Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown: A Convenient Amnesia
I think we’ve all read or heard some variation of George Santayana’s, “Those who fail to remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana, despite that name which will mean delays at the airport check-in, was a born-in-Spain American (1863-1952), who thought and wrote in the wake of the Civil War, a voice for common sense and reason, in society, art and science; I don’t think he ever got to baseball, and that’s baseball’s loss. He was a Bostonian, until he returned to Europe in 1912, with the Sox on top.
Anyway, events of This Week in Baseball reminded me of George’s famous saying. Did Baseball, capital B, learn and remember anything from its cover-up of the strangling presence of gambling, in the first decades of last century — uncovered (but then covered right up again) when the “Black Sox scandal” broke? Apparently, it did not. And so we are “treated” today to stories of juicing from seasons past, with the Magic Number now 104 — that is apparently how many players tested positive in 2003, when there was no penalty for juicing, just the threat of wait’ll next year if you don’t change your evil ways.
On the heels of Alex Rodriguez’ admission that he, too, inhaled, comes the plea of Miguel Tejada, that he failed to give a Committee names. Good grief. I write below about the ghosts of the Black Sox stalking the earth, but Senator McCarthy, too? I was not surprised by A-Rod’s admission, and cannot be surprised anymore, I think. We have gone through a time when anything goes, because, well, those who might have guarded the game better were not doing their duty. Kinda like the Wall Street thing in that regard. Baseball owners are, after all, CEOs with bottom lines, out to maximize profits, and nothing draws fans like the long ball — baseball learned and remembered that from Babe Ruth. What do you mean, he looks bulked up? Look at his workout regimen. Don’t ask me what his trainers give him, look at the box score!
Even more disturbing to me, in some ways, is the prosecution of Miguel Tejada. More on that below. In the wake of the Black Sox scandal, some editors called for the government to step in and take over baseball — since the owners had proved incompetent in policing it properly. Baseball’s answer was to hire a federal judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who continued to work as a judge, by the way, until forced off the bench, to be full-time Commish. Landis was a marvel at image-repair and spin-control, but no one accused him of being extremely fair. Or consistent.
In his 1966 The Hustler’s Handbook, the late Bill Veeck (with Ed Linn) bemoaned the way the Commissioner’s post had evolved. Baseball had become a giant corporation, run by men in gray suits. “Corporations don’t want to be regulated. They don’t want a commissioner with any powers. They want [Ford] Frick. They like Frick.”
There is no reason why the Commissioner himself shouldn’t be a colorful, and, even controversial figure. He should not be a figurehead, he should be a fountainhead — a fountainhead of ideas. He should tour the cities — as Landis did — bringing publicity and the impact of his personality wherever he goes.
Veeck’s other opinions on the Commish are in the “Harry’s Diary” chapter of Handbook, must reading for anyone mildly interested in the Black Sox. And that’s a great context for his views. Can we imagine Bud Selig on tour today? Not any more than we can remember the president before Obama strolling the country. [Note: One more idea — elect a new Commish every four years.] Veeck did not agree with Landis on everything, that is certain, but he liked his color and dynamic personality and his decisiveness.
Yet I cannot imagine even Judge Landis handing the steroid mess any better than his successors. The Commish is, after all, an employee of the owners, the “magnates,” and if they are not bothered by the way things are going, the Commish will not likely make any waves. Even if they would be “in the best interests of baseball.” So it goes.
THE RESURRECTION OF BUCK WEAVER?
Forget that book title — the Black Sox cannot be buried. Or at least they will not stay buried. And I think that’s a good thing.
The latest B-Soxer to come back to life appears to be Buck Weaver — in the form of Miguel Tejada.
You thought the Swede was a hard guy. How about the FBI? They have charged Tejada — and I understand that he has already pleaded guilty — with lying to Congress. (If I was a political guy, I’d insert here instances of when Congress itself probably lied, without getting penalized.) What did Miguel do, or fail to do? Apparently he refused to name teammates who were juicing. Put another way, he refused to squeal or rat on his friends. Put yet another way, he is guilty of excessive loyalty, or possibly misguided loyalty. It’s all how you look at it.
I look at it through the lens of the B-Sox scandal.
When I started talking to groups about my B-Sox research, I was surprised at first when I got questions about the steroid mess. After a while, I knew the questions were coming. Because the way baseball dealt with gambling, and the way they dealt with the increasing use of “performance-enhancing substances,” is remarkably similar. They closed their eyes, for as long as that was possible, because it looked like it was good for the game, at least at the box office. Eject gamblers from what today would be luxury boxes? No way. Major league baseball, personified by Bud Selig, stood in the limelight, holding high the bulky arms of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, relieved that so many fans had forgotten the Strike that Selig presided over a few years before. Selig was there again, congratulating Barry Bonds when he soared past McGwire’s 70 and then Aaron’s 755. Whatever these guys were taking may not have been good for them, but it sure was good for baseball.
