At the conclusion of every baseball storm—be it a strike or a rash of drug busts or the latest contract hassle—players and executives fall back on that old bromide: "All that really matters is what goes on between the white lines."
Well, 1983 wasn't an exceptional year between the white lines. The most memorable moment on the field concerned pine tar—specifically whether too much of it on the bat of the Royals' George Brett was sufficient cause for disallowing a game-winning home run he'd hit against the Yankees. The incident generated one of the liveliest and most interesting debates in the history of the sport. The controversy, which resulted in Brett's homer being allowed to stand, was particularly well suited to baseball, which is as much a game of talk as action. But pine tar aside, it was what happened outside the white lines that gave '83 its special flavor.
JAN. 23—The baseball season doesn't begin with the first pitch of spring training or even the first pitch of Opening Day. It begins with the annual New York Baseball Writers dinner, the first big baseball event of the year. It's a watershed in which the season past is celebrated and the season future anticipated.
For eating or entertainment, the dinner isn't much. Furthermore, it is militantly, even offensively, all-male; the word stag fairly leaps out of the invitation. So why do I attend a dinner run by such antediluvian people? Because in a strange way, they're my heroes. These cigar-chomping traditionalists represent some of the game's best instincts. There's nothing about baseball they've ever wanted to alter. Oh, sure, some things, such as segregation and low salaries, cried out for change. But baseball rules and traditions were by and large perfect as they stood in, say, 1950. In one of the game's greatest ironies, the "progressives" gave us the DH, artificial turf, indoor stadiums, expansion and most everything else that over the past two decades or so has dulled the spectacle.
February 27, 1984
FEB. 28—I have two conflicting views of spring training. The first is the traditional one—that the baseball spring is a time of rebirth and renewal. The weather is warm, the atmosphere is informal, the mood is upbeat. Every team is improved, every rookie is a phenom. In the outfield, players, their caps purposely askew, throw balls between their legs. Other players—and coaches and managers—lean over the railing and strike up conversations with fans. The scene should be frozen forever.
But I also think about players who may be coming to spring training for the last time. Age and injury have dimmed their skills. For them, it's a time of desperation, not celebration.
MARCH 21—The atmosphere at a spring training game is quite unlike that at a regular-season game. No one really cares about the result, because the starters are replaced by minor-leaguers after a few innings. The movement of people in the stands is every bit as fluid. Fans drift in, drift out, show up during the sixth inning. At Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg there's a celebrated hot dog vendor. When he makes his grand entrance in the third inning, fans applaud, and surprised players turn around to see what's going on. "World's worst hot dogs!" the old fellow cries out. Later he breaks into a raucous tenor and sings He's Got the Whole World in His Hands.
I watched today's game with Roger Angell, the distinguished fiction editor and baseball writer for The New Yorker. Roger's a sensitive and charming fellow, but he couldn't restrain himself the first time Dave Kingman, the wasted talent for the Mets, stepped to the plate. Roger stuck out his tongue, blew on it and gave Kingman the raspberry: "Btfstpk!"
"Roger!" said his wife, Carol.
Carol was blushing and laughing now. The Angells' 12-year-old son, John Henry, had one of those "Oh, Dad!" looks on his face.
"Btfstpk!" he bleated again, whereupon some Met fans turned around and looked nervously at him.
At this juncture Kingman hit a long homer.
"Keep it up," one of the Met fans said. "It helps."
APRIL 4—There's no starker contrast in baseball than that between spring training and Opening Day. Informality is replaced by formality, humor by seriousness, warmth by cold, dreams by reality. Suddenly, the red-hot rookie who wowed 'em in Florida is gaping at the sight of the mammoth stadium where the play is for keeps. Suddenly, the players must back up the boasts their manager has been making about them all March.
