Category Archives: baseball

Locker room banter, hazing and respectful reactions

Let’s think about the weekend’s massive protest marches in terms of physics. For every action, according to Newton’s third law, there is an opposite and equal reaction.

It just might take a while. So a presidential candidate was exposed for his vulgar bragging about sexual assault in an October revelation and, about three months later—after scores of more indignities, and after the serial aggressor has become president and sworn to reverse “American carnage”—demonstrations organized by women turned up in at least 500 U.S. cities with 3.7 million participants. That’s one of every 100 Americans (my wife among them).

The marchers, including men and children as well as women, voiced a variety of agendas and fears, but it might be safe to say that all were responding to the new executive’s repeated aversion to “political correctness.” Which is, after all, simply a commitment to showing respect to all individuals and groups.

I come from a mostly male-dominated world, having worked as a sports journalist for roughly a half century. In that environment, especially regarding team sports, there certainly is a history of boys’ club exclusion and assumed dominance. But the difference between that, and our president’s argument that his molestation of women was “just locker room banter,” is that we have arrived at 2017 with a gradual expectation of chivalrous conduct.

A case in point would be the long, long overdue new Major League Baseball prohibition, announced in December, targeting the practice of veteran players forcing rookie teammates to dress as women in annual end-of-the-season hazing rituals.

That, too, took a while. It has been 11 years since Long Island’s Adelphi University invited hundreds of coaches and school administrators to a five-hour conference on hazing. My Newsday editor, in fact, still considered it to be a cute thing the following year when he assigned me to chronicle that “time-honored tradition” as the Yankees required rookies to dress as Wizard of Oz characters, including Dorothy, the Wicked Witch and other females.

Sports psychologist Susan Lipkins, an expert on the dangers of hazing, noted that by compelling men to dress as women, it sent the message that to be a woman is less than to be a man, thereby denigrating both the male dressing as a woman and women in general.

Anyway, in October—about the time that Hollywood Access audio tape surfaced of our future leader’s crass (and, in fact, criminal) claims—the New York Mets’ veterans ordered rookie teammates to don wigs, dresses and fake breasts as characters from the movie “A League of Their Own.” And to publicly fetch coffee in that attire for the old pros.

Maybe it took the outrage expressed by a handful of female sportswriters to finally move baseball officials to assume the role of adults and put an end to such bad behavior, after more than 30 years of rookies being ordered to wear tutus, cheerleader costumes or the outfits of female superheroes during the team’s final road trip.

“Before the ‘lighten up, it’s just a joke’ crowd has the chance to chime in,” Julie DiCaro wrote on the CBS Chicago web site at the time, “think about this: What if the rookies were all dressed in blackface as a joke? What if they were all dressed like Negro League players? Is that OK? “

That prompted SUNY-Oswego professor Brian Moritz, on his Sportsmediaguy.com web site, to question the “The Casual Sexism of the NY Mets.” Although, he admitted, a little late.

Some players continued to rationalize it as a harmless fraternal initiation. As “team-bonding.” As “fun.” (Something like “locker room banter” to them, no doubt, not to be nixed by “political correctness.”)

But any expert on hazing will argue that it is fun at someone else’s expense, that it is a means of reinforcing a pecking order of power and status. One of those experts, Roger Rees, told me years ago that hazing “legitimizes anti-social behavior” when sports, ideally, is supposed to “teach self-respect and respect for others.” Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, a former Marine aware of similar practices in the military, was among those who strongly backed the MLB ruling to end what he call something “divisive [that] undercuts morale.”

Divisive and undercutting morale? Hmmm. Forward…march.

Bonds, Clemens, fame and notoriety

This shouldn’t be complicated. According to the dictionary definition of “fame,” neither Barry Bonds nor Roger Clemens requires the blessing of self-important baseball scribes to qualify for inclusion among the sport’s most widely known players.

Still, the annual Hall of Fame voting this week raised the topic again. Should Bonds and Clemens eventually be inducted into Cooperstown? Are they getting closer each year?

Listen: Bonds and Clemens already have their fame. By doing what they did, as arguably their generation’s most dominant hitter and pitcher, they long ago achieved far-reaching acclaim. And they did so, according to overwhelming evidence, powered by banned substances, which only served to raise their public conspicuousness. (“Fame” also can mean recognition of an unfavorable kind; notoriety.)

So, a couple of modest proposals:

1. Take away the St. Peter-at-the-Pearly-Gates function of the Baseball Writers Association of America. The organization was founded in 1908 to improve the writing conditions of baseball reporters. To subsequently empower its members to canonize ballplayers—to make news, rather than reporting it—is a perversion of journalism.

