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Cheaters and the Baseball Hall of Fame: The Hypocrisy and Arrogance of the Baseball Writers of the BBWAA

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“Cheating is baseball’s oldest profession. No other game is so rich in skullduggery, so suited to it or so proud of it.” Thomas Boswell

I love baseball. Everything about it. The good, the bad and the ugly. It is a game that to me represents the human condition better than any other game. I am amazed by the feats of ballplayers of today and yesterday. I am also a realist and know that like the rest of us, that baseball players are human. I believe that God speaks to me though baseball and there is no other place in the world that I feel more at peace than watching a ballgame in a ballpark. It is an elixir for my soul.

However baseball, despite its perfection as a game is a game played by, written about and watched by a very imperfect cast. Including me. I know a lot of ball players, men who have played in the Majors and Minors and I admire them. I admire their dedication and the sacrifices that they make to be the best. I admire the fact that many toil in the obscurity of the Minor Leagues for years before even getting a chance to play “in the show.” Not many actually get careers in the Majors, and a decided minority have the lifetime performance to even merit being honored in the Hall of Fame.

The Baseball Writers who decide on the election of baseball players into the Baseball Hall of Fame decided that this year, that no players should be inducted into the Hall of Fame. It was due in part to their interpretation of the rules that allow for the writers to consider issues of character can be considered in the voting process. It was the first time in four decades that no players were elected to the hall.

The vote was seen as the writers judgement on the players of the steroid era, an era that until it became unpopular was heralded by many of the same writers as a time of revival in the sport. The same writers that reveled in the domination of Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling on the pitchers mound, the great home run race between Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa, the massive home runs of Barry Bonds or the stellar performances of so many other players of the era. The cheerleaders became the morality police. Not that the use of PEDs was right by any means but the moral indignation of the writers that chose to use their vote or lack of a vote as a means of punishment seems to me to ooze hypocrisy.

I am sure that is the case.

Not that I am in favor of cheating or cheaters. However that being said, the bar that these players are being held to is higher than that of baseball cheaters of previous generations, of which some are honored in the same Hall of Fame that the writers exclude those of the steroid era. It seems to me to me that the writers are being just a bit hypocritical and cynical concerning the history of the game and the Hall of Fame.

That is easy for them to do because we Americans, possibly more than any other people love to tear down our heroes and those that excel at what they do. We are one of the most moralistic peoples on the face of the earth, and nowhere more does that moralistic tenor show up than in baseball. Football and basketball, cheating is not so bad, but cheating in baseball that is somehow a greater sin than almost anything in our society. Tax cheats, adulterers, academic cheats and plagiarists as well murderers and other stellar members of society, including lawyers and politicians find it easy to damn baseball players for cheating.

However, the Hall of Fame membership includes many of the best in baseball as well as some pretty lousy human beings who just happened to be great baseball players. It is a place of history where the disgraced members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox have a place, though not as members. It is a place that has enshrined admitted cheaters of previous eras. It is a place that has enshrined racists, bullies, wife beaters drunks philanderers adulterers and even an accused murderer.

It is also an institution that for decades excluded some of the best ballplayers who ever played the game because they were black and had to play in the segregated Negro Leagues. It’s greatest snub was to the legendary Negro League, player manager and later Major League Coach and scout Buck O’Neil, who it never admitted.

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Buck O’Neil Out, Ty Cobb in

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Ty Cobb was a violent man and as racist as they come. He once assaulted a fan, a fan with no arms for jeering him. He attacked a black groundskeeper for attempting to shake his hand and then attempted to strangle the man’s wife when she came to his aid. Babe Ruth would show up drunk for games and slept around with any attractive woman of the female persuasion. There are a host of unsavory characters in the Hall of Fame besides the admitted cheaters and suspected cheaters of bygone times. Hell, Hank Aaron and admitted to using amphetamines what were then known as “Greenies” and players testified under oath that Willie Stargell, another first ballot Hall of Famer not only took amphetamines but dispensed them to team mates. They used them to perform better and they were not alone. Thus to me the self-righteous indignation of the writers against the players of the Steroid Era and that of some fans is just that.

The cheaters didn’t just include drug users although the fact that players have been juiced for decades was known in early 1970s. The Mitchell Report on the use of performance enhancing drugs made this comment:

“In 1973, a Congressional subcommittee announced that its staff had completed an “in depth study into the use of illegal and dangerous drugs in sports” including professional baseball. The subcommittee concluded that “the degree of improper drug use – primarily amphetamines and anabolic steroids – can only be described as alarming.”

That was 1973. But cheating hasn’t been limited to performance enhancing drugs. The were men who threw illegal pitches or altered baseballs. Managers and organizations that specialized in stealing the signs of opposing teams, corking bats and many other tricks and sleights of hand designed to help them win games.