That was then. This is now. The first of the Eight Men Out to reappear was Shoeless Joe Jackson, a superstar left fielder with impeccable Cooperstown credentials, ambushed by leaked grand jury testimony, then promptly condemned my the media, and made a kind of poster boy for all the strangling of baseball by gambling, that baseball itself had failed to curb. Jackson took the form of Barry Bonds — substitute steroids for gambling, and you will recognize Jackson at once.
And now Buck Weaver is with us. Like Tejada, Buck Weaver knew what was going on, but failed to turn informant. Never mind that his team already knew â€“ and Buck knew that because his manager had spoken to the team about it. Buck would never give up Kid Gleason, either, but to accuse his teammates when he was not that certain himself about who was in or out of the scheme, or if any teammate was going through with the fix, was unthinkable. As I’ve written before, Buck needed a strong advocate, like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, to stand up to Baseball. Instead, he was “bunched together” (in Comiskey’s phrase) with seven others, first in the rumors, then in the late September 1920 indictments (yes, Baseball had kept the Fix buried almost a year), then in the 1921 trial, and finally in the banishment by Judge Landis that overturned the verdict of a jury.
My newspaper says Miguel Tejada “unlawfully withheld pertinent information” — and hundreds of players, coaches, trainers, managers, executives and league officials — even the Commish — didn’t? Landis’ 1921 edict condemned Buck Weaver for associating with gamblers in 1919. Hugh Fullerton, who tried to blow the whistle on the Fix louder than anyone, was among the reporters who noted that if Baseball applied that rule retroactively to all players — and not just Buck Weaver — every team would be gutted, because association with gamblers was commonplace until the B-Sox scandal broke.
Would Buck Weaver today be advised by his lawyers to plead guilty and throw himself at the mercy of the courts, and of MLB? A better question might be, would Buck ever do that? Or would he continue to stand on the principle that teammates do not inform on teammates? Especially not during witch hunts, and if you think Congress is incapable of that, google Senator Joe McCarthy. Know any Communists, Buck? How about you, Miguel? Anyone in the locker room talking disloyally about their team? Their government?
Maybe other Black Sox players have returned, too. Swede Risberg, in the form of Jose Canseco? Risberg reacted to the tarnishing of Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, at the end of 1926, by calling to public attention, and Judge Landis’, a little deal in 1917 that involved many players on the Detroit and Chicago teams. In other words, why single out a few high-profile players, when there are teams — no, make that whole leagues — you might want to check out. Chick Gandil supported Risberg, as others have suggested that Canseco’s grim picture of widespread juicing is not that far off the mark. So maybe Chick is back with us, too.
What about A-Rod? Maybe he is Eddie Cicotte reincarnate, a superstar who admitted that he did wrong, but moved on. Cicotte’s confession effectively ended the cover-up of the Fix. Eddie said he took a $10,000 bribe, and hit the first batter he faced in the 1919 Series — but played to win after that. That is not exactly the way it went down in the press (the media of that era), but that was Eddie’s story, told after he won over twenty games again, in the 1920 season. Alex Rodriguez, ‘fessing up to juicing in his Texas years, might be a little Cicottish, but I suspect that he will be treated a bit differently.
Of course he will, and let’s be clear about one thing here: taking bribes to play baseball to lose, is a whole lot different than taking substances, legal or not, in order to become a stronger player, to helping oneâ€™s team to win more games.
Cases can be made that whatever else they did, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver said that they played the 1919 Series to win. (Leaked statements suggesting that Jackson let up or struck out in the clutch, turned out to be absent from his testimony.) But Jackson took $5,000 (he said he showed it to his team right after the Series and was told to keep it); and Buck Weaver did sit in on a meeting or two where the Fix was discussed. Making both of them eternally controversial.
Is that the ultimate fate of Barry Bonds, Tejada, Roger Clemens, and others? To become, like Pete Rose, logs on the hot stove fire, to be debated forever, like Ruth’s Called Shot? To get more attention by being outside the Baseball Hall of Fame?
I hope not. What has happened in “the steroid era” — and do we know for sure it has ended? — has changed baseball. But baseball has always changed, despite that sermon by James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams. Sluggers of the deadball era, like Gavvy Cravath or Home Run Baker, had every right to complain when a livelier ball increased home run production in the 1920s. MLB lowered the pitching mound five inches when hurlers got the upper hand in 1968. If the distance between bases someday shrinks by two feet, Rickey Henderson will have a right to object, as his stolen-base marks fall. Baseball will change, Ray. Sorry.
What just might help baseball the most, would be Bud Selig coming clean about what Baseball knew, and when they knew it. To continue to focus on the players — the lowest level of employees — without any accounting for management, is absurd. Mr Selig might then resign, since we cannot vote him out, and call on Baseball to move ahead, in a true bipartisan partnership, players and owners. It’s what the game needs now.
The above is an excerpt from Issue #476 of Gene’s Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown. To read the rest of the issue (or past issues), click here.