I've long been confounded by how little baseball players know about baseball. I don't mean the technical side of the game, of course. Most big leaguers know all about the suicide squeeze, the hit-and-run play, even the infield-fly rule. But the vast majority of them are abysmally ignorant of the rich history of their game, of its lore and tradition, and, most appallingly, of their own forerunners, the legendary players who created a National Pastime and made it possible for today's practitioners to accumulate undreamed-of riches.
Oh, most players could tell you who Babe Ruth was, and they know Cy Young from his award, but there's probably not one in 500 who could identify Honus Wagner or Al Simmons or Lefty Grove or Babe Herman. Actually, it's much worse than that. Don Newcombe, a Dodger pitching legend of the '50s and the team's current director of community relations, told me he was not so much shocked that so many current black players had never heard of him but that "most of them didn't even know who Jackie Robinson was. Jackie Robinson!"
Reggie Jackson, who is a true fan, was stunned a few years ago to learn that one of his teammates on the Athletics, rookie Mark McGwire, attached no historical significance to hitting 50 home runs, a landmark McGwire missed by a single dinger. "He didn't know that was something only the Ruths, the Foxxes, the Greenbergs, the Mantles and the Willie Mayses did," recounted a saddened Reggie, naming some of the giants in that select circle.
I suppose this shouldn't really be so surprising. Ballplayers are notorious non-readers, after all, and most of them were probably too busy playing the game as youngsters to learn anything about it. Better for us, too, that they be ball-players rather than bull-scholars. But it still seems to me that among the most disheartening of phrases is, "That was before my time." And wouldn't you think that today's players would pick up a little lore just listening to old-timers at the ballpark? No, says old-timer Newcombe, "they're too busy talking to their agents."
November 26, 1990
And yet, in this morass of ignorance there are some pockets of hope. Take Terry Kennedy, the Giants' veteran catcher. Now here is a truly anomalous figure, a good player who is an even better fan. Kennedy did have the advantage of growing up in a baseball home as the son of Bob Kennedy, a Giants vice-president who played in the big leagues for 16 years and later managed the Cubs and the Oakland Athletics. But ancestry alone does not a fan make. Wasn't it Ken Griffey Jr. who earlier this season had trouble identifying Nolan Ryan? No, Kennedy fils is a fan out of love for the game. He is a modest collector of memorabilia—"The oldest thing I have is a Rogers Hornsby bat"—but his "real collection," he says, "is in my head. I collect the stories the old-timers tell me. When I was with the Cardinals, I'd listen for hours to Joe Medwick talking about the old Gashouse Gang and how the Detroit fans threw vegetables at him in the 1934 World Series."
As a boy, Kennedy heard his father spin magical tales about Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. Inspired, he started reading about even older heroes, such as Ruth and Gehrig, Cobb and Harry Heilmann. "I was a fan before I was a player," says Kennedy.
He would especially like to step back in time: "I'd like first to go back and see my father play. Then I'd want to go way back and watch Cobb and Wagner. I'd like to see Ruth play, particularly in 1921, when he had the greatest year anybody has ever had [59 homers, 177 runs, 171 RBIs, a .378 average]. I'd want to see Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics of 1929 and then the Gashouse Gang, and see Williams hit .406 and watch DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941. Then there'd be the Cardinal teams of the early '40s, the Yankees of the early '50s.... I'd be the ultimate expert."
As it is, Kennedy can bury under mountains of statistics the argument from ill-informed contemporaries that the modern player is better than his predecessors. "You drive in 190 runs like Hack Wilson," Kennedy says, "and I say you can play in any era. You can't just blow away the accomplishments of the past. It seems to me that to be in touch with your present, you have to know about your past."
And all that Santayana talk hasn't seemed to hurt Kennedy's game. He finished the 1990 season with a .277 batting average. Not bad for a 34-year-old lefthanded-hitting historian.