The day after Babe Ruth passed away on August 16, 1948, at the age of 53 after a long battle with cancer, his obituary appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The happy-go-lucky slugger, whom many sportswriters and baseball officials credited with saving the National Pastime in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, garnered similar front-page news around the country, and stories of his funeral received major attention for days.
Cal Ripken was 6 feet, 4 inches tall. That made him much larger than most shortstops of his time, who were like hummingbirds—small, twitchy, and designed for speed and quickness. Shortstops were your prototypical defense-first bat handlers, guys who hit second in a lineup because, the thought process went, they could move the leadoff hitter into scoring position. That, plus good defense, and there [wipes hands]—you’ve solved the shortstop issue.
In the baseball world, July 8, 1994, was nothing special. It lived but 24 hours and then, like most days, disappeared as though it had never existed. Except, that wasn’t true for Jeff Ballard. That Friday was the last he would ever pitch in a Major League game. Wearing Pirates black, Ballard faced the Reds and gave, if you’ve ever looked at Jeff Ballard’s career numbers, a predictable performance: four runs in two innings, walking one and striking out one.
In 1949, George Kell won the American League batting race with a batting average of .34291, edging out Ted Williams (.34276) by a very, very narrow margin—.00015. While Kell of the Detroit Tigers did not have any other first-place finishes in the various batting categories, Williams of the Boston Red Sox led the league in homers (43) and runs batted in (159, tied with teammate Vern Stephens). Thus, Teddy Ballgame just missed winning the Triple Crown—leading the league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs.
After a disappointing showing in the 1908 Olympic Games in London, in which the host nation trounced the American contingent decidedly—winning 146 medals to only 47 for the US team—several US Olympic Committee officials accused British organizers of gross unfairness.
At the beginning of America’s bicentennial year, Major League Baseball paid homage of a sort—by following in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers—when it announced plans to expand once again: west to Seattle (if at first you don’t succeed) and north to Toronto.
The subgenres within baseball literature have been fairly static for generations. You have your biographies, your celebrations of major events such as World Series or landmark anniversaries, your anthologies compacting the best columns or excerpts from larger works. Over the last few years, there has been an explosion of Moneyball-type titles about the business of the game using Sabermetrics instead of the time-honored (and seemingly outmoded) methods of relying on scouts. Generally speaking: same book, different day.
I first read Mark Harris’s classic baseball novel Bang the Drum Slowly in a mass-market paperback edition, packaged for $2.95 as Henry Wiggen’s Books with two other Harris works, The Southpaw and A Ticket for a Seamstitch. This was in the late 1970s, when the team I have followed for most of my life, the St. Louis Cardinals, was having a particularly bad season.
Anytime I hear Judy Garland sing “Meet Me in St. Louis,” I think of the first Major League baseball game I saw. And I think of how the kindness of a St. Louis native who was one of the game’s brightest stars at the time made that game unforgettable.
It was April 1959. I was a third grader at Richfield School in Richfield, North Carolina, where all 12 grades and 320 or so students were housed in the same 1920s-vintage redbrick building.