Too much attention is paid to the BBWAA members’ arguments over what weight should be       given to players’ moral behavior, especially since the writers have demonstrated a sliding           scale of acceptance, as indicated by the yearly increase in the number of votes for Bonds and     Clemens. Baseball historian John Thorn has argued that the system “permits sportswriters…to   see themselves as guardians of a sacred portal, the last best hope for truth and justice. And       it’s all hogwash and baloney.”

2. Take away the “sacred portal.” In no way should Bonds or Clemens get a pass for having cheated their way to grand statistical accomplishments. (Just as Major League Baseball should not get off the hook for having turned a blind eye to steroid use for years after other sports organizations tested and penalized juicers.) So, by demystifying Cooperstown—by dispensing with the venerated status for really good athletes by hanging their plaques in a reverential hall, conferring on them the title of Great Men—there would be no need to confuse exceptional baseball skill with a place in Heaven. (Angels—from the Los Angeles team—could still qualify for acknowledgement.)

The museum aspect of Cooperstown’s Hall already is a fabulous depository of baseball history and artifacts, good and bad. Even persona non grata figures Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose have some personal items in the museum, so the records of Bonds and Clemens—the complete records, with statistics alongside reports of their misdeeds—would have their place.

Baseball is unquestionably a significant piece of our culture, something to celebrate. But hero worship is a risky thing, just as consigning reality—good or bad—to the dustbin solves nothing. Better to skip the BBWAA’s editorial judgments and accept that Bonds and Clemens already made their own fame.

The Cubs, the curse and daytime baseball

cubssun

Could it be that the final curse the star-crossed Cubs had to reverse was Major League Baseball’s building revolt against the last guardians of daytime baseball?

Let’s, for the moment, put aside the Billy Goat thing in 1945, Steve Bartman’s (quite reasonable) reach for a foul ball in 2003, the black cat moment in 1969, Babe Ruth’s called shot in 1932, Leon Durham’s fielding flub in 1984. When the Cubs, after 112 years of only afternoon home games, attempted their first night contest at Wrigley Field on Aug. 8, 1988, a fourth-inning downpour wiped out the proceedings.

“Someone up there seems to take day baseball seriously,” the Chicago Tribune editorialized the next day, throwing in the quote from a fan convinced that the heavens’ negative retort to artificial illumination “proves the Cubs are cursed.”

Another 28 years on, the Cubs at last have broken that evil spell on the sport’s biggest stage.

To review: In 1982, then-Cubs general manager Dallas Green first proposed lights for the Friendly Confines. Television, he said, was dictating that the team play at night, and he said that if the Cubs were to make the playoffs, they would be forced to move post-season home games to the rival White Sox’ crosstown Comiskey Park. Or possibly St. Louis.

He hinted—darkly—that, without the installation of permanent lights at Wrigley, the club would have no choice but to move, mentioning a tract of undeveloped land in the Schaumburg suburb, Northwest of the city. About that time, Major League Baseball decreed that, should the Cubs ever return to the World Series for the first time since 1945, their home games would be shifted to an alternate, lighted site.

Sure enough, in 1984, in the midst of Green’s campaign to light up Wrigley, the last outdoor World Series day game was played. San Diego (which had benefited mightily from the Leon Durham error in the league championship series) at Detroit.

(Wrigley before lights)

(Wrigley before lights)

Now, think of Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub. Not, specifically, the “Let’s play two” Banks, always eager to go extra innings; more generally, the perpetually sunny-disposition Banks.

Think of C.U.B.S.—Citizens United for Baseball in Sunshine—a 1980s neighborhood group on Chicago’s North Side that fought against the establishment of night baseball for the Cubs.

Think of a widely held notion at the time that putting lights at Wrigley was akin to drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Think of Bill Veeck, the brilliant baseball executive who had been a Wrigley Field popcorn vendor as a boy and later was responsible for creating the distinctive touch of covering Wrigley’s outfield walls with ivy. To Veeck, Wrigley’s special charm was its commitment to day games, to “make people discover how lovely it is to come and sit in the sun and enjoy a game.”

When C.U.B.S. mobilized protests, its members said they would accept temporary lighting as long as the vast majority of games remained in the afternoon. But Dallas Green called them “inflexible.” In 1985, Green declared that the Cubs would be gone from Wrigley “in five years” unless permanent lights were installed. “We’re dead to this neighborhood,” he said then.

(Cincinnati's Crosley Field, May 24, 1935)

(Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, May 24, 1935)

The first Major League regular-season game played at night was on May 24, 1935, in Cincinnati. By 1939, every team except the Cubs had installed permanent lighting, though it wasn’t until 1971 that a World Series game started after sundown—Baltimore at Pittsburgh.

So maybe MLB won out with the entire 2016 Cubs-Cleveland Indians World Series played under the lights. Did you notice, though, that when the Cubs finally threw off the hex of championship disappointment after 108 years, it was morning? 12:57 a.m.

