BASEBALL HISTORY AT GRIFFITH STADIUM
Currently famous as the setting of the musical comedy Damn Yankees, Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. has enriched four decades of baseball with many notable incidents:
1 In 1912 portly President Taft tossed out the first ball on Opening Day and established the practice as an annual event.
2 In 1932 Yankees' Bill Dickey, angered by a rough slide, hit Senators' Carl Reynolds and broke his jaw in two places.
3 In the 12th inning of the seventh game of the 1924 World Series, Washington's Muddy Ruel hit a pop foul. New York Catcher Hank Gowdy tripped over his mask and dropped the ball. Ruel, given another chance, doubled. Now see incident No. 11.
4 On Sept. 30, 1934 Babe Ruth took his last swing of the bat as a New York Yankee. He flied quietly to center.
5 Mickey Mantle hit his famous 595-foot homer in April 1953.
6 Dizzy Dean had his toe broken by a line drive in the 1937 All-Star Game. Favoring it, Dean altered his throwing motion, developed a sore arm and, at 26, was ruined as a pitcher. He had won 133 games previously, won only 17 thereafter.
7 In 1931 Lou Gehrig hit a homer. Lyn Lary, on second, thought the ball had been caught and trotted past third, off the field and into the dugout. When Gehrig passed third he was called out for passing a base runner and lost his home run.
8 Altrock and Schacht clowned as Senators' coaches, 1924-34.
9 In 1916 Senators' Germany Schaefer stole from second back to first. He drew a wild throw and runner on third scored.
10 1933 Series, score tied, 10th inning. Ott of the Giants hit a ball off Schulte's glove into the seats. Umpires first called it a ground-rule double, then after protest waved Ott in to plate with home run.
11 See incident No. 3. In the same inning, with Ruel on second, McNeely hit a grounder to third that hit a pebble and bounced over Lindstrom's head to score Ruel with the winning run.
12 Ailing Woodrow Wilson saw games in the early '20s from a touring car, complete with alert, fly-catching sub on bumper.
13 April 1933, Yankee Ben Chapman spiked Senator Buddy Myer, who in turn kicked Chapman. Players from both teams joined fans in a roaring riot that had to be stopped by police.
The custom of picking the best from the multitude—the hundred greatest books, the 10 best movies, the Man of the Year—is probably not solely an American custom, but it certainly seems to flourish best in this country. We have serious, analytical articles on the dozen best Senators in Congress, we pick All-America football teams, we dole out jillions in prizes ($64,000 at a crack) to the best television performers. We select the Most Valuable Player, the Rookie of the Year, the Father of the Year, the Batboy of the Year. Maybe the old advertising slogan is true: "It's so American to want something better." Or perhaps it should be: "It's so American to want the most."
At any rate, the idea of an all-star (whether it's a great book or Mickey Mantle) has a rich and universal appeal. There are all-stars everywhere; but for the baseball fan the major league All-Star teams, which meet in the 23rd renewal of baseball's All-Star Game next Tuesday in Griffith Stadium in Washington, are really the ultimate, the most, the last word in superlatives.
Baseball is played by far more Americans for many more weeks in the year than any other sport and its highest level of skill is concentrated in the small group of beautifully coordinated men who play on the 16 teams in the American and National Leagues. As a general rule no athlete in any other sport in any part of the world is accorded such widespread and insistent homage as the American major league baseball player: that is, any recognized major league player. An All-Star from this highly publicized group is on the highest level of the gods, and the Pantheon of each league as constructed each July is heaven, the desired perfection dreamed of by the baseball follower.
Now there will be the usual demurrer from the basketball crowd, who will cite figures based on high school basketball crowds to prove that basketball is infinitely more popular than baseball, ignoring the obvious argument that there are a good many more high school basketball teams for people to watch than there are major league ball teams. And, while such could exist, no one has ever heard of a Cold Stove League in basketball, whereas baseball is a topic of feverish interest all winter through just as it is in summer.
There will also be protests from the football block, insisting that the All-America team is a more ancient and honorable form of all-star selection than anything drummed up by baseball. But, unhappily, there is no one All-America football team. And even the most devout disciple of the pigskin sport will agree (sometimes bitterly) that a winning team and good publicity can create as many All-America nominees as can sheer skill. Further, since there are about 150 major college football teams, each with something more than 11 first-string players, the chances of bringing together just the very best of that 2,000-man mob scene are very slim.
But next Tuesday on your television and radio sets (Mel Allen and Al Heifer will do the NBC telecast, Bob Neal and Bob Wolff the Mutual broadcast) and, of course, in Griffith Stadium there will be the best, the very, very best, of the few who have already proved their exceptional baseball skills in major league competition.
There are inequities, of course; a few of those chosen are perhaps not quite so deserving as a few of those passed by. But the instances are few and not grievous. The two teams, practically speaking, comprise the best baseball players in the world. More than that, they will test their exceptional abilities in actual competition with their peers. To the baseball fan, then, this is the one, true, valid, blood-and-breath all-star game anywhere in sport, and for the baseball fan it's pretty wonderful.