APRIL 13—The Red Sox-Royals game in Kansas City was delayed for an hour by rain. Inside the Boston clubhouse, the Sox played miniature golf with bats, balls and paper cups. One of the best things about baseball, Texas third baseman Buddy Bell told me a few days ago, is that, as a player, you never have to grow up. When they tired of golf, the Sox began imitating each other at the plate. Second baseman Jerry Remy, impersonator par excellence, brought down the house with his portrayal of first baseman Dave Stapleton hanging his head after hitting a pop-up.
I think ballplayers razz each other for two reasons: They've got a lot of time with nothing better to do, and they play under too much tension to take everything seriously. "You have to have very thick skin to be a ballplayer," Sox pitcher Bruce Hurst told me. While looking for a house in Boston, Hurst and his wife have been living with the Celtics' Danny Ainge, who once played baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays. "Danny and I were talking about baseball and basketball," says Hurst, who played hoops at Dixie College in Utah. "We agreed that it's tougher to take ribbing in baseball. When you're playing with 24 other guys instead of 11, there's a greater chance someone will get under your skin."
APRIL 22—Nolan Ryan of the Astros will shoot for the career strikeout record tomorrow, but the game at the Astrodome won't come close to selling out. "I bet we only get 20,000," said Houston reliever Dave Smith. "The fans here aren't very knowledgeable about baseball. They only come out when we're winning." The Astros have been losing.
Smith unwittingly put his finger on one of the game's lingering problems. Baseball has expanded and probably will continue to expand to cities that have large, often indoor stadiums and are situated in attractive television markets. Most expansion cities also have poor baseball traditions and fans who are more likely to be taken with mascots and exploding scoreboards than good pickoff plays. In such fashion does baseball become richer—and poorer.
APRIL 27—A major discovery: There are more good guy ballplayers who work hard, love the game and hate to lose than I thought. While waiting for Ryan to set the record in his second try—he came up five strikeouts short in Houston—I sat in the press box at Montreal's Olympic Stadium with Hal Bock of the Associated Press and Henry Hecht of the New York Post. The three of us tried to create an all-star team composed of jerks—and couldn't fill the positions.
MAY 15—Art Shamsky, a broadcaster and former Met, had a thoughtful piece in The New York Times today about beanballs. Of all the ongoing scandals in baseball, the beanball is one of the worst. Its perpetrators can choose from among several excuses for committing the crime. "I have to have the inside of the plate," they say. Or, "I was just trying to move him back." Or, "The pitch got away from me." Or, "It's part of the game."
It used to be part of the game to call Jewish players Moe. It used to be part of the game to have no black players. It used to be part of the game for players to wear no protective headgear or catcher's equipment. Baseball discarded these idiocies but not the beanball.
MAY 25—For the last two games, I've sat at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium with Charles Newman, a novelist who's writing a story on the Cardinals' pitchers for Vanity Fair. Occasionally it takes a person with totally fresh perspective—someone from outside baseball—to reveal some truths about the game.
"In most organizations the pitchers throw pretty much the same way," Newman told me. "Here they don't even throw the same pitch the same way. The older pitchers throw the slider like a curve, and the younger ones throw it like a fastball. Other clubs may use a speed gun or chart their pitchers or videotape them. The Cardinals do all three. When they play the tapes, the pitching coach, Hub Kittle, never shows the pitchers what they're doing wrong. He shows them pictures of when they're going well to remind them of the right way to do things."
The reason players are spoiled isn't so much because they're well paid but because they're pampered. Cardinal players have everything taken care of—laundry, travel, even golf reservations at private courses on off-days. The club picks up hotel bills, and players take care of meals (the postgame clubhouse spread is free) and other incidentals out of their $43.50 per diem. We took an Ozark charter tonight from Cincinnati to Houston, and it was first-class all the way. The team bus carried us from the ball park directly to the spot on the airport ramp where our plane was waiting. There was so much room on board that everyone who wanted an empty seat next to him had one. Food? We started off with a cold appetizer featuring shrimp, lobster, artichoke and lox. Then it was on to a main course of either lobster, chicken or Chateaubriand. There was a spinach salad, and the flight attendants offered assorted cakes and pastries for dessert. I had a rum ball and topped it off with amaretto in a chocolate cup.