 

The Cubs fan litmus test. And Hillary Clinton.

hillary

Are you with the Cubs in this partisan fight? If so, should you be required to show your papers? Does it matter whether you were born a Cubs fan—as opposed to being a previously undecided outsider just become drawn to trickle-down excitement?

It’s just baseball. And yet it is abundantly clear that some people out there believe there should be a litmus test. That being a member of the Cubs party now should be restricted to those who can provide indisputable proof. (Photo IDs, maybe?) That they be required to have experienced the Cubs’ overwrought mythology, to know how it feels to be Tantalus or Sisyphus, to have gone through at least a significant part of the team’s 108 years of solitude.

Here’s an example: Hillary Clinton. According to GOP.com, she is “Bandwagon Hillary.” She is “jumping on Chicago’s bandwagon [and] like with every other matter….switches allegiance with sports teams like positions on issues.” GOP.com reminded that, when she was running for the Senate in New York in 2000, she claimed she had “always been a Yankees fan.”

cubs

We probably shouldn’t be allowing World Series loyalties to be leaching into the contentious White House campaign. But it is a given that sports-team passions can get a bit manic around championship time. (If you don’t believe it, listen to sports talk radio.) And just as true is the time-honored tradition of politicians using sports identity to demonstrate their regular-folks bona fides.

Still, I’m going to defend Clinton’s right to declare herself a Cubs fan. First of all, isn’t everybody drawn to the long-suffering Cubs now? Outside of Cleveland Indians territory, anyway? Check out this map, a World Series sendup of the ubiquitous red state/blue state presidential election forecasts, that is circulating on the Internet.

map

Beyond the fairly universal appeal of the Cubs’ Halley’s Comet-like star turn, there is data to support Clinton’s logical and lengthy connection to the team. She was born in Chicago (two years into the Cubs’ 71-year absence from the World Series) and raised in the city’s Park Ridge suburb, less than 10 miles from the Cubs’ historic Wrigley Field home. Her father was a Cubs fan. Her brothers, with whom she watched plenty of Cubs’ games on television, were Cubs fans.

In 1993, when she was First Lady, Clinton was offered membership in the Emil Verban Memorial Society, an exclusive club of Washington-based Cubs fans named for a Cubs infielder from the late 1940s and early 50s who was said to epitomize the team by being “competent but obscure and typifying the team’s work ethic.”

emilshirtemil

That a player such as Verban, who hit .095 in 1950, should be fervently embraced in that forgiving way is yet another indication of Cub allegiance, especially since society members were among the nation’s most successful folks—Ronald Reagan, retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens, TV personalities Bryant Gumbel and Bruce Morton, golfer Ray Floyd, actor Tom Bosley and conservative columnist George Will among them.

What some commentators and Republican Party operatives object to, regarding Clinton’s fandom, is that she indeed admitted to rooting for the Yankees in general—and Mickey Mantle in particular—as a child, in part because she admitted that a Cubs fan so often needs the fallback of having a team that wins once in a while.

Among those who have questioned Clinton on the matter is Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief Lynn Sweet in a recent column, and political commentator Chris Matthews, who had asked when she donned a Yankee cap during her Senate campaign, “Doesn’t she know she looks like a fraud?”

This protestation of multi-team fandom, unreasonable to my mind, recalls the late Bill Searby, one of my first bosses at Newsday in the early 1970s. The way his colleagues told it, Searby had taken advantage of the G.I. Bill to complete his education after his service days, and wound up attending several colleges. As the scores came over the wire on football Saturdays, more than one winner would prompt Searby to exult: “That’s my team!”

“Which one?” his co-workers would snicker. I think they were jealous.

Going ‘way back in (black) baseball history from Cubs’ Fowler

(Dexter Fowler)

(Dexter Fowler)

Baseball coincidence is a fascinating thing. Consider just one in the many notable tidbits related to the end of the woebegone Chicago Cubs’ 71-year World Series drought—a fellow named Fowler becoming the team’s first black man to play in the Fall Classic.

That’s Dexter Fowler, a 30-year-old outfielder who, rather symbolically, was the lead-off batter in Game 1 against the Cleveland Indians. The significance of Fowler’s presence, though, isn’t related to some new civil rights breakthrough. Rather, it is another reminder of how long ago the Cubbies last appeared on the sport’s biggest stage. So long ago, in 1945, that the Big Leagues still were two years from getting around to the initial step of desegregation, in the person of Jackie Robinson.

(Jackie Robinson)

(Jackie Robinson)

But here is the really curious statistic that does connect Fowler to racial inclusion in our national pastime. According to Baseball Hall of Fame records, the first black man on a white professional baseball team—roughly 70 years before Robinson and twice that long before Dexter Fowler—was a gent known as Bud Fowler.

