As we look forward to the 2008 campaign of Jacoby Ellsbury, the first Navajo in the majors (and on the other side of the rivalry, Yankee flamethrower Joba Chamberlain is a member of the Winnebago tribe), it’s worth remembering a time when it was a bit harder for a Native American to play America’s game.
“He came straight for me followed by half a dozen players with bats in their hands. He hit me in the face with his fist, knocked me over, jumped on me, kicked me, spiked me, and booted me behind the ear.”
Those are the words of Claude Lueker, a heckler — crippled, with only half a hand — describing getting his ass kicked by Ty Cobb in 1912. It comes courtesy of Ty Cobb: Safe at Home (Lyons), a new book by Don Rhodes that offers a fair-minded assessment of the off-field life of one of the game’s most talented and notorious figures.
Cobb is far from the only player prone to violence and ill-temper. (And, truthfully, Lueker was asking for it.) The game is full of bust-ups and scraps: Roger Clemens tossing a jagged bat shard at Mike Piazza, Pedro Martinez tossing Don Zimmer to the ground, raging Lou Piniella getting tossed from some 60 games over the years. As Abrams quotes Willie Mays in The Dark Side, “For all its gentility, its almost leisurely pace, baseball is violence under wraps.”
This diamond can be rough. Certain traditional rules are strictly enforced by the players themselves. Ross Bernstein’s The Code: Baseball’s Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-at-Your-Own-Risk Code of Conduct (Triumph) — its cover is the iconic image of 46-year-old Nolan Ryan whaling the shit out of Robin Ventura’s face — offers a glimpse at exactly how uniformed personnel (hint: not umpires) govern the goings-on inside the lines: bean balls and bench-clearing brawls, chargings of the mound and collisions at the plate, showboating and sliding hard into second.
Just this past summer one sacrosanct rule was broken by former Red Sox second baseman Jose Offerman, attempting a comeback with the Long Island Ducks. “No matter how mad you get,” writes Bernstein, “or how badly you want to bash your opponent’s brains in, you cannot under any circumstances use your bat as a weapon.” (Offerman didn’t just break baseball’s social contract. He broke the pitcher’s finger. And he broke the law — he was arrested after the game.)
As bad as this steroids saga is, it still pales in comparison with the scandal perpetrated by the Pale Hose in 1919, when eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the World Series. In the new paperback edition of this past year’s Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game (Modern Library), New York Times writer George Vecsey calls them “the lost boys of baseball, lashed together . . . in a ship that can never return to harbor.”
In The Dark Side, Abrams avers that the crisis “exemplified the decline of American morals in the period following the first World War.” But cheating and corruption have always been part of baseball.
In The Code, Bernstein chronicles the knavish ways players in this “gentleman’s game” sometimes try to gain competitive advantage: spiking second basemen; scuffing and sliming balls; boning, corking, and tarring bats; and the infamous hidden-ball trick (a specialty of our own Mikey Lowell). Devious tactics are only bad when they’re used by the other guy, of course. When they’re employed by your team, what’s the fuss?