Baseball and Race and Let’s Talk About It

My friend, Don Drooker, wrote about Jackie Robinson last week. Why? What, are you living under a rock? Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League baseball on April 15, 1947.

That is appalling, as every baseball fan knows. And really as anyone who has thought about the history of the United States knows. But that is what happened, and we rightfully celebrate the end of the barrier. It would certainly be wrong not to, at least until all the ancillary misery of racism has been fixed.

I think about the slogan, Make America Great Again, and it is difficult to think of it as meaning anything other than that we were a better country when we were whiter and had more slaves, or at least fewer civil rights laws. My friend Don’s piece reminded me of something.

I was young. Maybe 6, could be 7. My friends and I collected baseball cards. We were crazy about baseball cards, really. And we played games. The most popular baseball card games we played were built on the rules of the card game War.

You would lay down a card, at random, and another player would lay down a card at random. If they matched, the other player would take your card. If they didn’t match, the next player would turn a card, and so on until a match was made.

Matches were made with logo colors, team names, positions. We had a lot of variations of the game. This was a way to mix up our card collections, which we didn’t see as having monetary value, but we did see as currency of a baseball fandom sort.

And then, one day, we decided to play the same game, but using player skin color as the determinant for matches. What I can say for sure is none of us six year olds thought skin color meant anything other than the color of skin. There were no other signifiers for us. We saw it as natural a swap as your yellow logo versus my yellow logo. So we sat on the stoop of my friend’s house playing this game, when my friend’s mother heard what we were doing. Matching on skin tones. Boom.

Everyone had to go home. This was unacceptable.

I think back and I don’t blame my nameless friend’s mom. She was telling us race is not a game.

But she wasn’t telling us that race is in the eye of the beholder. It is a power system. And our innocent heads, up to that point, didn’t see skin color as anything other than skin color. A shade.

Later, we learned how much more there was to it.

 

Link: A Nice Story About Sherri Nichols, Sabermetric Pioneer

The early days of the internet were extra exciting because only “advanced” people were on it, talking. There were few civilians back in that day, and there were no structures, so opportunity to talk and engage was really open.

I found my voice in alt.rec.baseball and more often alt.rec.baseball.fantasy, which were Usenets groups that attracted a lot of people with interests and passions and ideas, at a time when public internet discourse wasn’t routinely ruined by vandals.

One of the people who was encountered on alt.rec.baseball was Sherri Nichols, who is the topic of a very nice Ben Lindbergh piece on The Ringer. You can read it here.

I have no problem with Ben’s recitation of the history, and I fully embrace the idea that baseball nerdom would be better if it became more gender balanced. Or at least recognized that women were there, as Sherri was, when important ideas were being developed.

But his story is also an intriguing look at how the internet went from being the domain of academics and people with ideas to a teapot tempested with opinions.

I don’t want to tie too big a bow on it, but those of us who like real ideas miss the old days.

 

 

 

 

The New Home Run Reality

I’ve been operating under a few well known and mostly agreed upon facts.

  1. People love home runs.
  2. A slimmer taller strike zone, which better represents the rule book strike zone, is being called these days.
  3. Even without PEDs, athletes (and all of society) values strength more than ever.
  4. There are always PEDs, though they don’t seem to be widespread, but they’re certainly there.
  5. When home runs go up and strikeout rate goes up, too? Yes, hitters are swinging harder, making more mistakes, but also hitting more balls out of the park. There should be a Moore’s Law about this ratio. I’m going to work on it.

But the fact is, as Ben Lindbergh points out in this Ringer piece, based on research by the estimable Mitchel Lichtman, it seems the ball is juiced.

Lindbergh is extremely diplomatic about this assertion.

Maybe because Lichtman’s interesting testing (certified game-used balls bought on Ebay) is based on a small sample size, and subject to all kind of aging and sample treatment issues that are especially important in a small sample.

So, it’s fair so posit that Lichtman’s numbers aren’t perfect.

But, when you go through all that Lindbergh goes through quite methodically to present the case, it’s hard not to conclude that the ball is likely juiced. And that a small difference, seven feet in distance, could account for the insane increase in homers the last few years.

Which doesn’t mean that the MLB poohbahs decided to juice the ball, because as Lindbergh points out, if that’s what they did they did it in the most obvious way. Which, with crazy child reverse logic, means they probably didn’t do that on purpose, because they would not want their fingerprints on the manipulation. Right?

But they might have not cared, too, though they deny it, and have presented scientific evidence from their own labs that Lindbergh was given access to some months back that the balls are not juiced. We’ll let Alex Jones, the performance artist, weigh in here.

The most interesting part of the story for me was Lindbergh’s recitation of some Craig Wright-reported historical info about the transition from the dead ball to live ball in 1919 to 1921. The wool changed! The bottom line is that the game is played and has been played in continually changing historical and social conditions. To expect gross stats to adhere to any simple benchmark was a childhood fantasy for most of us, and for anyone younger? It should be a goof.