When Sammy Sosa was exposed for his use of a corked bat then Chicago Cubs General Manager Andy McPhail said: “There is a culture of deception in this game. It’s been in this game for 100 years. I do not look at this in terms of ethics. It’s the culture of the game.”

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Rogers Hornsby, the amazing Second Baseman of the St Louis Cardinals who batted over .400 three times in his career said “I’ve been in pro baseball since 1914 and I’ve cheated, or watched someone on my team cheat, in practically every game. You’ve got to cheat.”

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Pitcher Gaylord Perry wrote in his autobiography before he was elected to the Hall of Fame “I’d always have it (grease) in at least two places, in case the umpires would ask me to wipe one off. I never wanted to be caught out there with anything though, it wouldn’t be professional.” Mind you that the “spitball or grease ball” had been illegal for decades when he made his admission.

Yankees great Whitey Ford admitted his cheating. “I didn’t begin cheating until late in my career, when I needed something to help me survive. I didn’t cheat when I won the twenty-five games in 1961. I don’t want anybody to get any ideas and take my Cy Young Award away. And I didn’t cheat in 1963 when I won twenty-four games. Well, maybe a little.”

Hank Greenberg, one of the premier power hitters of his day discussed how the stealing of signs helped him. “I loved that. I was the greatest hitter in the world when I knew what kind of pitch was coming up.”

Hall of Fame managers like Leo Durocher and Earl Weaver, have been quoted, even if they meant it in jest, advocating cheating. Durocher said “Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it.” and Weaver reported told a pitcher “If you know how to cheat, start now.”

To me election to the Hall of Fame should be a place of history where the greatest performers in the game should be enshrined. It should not be a place where writers, many of whom no longer actively cover the game sit as modern Pharisees pointing out the grain of sand in the eye of the accused players while ignoring the logs in their own eyes.

The use of the drugs probably has harmed the health of those that used them. The records set in the era will be debated. But there are so many other things that affect records. The 154 game versus the 162 game season, the Dead Ball Era, the segregated era, the war years where greats like Ted Williams missed their best years because they were serving in the military all affected the game and influenced who was inducted and who was not inducted into the Hall of Fame.

In baseball records are also kind of fuzzy because of changes in the game. Additionally characteristics as innocuous as the differences in baseball stadiums, their dimensions, geography, turf and weather conditions on hitting and pitching play a huge part in any players career.

Baseball fans and players will make their own judgements about the character of individual players as well as the historical significance of the Steroid Era. The era was not good for baseball despite the records set because it brought to light a culture that existed for at least a century. A culture that is not just a baseball culture but part of the American culture, a culture that honors liars and cheaters in politics, law, banking and a host of other professions including religion.

Well that is enough for tonight. Let him who is without sin throw out the first ball.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Bobby Thomson and the Shot Heard Round the World

Baseball great Bobby Thomson died yesterday at the age of 86 at his home in Savannah Georgia after a long illness.  Thomson was immortalized when he hit the “Shot heard round the World” for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 3rd 1951 to cap an epic comeback in the final game of a playoff to see which team would face the New York Yankees in the 1951 World Series.

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Baseball has many memorable moments but few are more memorable than the home run hit by Bobby Thomson to clinch the 1951 National League Pennant for the New York Giants, before they were the San Francisco Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 3rd 1951.

As anyone who reads this site knows Padre Steve is a Giants fan and believes that the Dodgers and about everything associated with them are evil.  I cannot call myself a “Dodger hater” for in spite of all I admire the history of the franchise and many of the players that played for or managed the team that I call the “Evil Dodgers.”  Given a choice if the Dodgers were in the World’s series against anyone other than the A’s, Angels or possible the Yankees, Rangers or Rays I would probably hope that they won. I must add the caveat that this would be condition if I felt that the Dodgers had won the National League Pennant by some underhanded means or that the Giants really deserved to be in the series. It would be as painful for me to cheer them on as it would for me as a UCLA Bruin (ROTC) alum to root for Troy Tech (USC) when they against the Ohio State University Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl. It would be painful but there are exceptions to every rule.

For a baseball fan, any baseball fan what the Giants did in 1951 and Thomson’s roll in that final game of a 3 game playoff after a dramatic end to the regular season that left the teams tied was and is an epic story.  It is considered the most famous home run ever hit and is called “the shot heard ‘round the world.”  The Giants trailed the Dodgers in the pennant race by 13 ½ games on August 11th but went 37-7 to force a playoff against their blood rivals from Brooklyn.  In the final game of the series the Dodgers were up 4-1 in the 9th inning and things looked bleak for the Giants who had not generated much offense against Dodger’s pitchers during the game. Thomson’s 3 run homer off reliever Ralph Branca with 1 out in the bottom of the 9th to left field just above the 315’ marker at the Polo Grounds capped a 4 run rally to give the Giants one of the most fabled victories in all of sports history.

