Monday, April 1, 2013

Oh Happy Day

Finally a little touch of spring is in the air after a winter that held its grip on the city longer than usual. I still have not seen my first crocus popping its head from the ground, usually one of the first signs of the season. I've seen robins, but they looked a little uncomfortable in the sub 40F temperatures.

For me it matters little what the calendar says, or what moment the vernal equinox takes place, or what the temperature may be. For me, today is the official first day of spring, It's Opening Day.

The wonderful thing about the game of baseball is that it transcends time and space. So much attention is given to the big leagues, especially on Opening Day, it's easy to forget that baseball is alive every time anyone anywhere picks up a bat and a ball. It comes alive in all the permutations of the game. Baseball is alive in the fields of the Dominican Republic where barefoot kids substitute sticks and rocks for bats and balls. It's alive in the streets of New York, where a broom handle makes a sufficient bat, and here in Chicago, where a game called pinners features a "batter" throwing a rubber ball against the front steps of his house while the fielding team comprised of one or two friends, tries to catch the ball on the fly for an out.

Baseball comes alive anytime you pour over the box scores of the previous day's games, or sift through the stats of your favorite players. Today as we begin a new season, baseball is all about the future; the question of the day is how will my team do, could this be the year? More poignantly, in a few weeks, the future will really come alive as the Little Leaguers take the field.

But perhaps more than any other game, baseball is about the past. If baseball has ever meant anything  in your life, pick up a brand new baseball glove and take a good whiff. See if the smell of the new leather doesn't bring you back some cherished moment of your life. The very nature of the game allows itself to be de-constructed down to every pitch, only to be re-constructed at a later time. Reading a good account of a game from the past can make it come alive as if you were there. A simple word or phrase for any baseball fan, can evoke a play which defined a game, which defined an entire season or team. The mere mention of "Merkle's Boner", or "Homer in the Glaomin'", or simply "the Catch", brings to mind famous or infamous moments (depending on your point of view), of a game that took place long before we, or our parents, or even our grandparents were born. Yet those fleeting moments of so long ago still matter, and they can be still discussed and debated long after the cows have come home.

Likewise, the players of the past matter even today; memories of their glory days can be conjured up simply by their colorful nicknames...
  • The Flying Dutchman (Honus Wagner)
  • The Georgia Peach (Ty Cobb)
  • The Big Train (Walter Johnson)
  • Shoeless Joe (Joe Jackson)
  • The Sultan of Swat (Babe Ruth)
  • The Yankee Clipper (Joe DiMaggio)
  • The Splendid Splinter (Ted Williams)
  • Hammerin' Hank (Hank Aaron)
  • Charlie Hustle (Pete Rose)
  • The Wizard of Oz (Ozzie Smith)
  • Mr. October (Reggie Jackson)
  • The Big Hurt (Frank Thomas)
or by their notable comments:
  • Hit 'em where they ain't (Wee Willie Keeler)
  • Say Hey (Willie Mays)
  • It ain't over 'till it's over (Yogi Berra)
  • Let's play two (Ernie Banks)
All those great Major League players of the past with two notable exceptions, are or will soon be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., the sanctum sanctorum of the game. Great players to be sure, but not all were necessarily exemplary human beings. To put it charitably, let's just say the Hall of Fame is made up of a colorful mix of characters. Bill Veeck once said this about the members of the Hall:
Wake up the echoes at the Hall of Fame and you will find that baseball's immortals were a rowdy and raucous group of men who would climb down off their plaques and go rampaging through Cooperstown, taking spoils .... Deplore it if you will, but Grover Cleveland Alexander drunk was a better pitcher than Grover Cleveland Alexander sober.
Just as the game exists on many levels and in many places, not just on the hallowed playing fields of the Major Leagues, ballplayers come in all shapes and sizes, genders, and physical ability, or lack thereof. From four year old tee-ballers to ninety plus year olds playing in wheelchairs, everybody who gets into a batters box or steps onto a pitchers mound somewhere, can claim for him or herself the esteemed title of ballplayer.

It's a fact that some of the greatest ballplayers of all time did not have one single appearance in a Major League game.

In my mind perhaps the greatest man (if not the greatest ballplayer), to ever play the game at its highest level was Buck O'Neil. His ten seasons in professional baseball as a player were, like many of his contemporaries, interrupted by his military service in World War II.  Buck was a decent hitter, lifetime .288 average, (three seasons over .300), and was also an excellent first baseman. After his playing days he became a manager, then a major league coach and scout. Buck O'Neil's stats didn't keep him out of the big leagues as a player. What kept him out was in his words: "my beautiful suntan." O'Neil you see played back in the days when people of his race were not permitted to play in the Major Leagues.

After he retired from baseball, Buck O'Neil became a tireless spokesman and living symbol of the Negro Leagues, the separate and equal (in terms of talent only, not equal in anything else) cousin of the majors. He traveled over the country dispelling myths that the Negro Leagues were made up of poor, illiterate, rabble-rousing misfits and clowns who barnstormed around the country in beat up old jalopies and busses.

Here he is in 2006 addressing the induction ceremony of seventeen Negro League players into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown:

There are a couple of truly remarkable things about that speech. First of all, he was 94 years old at the time and had only a few months to live. Yet he spent the last days of his life doing exactly what he did for years, proclaiming his message of the pure joy of the game, and of love and forgiveness, to anyone willing to listen.

But by far the most remarkable thing about his speech is that when the baseball writers convened to select players for induction into the Hall of Fame that year, Buck O'Neil himself was up for consideration. He was rejected. His numbers as a player they said, just didn't add up. Despite his bitter disappoint after the snub, he wholeheartedly agreed to address the crowd to honor his fellow members of the Negro Leagues, his message being more important to him than self-aggrandizement.

The Hall of Fame did honor Mr. O'Neil with a life-size statue and by naming a lifetime achievement award after him in 2008, two years after his death.

But he still has yet to be inducted as a member.

Somehow I don't think Buck O'Neil would want us to feel bad about that. I can imagine him saying two things:

First he'd say that life is simply too short to harbor bitterness.

And the second thing he'd say, especially today is this:

Let's go out and play some ball!

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