Of course, the All-Star Game has been mocked and criticized annually by knowing critics of baseball ever since its inception during the Depression. It's been called a sideshow, a meaningless exhibition, an onerous chore for the player, a headache for the owners, an albatross hung around the unwilling neck of baseball. In some ways, it is all of these things; but in most ways, no.
The most persistent accusation hurled at the All-Star Game is that it is a newspaper promotional stunt, which in the beginning it most certainly was. Arch Ward, the late sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, was the promoter who created the game and nursed it through its tender years. He did it partly to help promote his own newspaper, which handled and publicized the voting for the teams. But he did it, too, to promote baseball, which was as unhealthy back in 1933 as any other business in that Depression year. It was, mostly because of the fan vote, a wise promotional device.
THE FANS' GAME
It is an accepted baseball maxim that "the game belongs to the fans." The phrase "belongs to the fans" is spoken as though a hand were held over the breast; it is couched in solemn tones. The executive mouthing the phrase sounds like a trustee of an estate bequeathed to a deserving but legally incompetent heir. Actually, though, the executive knows that the dollar in the fan's pocket is the blood that keeps baseball (and sometimes the executive) alive, and he is most considerate of his customer's feelings. This is sound business thinking, even if it is occasionally expressed paternalistically.
It has always been considered good business, so far as the All-Star Game was concerned, to strengthen the idea that the game (here used specifically, rather than generally) belongs to the fans by assigning to the public the voting franchise that selects the players who will appear in the All-Star Game. The Chicago Tribune at that time loved the idea. It was like a contest. People sending in votes for the baseball All-Stars would flock to the newsstands to buy the Trib and read the returns as they flowed in. Hundreds of thousands and even millions of votes mounted up next to the name of this favorite or that one, as radio stations and newspapers in other cities sent their returns to the Tribune for calculation. No one ever really stopped to figure out mathematically how one small staff could make such an accurate count of millions of votes in such a short time. But no one really worried about it because the players who came out on top in the voting were usually just about the same group that any sound baseball man might have selected.
Sometimes, though, the voting did go awry, and a weak player was chosen or a great one ignored. When that happened, the critics—usually from papers unsympathetic to the Tribune to begin with—were harsh, biting and sarcastic. The fan vote was dropped, and the 16 big league managers voted in the fans' stead. But the managers' teams turned out to be no better and in some instances even worse than those arrived at by the haphazard public voting system. Back to Arch Ward, the Chicago Tribune and the fans went the vote.
But last July Ward died, and this year, rather late in the course of the baseball year, the Tribune abruptly announced it would no longer handle the voting and unceremoniously dumped it into the lap of Ford C. Frick, commissioner of baseball.
It was a real lapful, a fantastically difficult situation to cope with at such a late date. Frick could not wash his hands of the voting; after all, this was a major feature of the second biggest annual event (after the World Series) of the game he presided over. There had to be a vote; everyone expected it. But it was like trying to find a home for 17 newly born kittens the night before you leave for the country on your summer vacation. Frick, to his great credit, did not panic. He didn't drown a kitten. Instead, he hurriedly consulted with experts in the field, enlisted highly competent assistance and announced that the commissioner's office would handle the task of counting the votes. Considering the date the job was thrust upon him, the widespread but largely unintentional lack of cooperation given him, and the complications of soliciting, collecting and counting the votes, the result was a near miracle of efficiency.
But the total vote cast was about a 10th of that announced in previous years by the Chicago Tribune's election board. And great disproportions in voting—such as that from Cincinnati where an alert radio station did a splendid job of publicizing the game, the method of voting and the Cincinnati Redlegs, so much so that five Red-legs won starting positions and three others finished second—brought about a blistering tornado of criticism. If you insist on keeping this silly game, the critics said, and this silly idea of voting for players, then the solution is to give the vote back to the 16 managers. Let them pick the teams.
The voices were loud and the word spread. Possibly in 1957 their suggestion will be followed. But hope not. For managers by nature are expedient men, with a good deal more at stake in the pennant races after the All-Star Game than in the game itself. They have their own arm-weary pitchers to consider and their own slumping or ailing batters, all of whom could use a few days' rest. Any selection they make would be as open to harassing criticism as the public poll is now.
A solution appears to present itself, one that is both sufficiently novel and sufficiently familiar to maintain a high publicity value; one that would do away with the enormous task of obtaining and counting millions of votes but which maintains the desired feature of continued voting returns over the month preceding the game.
This is the idea:
In the week following June 15 (the trading deadline) when team rosters are pretty well set for the year, simple ballots that have been distributed to club publicity men by the commissioner's office will be given individually to each player, coach and manager on the team's official roster. Each individual will fill out his all-opponents' team for his league, one man at each position in the field and three pitchers. He can vote for no one on his own team. His vote should be individual and unaided; a rule that should be stressed when ballots are sent to the publicity men. The player will sign his ballot but will be assured that his vote will be kept confidential. Ballots will be individually sealed and forwarded, uncounted, by the publicity men to the commissioner's office for tabulation. The votes will be counted under the commissioner's authority in the same way as they were this year: votes for each player will be for the position he was playing on June 16, the first day of the poll. The managers will pick the remaining 14 players to fill out the squad of 25.