Pitcher Joaquin Andujar had been grousing about something or other during the bus ride to the plane. During the flight outfielder George Hendrick ragged him mercilessly. After landing, we piled into a waiting bus. The order of seating was roughly the same as it had been on the plane—coaches and managers up front, followed by writers, then players. Arriving at Houston's Shamrock Hilton Hotel, the players took their pre-assigned room keys and headed upstairs. Their luggage would be brought up to them. By now Andujar was smiling and joking. He had nothing to complain about. Neither did his teammates.
MAY 28—"Where else but in a bleeping kids' game can you start at night and end up in the morning?" Cardinal coach Red Schoendienst called out at 12:10 a.m. "God a'mighty, ain't it wonderful!"
We'd just seen an extraordinary, 18-inning game that the Cardinals had won 3-1. In the last of the 17th the Astros had had a man on third with one out when Alan Ashby had hit a ball deep in the hole. Everyone had assumed the game was over. Either the ball would go through, scoring a run, or shortstop Ozzie Smith would field it too late to throw home. But Smith had dived, grabbed the ball and leaped to his feet in one motion. Then he'd checked the runner back to third and thrown out Ashby by two steps. He'd also thrown out the next runner. The Cardinals had rallied to win the game in the 18th.
"Best shortstop in the history of the game!" croaked Kittle, who has been in baseball 48 years. The rest of us walked around the clubhouse with great big smiles on our faces. "I'd pay to watch Ozzie Smith," I kept saying.
Then something struck me: Scenes like this don't occur very often these days. I don't want to romanticize the lot of old-time ballplayers, who had lousy salaries, poor medical care and virtually no rights, but they may have enjoyed the game more than today's major-leaguers. Baseball was their reason for living, and they loved playing. Today's players think constantly about money: How much they make, how much others make, how little time they may have to strike it rich. No one wants to turn the clock back, but I wish there were more pure, joyous scenes like the one in the Cardinal clubhouse. We're forever talking moneyball, not baseball.
JUNE 1—With the Angels in New York, where I live, I called up my closest friend on the team, third baseman Doug DeCinces. He couldn't meet me for lunch, but he did offer an alternative—sitting with his wife, Kristi, at the ballpark.
The visiting wives' seats are along the third-base line at Yankee Stadium, and we sat just a couple of rows from the field. This vantage point presented an interesting change from the press box. From my seat alongside Kristi, I could see the infielders' expressions and watch them talking to the umpires and reacting to hard-hit grounders—the closer you get the tougher they look. But unless you're directly behind home plate, as you are in the press box, it's difficult to follow the action. Several times batters made contact and I had to watch the fielders to pick up the path of the ball.
Listening to Kristi, I could also sense the tradeoffs in the life of a player's wife. The DeCinceses have two children, Timmy, 9, and Amy, 3, and Kristi hopes that Doug, who's 32, retires soon enough to spend more time with the kids. "But not too soon," she said sensibly. "He hasn't done everything he'd like to do in baseball, and he has to get it out of his system." Nevertheless, the time apart isn't easy for either of them, and Doug's constantly sore back has both of them worried. "I pray for him a lot," Kristi said.
After the game we had dinner at the Century Restaurant in midtown Manhattan. As is often the case, our conversation was as much personal as it was professional. Doug said he doesn't get on umpires much anymore. "I know that they're doing what they want to do, that no one's forcing them to, but it's still a thankless job. They never get noticed until they blow one." Asked why managers are constantly arguing with umpires, he said, "It's partly to show the players they're behind them, but also to take the heat off the players. The manager wants to get between the player and the umpire before the player starts screaming and gets thrown out."
JUNE 14—The Cardinals and Phillies played an excellent game tonight in St. Louis, but the highlight of my day was a postgame drink I had with Joe Morgan, the Phillies' second baseman. Morgan is one of the brightest people in the game.
