If You Can’t Make A Sentence Apply to Baseball, It Probably Isn’t Worth Reading

The Mets have tried their best to not play Dominic Smith this season. (via slgckgc)

Back in the golden age of radio, Fred Allen was a comedian who anticipated both Johnny Carson’s version of the “Tonight Show” and Jon Stewart’s run on “The Daily Show.” A veteran vaudevillian with the precise diction of an escapee from Cambridge, Massachusetts (“I have just returned from Boston. It is the only thing to do if you find yourself up there,” he once said), he was endlessly quotable: “He is so narrow-minded that if he fell on a pin it would blind him in both eyes.” “The last time I saw him he was walking down lover’s lane holding his own hand.” “A committee is a group of men who individually can do nothing but as a group decide that nothing can be done.” “Hollywood is a place where people from Iowa mistake each other for stars.”

A personal favorite: In a wonderful invocation of onomatopoeia, Allen pointed out that the full name of the venerable advertising agency BBDO—Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn —sounds like a trunk falling down stairs.

As with any great line, it is incumbent upon the baseball-obsessed to determine how it applies to the game. Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn isn’t any more musical than Betts, Bogaerts, Martinez & Swihart, and although Allen couldn’t have meant it this way, one might think of Daniel Murphy holding his own hand on lover’s lane—in his theology, the options for acceptable hand-holding are limited. One of the best ways of learning about baseball is not to read about baseball. This sounds a bit like Professor Harold Hill’s “Think System” wherein one learns to play musical instruments by doing everything but playing them, but there is nothing so vacuous about developing a strong fund of knowledge.

If, as the cliché has it, baseball is a microcosm of American society, then we still need to investigate the macrocosm in which it dwells to understand it. Thus we need to read (say) The Glory of Their Times but also The Perils of Prosperity, which covers the same period. Even that may be too restrictive; you might learn as much about baseball reading a few years of Krazy Kat, which contains much about masochistic love and almost nothing about the game. One of the best baseball books is Bill JamesHistorical Baseball Abstract, but one of the second-best baseball books is Essence of Decision, about the telephone game-like interaction of leadership and bureaucracy and during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Some of Fred Allen’s best lines can still be found in books of quotations, but there are still baseball-applicable aphorisms waiting to be discovered. I came across this obscurity in the 1955 anthology The American Treasury, edited by the “Information Please” host and New Yorker book reviewer Clifton Fadiman with Charles Van Doren, a Columbia University English instructor who was about a year from beginning the fixed run on the game show “Twenty-One” that would make him infamous: “The penguin flies backwards because he doesn’t care to see where he’s going, but wants to see where he’s been.”

This is a confusing quote as (A) penguins are a notoriously flightless waterfowl and (B) Allen had a famous 1940 encounter with a recalcitrant golden eagle named Mr. Ramsdale, but otherwise had little reason to comment on birds. Nevertheless, Allen had hit upon a common affliction, not of penguins, but of people. Whether it’s the current presidential administration viewing the unrestrained pollution of the peak of the industrial revolution with envy or the Mets asking Terry Collins, going on 70, to “assume a larger role in the front office,” our instinct is all too often to look to the past for salvation. Unmediated, this is the death urge in action: History is a great place to find lessons, but when one fails to derive that lesson but rather skips directly to imitation, they’ve done George Santayana one better, remembering the past and opting to repeat it of one’s own free will.

Penguins looking backwards would seem to have further application to the New York Mets in their keeping first base prospects Dominic Smith on the bench and Peter Alonso in the minors because, in the words of manager Mickey Callaway, “I think we need to make some sort of determination going into the offseason whether it is feasible bringing [Bruce] back as a first baseman next year.” Jay Bruce has hit well since ending his 59-game timeout to heal a sore right hip (.277/.358/.532 in 14 games), but nothing he does in the few games remaining in 2018 will tell the Mets more about his future than his age and his career-long limitations. Smith has thus far been a flop at the major league level and Alonso’s defense may yet prevent him from being anything more than a designated hitter, but nonetheless, prioritizing Bruce’s past over the kids’ futures on a 65-77 team is a clear example of retrograde penguin-thinking.

The New York Yankees will soon have to confront the dark penguin of the soul when it comes to team dean Brett Gardner. The 35-year-old (with a late August birthday, 2018 is his age-34 season), who has typically combined hitting that is just-okay for a left fielder with an overqualified glove to contribute, on average, roughly three WAR a year. There are four interconnected issues confronting the Yankees as they decide what to do with Gardner both now—as they attempt to make it past the wild card round in the playoffs—and in the offseason:

  1. Gardner has hit only .239/.327/.370 on the season (the average major league left fielder has hit .259/.330/.433) and only .212/.295/.313 in 48 games since the All-Star break. His wRC+ in the second half is 68. His batting average on balls in play is a weak .273, which might suggest there’s some bad luck at play if only his line drive rate wasn’t the lowest of his career.
  2. With Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton, and (in theory, at some point) the injured Aaron Judge available to play the outfield corners and DH going forward, Gardner isn’t necessarily an essential starter in the near term.
  3. McCutchen will be a free agent, but his place in line could be taken by prospect Clint Frazier, who, it is to be hoped, will have recovered from his season-long concussion problems by then. In addition, the team may be tempted to bid on free agent Bryce Harper.
  4. Gardner is in an option year; the Yankees can retain him for another year at $12.5 million or kiss him goodbye for $2 million.

