Going, Going, Gone

Gehrig? Robinson? Aaron? When the subject is baseball history, most of today's players flunk
April 14, 1991

As tests go, it wasn't exactly the bar exam, or even the SAT. A number 2 pencil was not required; a number 15 sunscreen was. It wasn't even a test so much as an informal pop quiz, sprung at spring training. The oral exam was on baseball history, and those who were examined were baseball players, many of whom have made baseball history.

The exam scores are now in, even the late-breaking ones from the West, and the results say much about major league baseball. Mainly that baseball players (apologies to Sam Cooke) don't know much about history. "I think most players don't know that Cy Young was a pitcher," says Montreal Expo manager Buck Rodgers. "I think most players think Cy Young is just the name of an award."

The results reconfirm, in detail that would be highly entertaining if it weren't just a little bit depressing, something we already knew: that baseball's ties to its own past are fraying, rapidly and irreparably. Washington, D.C., has been summarily waved away as a serious site for expansion. Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, revered broadcaster Ernie Harwell in Detroit, and Comiskey Park in Chicago are going, going and gone, respectively. In fact, as a home run call, "Going, going, gone" seems to have gone, or is at least going.

In short, it appears that baseball history will soon be history.

How bad is it?

"I think," offers charitable Pittsburgh Pirate manager Jim Leyland, "most players know who Babe Ruth was."

He thinks.

History in the Unmaking, Part I: It is 1985. Don Mattingly, tenant in The House That Ruth Built and heir to Lou Gehrig as the New York Yankees' first baseman, says, "To be honest, I never heard of Gehrig until I came here. And honestly, at one time I thought Babe Ruth was a cartoon character. I really did. I mean, I wasn't born until 1961."

Paleontologists generally assert that modern history dawned in the year 1962, which they now refer to as 1 A.D. (After Don). Coincidentally, that was also the year history dawned for the New York Mets, who became caretakers to some of baseball's richest memories before they so much as played a game.

The Mets chose to wear blue and orange as a tribute to the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, who wore those respective colors. You already know that the Dodgers and Giants are the two National League franchises the Mets replaced in New York. Perhaps you've heard that until 1958 the Dodgers played at Ebbets Field in Flatbush, and until 1958 the Giants played at the Polo Grounds below Coogan's Bluff, where the Mets also played for their first two seasons. It was at the Polo Grounds that the Giants' Bobby Thomson hit The Shot Heard 'Round the World, off Brooklyn's Ralph Branca—arguably baseball's single most thrilling moment.

Mets pitcher Frank Viola is an authority on current statistical matters. "I can tell you who's hitting what for the Tigers," he boasts, which is indeed impressive. He cannot, however, tell you who Ralph Branca is. The Shot Heard 'Round the World apparently did not reverberate in East Meadow, the New York City suburb in which Viola grew up.

Viola's erstwhile teammate, Darryl Strawberry, was asked in 1983 whether a long home run he had just hit to center-field in San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium would have made it out of the Polo Grounds, with its 480-foot distance to deepest center. It was in this green expanse that Willie Mays made his famous over-the-shoulder catch on Vic Wertz's drive in the 1954 World Series. Straw responded that he didn't know, never having heard of the Polo Grounds.

Terry Bross is a pitcher in the Mets organization who played basketball for St. John's in Jamaica, Queens, a subway token away from Flat-bush, which Bross cannot locate on a subway map. The name Branca does not ring a bell with Bross, either, nor does the number 2,130, Gehrig's landmark consecutive-games-played figure. None of this distinguishes Bross from most of his teammates; what does is the fact that he can identify Wally Pipp, which is the answer to the trivia question, "Whom did Gehrig replace at first base for the Yankees?"

How can this be?

It seems that St. John's assistant basketball coach Al LoBalbo would frequently confront a player after a lackadaisical performance in practice by asking the rhetorical question, "You don't want to be another Wally Pipp, do you?"

"Finally," says Bross, "I had to ask Al, 'Who is this Pipp character?' Otherwise, I never would have known the name."

How bad is it?

"I think," says Montreal's charitable Rodgers, "most guys know the names 'Babe Ruth' and 'Hank Aaron.' "

He thinks.

History in the Unmaking, Part II: It is 1987. During an Expos-Atlanta Braves spring exhibition game, Montreal pitcher John Trautwein alerts fellow Expo pitcher Randy Johnson to Hank Aaron's presence in the park. When it becomes apparent that Johnson has no idea who the Hammer is, Trautwein informs his roommate that Aaron is the man who has hit more home runs than anybody else in major league baseball history. "Then why isn't he in the lineup today?" Johnson inquires.

