June 20, 2018

Yes, Virginia, Baseball is Like Christmas

December 14, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

I’m not sure when it happened but somewhere along the line the believing part of Christmas that comes with being a kid passed me by. It does for everyone I guess at some point, but it is a disappointment when it happens. As we grow older we allow the skepticism and questioning of things in life to get in the way of the fun things. I remember as a kid the Christmas that I was sure I heard Santa on the roof, and the other where I could have sworn I saw the light from Rudolph’s nose in my window. The years have passed and I haven’t seen or heard the big man in quite some time but baseball has opened a window, ever so slightly, and let me be that kid again.

There was a time in baseball history where not everything was shot from 15 different angles along with real time speed, slow motion and super slow-mo so that nothing is left to the imagination. What is wonderful about youth is that a child has not yet experienced true skepticism, cynicism and what science can prove; but instead entertains thoughts of “what if,” “could it be possible,” and “I wonder what it was like to be there.” I find that I allow myself to do this whenever I come across any old story in the game because not everything in life has to have a reason or be expressed through a mathematical formula to have occurred.

Certain pieces of the game should just be left as they are. There is no fun in trying to see how Santa fits down the chimney; you just have to believe that he can do it. Christmas and baseball are more similar than one would think; you just have to know how to look at them.

You can’t have Christmas without a train

Most of us grew up with a train around the Christmas tree just as our parents and theirs did. Each Christmas morning we would wait at the top of the steps for my dad to go down to check if Santa had come. We would be perched on the stairs as if they were the top steps of the dugout and only one more out was needed to win the World Series. The signal for us to come down was when my dad turned on the trains to let us know He had come. When I heard those trains I would charge down the stairs like the third out was made and I was rushing the field. Today the kid in me still enjoys a train, the “Big Train,” Walter Johnson to be exact.

Walter Johnson places among players like Ruth when it comes to being a mythic player. Arguments are made that Johnson should rank ahead of Cy Young as the greatest
pitcher of all time and I happen to agree. “The Big Train” won 417 games for a Washington Senators team labeled as “Washington: First in War, First in Peace, Last in the American League.” The stats are mind bending, in his 21 years with the often sorry Senators he won 26% of their games, won at least 20 games twelve times (including 30 games twice), tossed 110 shutouts and racked up over 3,508 strikeouts. Though he is ninth on the all-time strikeout list today his dominance at that time was remarkable when you consider that only two pitchers whose careers started and ended before WWII were within 1,000 K’s of Johnson’s record. Cy Young with 2,803 and Tim Keefe with 2,562. It would take 55 years for his strikeout record to be broken.

What gets my attention though is all the talk about how hard he threw. The old films show a nice and easy wind-up and a fluid side arm motion, not the over hand dealings of a flame thrower. Yet some believe he threw over 100 mph and possibly the hardest of all time. In the Ken Burns “Baseball” documentary, historians talk (I am paraphrasing) about how one batter walked away after just two strikes. When the umpire pointed this out to the batter, he said that after seeing the first two pitches go by there was no use wasting his time looking at the third because he wouldn’t be able to hit it anyway. Another is a time where an umpire was asked if players ever argued about his strike zone when Johnson pitched and the ump merely said that batters didn’t complain because they couldn’t see the ball either. The truth is somewhere in between and the best part is that you get to choose where.

Place the White Sox on the Mantle with care

One of baseball’s most controversial players is also one of its greatest and most famous. Even the most casual of baseball fans have heard of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and the reason is more than likely his link to the infamous Black Sox Scandal of 1919. It is a shame because Jackson should have been known for so much more than as a cheater, or a player that was preyed upon by teammates who wanted to exploit his ignorance. Over 90 years have passed and no one knows if he did or he didn’t help throw the series and if he should or shouldn’t be eligible for the Hall of Fame. He has been the focal point of movies, books and never ending debates that are forever linked with the Chicago White Sox. It is sort of like the internal debates over Santa’s existence when you are 10 or 11 years old and curiosity creeps in. Is he real or isn’t he? There is no right or wrong answer to the question, just the perspective that you take and what you choose to believe.

The question is often raised if a player will ever hit over .400 again or will Ted Williams be the last with his .406 average in ’41. Jackson was so good that in 1911 he hit .408 – as a rookie. He is the only rookie to ever hit over .400, and it also went down as the sixth highest single season average in the modern era. Babe Ruth thought so much of him that he copied Jackson’s swing and not just proclaimed him the greatest natural hitter he ever saw but Ruth gave Jackson credit as the man who made him a hitter. I would say a decent compliment from the best to have ever played the game in Ruth. Jackson also would name his bats. The most famous being a thirty-six-inch long, forty-eight ounce piece of weaponry known simply as “Black Betsy.” The bat would one day sell for over a half a million dollars; the most he ever saw for a season was $8,000 in 1920. Known mostly for his hitting, his glove work in the outfield was not to be overlooked. Some had said that his glove was “where triples went to die.” What adds to the legend was that he was an illiterate former mill worker.

How can reindeers fly? How does St. Nick fit down the chimney? What does he do at the houses that don’t have fireplaces or chimneys? For some things to be real you have to let go of common sense and simply just go with it.

Mickey Mantle himself blurs the lines of plausibility. His legendary shots are Rudolph, Herbie, Yukon Cornelius and the Bumble all rolled into one. In 1960 he hit one out of Tiger Stadium that was thought to have been hit 643 feet. Twice Mantle hit home runs off of the façade that hung down from the third deck at the original Yankee Stadium in right field. The most talked about of the two was the one hit in May of ’63. The players who saw it claimed that the ball was still rising when it hit the 110 foot high façade as he came within roughly 18 inches of being the only person to hit a ball out of The Stadium.

The most famous of them all though was the one that spawned the phrase “Tape Measure Home Run.” Mantle hit this one in 1953 at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. and it ranks up there with red nosed reindeer. Using a borrowed bat from a teammate a 21-year-old Mickey Mantle stepped to the plate. What is known for sure is that Mantle hit a ball so hard that it hit off a sign an estimated 460 feet from home plate and left the stadium in D.C. Red Patterson, the Yanks PR man, decided to go find the ball and found a child in his backyard with it. Patterson claimed to have measured the distance of the homer with a tape measure and came to a distance of 565 ft to where the boy found it from home plate.

These are the things a fan of the game and holidays should trust in despite what science, physics and those who feel the need to prove everything say. Whether the rotund fellow in red and white who makes you scratch your head in amazement is Santa or Ryan Howard, it is okay. At the end of the day, though, remember that it is a kid’s game and a fun holiday, so enjoy it like you once did.


One Response to “Yes, Virginia, Baseball is Like Christmas”
  1. Thanks for putting the baseball back in the holidays.

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