BASEBALL IN AMERICA

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Baseball has long been referred to as America's pasttime, but there has always been controversy surrounding the sport since it became popular in the early 1900's. Baseball is claimed to have been started by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York in 1839. Allegedly, baseball was created prior to that, as there are records of different cities competing against each other, such as Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts.

From the infamous 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal to the current steroids scandal, baseball has always had something for people to complain about. The Black Sox scandal involved the World Series of 1919 between the Black Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. Eight players on the Black Sox, hoping to receive money from gamblers, deliberately lost the World Series to the Reds, and upon review, were banned from baseball. Those players were "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, Chick Gandil, Swede Risberg, Buck Weaver, Happy Felsch, Eddie Cicotte, and Lefty Williams.

Gambling has been banned by baseball, but fans can remember a more recent issue regarding the subject, when Pete Rose was banned from the sport in 1989, three years after he retired. He admitted in 2004 to gambling while he was playing for and managing the Cincinnati Reds. Rose has been vying for reinstatement in the sport for years, writing an autobiography, titled My Prison Without Bars. Also known as "Charlie Hustle," Rose holds many records and titles throughout the sport, most notably his record for most career hits, at 4,256.

The legend of Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers still holds true as one of the most defining moments in the history of baseball. Before Robinson made his presence known throughout Major League Baseball, no black people had played professional baseball. In fact, they had their own league, referred to as the Negro League, where stars like Josh Gibson arguably put up better numbers than anyone in professional baseball ever did. But Robinson, with the help of Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, broke the color barrier in baseball on April 15, 1947. He received many death threats, and was harassed and heckled by fans, and more surprisingly players, such as Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman. Robinson brushed it off. By not reacting to it, he opened the gates for blacks and other minorities to join the game, and the rest of the world, because of the respect Robinson and black people in general received for his actions (or lack thereof). Since then, baseball has become more and more diverse every season, getting large amounts of players from Latin American and Asian countries.

Currently, there is an issue involving all sports, but focusing mostly on baseball: steroids. Steroids, also known as performance enhancing drugs, are a banned substance in all sports, but baseball has been put under the microscope after former star Jose Canseco wrote a book, Juiced, which was a tell-all tale of how the majority of professional baseball players have used or are currently using steroids to enhance their skill, even naming names. Current star Barry Bonds admitted to using steroids, although not knowingly; New York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi admitted to using the drug; and single-season homerun record holder Mark McGwire admitted to using a substance that was legal at the time he was playing, but is now banned, known as androstenedione. Canseco claims that he introduced McGwire to steroids, and even injected them with him while they were teammates on the Oakland Athletics. McGwire had refused to comment on steroids at a Congressional meeting in March.

Steroids are a quandary because they pose very serious health risks, exemplified when 1996 MVP Ken Caminiti died of complications related to steroid use. Congress has even had to step in to help fight the growing dilemma. Baseball purists claim that steroids ruin the sanctity of the game when records are being broken at an astounding rate, and have lobbied for records to be removed, or at least asterisked when they are broken by players who have used performance-enhancing drugs. Rep. John E. Sweeney, a New York Republican, said players "involved in illegal substances" should have an asterisk placed next to their names. Among the health risks of steroids are infertility, stroke, heart attack, cancer, and birth defects.

Sometimes in baseball, though, scandals are not always the players' fault. On August 12, 1994, the players walked out, canceling the rest of the regular season and the postseason over a dispute with owners regarding the institution of a salary cap. The strike went on for 234 days when a federal judge ordered the owners to compromise, and baseball resumed on schedule for the 1995 regular season. All of the teams lost large amounts of revenue, as they could not benefit from ticket sales, concessions, or advertising. In seasons following, attendance noticeably went down, and baseball was under a large amount of scrutiny for allowing the season to be cancelled. In fact, in 1994, the average attendance at a baseball game was 31,256. In 1995, it plummeted to 25,022.

Although it seems like it, baseball has not always meandered under a black cloud. In 1998, baseball made a strong resurgence back into the hearts of the American people when St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire and Chicago Cubs right fielder Sammy Sosa battled with each other to overtake Roger Maris' record of 61 homeruns over the course of a season. These two players set examples not only for other players in Major League Baseball, but also for citizens across the country, as well, with their sincere sportsmanship, humility, and class.