"It's unfair to pull players out of society in general and hold them up to more scrutiny than anyone else," protests Milwaukee Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn, an erstwhile school teacher. "Our society in general is weak on history."

Still, most players have accepted intense public scrutiny as the quid pro quo for a life of privilege. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one shows up at Comiskey Park to hear the tree-turned-Louisville-Slugger crack over Bo Jackson's knee, does baseball exist? It does not. Nor does Bo's $8 million contract. Which goes a long way toward explaining why Bo Jackson may not care about Joe Jackson.

"I think today's players just don't think that what Shoeless Joe Jackson or Joe DiMaggio did is relevant to their careers," says Pittsburgh centerfielder Andy Van Slyke. "Pride and arrogance and greed are so abundant at the big league level now. If it could directly benefit them somehow to know what Joe DiMaggio did, they'd know."

Would they? Curt Flood challenged baseball's reserve clause. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Both directly benefited today's players. "Let's face it," says Trebelhorn, who wears number 42 in part to pay homage to Robinson, "our game is far superior with the black athlete and Latin American athlete in it."

Baseball history and American history are parallel streets. What are the Roaring '20s if not Babe Ruth? But the parallel streets somehow intersect, for Robinson, like Ruth, belongs to both. Their entries are formidable not only in The Baseball Encyclopedia but also in the Encyclopedia Americana. These men are not trivia answers, and their contributions are not trifles. And yet to hear some tell it, more players are exposed to ESPN analyst Bill Robinson in a week than are exposed to Jackie Robinson in a career.

"When the Jackie Robinson exhibit was in New York in 1987, I went over to see it when I came into town with the Reds," says Dave Parker, formerly of Cincinnati and now with the California Angels. "Only two or three players went over. That was sad to see. A lot more could have gone and learned something."

"A lot of people don't appreciate [Robinson]," says Kansas City Royals right-fielder Danny Tartabull. "There are a few who do. He stepped in and changed the game of baseball. The way he did it, he had to go through hell. But hey, people don't even know who Curt Flood is, either. They do know who Marvin Miller is. They know that."

Marvin Miller is the former head of the players' union.

How bad is it?

"Once you go back past 1960," says charitable Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Mark Knudson, "I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of guys didn't know much, except for the big stars like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle."

He wouldn't be surprised.

History in the Unmaking, Part III: It is 1990. Pittsburgh shortstop Jay Bell has recently seen an episode of the 1950s program "Home Run Derby" repeated on ESPN. Bell cannot say enough about the prowess of a certain Yankee on the show who was driving balls out of the park again and again.

"You mean Mickey Mantle?" a reporter asks Bell.

"Yeah," says Bell. "That was his name."

"I am surprised every day when I bring up a name that nobody's heard of," says Rodgers. "Bobby Shantz. Eddie Mathews. Nellie Fox."

Nellie Fox.

In 1987, then Baltimore Oriole Lee Lacy approached a writer and asked him if Nellie Fox hit 500 home runs. The 160-pound Fox hit 35 career home runs, Lacy was told. Jimmie Foxx hit 500 home runs. "Of course," says the scribe, "I could have told him Redd Foxx hit 500 home runs, and he would have believed me."

"I think," says 60-year-old Boston Red Sox manager Joe Morgan, "we had more respect for the players who played before us than the guys now. I might be wrong, but that's my impression. You bring up someone's name [now], and you get a blank stare."

Ernie Banks.

"I'd heard of him, but I didn't know what he'd done," says Chicago Cub second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who grew up in Spokane and played in the first major league game he saw in person. (Mr. Cub hit 512 home runs over 19 major league seasons.)

Honus Wagner.

"I know for a fact," says Tartabull, standing in the Royals' clubhouse, "that guys in this room wouldn't know who he is." (Wagner won eight batting titles and hit .327 over his 21 major league seasons.)

Cy Young.

"I'd heard of him," says Doug Drabek of the Pirates, last year's Cy Young Award winner in the National League. Drabek says he was unaware of Young's accomplishments "until a couple years ago. I was flipping through a stat book and saw the numbers." (The numbers: 511 wins over 22 major league seasons.)

Willie Mays.

"A lot of the young players here," says San Francisco catcher Terry Kennedy, standing in the Giants' clubhouse, "don't know who Willie is." (He was a good-field, good-hit Giant.)