The rally was in keeping with the season for the Giants.  The rally started with a single by Alvin Dark who was followed by Don Mueller who singled to send Dark to third.  Monte Ervin who had led the league with 121 RBIs popped out.  Whitely Lockman doubled to score Dark and put runners on second and third with 1 out.  Dodgers’ starting pitcher Don Newcombe who was showing signs of overuse in the closing days of the season was pulled from the game obviously spent.  He was replaced by Ralph Branca who had given up a game winning home run to Thomson in game one of the series and surrendered several others to him in the regular season.  Branca was picked because Dodgers’ bullpen coach Clyde Sukeforth saw Carl Erskine bouncing his curveball in front of the plate and instructed manager Charlie Dressen to send in Branca.  The move would cost Sukeforth his job shortly after the season ended.

Branca’s first pitch was a fastball down the middle that Thomson took for a strike.  Branca came back with another fastball up and in and Thomson ripped a line drive that cleared the wall just above the 315’ marker in left. Andy Pafko chase the ball to the wall hoping that it would not clear it and as Thomson hopped and skipped around the bases with only Jackie Robinson remaining on the field for the Dodgers making sure that Thomson touched all the bases.  Waiting on deck was another legendary Giant named Willie Mays who with the rest of the team mobbed Thomson as he touched home plate.

Giants’ radio Broadcaster Russ Hodges calling the game on WMCA-AM radio immortalized the hit:

“Bobby Thomson… up there swingin’… He’s had two out of three, a single and a double, and Billy Cox is playing him right on the third-base line… One out, last of the ninth… Branca pitches… Bobby Thomson takes a strike called on the inside corner… Bobby hitting at .292… He’s had a single and a double and he drove in the Giants’ first run with a long fly to center… Brooklyn leads it 4-2…Hartung down the line at third not taking any chances… Lockman  with not too big of a lead at second, but he’ll be runnin’ like the wind if Thomson hits one… Branca throws… [audible sound of bat meeting ball]

There’s a long drive… it’s gonna be, I believe…THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands! The Giants win the pennant and they’re goin’ crazy, they’re goin’ crazy! HEEEY-OH!!!” [ten-second pause for crowd noise]

I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! I do not believe it! Bobby Thomson… hit a line drive… into the lower deck… of the left-field stands… and this blame place is goin’ crazy! The Giants! Horace Stoneham has got a winner! The Giants won it… by a score of 5 to 4… and they’re pickin’ Bobby Thomson up… and carryin’ him off the field!”

Legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell called the game and the shot on WPIX-TV which was being telecast nationally.  It has been immortalized in various cultural and entertainment venues, I remember it in the TV series M*A*S*H episode “A War for All Seasons” where Corporal Klinger (Jamie Farr) persuades the non-baseball fan Major Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers)to bet heavily on the Dodgers winning the pennant and with the unit watching the game film with Hodges’ recorded commentary Winchester cut his way through the screen shouting “Where is that Lebanese Mongoose?”

The Giants would go on the World Series against the Yankees losing in 6 games to the Bronx Bombers but that series has been overshadowed in history by the “Shot heard round the world.”

In 2001 Wall Street Journal reporter Joshua Prager reported that the Giants had been stealing signs enabling batters to know what pitch was coming. While this was confirmed by a number of Giant’s players Thomson himself said that he had no foreknowledge of the pitch. Sign stealing was a common practice by many teams since the inception of the sport and has never been outlawed by Major League Baseball. The ball itself has never been found with one writer determining that a Franciscan nun recovered the ball and kept it in a shoebox until her death bequeathing it to her sister who deposited the box in a landfill.  Obviously the sister was a Dodgers’ fan.

Thomson was born in Glasgow Scotland and immigrated to the US with his parents when he was 2 years old growing up in Staten Island and served in the Army Air Force in the Second World War. He played 14 years in the Major Leagues and after retirement worked for a paper company.  He would remain a lifelong friend of Ralph Branca appearing at card shows and other baseball events.  Thomson retired in 1960 finishing his final season in Major League Baseball with the Baltimore Orioles but would play one last season in 1963 with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan. He hit .270 for his career with 264 home runs and 1026 RBIs and was elected to 3 All-Star teams.  A Scottish baseball team the Edinburgh Diamond Devils named their field “Bobby Thomson Field” in 2003 when he was inducted into the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame.

As for Branca he remembered the shot as well and the long walk to his car where his wife waited. “I remember going out to the parking lot. Ann was in the car with a friend of ours, Father Paul Rowley from Fordham. And I said to Father Rowley, ‘Why me? Why did this have to happen to me?’ And Father Rowley said, ‘God gave you this cross to bear because you’re strong enough to bear it.'”

For me the timeless memorial of this event, besides the Giants defeating the Evil Dodgers is the testament to friendship and the understanding that things are never over until they are over. Ask the 1951 Giants.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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