So, I’m not 100 percent down with Lichtman and Lindbergh, I mean who knows for sure (none of us), but this is good work, and the discussion should continue. That’s how science works.

PS. Plus, I realize I didn’t include the most excellent stat to help explain that the home run rate is because the balls are different. Big home run hitters aren’t benefiting much. Top home run rates aren’t increasing. What is increasing is home runs from secondary hitters, whose deep fly balls are suddenly leaving the park. Assuming that’s true, I’m taking their word, let’s blame the ball.

 

 

 

Link: Baseball’s Real Revolution Reframed

screenshot-2016-09-23-11-46-12Josh Levin uses the sagas of the Fire Joe Morgan blog and Rob Neyer to chat about how baseball’s statistical revolution stopped being about stats versus scouts, and comes up with something nice to say about Tim McCarver!

Well worth reading for it’s gentle sense of history, and optimistic view forward. In Slate.

http://www.slate.com/articles/sports/the_next_20/2016/09/fire_joe_morgan_and_the_moneyball_revolution.html

ASK ROTOMAN: A pitcher smuggled out of Cuba

Dear Rotoman:

I’m not sure if this falls into the scope of the questions you answer, but I was talking with a friend last night about baseball history and he brought up a pitcher who had been smuggled out of cuba by his manager after he was attacked with some kind of weapon. I remember reading about that somewhere, but can’t remember the player’s name and can’t find it anywhere! Do you have any idea?

“History Buff”

Van Lingle Mungo was a rough and rowdy pitcher, mostly for the Brooklyn Dodgers, from 1931 to 1945.

The quote that is always used to address his temper is from Casey Stengal: “”Mungo and I get along fine. I just tell him I won’t stand for no nonsense, and then I duck”

At the Baseball Almanac I found this telling of the story of Mungo on a date in Havana:

The following story about Van Mungo appeared in The Herring Design Quarterlies, “Once, when the Dodgers were training in Cuba, his friends really saved him. Seems Van Lingle Mungo became enamored with a nightclub dancer by the name of Gonzalez, and she liked him pretty well, too. Her husband caught them in the clutches, and Mungo punched him in the eye. Señor Gonzalez returned with a butcher knife. That’s when a Dodgers executive by the name of Babe Hamberger hid Mungo in a laundry cart. He got his pitcher out of a major jam and down to the wharf where a seaplane was waiting. Mungo hid while his bags were loaded. Then Hamberger yelled, and Mungo sprinted for the plane, leaping aboard with the police hot on his heels.”

Bill James, in the Historical Baseball Abstract, lists Mungo as a drinking man in 1930s baseball, and that’s all.

But Mungo has been immortalized, of a sort, by David Frishberg, who wrote a song called “Van Lingle Mungo.” It’s a jazzy piece, well worth a listen, and while you do head over to Baseball Almanac and read about Frishberg’s one meeting with Mungo.

Mickey, Willie and the Hacker. Or Buschel’s Perfect Day.

Screenshot 2016-01-31 00.43.08I play in the American Dream League with the tech writer Steven Levy, whose team is known as the Random Hackers.

Another writer (of this excellent book, among other things), Bruce Buschel, is in the league, too, and has been since its first year, 1981. His team has gone by many names, most memorably, the BB Gubs.

Even if you don’t know who Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Martin Luther King are, or Bowie Kuhn for that matter, let Bruce fill you in with this delightful shaggy dog story.

Read it here.

Woodrow Wilson: Father of Fantasy Baseball?

p1020962-copyJohn Thorn, basesball historian, has an amazing tale about Woodrow Wilson, the 28th US president, who as a boy appears to have spent 1871 creating a fictional version of the National Association season that year.

Found in the Woodrow Wilson collection at the Library of Congress was a handwritten end of season account, including box scores, that mimicked similar actual accounts published by Henry Chadwick.

The attention to detail is amazing, and maybe a little scary. Read Thorn’s story for all the details, including an account of the “newspaper’s” sale by the auction house that is today called Southby’s, which attributed the piece to Chadwick himself.

UPDATE: The linked story was originally published on February 24, 2014, but I just came upon it today. If you liked this story, you may like this one about the baseball game Jack Kerouac invented as a boy.

Rotisserie Baseball: Carved In Stone

Dan Okrent talks about the game he invented.

http://m.mlb.com/video/topic/7417714/v103509783

 

Henry David Thoreau and the Baseball Fields

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On April 10, 1856, Henry David Thoreau, looking like Dustin Pedroia’s older brother, wrote in his diary about the baseball fields in Concord, Mass., being finally dry enough on which to play.

dustin-pedroia-mlb-boston-red-sox-tampa-bay-rays-850x560

 

Boston residents today are not so sure the snow will ever melt this year.

 

LINK: Baseball is Dying! Again and again and again!

BYD-BostonBaseballNavy_largeGrantland’s Bryan Curtis visits baseball historian John Thorne, and surveys the literature of baseball is dying stories. The first one dates from 1868.

In a HardballTalk story from September, Craig Calcaterra showed the fallacy of  current baseball is dying stories, over and over and over.