Since Maris broke Babe Ruth's previous record of 60 homeruns in a season with 61, ironically in 1961, many players have tried and failed to shatter his record. In 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa obliterated the record with the added pressure of the media and fans not only across the country, but also across the world, watching and waiting for the next fence-clearing homerun. As the two hit homerun after homerun, they showed nothing but respect for each other, blowing off comments suggesting racial implications. When McGwire hit his record-breaking 62nd homerun against the Chicago Cubs, the game halted, fireworks went off, and he got a standing ovation from both the fans and the players. His counterpart in Sosa jogged in from right field and hugged McGwire, who then hugged his son, Matt, the Cardinals batboy. McGwire then went into the stands to find the Maris family sans Roger (Roger had passed away in 1985) and hugged them, and even shed a tear. McGwire finished the season with 70 homeruns, four ahead of Sosa, who also surpassed the mark later in the season.

This event brought baseball back into the limelight of American team sports, ahead of football, basketball, and hockey. Attendance skyrocketed; it was the highest it had been since the 1994 strike-shortened season, when the average attendance was at 29,054. Total attendance had boosted from 63 million the season before to 70 million in 1998. Merchandising and advertising sales were once again prospering, and the black cloud was lifted off of the sport, even if only temporarily. The homerun chase of 1998 brought baseball back into the hearts of fans because they felt they could relate with the two players involved. McGwire, a genuinely shy person, performed his interviews modestly, and was understandably worn out from the throngs of reporters at his locker after every game. Sosa, born in the Dominican Republic, made a name for himself not only with his bat, but also with his loving gestures to the fans and the cameras after every homerun, pounding his heart and kissing his two fingers in the form of a peace sign. In an unorthodox expression of his love for the game, Sosa would jog from the dugout to his position in right field before every game, and always wore the same emphatic smile on his face throughout his years in Chicago. Fans grew to love the almost polarized personalities of these two sluggers. That, along with their hitting prowess, allowed baseball to reclaim its position as America's pastime.

Another upstanding record was broken in 1998. Instead of being broken by an action, this record was broken by the act of nothing more than jogging onto the baseball diamond. Lou Gehrig had played in 2,130 consecutive games, and this feat was viewed as one of the most unbreakable records in all of professional sports. Cal Ripken, Jr., on September 6, 1995, played in his 2,131st consecutive game and broke the record. Ripken would continue to play every day for three more years until he finally took a night off on September 20, 1998. The New York Yankees stood on the top step of their dugout and took of their hats as an act of respect and admiration towards Ripken. The fans stood for an ovation, and Ripken came out and saluted the fans and the players. Said Ripken of his feat, "So many good things have happened to me in the game of baseball. When I do allow myself a chance to think about it, it's almost like a storybook career. You feel so blessed to have been able to compete this long." This feat also helped bring baseball back into the foreground because people could easily relate to Ripken's work ethic and dedication.

In 2001, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, America looked to baseball to help aid in healing. Higher-ups in the government started attending more ballgames, and President Bush even threw out the first pitch in Game 3 of the 2001 World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees. Rudy Giuliani, then the mayor of New York City, says that the only things that got his mind off the September 11th attacks were "baseball and my son's football games." Late Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck read an emotional poem of patriotism at the first game the Cardinals played following the attacks. Tributes, moments of silence, and patriotic giveaways were all examples of efforts by baseball to help America return to normalcy. Giuliani added, "There was something about baseball, which is the American sport and its outdoors, and it's in the fall and it was right in the city that had been brutally attacked. It had a wonderful impact on the people of the city. It was exactly what they needed to get their eyes off the ground, looking to the future."

All in all, baseball has had its ups and downs, mending its low points with high points, but all can agree that baseball has had an impact on American society since its inception. Be it gambling disputes or helping to fight the plague of racism, baseball has truly been America’s pastime. No other sport has had the effect baseball has had on every individual, from fathers trying to unite with their sons, from blacks trying to unite with whites, and from Americans trying to unite with Americans, baseball has been the quintessential unifier.