Baseball: Something for Everyone!

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    They call it the reconquista. At least Mexicans in California do, referring to the fact that the province the old Spanish empire used to call Alta California is being reclaimed by Mexicans. When I first settled in Humboldt County 10 years ago there were no Mexican restaurants in the small towns near me, Fortuna and Ferndale. Now there are half a dozen. The foot soldiers of the timber industry are increasingly Mexican. The cows would go unmilked in Ferndale if it weren't for Mexicans, same way as the economy of California would grind to a halt.

    What's true of California is true of baseball. Right now, the best pitcher is Pedro Martinez, from the Dominican Republic. He plays for the Red Sox. The best hitter is Vladimir Guerrero of the Expos, from the Dominican Republic. Best relief pitcher is Mariano Rivera, from Panama. Best all-around player is Ivan Rodriguez, from Puerto Rico and playing for the Texas Rangers. Probably the best-known baseball fan in the world is another Hispanic, who could have been big in the Major Leagues if he hadn't decided to trade in sport for revolution?Fidel Castro.

    Go to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and there's a special little feature about Hispanic players, pointing out the kind of skills nourished by playing baseball in crowded barrios. The game is now dominated by Latin American players. So much so that right after the All-Star Game someone said the battle between the National and American leagues was out of date. Now it should be Americans vs. Foreigners.

    There are intimations that the Justice Dept. may go after the Baltimore Orioles because they went to Cuba and violated the Helms-Burton Act. Then the Orioles' owner, Peter Angelos, went on tv (he has since backtracked a bit) to say that he would not hire Cuban defectors like Orlando Hernandez, who pitches for the Yankees. So now the DoJ's attorneys are figuring out how to make Angelos' life miserable.

    The DoJ obviously has time on its hands. So why not quit this vindictive hassling of Angelos and put the team that went after Microsoft onto building up antitrust indictments of the owners of the Major League teams? Team Clinton could go out with a bang, attacking one of the great legislated monopolies in America today. The last person to try to challenge the antitrust exemption enjoyed by the owners was the populist in the coonskin cap, Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. Back in the 1950s, Kefauver made a national name for himself with big hearings into organized crime.

    He was also the cause of a temporary estrangement between his state's prime newspaper, The Tennessean, and the junior senator from Tennessee, Albert Gore Sr. The paper had supported Al Sr. for years, until the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1956, when the elder Gore suddenly became seized with the idea that he could become Adlai Stevenson's vice-presidential nominee. LBJ's aide George Reedy remembers, "a man came running up to us. His eyes were glittering. He was mumbling something that sounded like 'where is Lyndon, where is Lyndon? Adlai's thrown this open, and I think I've got a chance for it if I can only get Texas.'" That man was Al Gore Sr. "I have never seen before or since such a complete, total example of a man so completely and absolutely wild with ambition," Reedy continues. "It had literally changed his features."

    Gore Sr. had badly miscalculated. The powers that be in Tennessee had the vice-presidential slot lined up for Tennessee's senior senator, Estes Kefauver. Finally the publisher of The Tennessean, Silliman Evans Jr., pulled Gore aside and told him that "The Tennessean wouldn't support him for dogcatcher if he didn't get out of the race." Albert Gore's frenzies abruptly subsided and he slunk off, releasing his votes to Kefauver.

    Pauline Gore held the grudge for years and even tried, vainly, to get her friend Katharine Graham to bring The Tennessean into her Washington Post empire. Kefauver was a lot more fun than the stodgy Albert Sr., and his penchant for pleasure got Hollywood's big-time mob-related man Sidney Korshak off the hook. Kefauver was planning to grill Korshak in his organized crime hearings, but the night before the latter was due to testify, Kefauver was shown a photograph the mob had acquired of the senior senator from Tennessee cavorting naked with a couple of good-time girls in Chicago. That was that. Ah, the byways of history!

    Albert Sr. and Pauline tried to engineer a strategic alliance for their son Al, with the daughter of the exuberant senator. Diane Kefauver would have none of it, later declaring that Al Jr. "had an ego as big as a house." So it was onward to Tipper.