(Bud Fowler)

(Bud Fowler)

Bud Fowler lived from 1854 to 1913 and, beginning in 1878, claimed to have played for predominantly white teams in 22 states and Canada. He was primarily a second baseman. Yellowed newspaper clippings in the Hall of Fame archives describe him as a “versatile, fast, slick fielder.” A Cincinnati Inquirer article published in the early 1900s reported that “Bud has played games for trappers’ furs. He has been rung in to help out a team for the championship of a mining camp and bags of gold dust. He has played with cowboys and Indians. He has cross-roaded it from one town to another all over the Far West, playing for what he could get and taking a hand to help out a team.”

It turns out that Bud Fowler was born John W. Jackson, son of a barber in Cooperstown, N.Y., home to the baseball Hall. There is no information on why or how he changed his name from Jackson, though he was said to be called “Bud” because of his inclination to address most people by that name. He never married, died broke and is buried in a pauper’s field just outside Cooperstown’s city limits, where a tombstone was placed on his grave in 1987 to note his place in baseball history.

He was 5-7, 155 pounds (compared to Dexter Fowler’s 21st-Century dimensions of 6-5, 195.) Bud batted and threw righthanded. (Dexter is a switch-hitter who throws righthanded.) Like Bud, Dexter has had a number of baseball homes, playing for 10 teams at various minor-league levels—the Modesto Nuts, Waikiki Beach Boys and Tulsa Drillers among them—on his way to a nine-year Major League career with Colorado, Houston and now Chicago. And, while Dexter already has earned more than $32 million playing the game, he has a long way to go to equal Bud’s longevity.

According to that century-old Inquirer story, Bud Fowler “has been playing baseball for the past 26 years and he is yet as spry and as fast in his actions as any man on his team. He has no Charley horses or stiff joints, but can bend over and get up a grounder like a young blood….he is 48 years old, but to look at him, you would set him down to be not more than 25.” The Inquirer piece ended with the invitation to “go out and see him play second base this afternoon.”

In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entry into the Majors, an Eastern Michigan University history professor, Sidney Gendin, published a paper calling Fowler “first of at least 40 blacks who played on teams in organized white baseball leagues before the turn of the century. But in the mid-1880s, with deteriorating social mores pushing blacks out of the minors, Fowler spent more time barnstorming, during which he would help support himself by working as a barber. He started his own all-black team based in Adrian, Mich., sponsored by a wire fence company, the Page Fence Giants, who toured the Midwest in the team’s own railroad car.”

Also in ’97, the Hall of Fame opened an exhibit, “Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience,” which prominently featured Bud Fowler’s role as grand marshal in the parade of long-ago baseball integration. That was before segregationists established the infamous “color line” that lasted until Robinson.

Larry Doby, first black in the American League, poses proudly in his Cleveland Indians uniform in the dugout in Comiskey Park in Chicago, Ill., on July 5, 1947. (AP Photo)

(Larry Doby)

At the opening of that exhibit, by the way, among the invited participants was Larry Doby—the first black player in the American League, who debuted months after Robinson had done so with the National League Brooklyn Dodgers. Doby’s team was the Cleveland Indians, Dexter Fowler’s current World Series opponents. And Doby, along with teammate Satchel Paige, became the first black men to win a World Series title, in 1948—the Indians’ last championship season.

Hmmm.

Vin Scully and me (sort of)

vin

It was awfully nice of Vin Scully, in his farewell Dodger Stadium broadcast wrapping up 59 seasons in Los Angeles, to mention me. Well, sort of. “Since ’58,” he said of the team’s first year on the West Coast, “you and I have really grown up together….the transistor radio was what bound us together.

“Were you among the crowd that groaned at one of my puns?” he asked. “Did you kindly laugh at one of my little jokes? Did I put you to sleep with the transistor radio tucked under your pillow?”

How did he know? In 1958, I was 11 years old. The Dodgers, with Scully in tow, had just relocated to L.A. from Brooklyn. My family had just moved to the L.A. suburb of Sepulveda in The Valley. My parents had just gifted me with a transistor radio, the modern marvel of that time, pocket-sized, which made it possible to listen to the Everly Brothers, Sheb Wooley (“It was a one-eyed, one-horned, flyin’ purple-people eater”) and Kingston Trio (“Hang down your head, Tom Dooley”) while riding a bike to the local deli or the high school gym for some pick-up basketball.

radio

Better than the music, though, that transistor delivered Scully’s soundtrack of summertime, Dodgers play-by-play and storytelling that regularly meandered beyond baseball. His pitch-perfect combination of keen observation and verbal picture-painting, his silver-tongued accounts that somehow were simultaneously simple yet sophisticated, were a daily necessity.