He told me he's living in a Philadelphia apartment while his wife and two daughters remain on the West Coast. He misses them, but he doesn't want to disrupt their lives. "My wife runs a women's clothing store," Morgan said. "She's known as Gloria Morgan, not Mrs. Joe Morgan. I think that's great. I hope it rubs off on the girls."
Morgan once wanted to manage. No more, he said. "There are too many guys who don't know the fundamentals. They think all they have to do is show up at three or four o'clock. I could never manage because I see so many things that bother me. Suppose there's a runner on first. The first baseman has to keep him close, and that creates a huge gap on the right side of the infield. So you'd think they'd do everything possible to keep the batter from hitting over there. But they don't. They're pitching inside to left-handed batters!"
Morgan was right. Because of expansion, more and more players are being brought up who are aren't sufficiently schooled in fundamentals and strategy. And long-term contracts don't reward the guy who can move up the runner. "I'm not opposed to big salaries, but I wish they'd tie them to team play," Morgan said.
JULY 6—I felt both pleasure and disappointment—pleasure at attending the festivities surrounding the 50th Anniversary All-Star Game, disappointment at having missed so many of these occasions in the past. The White Sox, who hosted the first game in 1933, have put on a gala golden anniversary celebration. At yesterday's Old Timers Game, stars old and new mingled in the clubhouse.
"Is this your locker?" Willie Mays asked Andre Dawson.
"No, sir, it's yours," said Dawson.
Following the Old Timers Game, the White Sox threw a party at Navy Pier. The central figure there was Ron Kittle of the White Sox, who has become the most popular athlete in town. Kittle stood in the ballroom wearing snake-skin boots, slacks, an open shirt and a sports jacket. "I'm not wearing my glasses," he said. "I don't want to be recognized."
What a joke. Everyone was after Kit-tie's autograph—little kids, old men and women of all descriptions, including the wives of other ballplayers. In Chicago, a city of few sports heroes and even fewer winning teams, Kittle is already a bigger hero than Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, ever was. Banks says so himself.
After the Old Timers Game, Kittle grabbed a bat and ran around the American League clubhouse getting signatures. I took a look at the bat. The biggest and boldest name scribbled on it was that of Ron Kittle.
JULY 7—I shared a cab from Boston's Logan airport to a downtown hotel with Angel teammates DeCinces and Rod Carew. Carew is considering retiring after this season, though I expect he'll stick around another year or two to get his 3,000th hit. A sensitive man, he's driven to distraction by the demands of autograph seekers. "They were calling me at seven, nine in the morning in Chicago," he said. Carew wearily girded for the next assault. Assuming an extreme Boston accent, he called out, "Gimme da bawl, sign heeyah."
JULY 8—DeCinces is suffering from a rib separation and has aggravated the injury by trying to come back too soon. I pointed out to him that The Baseball Encyclopedia is filled with the names of men who ruined their careers by playing with injuries. "No question," Doug said. "You're under a lot of pressure—from your peers, from the writers asking you every day how you feel, from the fans and, most of all, from yourself. You want to keep your stats up, and you know your team needs you in the lineup. I'm having a good year, and any time I don't play, a lefthanded pitcher who faces us is going to benefit."
Nonetheless, I hope Doug doesn't play during the three-game series in Boston. The back injury has led to spasms, and he feels great pain every time he throws or stretches for a grounder. I breathed a deep sigh of relief when he wasn't used in the All-Star Game, except to pinch-hit. Today he went out to the park four hours before game time, took a heat massage, used an electronic muscle-stimulator to move fresh blood into the damaged area and lifted some weights. An hour or so later Arthur Pappas, the Red Sox physician, poked Doug's ribs. He immediately went into a back spasm. "No way you're playing today," Pappas said.
