Jason Turbow is the author of The Baseball Codes. His next book, Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, about the championship A’s teams of the early 1970s, will be published in spring 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
In 1937, Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic’s iron-fisted dictator from 1930 through 1961, turned his attention from despotism to baseball. More accurately, he saw baseball as a means to further his despotism. His political rivals, seizing upon the national obsession with the sport, had begun to field formidable teams within the Dominican professional league. Trujillo knew that to fully maintain his grip on public opinion, he would have to do the same.
Ted Williams didn’t exactly come from nowhere in 1941. He had led the league in RBIs as a rookie two seasons earlier, and started the All-Star Game in 1940, but still he was still seen as little more than a “lean, nervous, 22-year-old,” at least according to one contemporary account.
Ted Williams, popular theory holds, would have threatened Babe Ruth’s home run record had he not missed nearly five full seasons over two stints’ worth of military service during the prime of his career. It’s the lead topic in an endless game of What if?, wherein one estimates the numbers a player would have put up had his Major League attendance never been compromised.
When an arbitrator ruled that A’s owner Charlie Finley had defaulted on payments for Catfish Hunter’s 1974 contract, it resulted—above Finley’s vociferous objection—in free agency for the player. The occasion was momentous, but hardly groundbreaking. Hunter set the table for the arrival of widespread free agency a year later, but his forebear in contract default preceded him by nearly four decades.
On May 6, 1941, Hank Greenberg was feted at Tiger Stadium, his services to the Detroit baseball club honored with a gold watch inscribed with the names of his teammates. He’d won the previous season’s American League MVP Award and led the Tigers to the pennant, but this was not about that. The guy was only 30 years old and already ticketed for Cooperstown, but this was not about that either—not directly, anyway.
In 1931, Giants Manager John McGraw was so smitten by reports over a budding second baseman with the Louisville Colonels of the American Association that he left his team in Cincinnati and traveled 100 miles to scout him in person. It turned out to be a wash; McGraw declared the kid to be of insufficient build to withstand the rigors of National League baseball. “However,” he proclaimed upon his return, “my trip was not in vain. I saw a great outfielder with the Indianapolis club. His name is Len Koenecke.
The Homer in the Gloaming is among the most storied moments in baseball history, as clutch a hit as was ever seen when it happened on September 28, 1938. With less than a week left in the season, the sun was rapidly setting across Chicago in both metaphor and fact—the Cubs were desperately chasing Pittsburgh for the National League pennant, even as darkness threatened to cancel one of their two remaining games against the Pirates if it did not end quickly.
One batter, one decision, one moment upon which everything rode. Choose right, take a big step toward winning the World Series. Choose wrong, risk the label of also-ran.
In 1935, Lena Blackburne—one-time-phenom-shortstop-turned-utility-infielder-turned-coach-turned-manager-turned-coach again—was described by The Sporting News, 16 years after his playing career ended, in the only terms that mattered to the historical record. Never mind that he was “intelligent,” “industrious” and “a fighter,” all of which the newspaper took care to note.