Getting off base

Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball. —French-born historian Jacques Barzun 

Baseball has the most intense historical consciousness and historical pretension of any sport ... yet it readily abandons tradition for commercial advantage. —Gerald Early, professor and essayist

Every year, the Tigers home opener is one of Detroit's major rites of spring. This week, when the team takes the field against Cleveland, every single seat will be filled.

Granted, many of those attending won't be back for another game; they are there to see and be seen, and because there is a certain status in being able to get off work and go to the ballgame.

Although most won't even live in the city, and few will be black, it is still a big Detroit deal. The team had to open on the road this year, in Kansas City, and this column was written before those games were played. But no matter how the Tigers did in that first series, it is still perfectly possible to hope they will go all the way this year. Hope that they will sail through the season, cruise through the playoffs and then take the World Series for the first time since 1984.

What if Justin Verlander wins 28 games? What if Magglio Ordonez gets his groove back, hits .330, crushes 35 home runs? What if Ryan Raburn shows last year wasn't a fluke, Carlos Guillen returns to form, and Jeremy Bonderman finally earns his salary?

Could happen? Sure it could. And they could also lose more than they win. Two months from now, most of us won't be paying much attention to the Tigers. I'll be concentrating on the stupidity of our politicians, our dysfunctional state government, on trying to teach, pay my bills and fix up the back yard, which currently is a field of screams.

But every so often I will think about baseball. Yet not the way I used to. The nation has changed and the game with it. Oddly, the sport is, indeed, a metaphysical mirror of America somehow, as both the writers at the top of this column agree.

They came to baseball from very different places. Barzun's proclamation came in 1954, during the early Cold War, when we felt ourselves in a life-and-death struggle with Communism. They might have had the bomb, but we had the bomb and baseball too.

Baseball, Barzun told us, "expresses the powers of the nation's mind and body," and was "the most active, agile, carried, articulate and brainy of all group games."

Gerald Early, however, wasn't born in France, but in inner city Philadelphia in 1952. He was a black kid whose daddy died when he was a baby. He grew up with gang members, yet went on to become a full professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He knows baseball's flaws, hypocrisy and weaknesses.

"Baseball has the image of stability and conservatism, yet it is rocked by more labor disputes and unrest than any other popular-culture history except journalism," he once wrote.

Yet he still is fascinated by it, agreeing that "there is something about baseball's checks and balances that mirrors those of the Constitution, of Enlightenment rationalism, of liberalism ... the invisible hand of perfected design."

Modern major league baseball took shape in the late 19th century and dominated the 20th — maybe even more so in Detroit than elsewhere. Consider: When the American League was being organized in 1901, Detroit almost wasn't granted a franchise.

"Too small to support big league ball," some snorted. Indeed, Detroit had fewer than 300,000 people. But they got a team anyway — and then the Model T, Ty Cobb and the assembly line arrived.

Detroit zoomed to nearly 1 million people by 1920; 1.5 million 10 years later; probably 2 million during World War II. The Tigers got to the World Series three times in their first decade, though they never won it, and then again in 1934 and 1935, when they finally did. Baseball wasn't just Detroit's favorite sport; for a long time, it was really the only major league sport.

The sport mirrored society's contradictions. Those great teams during the Great Depression often played to half-empty stands, because people could not afford to go to the ballpark. Baseball's first commissioner, a federal judge named Kenesaw Mountain Landis, purged gambling from the sport and stood for financial honesty.

But he was also a racist who stood just as strongly for keeping blacks out of major league baseball. Jackie Robinson was only able to break the color bar and truly make baseball a game for all America because Landis had finally died three years before.

Detroit's greatest player, the immortal Cobb, was a sociopath so racist he once severely beat — for no reason at all — a black man he saw on the street. Today, there are no longer ethnic or racial barriers in baseball. Our society has changed for the better  — that way. But there are plenty of other social ills damaging our society and the sport.

Baseball players might have been American heroes, but they were the equivalent of serfs for the team they first signed with. They couldn't go elsewhere unless they were traded. Finally, the infamous "reserve clause" was ruled improper in 1975.  But that was followed by an orgy of greed that bid salaries up to insane levels. 

Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera spent a night in a Birmingham jail for drunken domestic abuse, right before the key game that led to the team's failure to make last year's playoffs. What the cops may not have realized is that his annual salary was twice that of upscale Birmingham's entire public safety budget. The average baseball player makes $3.3 million a year or so, more than most Americans make in their entire lifetime.

Nationally, millions of workers are finding out that the loyalty they expected from their employers was nothing more than a seven-letter word, as they are left standing by the side of the road. Nor have some high-level executives shown much loyalty to their employers.

From baseball's beginnings down to the 1980s, people were able to regard their home teams as sort of an extended family. Trades were rare and a big deal. Superstars might play 20 years with the same club, as Al Kaline did with the Detroit Tigers.

Now, teams change radically, from year to year. I can recite every member of the team that, despite a home run by Joe Pepitone, beat the New York Yankees 2-1 on Opening Day, April 12, 1966. But I can't name more than half a dozen current Tigers, and I know some of those won't be there next year.

Paradoxically, major league baseball draws three times as many fans as in the 1960s. But back then, it was the favorite sport of a majority of Americans. Polls show it way behind football, basketball and NASCAR now. For me, that's because there are too many teams, and playoffs and interleague play have cheapened baseball's regular season. Yet when the action opens tomorrow, I will pay attention to the game, and the score, and hope that maybe, just maybe, baseball can someday, somehow fill that comforting space in our lives again.

After all, there is always next year.

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