So, yes, the transistor was a bedtime accessory. It was a traveling companion, and we Angelenos even toted our transistors to the games, to “see” Dodger baseball better through Scully’s descriptions than with one’s own eyes.

That was partly because, from 1958 through ’61, the Dodgers’ first L.A. home was the cavernous Coliseum, designed for Olympic track and football, which afforded lousy views of baseball action from roughly 75 percent of the seats.  But with Scully’s voice emanating from all those transistors, reverberating in the vast stadium, nothing was missed.

coliseum

My family left L.A. in 1962, but my half-century of travels as a sports journalist occasionally brought me within the sound of Scully’s voice, and that was a little like going home. In 1969, during my senior year at the University of Missouri’s journalism school, I was assigned to cover a game between the Dodgers and Cardinals in St. Louis, and I recall my classmate Ernie Williamson—who hailed from L.A.—being more awe-struck to be standing near Vin Scully during batting practice than any of the ballplayers. (Me, too, actually.)

That spring, in my off-campus apartment, I somehow picked up a broadcast of the Dodgers’ first game in Montreal against the new expansion team there. Scully was mulling mellifluously about that bilingual city, and how the word “gauche” was French for “left,” but with the English translation of “awkward” or “tactless.” Being left-handed, he playfully wondered if he should take offense.

I laughed at his little joke.

In 1972, I was back in Los Angeles as a raw Newsday reporter, covering a Mets game at Dodger Stadium. I procured a transistor radio to listen to Scully’s call, and of course his observations and asides found their way into my game story. Made it far better, in fact.

He passed along news of Mets’ infielder Rusty Staub’s broken hand. (“For Le Grand Orange, this year has turned to a lemon.”) He noted how Mets’ call-up Dave Schneck, though off to a blistering Big League start with his bat, was guaranteed nothing in the future. (“It’s like dirt at inspection time. If you have a weakness, boy, they’ll find it, and they’ll do the best they can to get you back in the minors.”)

Schneck soon was back in the minors and finished his Major League career with a .199 batting average after barely 100 games.

In 1980, I was casting around for historical tidbits for a feature on sports lingo, and among the puzzlements was an old baseball expression I had heard for years, identifying an easily catchable fly ball as a “can of corn.” My sources for the piece included several books, a few long-retired ballplayers—and Vin Scully.

Typically, he offered a pertinent tale, delivered by phone with the same familiar elocution and institutional knowledge that always flavored his broadcasts. “The first fellow I ever heard use that expression,” he said, “was Arch McDonald, who was a pretty famous Washington broadcaster who came to New York and did the Giants games for a couple of years. Arch was a cross between W.C. Fields and Ned Sparks, and it came out, ‘CAN o’ corrrrrn!’ But we’re still debating the origin of that one.”

I recall that my mother—no sports fan—sometimes would listen over my pre-teen shoulder when the transistor was tuned to Dodger games, drawn to Scully’s often humorous yarns or personalized background notes that he slipped into the play-by-play. His was not a style limited to balls and strikes.

Which surely is why, in a farewell column for the Los Angeles Times last week, Bill Plaschke suspected, “Now that Vin Scully is leaving, we’ll never again cheer so hard for foul balls.”

Over the years, it wasn’t Scully’s great calls of special baseball moments that separated him from the pack, though those were routinely terrific. It was the endless flow of fascinating digressions and parentheses, shared as if with a nudge of the elbow to a pal. At his final Dodgers home game, that included his recollection of Gil Hodges’ steel-like grip that could shape a ball for a pitcher, and brief reminiscence of meeting Babe Ruth as a young boy. Scully described the Dodger pitchers facing the meat of the Colorado Rockies lineup with, “There are some big mountains to climb in the range of the Rockies.”

I did not groan at the pun. To the contrary.

Every semester, I play for my Hofstra University sportswriting students Scully’s ninth-inning radio account of Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax’s 1965 perfect game, a gem of narrative detail. It not only portrays in vivid words each pitch but also the drama and tension, that there were “twenty-nine thousand people in the ballpark and a million butterflies;” that Dodger teammates in the bullpen were “straining to get a better look through the wire fence in left field;” that, for Koufax, “the mound must be the loneliest place in the world right now;” that, when fans booed a called ball, “a lot of people in the ballpark now are starting to see the pitches with their hearts.”

It was the kind of riveting recitation that would keep a kid with a transistor under his pillow awake well past lights out.

Anyway, now Vin Scully is retiring, just short of his 89th birthday. That must mean I’m not 11 anymore.

 

 

 

Did Russia invent baseball? Did Romania?

