My first big assignment as a young sportswriter for the New York Times was to cover the spring training of a brand-new major league team called the New York Mets. This was in 1962. The Mets were an expansion team, which meant that their first roster was mostly made up of players who the old teams were willing to give up, older guys and rookies and players who had never quite made it. The word was that the Mets were going to be very, very bad.
So I brought my glove along to spring training.
That sounds pretty crazy now, especially to me. I wasn’t even that great a baseball player. But because it’s a game that most Americans have played, or at least watched, it seems to belong to us in special ways. I would never dream of bringing my helmet to a pro football training camp or my ice skates to a hockey work-out (maybe if I was Canadian I might). But I brought my glove and even had a little fantasy about my last story for the paper, which would begin, Robert (Bobo) Lipsyte, a former reporter for this newspaper, signed a contract with the New York Mets today, and was assigned to the club’s Class A minor league team, where he will play second base.
“Can’t wait for him to make it to the big club,” said Mets Manager Casey Stengel. “Only hope he remembers not to take notes in the field.”
I ended up using the glove a few times, shagging balls in the outfield. I even got up to the plate against a coach throwing batting practice. It was a great learning experience. Catching a major league line drive feels like catching a bullet. And I never came close to making contact with those soft pitches down the middle. By the time I was ready to swing, they were thudding into the catcher’s mitt.
Those Mets turned out to be bad alright – they posted some of the worst statistics in baseball history – but I came to appreciate how truly wondrous are the skills of major league players, even the ones who aren’t stars, who barely make the team. They may be playing a child’s game, but they certainly are not playing it childishly.
People who think that baseball is the best game – and I am one of them – have different reasons for thinking so. And I think all the reasons are right.
Some people think baseball is the best game because it requires such special skills – hitting a little white ball hurtling along at 95-miles-an-hour with a skinny round stick, pitching that ball to a particular place in space while making it dip or rise or curve, throwing precisely to the right base while a runner slides into you, sprinting after a towering fly ball to make the catch to save the game knowing you may crash into the centerfield wall. Just watching players do it makes our hearts pound!
Some people think that baseball is the best game because it is so elegant. The beautiful geometry of the field, the precision of the distances between bases, the wonderful journey from home all the way back home seems like a tale of adventure. It is a tale with excitement and danger, but none of the extreme violence of football and hockey or the in-your-face machismo of basketball. The winners are cool. And patient. A game is timeless, there’s no whistle at the end. Theoretically, a game can go on forever, so long as you don’t make the last out.
Some people think that baseball is the best game because its history is so rich with interesting characters, the heroes of the game. That’s what this book is about. There have been hundreds of fascinating people among the thousands who played major league ball, but we’ve had to concentrate on a few we thought made the most impact by bringing the game to vivid life in their own times and contributing in important historical ways to make it the game we now know and love.
As you will read in this book, baseball didn’t just happen by accident. One of the greatest of its early players, a pitcher named Albert G. Spalding, set out to make himself rich by making the game America’s National Pastime. He claimed that the game had such positive values, it would make people better.
Some of our heroes of the game were great human beings. Jackie Robinson and Curt Flood were heroes who stood up for their principles and not only made baseball a better game, but America a better place. Some of them had great positive impact on others. Babe Ruth, a throwaway kid, was an enormous inspiration to an America of struggling immigrants. Mickey Mantle played hard despite a painful bone disease in his legs, and as he was dying in 1995 became an eloquent spokesman for organ donation.
Of course, not all the great players were great people. Some were ordinary guys with extraordinary talents, and some had human flaws that disappointed us; Pete Rose gambled on his own games, which made fans wonder about the honesty of those games, and a number of players have used illegal drugs to enhance their skills, which is unfair to those who want to play clean.
And then there was Ty Cobb, a vicious, loud-mouthed bully. Hardly anyone liked him. Even his own team-mates kept their distance, afraid he’d explode, scream at them, even punch them out. So how could he be one of my Heroes of Baseball?
It would be terrific if all the athletes we cheered for were good guys, the so-called “role models” who are supposed to be our shining examples. But like the scientists, authors, elected officials and military leaders who have impact on our daily lives, not all athletes are as praiseworthy in their personal lives as they are in their work.
And baseball is work, and the players we admire are those who bring to their work the willingness to play hard, help their team win, and give us pleasure watching them. Those who become our heroes go beyond that: some are the players who, with skill and intensity, show us how the game was made to be played (like Ty Cobb) and some show us, through their play, the values of teamwork, courage and honor (like Hank Aaron.) Some, through their personalities and style, help define the age in which they lived (Babe Ruth.) A very few, through their courage and personal sacrifice, give us a glimpse of the potential for heroism that everyone of us, with or without a mitt, is born with (Jackie Robinson.)
Thanks to ESPN and wall-to-wall sports TV, the current crop of baseball heroes seems to hang out in our living rooms. We feel we really know Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, A-Rod, Roger Clemens, Cal Ripken, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Derek Jeter.
After you read this book, I hope you’ll also feel you also know some of the older heroes of baseball who brought our game to life and kept it alive for us.