"Names like Ted Williams, DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, they recognize," says Adrian (Smokey) Garrett, who invokes many of these names while serving as Kansas City's hitting instructor. "But not names like Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto. I'm sure to players today Phil Rizzuto would be more known for being an announcer than a player."

How bad is it?

You ever hear Phil Rizzuto announce?

History in the Unmaking, Part IV: It is 1990. The Pirates are in Wrigley Field, where a flag bearing the name of Hall of Fame Cub outfielder Billy Williams ripples in the breeze above the stadium. Pittsburgh bullpen coach Rich Donnelly points to the pennant.

"You know who that is, don't you?" he inquires of one of his relievers.

"Gee," responds the reliever, "I didn't know they put the names of umpires up on flags."

Donnelly bounces the name of another Cub Hall of Famer, pitcher Fergie Jenkins, around the bullpen. "They thought he was the leader of an orchestra," Donnelly recalls a year later. "You know, Ferguson Jenkins and the Royal Canadians."

Explanations for all of this and exceptions to all of this are in equally scant supply.

Nintendo is frequently fingered as a perpetrator. "Kids today have so many other things to do," says Leyland. "When we were kids, baseball was it. We knew everything about it." This argument might wash if there were any nine-year-olds on current 25-man rosters, but there aren't, although we occasionally wonder about Ozzie Guillen.

Some observers suggest that there are too few fans on the field. One National League coach thinks that given the choice, more major league players would rather watch a basketball game than a baseball game on TV. When he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1982, Vince Coleman didn't know which teams were in the American League and which were in the National. "I knew who was in the AFC and NFC," says the Mets' centerfielder. "But I never watched or cared about baseball. I'm not any kind of baseball fan."

The human race has also been implicated. "It's people in general," says Trebelhorn. "I don't think people respect what's gone ahead of them. They aren't aware of those who have preceded them."

But the explanation most often cited is this: "When you talk about players, you are talking about doers," says Oakland A's pitching coach Dave Duncan. "They are spending their time playing the game. Otherwise, you don't make it to professional baseball or the major leagues."

How, then, to explain Dave Magadan and Daryl Boston of the Mets, both of whom can tell you the importance of the name McNally in baseball history, the significance of the number 130 and just where the hell Flatbush is. In an age when more players know what Luis Polonia did in Milwaukee (he was arrested for having sex with a minor there in 1989) than know what Warren Spahn did in Milwaukee (he won 20 games nine times there, between 1953 and 1963), Magadan and Boston both know that Spahn was lefthanded.

"The players I've had who've known the history were Vance Law, Terry Francona," says Rodgers. "Guys whose dads played the game."

This accounts for Tartabull and Kennedy, too; but what about Van Slyke, the son of a former high school principal? He devoured David Halberstam's breathtaking book about the Yankees-Red Sox pennant race, Summer of '49, in the midst of his own team's pennant race in the summer of '90. Van Slyke grew up in New Hartford, N.Y., but it is Cooperstown, 30 miles away, that he calls "a very special part of my life."

"I think it's important to know where the game has come from," he says, "where it's been and how it got where it is." Just then Van Slyke produces from his locker a crisp white T-shirt draped neatly on a hanger. He turns the hanger around to reveal the tableau on the front of the T. It is an illustration of a bang-bang play at second base, circa 1910. The shirt's lettering, from the same era, reads BASEBALL FOREVER.

Baseball forever?

"I love to read and hear about the old-time players," says Leyland in the manager's office across the clubhouse, "but guys today couldn't give a damn about who Babe Ruth was."

Baseball forever.

PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTS/SANDBERG (BANKS)BANKS (MR. CUB) HIT 512 HOMERS ON HIS WAY TO THE HALL OF FAME. WHEN SANDBERG (MR. CUB II) GOT TO CHICAGO, HE SAYS, "I'D HEARD OF HIM, BUT I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT HE'D DONE" PHOTOBILL SMITH[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSFOCUS ON SPORTSFOR MORE THAN A DECADE, MANTLE WAS THE MIGHTIEST OF BASEBALL MEN. WHEN BELL CAUGHT THE MICK SWINGING HIS STICK ON "HOME RUN DERBY," IT CAME AS A REVELATION PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONCY YOUNG WON MORE GAMES THAN ANY OTHER PITCHER IN HISTORY. CY YOUNG AWARD WINNER DRABEK WAS UNAWARE OF THE FEAT UNTIL HE CAME UPON THE NUMBERS IN A BOOK PHOTO[See caption above.]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)