He was larger than life. Sustained by a gargantuan appetite, he crisscrossed the countryside and exhibited a prodigious ability to dominate his chosen craft. He was a paragon of strength, as brave as could be, and his exploits captivated anyone lucky enough to bear witness. As he continued to wield the tool of his trade, the stories of his journeys expanded, growing even larger than the man himself, until finally, they evolved into the stuff of legend. This was Babe Ruth. This was Paul Bunyan.
There are heroes and villains in the story of baseball. Improbable adventures, epic battles, glorious victories, and bitter defeats color the boxscores. Larger than life characters populate the record books and encyclopedias. In the first edition of The Bill James Historical Abstract, James wonders if Hal Chase might have been a character created by Robert Louis Stevenson. In his wonderful book, Baseball America, the author and baseball historian Donald Honig sets up the historic convergence between Walter Johnson and Smoky Joe Wood on September 6, 1912 by borrowing imagery and language from the American Wild West. Baseball even has its own creation myth: the story of Abner Doubleday inventing baseball in Cooperstown in 1839. Although this particular tale has been repudiated, and we now have a much clearer and realistic timeline to associate with the evolution of the game of baseball, the myth retains its importance. It provides insight into a specific desire to understand and claim, and as such, lends itself to our understanding of the national pastime and its place in the history of our country. The stories of our baseball heroes – polished by fantastical stories and grounded in empirical evidence – illuminate the game and lend a sense of otherworldliness to our love for it. In a sense, the stories make our heroes come alive, and add color and depth to the numbers. Did Ruth call his shot in the fifth inning of the third game of the 1932 World Series? We don’t know. But it falls in line with everything else we know about the Babe, and the myth creates a finer-tuned image of him. The stats and stories of ballplayers align themselves into thousands of photographs which imprint themselves in our conversations and memories, and the resulting assembled pictures reverberate with a liveliness and tangibility that would otherwise remain static and unimpressionable.
Last week, Major League Baseball held its annual First-Year Player Draft in Orlando, Florida, and the yearly excitement of predicting greatness, prospecting for unrefined gems, and assembling components of the future had its few days in the sun. This year, 29 men and one woman – all in steep contrast to the youth surrounding them – lent a poignant counterpoint to the stories of kids chasing their dreams to become the next great baseball star. Andrew Porter, Mahlon Duckett, James “Red” Moore, Harold Gould, Emilio Navarro, and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson were among the 30 former Negro League players invited to Orlando to participate in a Negro League Player Draft in which each MLB club selected one of the former players in attendance. None of thirty – when their arms were strong, when their bats were powerful – were given the opportunity to play in Major League Baseball. When I read the news of this additional element to the draft, began to study the names and bios of players like Bob Mitchell, Jim Colzie, Otha “Li’l Catch” Bailey, Bill Blair, “Prince” Joe Henry and Charley Pride, and started writing questions for them (MLB Productions was given the opportunity to conduct interviews with some of the invitees), I began imagining their baseball lives: the players they had seen, the battles (on and off the field) they had fought, the myths they had created. Despite the profound advancements in research and scholarship that have given substance to the careers of players like Bert Simmons, Mack “Mack the Knife” Pride, Cecil Kaiser, Robert Scott, Ulysses Hollimon, and Walter Lee Gibbons, we still know too little about the exploits, achievements, glorious victories, and bitter defeats of the Negro Leaguers. But, in place of the solidity of the statistical evidence, we do have stories and myths that can foster an appreciation for their careers and abilities. These ballplayers – men like Irvin Castille, John “Mule” Miles, Hank Presswood, Bill “Lefty” Bell, James Tillman and Enrique Maroto – may have played against Satchel Paige when he would saunter into the game, call in his fielders, and dare to strike out the side. They may have seen Josh Gibson exhibit his prodigious strength on the ballfield – the powerful ability to hit the ball as far as anyone which gave life to a myth of the time he hit a ball so high that it didn’t return to earth until the next day. They may have been awed by the blinding speed of Cool Papa Ball, who ran so fast, it was asserted, he could flick off the light switch in his room and then be in bed before it got dark. Some saw a 15-year old Willie Mays before the was the “Say Hey Kid.” Some played alongside a baby-faced Ernie Banks as he worked out the rough portions of his game with the Kansas City Monarchs. Some watched Hank Aaron hit cross-handed and wondered if the kid could ever amount to anything. And some even played against Jackie Robinson when he was a sore-armed shortstop just out the Army. The former ballplayers – men like Joseph B. Scott, Neale “Bobo” Henderson, Carlos Manuel Santiago, Walt Owens, Charlie Davis and Walter McCoy – saw games and played against players who, for the most part, have been confined to incomplete sketches and caricatures. But for the thirty former Negro leaguers who attended the draft in Orlando this past week, they own more than hazy outlines. Their memories can take us back to another era; their stories can enliven our impressions and evaluations, and their myths can add incomparable depth to our considerations. For a time last week, the Negro Leagues lived and breathed again, and the stories of a particular time and place were passed on from 30 former Negro Leaguers to another generation. Without their stories, without their graciousness and willingness to sit for a time and share their oral histories, our game would not be so rich and textured.
The story of baseball resides not only on the playing fields and in the statistical evidence of performances. The connected stories and myths that accompany our knowledge and expand our recollections remain essential. They color, illuminate, magnify, and reveal. They sharpen our arguments, augment our conclusions, and add spice to our assertions. Every performance or achievement we witness today begins a time-line of connectivity that reaches back into the past, imploring us to remember and contextualize. The timelessness of baseball originates here – in the stories and myths of the ballplayers and moments that echo across the fields and reach into our memories.