Being the decidedly in-the-moment guy he is, Dennis Eckersley
could probably care less. But when he faced the Athletics' Shane
Mack--the first batter of his 24th season in the bigs--Eck
reaffirmed a startlingly simple fact: You can trace the entire
history of baseball through eight players.
Eckersley's debut on April 12, 1975, was against the Brewers, a
team that featured Hank Aaron. In 1954, Aaron's first year, Bob
Feller was still going strong for the Indians. In 1936, Feller's
rookie season, Rogers Hornsby was still active with the St.
Louis Browns. Hornsby had broken in in 1915, while Honus Wagner
still played for the Pirates. Wagner's first season was 1897,
when he faced Cap Anson (above, right) of the Chicago Colts. In
1871 Anson's Forest Citys of Rockford, Ill., played against the
New York Mutuals and primordial shortstop Dickey Pearce. During
Pearce's rookie year of 1856, he played against the New York
Knickerbockers and Doc Adams, who was still active with that
club a decade after it had played the first recognized baseball
Adams, Pearce, Anson, Wagner, Hornsby, Feller, Aaron, Eckersley.
Eight generations of the game's family tree. One can take other
routes back. Sometimes the trip requires nine men, or 10. But
the heritage is still that compact, still lingering around every
ballpark as surely as it does not linger around every NFL camp
or NBA arena. Stan Musial's career overlapped with those of both
Lefty Grove and Pete Rose. Al Benton pitched to both Babe Ruth
and Mickey Mantle. Warren Spahn broke in opposite Carl Hubbell
and bowed out opposite Steve Carlton.
When the game's lush past is so easily connected to its present,
when the fans of today inherit some intuitive knowledge of the
grace of Joe DiMaggio or the passion of Roberto Clemente or the
durability of Cy Young, when baseball alone among the sports not
only supports but virtually mandates Old-Timers' Days, why
doesn't the game do more to preserve, emphasize and even boast
of its heritage? That's like asking, How in the heck did Apple
ever lose to Microsoft?
Of course, we're talking about baseball here, a sport whose
defending champion is nothing more than a no-freezes Rotisserie
team, a sport willing to sacrifice its identity for the
short-term profits of interleague play. The inescapable lesson
to fans born with the marvelous ability to travel backward or
forward within baseball? Stand still, shut up and buy whatever
memorabilia are thrown at you.