— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Thursday, July 31, 2003
In the American Grain
Baseball Reliquary’s “Shrine of the Eternals” adds three who broadened the game’s social horizons.
This weekend in Cooperstown, the Hall of Fame inducted two highly accomplished major league ballplayers (Eddie Murray and Gary Carter). Last weekend, in Pasadena, CA, the Baseball Reliquary inducted three singularly accomplished human beings whose impact on baseball extends well beyond the foul lines.
As a result, the Reliquary’s "Shrine of the Eternals" continues to recognize an often-neglected aspect of baseball’s impact on everyday life. By honoring two left-handed pitchers who overcame physical and societal obstacles (Jim Abbott and Ila Borders), and a non-player who had more impact on modern baseball working conditions than anyone in the history of the game (Marvin Miller), the Reliquary continues to be a pace-setter in creating an expanded definition of baseball’s significance-one that is all-too-easily overlooked, ignored, or distorted.
The founder of the Reliquary, Terry Cannon, understands this as deeply as anyone, and as a result the fifth annual induction ceremony repeatedly evoked this theme-beginning with the keynote address given by Robert Elias, editor of Baseball and the American Dream, a groundbreaking collection of essays tying together the game and American social history.
Elias, gently relentless in his probing of the linkage between baseball and the definition of "American values," pointed out that the game has often been ahead of the curve with respect to social issues. He was cautiously optimistic that such could again be the case, hinting that such a connection between the game and American self-definition was a link that could not afford to be broken.
Prior to Elias’ address, historian and novelist David Nemec saluted the efforts of those who pursue a uniquely American obsession-the collection of hitherto unknown facts and feats. Baseball is intensely dotted with such pursuits, and Nemec is one of the game’s most ardent and accomplished archaeologists, having almost single-handedly brought back to life the exploits of the colorful nineteenth-century American Association (in the finest of his many baseball books, The Beer and Whisky League.
Accepting the Reliquary’s research award (named in honor of Tony Salin, whose most famous book, Baseball’s Unsung Heroes, is right in the grain of grass-roots history), Nemec eulogized Salin (a close friend) with a riveting anecdote, and left the audience puzzling over that ultra-American concoction-the baseball brain teaser (of which he is virtually unrivalled). His question-for you to ponder along with the attendees, who never did get the answer-is:
"What two Hall of Fame pitchers, both with more than 200 wins, were born two months apart, pitched for the same team for the vast majority of their careers, but were never teammates?"
No mental torture was required, however, to appreciate the accomplishments or the acceptance speeches of two singular left-handers, Abbott and Borders. Though unable to attend the ceremony in person, Jim Abbott was gracious and humble in his videotaped remarks, living up to the descriptions of him provided by sportswriter Jim McConnell. Abbott, born without a right hand, was as unflappable off-field as he was on, as McConnell’s funniest anecdote confirmed.
Early in his career, Abbott was confronted by another all-American archetype, the boorish sportswriter, with an unfortunate and all-too-frequent penchant for ill-advised remarks. And, in this case, the sportswriter did not disappoint. He walked up to Abbott and said, "I think you’re doing a great job with this disability of yours."
Abbott paused, smiled, and replied, "And I think you’re doing a great job with your disability, too."
Author Jean Hastings Ardell provided a quietly eloquent introduction for Ila Borders, a ballplayer who will always hold a number of "first" in baseball history. Ardell did a wonderful job in tying together disparate threads from earlier speeches, noting how Borders identified with baseball’s consummate trailblazer, Jackie Robinson. She suggested that Borders’s effort to break into a hitherto all-male environment was similarly significant, and that her success as a professional ballplayer (Borders was the first woman to post pitching wins, getting the victory two times during her years in the independent Northern League) would light the way for others to follow in her footsteps.
The "firsts" achieved by Borders are impressive, and deserve recounting here:
-first woman to named MVP of her high school baseball team (1992) -first woman to be awarded a college baseball scholarship (1993) -first woman to pitch a complete game victory in a college game (1994) -first woman to win a men’s regular season professional baseball game (1998) -first woman to play three full seasons of men’s professional baseball (1997-99)
During her impromptu acceptance speech, Borders acknowledged the difficulties she had encountered in breaking the sex barrier in college and professional baseball. She revealed her loneliness-part of every ballplayer’s adjustment to the daily grind of the job, but an isolation that for her was made more intense due to the issue of gender.
However, Borders’s competitive fires have not been doused. At the conclusion of her speech, she revealed that she was completing a training course to be a firefighter. "The training has left me in the best shape of my life," she noted, "and I am seriously considering playing baseball again in 2004." While it may be an American trait that you can’t go home again, it’s even more American to get back out on the road. Borders’s love for playing baseball remains palpable, and here’s hoping that she will get her wish for another chance to play in an atmosphere less filled with hoopla and hostility.
As is usual at a Reliquary event, however, the best came last, as Marvin Miller gave an eloquent, humorous, and gracefully measured acceptance speech that was punctuated by a vigorous reminder of how little actual playing time was lost in the early years of the baseball labor movement he masterminded.
Miller reminded the audience that the labor movement in America had been frought with violence and strife in other industries, and that better working conditions had been exceptionally hard-won throughout the first half of the twentieth century. (As organizing director of the United Steelworkers from 1946-64, of course, Miller was speaking from direct experience.)
The actual number of days lost to work stoppages during the defining years of baseball’s labor movement-the time in which new pension plans were put into effect, free agency and the rules surrounding it were developed and implemented-amounts to nine days out of fifteen years. As Miller quantified it for his audience, that amounts to three-tenths of one percent of available working days.
And yet, Miller noted, baseball executives paint a picture of endless strife. The reason for this, he suggested, is that by doing so they can shift perception of who is instigating the labor-management difficulties, and chip away at the gains made by the players via their union.
Miller provided some interesting figures as part of his discussion. The gist of his fiscal analysis was that the profit margin in baseball was a good bit higher in pre-free agency days, but that the exponential increase in revenues that have come into existence in the past twenty years has put significantly more total income into the owners’ pockets. That such is not the version of things that we hear from the baseball establishment is, to Miller, simply part of the owners’ efforts to turn the clock back-even at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues in 1994-95.
Even at the age of 87, Miller’s ability to communicate simply and powerfully has not faded, and his assessment of the realities in baseball’s labor situation was both masterful and sobering. We have not seen the end of efforts by the baseball owners to chip away at the MLBPA, and what Miller is calling for is an organized effort to enlighten the fans as to the real motives behind baseball’s labor issues.
For if baseball fans cannot make the linkages between the labor issues in the game and trends in other American workplaces, they will be vulnerable to a prolonged continuation of the practice most deeply rubbed into the American grain-the evasion of true community. Miller’s speech echoed Elias’ call for baseball to lead the way in providing a revitalized sense of the ideal qualities held dear in America-qualities that are too often compromised, distorted, or sold out.
By celebrating those ideal qualities as manifested in the efforts of these three uniquely American individuals who have found the defining characteristics of their lives in baseball, the Baseball Reliquary has honored more than their individual achievements. It has honored the spirit of a more ideal America, where there is still the hope that a simple game containing multitudes can once again lead the way in pressing forward to address and solve nagging questions of class, race, gender, and simple human decency as they exist in America today.
That’s a tall order for a little old baseball organization to achieve, but the Baseball Reliquary-like the individuals it has honored-has what it takes to buck the odds. It will never be the Hall of Fame, but it may yet become the "hall of fame" that matters most.
All photographs above, with the exception of Jim Abbott, are appearing on Baseball Primer courtesy of Larry Goren.