JULY 9—I overheard the California trainer say that Doug was considering traction. A few minutes later I found Doug in the clubhouse. He was distraught. "I thought I could DH today, but I can't even run," he said. "The problem is, the rib condition keeps affecting my back. Maybe I should go into traction, take some drugs and do nothing for a while. Or maybe I'll have to give up the month of July. But then I think of the numbers I need to have this year."
I tried to put myself in his position. He's making about $400,000 a year and will become a free agent at season's end, the Angels having refused to negotiate a contract extension with him last spring. On the open market he'll be worth $1 million a year, the going rate for premium third basemen. But now, with his medical condition, it could all go poof: the contract, the career, the future. At least, that's what has to be going through his mind. No wonder he's depressed.
[Fortunately, DeCinces rested long enough to recover. After playing regularly and well in August and September, he signed a three-year, $3 million contract with the Angels.]
JULY 13—The Reds' incomparable catcher, Johnny Bench, is retiring after this season, and as he makes his final appearance in each National League city, he's receiving a fond farewell. Today at Shea Stadium he's getting a send-off from New York fans and players.
Mets pitcher Tom Seaver: "John was never intimidated by the tag play at the plate, no matter what the collision was going to be like. He and Jerry Grote were two of the best I've ever seen at blocking home, throwing out runners and giving the umpire a good view of the ball as it came over the plate."
Mets broadcaster Tim McCarver, a former catcher: "Bench was the best one-handed catcher ever. In fact, he popularized using one hand. Before about 1940, Birdie Tebbetts and others said to catch with two hands. That's a bunch of bananas. When you catch one-handed, you can snap the ball right back to your throwing hand, whereas the movement's too bulky with two hands. With one, it's an oval-like movement.
"The other thing John popularized was the hinged glove, as opposed to the old ones with the little pocket in the middle. If you caught everything in the pocket, it would sting your hand, so you'd try to catch in the webbing. If the ball sailed, you'd miss it. The new gloves are designed for catching the ball in the pocket without pain, because the new, hinged pocket is between the thumb and index finger. It's like a first baseman's glove. Now, if the ball sails, you catch it in the webbing."
Bench on himself: "My fondest memory? The idea that as a catcher you could have a good day four different ways. You could call a good game, block home plate, throw out runners and get some hits. The things I hated most were the foul tips. But when I was a world champion, all the aches and pains went away.
"I had the ability to change the game with the one-handed glove. I could stand away from a sliding runner and avoid a collision by making a sweeping tag. You just have to go '¬°Olé!' like a guy making the tag at second. Catchers never had the time to do that when they had to use two hands with the round glove. You've got to keep the ball moving to make the sweep tag; don't just put the glove in front of the runner's foot. It's like catching an egg: You've got to give with it.
"Handling pitchers? There were different personalities. There was the guy you patted on the back, the guy you had to tell about different situations and the guy you just told, 'Let's go.' If a pitcher believes in you, he'll throw his best pitch. I may get away from a pitch when he's not throwing it well, and then come back to it later. You spot it."
JULY 28—I'm observing the pine-tar episode from afar—vacationing on Martha's Vineyard—but I didn't have to be at Yankee Stadium to understand its significance. I have no doubt it will be the highlight of the season. Why? Because it's something we can all get our hooks into. It's funny, serious; complicated, simple; trivial, important. It's baseball at its best, with new angles and controversies sure to open up every day. People will argue about it for weeks.
[The Cardozo Law Review will run two or three articles about the pine-tar incident in its issue that comes out in March. The pieces will touch on many basic legal subjects including free speech; rules interpretation; the spirit vs. the letter of the law; commercial law; sports and the law; the appellate system; and statutory vs. common law. My father, Benjamin, a retired member of the Massachusetts Supreme Court and an emeritus professor of law at Harvard, says: "For anyone interested in a legal career, this could be the place to start."]