    For all his hokey stage props like the coonskin cap, Kefauver did have sound populist instincts, and viewed the big-league baseball team owners in the same light he did any group of corporate tycoons flouting the antitrust laws and exploiting their workers?in this case the players, who were poorly paid and tied down by the infamous reserve clause in their contracts, which prevented them from being free agents and selling their labor to the highest bidder. So he tried to prod Congress and the Justice Dept. to take action, but it was no use. The owners were too strong for him, and no one has tried since.

    Today the big baseball team owners enjoy all the protections and perquisites of a national utility, extorting cities into financing big stadiums, mostly built with public money at vast cost, with the fans then soaked with ever more expensive tickets. Who can afford to go to 80 games with tickets at $15 or $25 a throw? So the "cheaper" seats stay empty, while the corporate boxes and more expensive tiers get filled by the richer element. If the antitrust exemption were finished off, the so-often-touted winds of competition would see the big-league teams diminish in number; this would be all to the good, since there would be more skillful manpower available to build up the pitching corps and thus end the dominance of big hitters, which is killing the game.

    But then, the owners have been trying to kill the game ever since the great labor hero, Curt Flood, began the successful struggle against the reserve clause back in 1970, filing an antitrust suit in a New York federal courthouse. He lost, but he started the revolution that eventually saw the labor lawyer Marvin Miller lead the battle against the reserve clause to a successful conclusion. Since then it's been war in one form or another, and we're no doubt heading toward another lockout of the Major League Baseball Association, which the owners would dearly like to break, just as they effectively broke the umpires' union.

    The political economy of baseball has always been rough and tough. Go to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and there it all is, laid out for inspection. Racism? The Hall of Fame now has an African-American room with displays of the history of the Negro Leagues, created when anti-immigration hysteria and the rise of the Klan saw baseball, which began as an integrated game, become segregated. The big-league owners agreed not to hire black players. The Hall of Fame didn't induct Negro League players until the 1970s, and just from the time line in the African-American room you can see why things changed. The last picture in the time line is of Malcolm X.

    Hypocrisy? Here's Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the famous liberal judge and baseball commissioner who rationalized the leagues. But he also believed in racial segregation. And more hypocrisy, with Pete Rose excluded from the Hall itself, though the all-time hit leader is featured in other rooms. So a guy who did a little prison time for gambling can't get into the Hall. Meanwhile, here, in endless images, is that womanizer, wifebeater, alcoholic, Ty Cobb.

    Defiance? Here are photos of Babe Ruth and others who refused to abide by the decree against racial intermixing in the barnstorming integrated teams of stars playing exhibition games. Corruption? Here are the White Sox and their thrown games. Internationalism? The Hall has a video of how Hispanic players learn the game in the barrios of the Dominican Republic and elsewhere. It has citations and equipment of great Japanese baseball players. And it has memorabilia of the games between the Orioles and Cuba, the scorecards and the jerseys.

    Finally, so central to all sports, there's disappointment. One of the charming features of the Hall used to be a pleasing homage to the erotic current in all sports, in the form of a giant baseball on a tall pedestal, with laurels at its base. That's yielded pride of place to an assemblage paying homage to the home-run battle between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. I was once in Cooperstown the day new members were being inducted. It must be the last dignified ceremony in America. Rod Carew sounded like Pericles giving the funeral oration. Just like many of the paintings inside the Hall of Fame, the idiom of the occasion was from the 50s. The whole thing reminded me of the trooping of the color rituals in England, when all seemed stable. But nothing is stable, as sage Heraclitus says, and there in the Hall are the pictures of Malcolm X and women's baseball teams (and even Tab Hunter in Damn Yankees) to prove it.

    There really is something for everyone at the Hall. For blacks there's the African-American room, for women there's the women in the attic (the top floor of the hall), for kids there's all the multimedia stuff, for Latinos there's all the presentation on Caribbean baseball, for the hardcore jock nerds there's the statistics room (wall upon wall of numbers) and the minutiae of the McGwire-Sosa race (exactly what portion of the field to which each home run went, exactly how long each one was, in what ballpark, on what day, etc.). For the obsessives, the type that go to Graceland to drool over Elvis' garments, there's the collector's den from suburban New Jersey the Hall recreates. The back wall of this display features the view of this collector's patio outside his sliding glass doors. One of the prides of his collection is Babe Ruth's camelhair coat, which he has in a great big glass container. For gays there's...Tab Hunter.

    Thanks to Jeffrey St. Clair and JoAnn Wypijewski for counsel to a beleaguered Celt.