To build up interest during the three or four weeks from the start of the poll to All-Star time, the tabulators will determine each team's all-opponent team and release all 16 at regular intervals, accompanying each with a report on the progress of the voting for the All-Star teams to that point. This certainly should provide plenty of red meat for fans, players and writers to chew on.
Further, a sum of $30,000 will be held out of the All-Star Game receipts. After the game each man on the winning team will be awarded $1,000; each loser would have to be content with $100. The edge of competition would be provided not so much by the idea of winning $1,000, but rather in the dramatic difference between winning $1,000 and $100. Price would enter here and both victory and defeat would take on more of a personal meaning.
Though all this would be a refreshing addition to the baseball scene, it is unlikely that the results of a player poll would be much different from a fan poll, for the players are essentially fans at heart. They root, usually for themselves and their own teams, but sometimes, too, for a player who has an exceptional talent, like Ted Williams or Bob Friend, or who has a special sort of universal appeal, like Joe DiMaggio.
Walter Johnson, who pitched and won hundreds of games in Griffith Stadium but who retired from an active pitching career long before the first All-Star Game was played, was one who had the universal respect and affection of his contemporaries. In any vote of players during his era, Johnson would have been the starting pitcher in All-Star Game after All-Star Game. The players voting for him would have been eager to see him in the game, to see him pitch against unfamiliar batters, to watch him duel with the current crop of upstart hitters in the other league. When you vote for a man you root for him and you play harder behind him.
Right now, for instance, most major leaguers have really only a mild interest in the interesting baseball problem that will be presented on All-Star day: how well will the newly risen Cincinnati stars fare against the good American League pitching. But if the players themselves had voted for the Redleg starters and the pitchers who will oppose them, how much more intense would be the interest in the game. Far from feeling left out, the fan, who spends his dollar, after all, for entertainment, will eagerly watch to see how sound a choice the true experts have made.
Then maybe the jeers and catcalls from the press box would quiet, and the game would at last be accepted for what it is, an integral and desirable part of every baseball season and a valuable contribution to the lore of the game.
Even now the crust of memorable performance overlying the dry statistical structure of the past 22 All-Star Games is an indelible part of baseball memory. The oldtimers include Babe Ruth's 1933 home run in their repertoire, and Carl Hubbell's strikeouts in 1934. Dizzy Dean's broken toe in 1937 is now thought of as a legitimate tragedy rather than an accident incurred in a meaningless game. Ted Williams' game-winning homer in 1941 and his tour de force in 1946 are as valid a part of his reputation as his .406 average and his four batting championships. Stan Musial's greatness was never more dramatically evident than in the home run he hit in last year's game to win it in the 12th inning.
The point is that the All-Star Game is a rich, warm, necessary part of baseball, and it would be a terrible shame if petty criticism of its vulnerable defects caused it to be abandoned. Baseball people sometimes write or speak drivel about baseball being "the personification of America," or that baseball is "democracy in action," and other equally vapid phrases that make it sound as though the right to play baseball had been written into the Constitution. That's nonsense. Baseball is just a game. But it is a marvelous game that has become woven into the conscious life of almost every American male and a good many females. The All-Star idea is a distillation of baseball at its best, and it has real meaning.
I know that my grandfather played shortstop for the Mount Vernon All-Stars in 1892. I learned this as a boy from a tired old clipping I found in someone's bureau drawer. The headline read: MOUNT VERNON ALL-STARS DEFEAT WAKEFIELD 200, 23-21. I knew where Wakefield was, but I have never found out what the "200" signified. I did realize at the time from the score that it was something less than a perfect exhibition of baseball, and age later made me accept the fact that my grandfather, at 34, married and a father, had most likely been playing in a Sunday-picnic-beer-for-the-winners ball game, with the names of the teams a spur-of-the-moment joke.
But nothing, not age nor understanding, can erase from memory the thrill a boy felt when he discovered that the cranky, rheumy-eyed old man with the cap, gray mustache and corncob pipe had once been an all-star shortstop.
The American League team is not too badly constructed for a manager like Stengel, who likes to maneuver his lineup according to the current offensive and defensive strength of his opponents. If the Nationals start a right-handed pitcher, Casey can set up a batting order that starts off with five straight left-handed batters, including Williams, Mantle and Berra. If left-handed pitchers come in, Switch-hitter Mantle would trot over to the other side of the plate, and right-handed batters Martin and Sievers could go in for the left-handed Fox and Vernon. When the right-handers return, Stengel could pinch-hit with Simpson and Maxwell, left-handed batters both, and use McDougald and Power as late-inning defensive reserves. All such maneuvers, however, will go for naught if the American League's highly rated pitchers can't cope with the National League's awe-inspiring array of power hitters.