Brainiac On Banjo #097: Yeah, Baseball!

Steve Goodman

Give me a doubleheader funeral in Wrigley Field / On some sunny weekend day – no lights / Have the organ play the National Anthem / And then a little ‘Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye’ / Make six bullpen pitchers carry my coffin / And six groundskeepers clear my path / Have the umpires bark me out at every base / In all their holy wrath — Steve Goodman, A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request, 1983.

One of the many differences I have with the Conventional Wisdom is that I see professional sports as part of our popular culture and not as a religion. If every player on the New York Mets were from New York City, and so on, that might be different. Root, root, root for the home team.

I’m not advocating such an impractical move. However, I do admire Chicago Black Hawks founder Fredrick McLaughlin, who, in 1926, decided all his players should be Americans — the ones from the United States, that is. Silly man. Their first season saw 19 wins, 22 losses, and three ties. In the Stanley Cup playoffs they washed out (to Boston) in the very first round. The following season was even worse, winning seven games out of 44. So much for that experiment.

Kansas City Monarchs

When it comes to professional sports, I am extremely conservative. This is due to the invention of the jet airplane. Seriously. Before the jet, teams were more or less restricted to playing in towns reachable by overnight passenger train. At the same time sports were being subsumed by the magic of television — not the “stick a camera behind the umpire and have some announcer do the play-by-play and live beer commercials” television, but multiple cameras, color announcers, real commercials, and, after the invention of the “practical” video tape recorder in 1956, instant reply. Broadcasters who had been making money off of local one-camera games realized there was serious cash to be had from network sports, particularly now that a team from one coast could play a team from the opposite coast the very next day.

This led to a massive expansion of major league sports. We had 16 MLB teams in 1960, with some larger eastern cities having two or even three teams at various times. In 1961 the American League added two, and the National League did the same the following year. By the end of that decade we had two dozen major league baseball teams and marathon pre-Series playoffs. Today… we’ve got about a million MLB teams, with more to come.

1st MLB Night Game, May 24 1935

Baseball began to succumb to the desires of the boob tube. The American League adopted the designated hitter rule in 1973, thereby ending their relevance to me as a serious sporting endeavor. To me — and I am not alone, although we are dying off — the DH is synonymous with “cheating.”

Hey, I said I was conservative.

The execs counted eyeballs. There were a lot more available at night than during the day. The first night baseball game was played in 1880 and a few more were played here and there in sundry minor league stadia. The Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues started carrying lights with them in 1930, but it was five more years before MLB baseball, in the form of the Cincinnati Reds, started the shining diamond illuminati. Before long baseball was competing with the Vietnam War for weeknight exposure, although the first World Series night game didn’t happen until 1971.

NY Mets Fans, Covid-2020

It’s well-known that the last holdout, my hallowed Chicago Cubs, threw in the towel on August 9, 1988. That was because that if the Cubs were to make it to the World Series (they should have been so lucky) their home field would have been moved to St. Louis. Staring that gun in the face, the Tribune Company ponied up the bucks.

Fun Fact: The Cubs almost became the first team to regularly play under the lights. Then-owner Bill Wrigley, of chewing gum fame, told his grounds crew to start digging postholes in 1935 and had ordered the needed equipment. In fact, Bill Veeck, the only businessman who truly appreciated baseball as part of our popular culture, was on the grounds crew at the time and dug some of those holes. But when Wrigley found out that Cincinnati was going to beat them to the punch he cancelled the orders and told his crew to fill in the holes. In order to hide some of the damage, Veeck planted ivy to cover the bleacher walls, thereby creating the “friendly confines of Wrigley Field.”

To me, baseball is a game that should be played under the sun with a nice gentle breeze flowing through the stands. Give the paying customers a pleasant time enjoying their peanuts and Cracker Jack while thinking up clever curses to hurl at the umpires. Sure, you can have lights for twi-night doubleheaders. As Ernie Banks intoned, “Let’s play two!”

That is baseball to me. And, I repeat, I said I was conservative.

Today, baseball has all the charm and appeal of a Vegas casino filled with Hawaiian shirts. As I type these words, the aforementioned Mets are playing in front of a bunch of cardboard cut-outs.

Sigh. They might as well.