(Abner Doubleday)

(Abner Doubleday)

Here’s a holy-cow revelation. Baseball—what Walt Whitman called “our game, the American game;” what historian Jacques Barzun recommended as the ideal window to “know the heart and mind of America”—may be just another U.S. import.

More shocking: There are assertions out there that baseball was invented on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in lands that the old Commie-baiter Joe McCarthy judged to be as un-American as you can get.

The New York Times recently published a story that cited Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s claim that baseball had its roots in the Russian heartland. (Not surprisingly, current Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin—always eager to disparage Western primacy—has seconded Stalin on the matter.)

That’s not all. In 1990, a Romanian sports official suggested to me—more diplomatically, but just as confidently—that baseball very well could have originated in a small Transylvanian village more than 200 years ago.

Naturally, such a revelation smacks of heresy to the hot-dog, apple-pie faithful. (And, to some extent, sounds a bit like self-serving boasts by foreign elements.) But this is what you get when you rummage around in the dustbin of history—a debate of baseball evolution (with characteristics developed over time and great distances) as opposed to baseball’s New World creationism (fully formed in its current structure right here in the U.S. of A.)

Let us first acknowledge that scholars, while long ago dismissing as myth that Civil War general Abner Doubleday invented the game in rural Cooperstown, N.Y., nevertheless recognize Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J., as the sport’s mid-1800s birthplace. Baseball archaeologists do accept that the sport likely was influenced by the English games of rounders and cricket. But shaped by a Russian stick-and-ball game called lapta? Or Romania’s oina?

The Times cited a 2003 Moscow newspaper article in which the vice-president of the Russian Lapta Federation, Sergei Fokin, theorized that “Russian immigrants or Jews from Odessa [now part of Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire] brought lapta to America, and baseball evolved from there.”

Folkin argued that “lapta is a much older game, and there are so many similar concepts: tagging runners out, hitting and catching fly balls, for example.”

(Russian lapta)

(Russian lapta)

But what about the lapta “pitcher,” a member of the batting team who kneels by the batter and serves up a lazy underhand toss?

As for Romania’s oina—pronounced OYN-yah—I was on assignment in Bucharest in the spring of 1990 just as the country officially revived baseball, which had been banned for a half-century because Communist despot Nicolae Ceausescu considered it a capitalist sport. When the hated Ceausescu was executed amid the Eastern bloc upheaval shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a fellow named Cristian Costescu was appointed national baseball chief, based on his previous job running the oina federation.

(Romanian oina team)

(Romanian oina team)

Oina, he contended, “was exactly like baseball” in its original form in the southern Romanian village of Alba Iulia and was brought to the United States by two immigrants in the early 1800s. Costescu said those immigrants became soldiers in the U.S. Army and taught their game to fellow troops—who happened to be commanded by none other than Abner Doubleday.

The Doubleday reference, as noted above, could be a disqualifying factor in Costescu’s oina-baseball timeline. (Oina, by the way, employs the same “pitcher” role as lapta, which makes it closer to T-ball than baseball.) Furthermore, the Russians’ lapta-to-baseball story loses a bit of credibility for anyone who witnessed the 1990 baseball game between the U.S. and USSR during the now-defunct Goodwill Games in Seattle.

At the time, because baseball was about to become an Olympic medal sport for the first time at the ’92 Barcelona Games, nations such as Romania and the about-to-collapse Soviet Union were eager to hone their diamond bona fides. Yet all indications were that they were starting from scratch.

The Soviets had recruited an American businessman named Rick Spooner, who was based in Moscow, to work with the natives. “About two years ago,” Spooner told me then, “a batter got hit in the back with a fastball, turned around and said to me, ‘Richard, what does that mean?’ I said, ‘Boris, that means you go to first base.’”

A cycling coach, Vladimir Bogatyrev, who never had seen baseball until he toured Cuba with his cycling team, was hired to manage the national team. Three baseball diamonds hurriedly were built in the USSR but, when the Soviets got to the Goodwill Games in Seattle in the summer of ’90, they mostly were mimicking American players’ habits of chewing tobacco and spitting, slapping high fives and tipping their caps—with rudimentary evidence of mastering pitching, hitting and fielding skills. They lost that game to the Yanks, 17-0.

“Chew tobacco?” Soviet catcher Vadim Kulakov said. When he smiled, his teeth showed the answer. “Red Man,” he said.

First baseman Ilya Onokov proudly related that, like so many Major Leaguers he had studied, he had a nickname, which he reported in clear but accented English. “WACK-yoom CLAY-nar,” he said. The vacuum cleaner.

Through five Olympic cycles, neither the Soviet Union/Russian team nor the Romanians ever qualified for the Games. But, now that baseball has been reinstated for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, after being dropped from 2012 and 2016, there surely will be renewed efforts to ramp up baseball commitments in those countries.

