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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Basic Biittner: Maybe it's time to reconsider ...

Friday, May 20, 2011

I'm generally not a fan of revisionist history, but a few recent events (that is, over the last few years) in major league baseball have gotten me to thinking (I know, a dangerous precedent).

After the 1919 World Series, several players on the Chicago White Sox, including ace pitcher Eddie Cicotte and leading hitter "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, were accused of "throwing" that World Series to the winning Cincinnati Redlegs.

As I recall, the eight Sox players were not found guilty in a court of law, but were nevertheless banned from baseball for the rest of their careers. In the case of Jackson, who almost certainly would have been elected to baseball's Hall of Fame (which didn't even exist at that time) had he not been blacklisted. Looking at the records, it's awfully hard to think that Jackson was involved in any kind of 'fix.' Jackson, who posted an unbelievable career batting average of .356, was even better than that in the 1919 Series. He hit .375 with 3 doubles, one home run, six RBI, and struck out only twice in 32 at bats. His slugging percentage was .563, and his on-base + slugging percentage (OPS) was .956. In retrospect, probably the main reason Joe Jackson never played major league baseball again and was never enshrined in Cooperstown is that he was just not a very intelligent (as in "book smart") man. I'm not saying that he didn't go along with his teammates and take some money to throw the games (ballplayers were not well-paid then, especially on the White Sox), I'm just saying that he didn't fully understand just what he was supposed to do to "earn" the extra money - he just went ahead and played his usual great baseball.

At the time of the so-called "Black Sox Scandal," Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, appointed to the position in the wake of the scandal, decried the horror of players fixing games, betting, and so on. And so, in the succeeding decades, gambling on games became the absolute number one sin in baseball. So much so that in the 1980's, another sure-fire Hall-of-Famer, Pete Rose, was also banned from the game he loves and helped popularize. Though he admitted a few years later that he had bet on games when he was a manager, "Charlie Hustle" claims that he never bet against his own team.

And so it has come to be that neither the man with the second highest career batting average (Jackson) and the man with the most games played, at bats and hits in major league history are not enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

It's going to get stranger, folks. Within a couple of years, the man who was the dominant pitcher of the 1980's and 1990's (Roger Clemens) and the man who hit the most home runs in a career, most home runs in a season, drew the most career walks, and won the most Most Valuable Player Awards (Barry Bonds) will probably not come close to the 75% vote needed to elect them to the Hall the first year they are eligible.

Thanks to the so-called "steroid era," Clemens and Bonds - whether or not they are ever actually proven guilty of steroid use - will be denied entry to the Hall. Ditto for Manny Ramirez, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, et al.

It has recently come to light that Eddie Cicotte of the "Black Sox," in a 1920 court deposition that the Chicago History Museum put on its website, said "the boys on the club" talked about how a Cub or a number of Cubs were offered $10,000 to throw the 1918 Series they lost 4-2 to the Boston Red Sox.

Cicotte is as vague as vague can be, failing to name any names or provide any details about how the players might have done it or even if he believes the Cubs threw the Series.

If Cicotte's deposition lacks specifics, it does offer a glimpse into the life of a player when their lives were a lot more like the working stiffs who rooted for them than the wealthy owners they played for.

Players commonly groused about being underpaid, and there wasn't anyone in the majors who didn't hear rumors about fixes. It was impossible not to see the gamblers at the games, the lobbies of the hotels where they stayed or in the taverns where they drank.

And they talked about such rumors all the time, including, Cicotte said, on a long train ride from Chicago to the East Coast.

"The ball players were talking about somebody trying to fix the National League ball players or something like that," Cicotte is quoted as saying in the deposition.

"Well anyway, there was some talk about them offering $10,000 or something to throw the Cubs in the Boston Series," he said. "Somebody made a crack about getting money, if we got into the Series, to throw the Series."

I am not suggesting here that it is okay for athletes to fix the outcome of games for any reason, I'm just saying that prior to Judge Landis' arrival in baseball, it may have been a problem for several years. No one can prove that, of course, so I'm sue there will be no effort to throw out the records of early-day ballplayers such as Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker or have them evicted from the Hall of Fame, it's just this: maybe, just maybe, those who elect Hall-of-Fame members (initially baseball writers and then, in time, a select committee of Hall-of-Fame members) should take the era in which players played into account when they vote, as well as what was - or was not - considered legal at the time they played.

For example, when many suspected abusers of steroids started, they were not yet banned by major league baseball; in most players' minds, gambling on games probably means betting against your team.

Now we all know (or should know) that the use of some substances can give players an unfair competitive advantage, but players have sought ways to improve their game ever since competition began, whether it's wearing sunglasses or batting gloves, the use of a certain mitt, throwing an especially tricky pitch, you name it.

For example, spitballs were perfectly legal pitches in the early 20th Century, until someone decided it wasn't fair to batters, and yet, some pitchers continued to use the pitch (or a form of it) and some even made the Hall of Fame, most notably Gaylord Perry and Whitey Ford, who scuffed up the baseball. Some people complained, but mostly, folks just laughed it off.

When Babe Ruth started bringing in crowds with his tremendous home runs, all of a sudden "something" happened to the formerly "dead" baseball and voila, all of a sudden everybody's hitting dingers. By 1968, pitchers had gotten so good that Bob Gibson posted an ERA of 1.12 and Carl Yastrzemski led the AL in hitting with a Batting Average that just crept over the .300 mark. Hmm, must be time to make some changes again.

In the early 1990's, many fans deserted baseball after a player's strike cancelled part of a season. Hmmm - maybe if you guys start hitting homers again, people will come back. How about it, Mark, Sammy ?

The point of my rant is this - trends and eras come and go in baseball, as they do in football, basketball, and life in general.

It's time to just enjoy the games for what they are - games - and applaud those who did well in their particular eras.

And if you choose not to bet your hard-earned money on the outcome of said games, I feel you will (eventually) come to enjoy the games and players for what and who they are (or were).

Dan Whitney
Basic Biittner