The game on the field in the 1970s had been marked by an unprecedented commingling of power and speed; the great teams of Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Oakland; the return to prominence of the Yankees; and the historic exploits of Henry Aaron and Pete Rose. The game in the ‘80s would begin with the Philadelphia Phillies, led by free-agent Rose and future Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, ridding themselves of a historic stain. Until their victory over the Kansas City Royals, the Phils were the only one of the original sixteen major-league franchises never to have won a World Series (the St. Louis Browns had to accept the help of their modern incarnation, the Baltimore Orioles).
The next year brought baseball’s darkest moment since the Brotherhood revolt and ensuing Players League of 1890, as major-league players walked off their jobs at the height of the season and didn’t return for fifty days. By that time even diehard fans were thoroughly fed up with baseball’s seeming inability to resolve its problems fairly and with dispatch. Talk of a fan boycott never amounted to much, but as players and management looked toward their Basic Agreement negotiation in 1989--the centenary of the Brotherhood’s break with Organized Baseball—both reflected back on the damage wrought in 1981.
The 1980s brought unprecedented parity on the playing field and misery off it. The drug problem endemic in our society struck baseball, inevitably, as well, and Pete Rose’s itch for gambling disgraced him and the game. Baseball’s victims are highly publicized and their fall from grace is judged more reprehensible for all the advantages that today player’s enjoy—but the game is an American institution reflecting what is wrong with our people as well as what is right with them. Let’s hope that in this most difficult area of addictive behavior baseball can again—as it did with integration—lead America rather than follow it.
The year of 1989 became baseball’s worst ever, with Commissioner Bart Giamatti’s expulsion of Rose followed by his own sudden and shocking death days later, a second finding of collusion by owners to undermine the free-agent market, and a Bay Area World Series rudely interrupted by an earthquake. But baseball recovered even from these calamities, as well as a spring training lockout in 1990, to embark upon an era that gave promise of unprecedented prosperity. The attendance of the Toronto Blue Jays exceeded the 4 million mark while the team captured back-to-back World Series, the first such feat since the Cincinnati Reds of 1975-1976. And in 1993 the National League expanded to fourteen teams, welcoming franchises in Miami and Colorado that were instantly and wildly prosperous, with the Rockies setting an all-time attendance peak of nearly 4.5 million fans.
And then came 1994, a year of wonderment on the playing fields, as Ken Griffey, Jr., Matt Williams, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Tony Gwynn, Greg Maddux and a host of others appeared to be initiating a new golden age of baseball ... until play stopped on August 12, and did not resume. The leagues, which had divided into three divisions for the first time, now had no opportunity to try out its controversial new scheme of an additional round of postseason play, with the introduction of a wild-card team that had not been a division winner.
As fans, we were presented with a dilemma: to side with the players, who went on strike hoping to repeat their gains of the previous two decades? Or to side with the owners, who stood fast in insisting upon a balance between costs and revenues? As fans, we tried to side with the game of baseball, and to wish that its most intense contests would soon reconvene to the field of play.
And they did, with splendid seasons in 1995 and 1996, though some fans continued to withhold their affections, hoping that baseball owners and players would give peace a chance—as at last they did.
Baseball is not a conventional industry. It belongs neither to the players nor management, but to all of us. It is our national pastime, our national symbol, and our national treasure.
The monumental 1998 season enriched that treasure in so many ways, from the excitement of the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to the awesome victory total of the New York Yankees. Gloriously, baseball’s ghosts came back to life, in the daily press and in dinner-table conversations everywhere. Roger Maris, Babe Ruth, Hack Wilson, even Tinker and Evers and Chance, played invisibly alongside our heroes of today. Yankee heroics in succeeding Octobers even included an eerily nostalgic Subway Series victory. This was followed by one of the all-time great fall classics, a seven-game humdinger that the Yankees dropped to Arizona after two improbable last-man-standing home runs.
Who said that the good old days were gone, and that giants walked the land only in distant eras? Amid the thrilling games and the individual heroics one man created a legend in his own time: San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds. Not only did he surpass McGwire’s home run record by swatting 73, he also swept by two records that veteran fans believed would never be broken: Babe Ruth’s slugging percentage of .847 and Ted Williams’ on-base percentage of .551. The top three hitting marks of all time—now that’s a triple crown for the ages.
Ever changing in ways that are so small as to preserve the illusion that “nothing changes in baseball,” the game has introduced, in the lifetime of many of us: night ball, plane travel, television, integration, bullpen stoppers, expansion, the amateur draft, competitive parity, indoor stadiums, artificial turf, free agency, the designated hitter, aluminum bats, international play, and expansion to 30 teams in 1998. Not far off, perhaps, are intercontinental championships.
For fans accustomed to the game’s languorous rhythms and conservative resistance to innovation, the changes of the past twenty years in particular seem positively frenetic. Yet for all its changes, baseball has not strayed far from its origins, and in fact has changed far less than other American institutions of equivalent antiquity. What sustains baseball in the hearts of Americans, finally, is not its responsiveness to changes in society nor its propensity for novelty, but its myths, its lore, its records, and its essential stability. As Bruce Catton noted in 1959:
A gaffer from the era of William McKinley, abruptly brought back to the second half of the twentieth century, would find very little in modern life that would not seem new, strange, and rather bewildering, but put in a good grandstand seat back of first base he would see nothing that was not completely familiar.
It’s still a game of bat and ball, played without regard for the clock; a game of ninety-foot basepaths, nine innings, nine men in the field; three outs, all out; and three strikes still send you to the bench, no matter whom you know in city hall. It’s the national anthem before every game; it’s playing catch with your son; it’s learning how to win and how to deal with loss, and how to connect with something larger than our selves.
“Baseball,” wrote Thomas Wolfe, “has been not merely ‘the great national game’ but really a part of the whole weather of our lives, of the thing that is our own, of the whole fabric, the million memories of America.” Spring comes in America not on the vernal equinox but on opening day; summer sets in with a Memorial Day doubleheader and does not truly end until the last out of the regular season. Winter begins the day after the World Series.
Where were you when Bobby Thomson hit the shot heard ‘round the world? Or the night Carlton Fisk hit his homer in the twelfth? Or when the Mets, with batter after batter one strike away from their loss in the World Series, staged their famous rally? These are milestones in the lives of America and Americans.
We grow up with baseball; we mark—and, for a moment, stop—the passage of time with it; and we grow old with it. It is our game, for all our days.