Possibly, we again will hear their cases for having birthed the sport.

In 1990 Costescu, the Romanian official, showed me some articles he had published on the history of oina, one of which asked, “Baseball=oina?” Just so he would not be accused of outright plagiarism, Costescu offered, tactfully: “We are not saying Romanians invented baseball. We are saying this: We would not like someone else to tell us that oina was invented by others.”

That’s a deal. (But we Yanks reserve the right to keep calling it the “World” Series, whether the lone non-U.S. team from Toronto makes it or not.)

A baseball habit without rhyme or reason

spit

It’s baseball season. It’s also the first week of a New York City law that bans chewing tobacco at the ball field. The timing of this—folklore encountering legislation and coinciding with National Poetry Month—surely demands a sardonic little ditty.

   They’re chewin’ toback

    Bubblegum, Zwieback;

    They’re swearin’ and scratchin’ and such.

    All drivel and drool,

    They’re lookin’ so cool;

    No wonder we love ‘em so much!

Could it be that one of the sport’s most ingrained customs will be snuffed out? Is it possible that a quintessential baseball convention—so long considered manly, even cute—at last will go the way of the equally unsanitary spitball?

cheek

Consider the long history of ballplayers resembling chipmunks—wads of tobacco packed in their grotesquely distended cheeks. Expectoration forever has been a part of baseball’s “look,” coexisting with the game’s quasi-religious symbolism and perfect symmetry, a field of dreams with Garden-of-Eden roots mirroring the American soul.

While erudite essayists, with lumps in their throats and tears in their eyes, have written of how central baseball is to fathers relating to sons, of the spiritual connections to past gods of the diamond, the rough-hewn image of slugger-with-chaw has been equally persistent. And almost as celebrated.

It was only natural that, in his 1994 parody of the classic poem “Casey at the Bat,” humorist Garrison Keillor depicted Mudville’s Casey, as the hated opponent of the Dustburg side, stepping to the plate with his he-man plug.

   Oh the fury in his visage as he spat tobacco juice

    And heard the little children screaming violent abuse.

    He knocked the dirt from off his spikes, reached down and eased his pants.

    “What’s the matter? Did ya lose ‘em?” cried a lady in the stands.

Herb Washington, who had been a track star at Michigan State before he signed with the Oakland A’s in the early 1970s, exclusively to run bases with his exceptional speed, was asked the difference between track and baseball. “In baseball,” Washington said, “the players have an overabundance of spittle.” Because chomping on that stuff promotes the need to spit regularly.

A 1999 poem by John Poff, “Baseball Sestina,” contains the word “tobacco” in every stanza, beginning

   An ancient North Carolinian broke off a plug of tobacco

   And said, “When you get to the ballpark,

   First thing you do is check which way the wind is blowing…”

Spit tobacco is said to have come to baseball with the predominance of 19th Century farm boys, who had learned that smoking interfered with chores but a nicotine fix was available with the smokeless substance. More revolting than poetic are such tales as the one of Don Zimmer, who spent 65 years as a player, coach and manager. Zimmer was known to wrap bubble gum around his chaw to keep it intact, but that caused the gum to stick to his false teeth, and after once angrily flinging the wad to the ground during an argument, he had to sheepishly retrieve his dentures from a dusty glob.

Steve Hamilton, who pitched for six teams in 12 seasons into the 1970s, was with the Yankees when he swallowed his chaw while standing on the mound in Kansas City. And threw up.

Still, in his 1990s “Baseball Catalogue,” veteran baseball author Dan Schlossberg included a short section on “The Art of Chewing.” Big-league rosters continue to include fellows who took up the smokeless tobacco habit, sometimes as early as grammar school, because they saw older players chewing and thereby judged that “it was cool.”

My friend Tony has told me that, as kids attending Giants games at New York’s Polo Grounds in the late 1940s, he and his pals would position themselves near the visiting bullpen and ask likeable catcher Joe Garagiola to demonstrate a Major League tobacco spit for them. Of course he would.

Post-playing career, an enlightened Garagiola spent decades preaching about the evils of chewing tobacco, though it wasn’t until 1993 that the stuff was banned throughout the minor leagues. A 2011 attempt to prohibit it in the Majors was blocked by the players association as unreasonably restricting a legal product.

Then, two years ago, Tony Gwynn—one of baseball’s most admired and loved figured—died at 54, after Gwynn attributed the oral cancer that eventually killed him to have resulted from years of chewing tobacco.

That moved real estate agent and poet Steve Hermanos to compose “Why Do They Chew Tobacco, Dad?”

    ‘They chew tobacco?!’ the confused child asks.

    ‘That’s disgusting! Why do they chew tobacco, dad?!’