AUG. 3—Today Bowie Kuhn abdicated as commissioner, and the owners began referring to him as though he were some kind of god. My own feelings are considerably more mixed. I'll say this for Bowie: He stood up to some very difficult owners, and his veto of the Charlie Finley player sales in 1976 was a noble gesture. Unlike many baseball executives, Kuhn undoubtedly lay awake at night wondering what was in the best interest of the game. But I feel he too frequently came to the wrong conclusion, supporting as he did the designated-hitter rule, nighttime playoffs and Series games and every manner of commercial scheme to promote baseball: a relief award named after an antacid, a playoff award given by a car company, a Series sweepstakes sponsored by a cookie company. Under Kuhn baseball ceased being a pastime and became a product.
AUG. 18—I had lunch with California pitcher John Curtis, one of the brightest people in the game, and one of the most universal players. He has worked off-seasons as everything from a sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner to a substitute teacher to a shoe salesman. He reads heavy novels, seeks out foreign movies and likes Billy Joel. Plainly, a man worth questioning on a variety of subjects.
Are today's ballplayers better prepared for life after baseball than previous generations? "With long-term contracts, you have time to think about the future," Curtis said. "Before, you played a year at a time. Suddenly, you were out of baseball, wondering what you'd do next."
How tough is it to stay in shape from year to year? "When I was young," said Curtis, now 35, "I'd relax all winter and get in shape for spring training. Now I have to keep in shape all year." I asked him to name the best manager he ever played for. "Joe Altobelli," he said unhesitatingly, citing the man's thoughtful-ness and consideration.
"Baseball's something that you pass through," he concluded. "I have to keep telling myself that how I play has nothing to do with what kind of person I am. Sometimes I find myself saying, 'I just gave up seven runs—am I that bad a guy?' You can't take it personally."
OCT. 5—Allow me an instant between the white lines, if only to explain something that occurs outside them. To qualify as a great play, something must occur at a critical juncture in an important game. How many heroic achievements have passed unnoticed because they didn't affect the outcome?
It can even occur in a playoff. Tonight, Morgan had one of the finest innings in the history of second base. It attracted little notice because it didn't determine the result. With the game tied 1-1 in the fourth and L.A.'s Ken Landreaux on first, Mike Marshall hit a hard grounder up the middle. Morgan ran it down and forced the speedy Landreaux by diving and tagging second with the ball. "It was the only play I had," Morgan said later.
Bill Russell then singled Marshall to third, and on the first pitch to Jack Fimple, Russell took off for second. Catcher Bo Diaz threw to Morgan in plenty of time, but Russell deliberately stopped midway between the bags.
Now Morgan was in a position second basemen dread. "This is the way the play works," he explained. "I come over to take the throw from the catcher. If the base stealer continues running, I tag him. Otherwise, my job is to run him down without letting the runner score."
Like a vaudeville dancer crossing the stage, Morgan ran toward first with his head cocked toward the third-base line. Marshall made a few feints and charged home. By waiting to throw to Diaz until the right moment, Morgan set up the rundown that got Marshall out.
Ah, but Russell had taken second on the play. And when Fimple sent a liner toward right-center, the Dodgers had surely taken the lead. But Morgan leaped high to spear the ball and end the inning. It was an extraordinary performance, too good to be forgotten even though the Phillies lost 4-1.
OCT. 13—The World Series isn't an especially pleasant event for sportswriters. For one thing, there are so many of us that it's almost impossible to get a player alone. For another, most games are played on cold October nights. And the Series has lost some of its importance because of the playoffs. That's where the real pressure is. After surviving those tense, three-of-five championship series, players are happy just to be in the World Series. Getting there is the goal; winning the Series has become secondary.
What makes the Series worthwhile is the spectacle. At tonight's World Series party the Phillies set out a cake shaped like Veterans Stadium; waitresses wore period-piece costumes; there were Philadelphia-style cheesesteak sandwiches and retired greats were all around. I shook hands with Vic Power, perhaps the best-fielding righthanded first baseman in history (for my money, the Mets' Keith Hernandez is the best lefty).
