Hope springs eternal with each opening day. But even as the sun rises on the new Major League Baseball season, skies are cloudy for the game we love. Echoes of the Mitchell Report’s j’accuse still reverberate. One assumes more names are forthcoming — if not in official documents, then at least in Jose Canseco’s juicy new tell-all. But it’s worth remembering that, in one way or another, the sport has always had a split personality.
Baseball is a game of verdant fields, of balletic athleticism, of beery sunny Sunday afternoons. It’s also one of cheating and meanness and corruption and greed. “Some ballplayers were alcoholics, others gamblers,” writes Northeastern professor Roger I. Abrams in his new book, The Dark Side of the Diamond: Gambling, Violence, Drugs and Alcoholism in the National Pastime (Rounder). “Some were violent sociopaths. Although appealing as an escape from day-to-day life, baseball reflected what we are as a society, warts and all.”
It still does. Just look at Elijah Dukes, who this past year texted a photo of a gun to his estranged wife. (“You dead, dawg,” he intoned on the attendant voicemail.) Or Scott Spiezio, who was recently charged with drunk driving and assault and battery (and four other counts, including hit and run and aggravated assault). Or Jim Leyritz, who kicked off 2008 by pleading not guilty to DUI manslaughter. Guys like that make jerks like A-Rod (opting out, then in, for mega millions) or Nomar (snubbing kids on Dodgers autograph day) seem saintly.
This spring, the usual annual crop of baseball books is being tossed onto shelves. But not all offer heartwarming tales of father-son catches and scrappy bench-player heroics. Rather — perhaps feeling that ill wind blowing in from right field — many are zeroing in on the darker aspects of America’s game: baseball’s seven deadly sins.
Death threats mailed to Hank Aaron as he chased home-run history. Jackie Robinson summoned to Fenway for a tryout, only to hear a voice yell, “Get that nigger off the field!” from the dark of the grandstand, thereby ensuring the Sox would be the last baseball team to integrate. (Even the Bruins beat them to it.) As Abrams writes in The Dark Side, 19th-century superstar Cap Anson would have no truck with gambling, tobacco, or booze, “as long as the sport banned all black ballplayers from the game.”
It wasn’t much better for minorities who were allowed to play. In Chief Bender’s Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star (University of Nebraska Press), journalist Tom Swift has crafted a substantial, vivid story of one of the best pitchers of the game’s early years. Charles Albert Bender was a member of the Ojibwa tribe. He was much loved by his Philadelphia Athletics teammates. But opponents, fans, and media were a different story. Newspapers portrayed him as a crude caricature. “I’m sorry, old Pitch-Em-Heap,” said dead-ball-era star “Turkey” Mike Donlin as he strode to the plate, “but here’s where you go back to the reservation.” At the Polo Grounds during the 1905 World Series, the cat calls shrieked: “Back to the teepee for you!”