation of what it’s like for a pitcher who realizes late that he’s pitching a perfect game. The rest of it I could do without.

There’s wonderful acting in it, but I never really got into “Bang the Drum Slowly.” And I should like “Pride of the Yankees” more than I do. Perhaps I should see if I can get it on Netflix, and try again.