And the talk isn't half bad at the Series, either. I got into a conversation with Jim Kaat, who pitched for 25 years—more than any pitcher in history. Surely, Kaat, who has won 283 games, deserves a place in the Hall. "You never know how they'll vote," he said. "I know a writer who said he would never vote for Harmon Killebrew because he batted .256."
"But he had more homers  than any righthanded hitter in the history of the American League," I said.
"Right. And nothing against Rod Carew, who'll make the Hall with all those batting titles, but as a clutch hitter he couldn't hold a candle to Killebrew," said Kaat. [In his fourth year on the ballot, Killebrew finally made the Hall this January. Maybe there's hope for Kaat.]
"[Pittsburgh manager] Chuck Tanner saved my career in 1974 when we were both with the White Sox," Kaat continued. "I'd started out at 4-1. Then I lost six straight and everyone was getting on me. I felt awful. Tanner called me into his office and said there was nothing wrong with the way I was throwing, that he'd put me in the bullpen a week and then start me again. I wound up 21-13 and won 20 the next year."
I asked Kaat if there's anything to the sophomore jinx. He said there is. "When you're a rookie, no one expects anything of you. If you've had a good season, though, you start setting goals for the next year and people watch you more carefully. The pressure is really on."
Before being released by the Cardinals this summer, Kaat had become close friends with reliever Bruce Sutter. The word around the league late in the season was that Sutter had lost his stuff. "I don't think so," said Kaat. "The problem was, there were long periods when he didn't get to pitch because there were no save situations. He lost his rhythm, not his stuff. Of course, that can happen to any pitcher early in the season, when there are so many days off and rainouts. One possibility would be to use three pitchers a game, each for three innings. But managers won't do that because what will people say if they take out a guy who's going well and the next pitcher gets bombed? The manager won't look good, so he won't do it. So much of baseball is covering yourself."
OCT. 31—My baseball odyssey could only end at the Hall of Fame in Coopers-town, N.Y. Upon arriving today, I went right downstairs to the Hall of Fame gallery housing the 184 brass plaques, one for each inductee. At one end of the rectangular room is the Hall of Fame Trophy for the winner of the annual major league exhibition game played in Cooperstown, and at the other a striking obelisk honoring the ballplayers who served in the armed forces. Lining the sides are tall marble columns. And set back in alcoves behind the columns are the plaques.
I found myself reading every word on each plaque, and I noticed that the tone of the wording doesn't change from one era's immortals to the next. Grover Cleveland Alexander struck out Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded in the final "crisis" of the 1926 World Series. Henry Aaron led all baseball in "long [extra-base] hits." "I've tried to keep the same style," said the Hall's publicity director, Bill Guilfoile, who has been writing the inscriptions for the past few years. "The only change I've been making is to cut down on the wordage, because some of the plaques seemed so crowded." Guilfoile should make an addition, though, on a plaque he inherited. The one honoring Jackie Robinson doesn't mention that he integrated baseball. But Branch Rickey's plaque says he brought Robinson to the majors.
I had few objections to other exhibits. My passion for defense was whetted when I looked at old mitts, some as small as golf gloves. No wonder Harry Hooper, a major-leaguer from 1909 to 1925 and one of the best right-fielders ever, had a career fielding percentage of only .966.
But what permeates the Hall is the aura of the Babe. The Babe photographed at his induction ceremony—tieless, socks falling around his ankles. The Babe, smiling, pictured with his two favorite companions—kids and women. The Babe in old film footage, taking a shuffle-step in the batter's box before homering. I mused over a ridiculous debate: Who was the game's greatest player? Of course it was the Babe. No one ever approached his double—a record-setting pitcher and the greatest slugger of his time. And the Hall's special Ruth exhibit establishes something equally important: He was the greatest drawing card of all time. Says so right on his plaque.
The more I thought about Ruth and the Hall, the happier I felt. Here was the best of baseball, frozen in time and space. The owners and entrepreneurs can tinker with rules and rituals—but not with history.