The Yankees have traditionally been a penguin-flying-backwards organization, hugging veterans to their bosom well past their sell-by date. This has been far less true in recent years. Additionally, the $10.5 million difference between keeping Gardner and letting him go is still quite a bit to spend for a player who may prove to be your superannuated fourth outfielder. Even were it not, that’s $10.5 million more the club would have to scrape up to tempt Harper. Better to fly facing forward and lessen the chance of recourse to the airbag.

Fadiman and Van Doren gave Fred Allen a place of honor in their “Comic Spirits” chapter, wedging him between Dorothy Parker and James Thurber. The former wrote short stories and light verse such as:

“By the time you swear you’re his;
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying—
Lady, make you a note of this:
One of you is lying.”

Possibly Brandon Drury considered these words as he passed through the Yankees organization like a swallowed wad of chewing gum on his way to Toronto. Thurber wrote a little bit of everything, all of it masterful, including Aesop-like fables from which he derived cynical morals like, “You can fool too many of the people too much of the time.” (“The Owl Who Was God,” 1940.) This would serve as a fine motto for three generations of Florida/Miami Marlins ownership.

A little further on, one finds a few contributions from Arthur “Bugs” Baer, the sportswriter, humorist, and cartoonist. The acerbic Baer may or may not have been the inspiration for the character of Max Mercy in The Natural (played by Robert Duvall in the film), but he seems to be the most likely model. There are four quotations from Baer, including, “It was as helpful as throwing a drowning man both ends of a rope,” a thought which could surely apply to acquiring Curtis Granderson at the trade deadline if you wanted it to. Similarly, the dated thought, “An empty cab drove up and Sarah Bernhardt got out” can be made current by deleting the actress in favor of Albert Pujols. Sadly, none of the selections are Baer’s actual baseball lines, which included, “Lefty Grove could throw a lamb chop past a wolf,” “His head was full of larceny, but his feet were honest” (concerning Ping Bodie), and “He would climb a mountain to take a punch at an echo” (Ty Cobb).

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

A few pages back one finds E. W. Howe, the old Midwestern newspaperman, who collected and concocted maxims. In 1911, he wrote, “A really busy person never knows how much he weighs.” This would have been a helpful retort for Dave Parker to have had handy when the Pittsburgh Pirates were suing him for violating his contract, in part because, they claimed, the 6-foot-5 outfielder had let his weight balloon to 270 pounds. Not included in the book is Howe’s, “There is always a type of man who says he loves his fellow man, and expects to make a living at it,” which sounds like every team owner in history saying he wants to win one for the community while simultaneously picking your pocket.

Perhaps the least interesting chapter of the book is the one on baseball (there is a chapter on just about everything that had been thought of as of the mid-1950s), although it does include Brooklyn Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen’s premature victory speech of 1951 (“The Giants is dead”) and a few classic Ring Lardner coinages, including the devastating, “Although he is a bad fielder, he is also a very poor hitter.” The existence of this sentence is incredible given that Lardner never saw Eduardo Nunez play.

There is, however, one precious 1953 paragraph from Satchel Paige that is of a kind with his other pronouncements on aging but less often quoted.

All this comin’ and goin’. Rookies flyin’ up the road and ol-timers flyin’ down and nobody in between but me an’ old John Mize, standin’ pat, watchin’ ‘em go by. I ain’t even sure about ol’ John. Maybe he’s flyin’ on, too. If he is, I can always watch ‘em go by myself. Time ain’t gonna mess with me.”

Paige truly believed he could lick mortality, at least for a while, and it is shatteringly disappointing that he was proved wrong. Only words live forever, and then only if you know them. Baseball is everything and everything is baseball. Therefore, to understand it, one must understand everything. As Casey Stengel said, “You could look it up.” (Not included.) As Jimmy Durante said, “Dese are de conditions date prevail.” (Included.)

Steven Goldman is the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, the editor and coauthor of numerous other books including Mind Game, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, and hosts The Infinite Inning baseball podcast. A former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, his writing on the game, its history, and sundry other topics have appeared in numerous publications. He resides in New Jersey, which is not nearly as bad as you've been told. Follow him on Twitter @GoStevenGoldman.
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5 years ago

It’s bizarre how HT think it’s wrong of Daniel Murphy to not approve of the homosexual lifestyle but that it’s perfectly okay for HT to attack him in writing over his lifestyle. That’s just hypocritical beyond belief.

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

i read this article twice. i don’t understand where and how it denigrates Daniel Murphy. The piece does a great job of relating baseball to irreverent literary quotes over the years.

5 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

“one might think of Daniel Murphy holding his own hand on lover’s lane—in his theology, the options for acceptable hand-holding are limited. ”

HT never misses a chance for a cheap bigoted shot at Murphy because of his religious beliefs. It’s intolerant, un-American, and disgusting. HT writers: start leaving your personal politics out of your writing.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
5 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

I guess we can add “bigoted” to the list of words that apparently mean something different in your dictionary.

Paul Moehringermember
5 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

“Leave politics out of writing.”

Why do I get the sense that you want to talk about nothing but politics?

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
5 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

Bizarre! It’s like these people think their values are right and the opposite values to theirs are wrong! How hypocritical can you get?????

5 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

I don’t think “bizarre” means what you think it does.

5 years ago

Granderson had a pretty decent game last night.

5 years ago

Great stuff as always, Steve. Given that all of Hicks, Stanton, Judge, Frazier, and Harper have some injury history to one degree or another, and that Gardner can still cover CF in a pinch, I can get behind one year of Gardner at a marginal $10.5M. Not that I didn’t enjoy the Shane Robinson Experience.

5 years ago

A terrific read. Thanks. Seems like W. C. Fields is relevant here:
“A thing worth having is a thing worth cheating for.”
“You can fool some of the people some of the time — and that’s enough to make a decent living.”
“A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.”