    And so, revealed to the youngster at this moment,

    Baseball players chew tobacco.

    The players’ cheeks and lips bulge with the bitter stuff,

    They spit brown spit.

    –

    How can you, the parent, respond?

    ‘It’s just what they do.

    They’ve always done it.’

    That’s Exhibit A of the charge Extremely Lame Parenting.

kids

Now, sanely and long overdue, New York has joined San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago in a municipal assumption of the good parenting role abdicated by professional sports leagues. Here and now, in National Poetry Month.

   Incongruity

   Of health and P-TUI !

   Finally moved cities to act.

   Our heroes might learn

   A leaf they can turn;

   Just spit out that wad of toback.

ban

 

 

The U.S., Cuba and baseball diplomacy

(N.Y. Daily News photo)

(N.Y. Daily News photo)

Anyone lucky enough to visit La Esquina Caliente in Havana’s El Parque Central immediately learns the exalted status of baseball in Cuba. There, at The Hot Corner of the island capital’s Central Park, men have been gathering for decades to passionately argue the value of players and teams.

It is the Cuban version of discourse that we Yanquis typically experience on barstools and sports talk radio, evidence of an unbroken spiritual link between Americans and Cubans in spite of a half-century of political polarization.

Baseball is their national pastime, too.

So, now that the Obama administration at last has moved to normalize relations with Cuba, what could be a more logical cultural exchange than sending the Tampa Bay Rays to the Caribbean island for an exhibition game next spring?

If all the details can be ironed out, that will be the first such tour by a Major League Baseball team since the Baltimore Orioles played a home-and-home exhibition against the Cuban national team in 1999. But it hardly would represent a new relationship, despite the decades of ideological hardball between the two nations.

As early as 1937, the New York Giants made Havana their spring training site, followed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1941, ’42 and ’47 and the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953. When Jackie Robinson broke the majors’ color barrier in 1947, one benefit to training in Cuba was that country’s long history of racial integration.

In his acclaimed 1952 novel, “Old Man and the Sea,” Hemingway—a Cuban resident for most of the 1940s and 1950s—had the fictitious Cuban fisherman Santiago talk baseball with his young companion, rhapsodizing about the Yankees and “the great DiMaggio.”

The 1959 Cuban revolution severed the island’s formal ties with Organized Baseball. But big-league teams, technically prevented from doing business in Cuba, found ways to get Latin American scouts into the country to evaluate the plentiful homegrown talent, and a fairly steady stream of Cuban defectors continued to find their way to the majors—Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig and Aroldis Chapman being some resent examples.

It might be worth remembering that a young Castro was once considered a pitching prospect by the Giants; that Havana was home to the Cincinnati Reds’ Triple-A affiliate Sugar Kings of the International League from 1954 to ’59; and that just months after Castro’s rebels ousted the U.S.-backed authoritarian government of president Fulgencio Batista, the Junior World Series was contested between the American Association champion Minneapolis Millers and the I.L. pennant-winning Sugar Kings.

havana

That series concluded with a seventh-game, ninth-inning Havana victory, with future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski playing second base for the Millers, who were managed by perennial hard-luck baseball man Gene Mauch. Castro was omnipresent—in the stands, in the Sugar Kings dugout, addressing the home fans: “I came here to see our team beat Minneapolis, not as premier, but as just a baseball fan. I want to see our club win the Little World Series. After the triumph of the revolution, we should also win the Little World Series.”

millers

The next year, Castro nationalized all U.S.-owned enterprises in Cuba and then-baseball commissioner Ford Frick decreed the Sugar Kings be moved to Jersey City, the first of several stops for that franchise before reaching its current iteration as the Norfolk Tides. (An Orioles affiliate; small world.)

U.S. national teams have made a couple of Cuban appearances since then, including the 1991 Pan American Games, which were attended by both Castro and (separately) Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, a U.S. Olympic Committee vice president at the time.

Steinbrenner contended then that Castro had wanted the Yankees to “come down here for an exhibition in 1977, ’78, but [baseball commissioner] Bowie Kuhn, in his infinite wisdom, wanted it to be an All-Star team instead. And it never happened.”

Now, what a visitor to Havana from Estados Unidos might be surprised to find, along with the baseball knowledge of those fanaticos at La Esquina Caliente, is a lovingly maintained 45,000-seat national stadium, Estadio Latinoamericano, smack in the middle of the city’s many paint-starved, deteriorating buildings. And, on the scoreboard, the retention of English-language baseball parlance—“ball,” “strike,” “out.” Topps baseball cards have been known to find their way around Cuba.

The island is a thoroughly natural locale to host a team from what Cubans know as the Gran Ligas. If the Rays indeed venture to Havana a few months hence, it will be—for baseball fans here and there—a touch of paradise lost and found.