The BASEBALL RELIQUARY Inc.
Shrine of the Eternals Keynote Address
In this spangled month of the Fourth of July, the All-Star Game, and the Baseball Reliquary’s exhibit here at the Pasadena Central Library, “Patriotic Pitch: The Empire of Baseball,” two things become clear:
1. Baseball and patriotism are a provocative though not always palatable mix.
2. We ourselves are a strange and wondrous country of zealots – and I’m not just talking about Boston Red Sox fans. Truly, we can demonstrate our passions in curious ways. A man named Barry Bremen – an ostensibly ordinary businessman from Michigan was also an “incorrigible impostor” who impersonated, among others, a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, and one of our honorees here today, the San Diego Chicken.[i]
Our politicians, no surprise, reflect this odd zealotry: Speaking to the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, Newt Gingrich explained his extra-marital affairs this way: “There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”[ii]
Please don’t try this one at home.
In any event, the practice of patriotism and baseball has always been linked. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — who knows a thing or two about lame spousal excuses — once remarked, “Being a Cubs fan prepares you for life – and Washington.”[iii]
This afternoon, I’ve added a third element to the mix: That would be poetry – and by extension, the good use of language. I am not first up with such an idea. As fellow Reliquarian Don Malcolm recently wrote, poet Walt Whitman was “the first American artist to embrace the game [of baseball] and assimilate it into his poetic vocabulary.” [iv] Whitman also looked to poetry to celebrate what this country not only was but also what it might become. With all the exuberance of the mid-19th century, Whitman writes in 1855, “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”[v]
Ever after, writers have found in baseball an irresistible mirror of evolving Americana. As does the Reliquary. Consider the Walter O’Malley tortilla. A simple flour tortilla imprinted with O’Malley’s face, which evokes the whole sorry tale of political chicanery done to the residents of Chavez Ravine. And seven years ago, where others saw empty exhibit cases in the Cal State L.A. Library, which serves many Latinos, Terry Cannon saw an opportunity to showcase the neglected history of local Mexican-American baseball. The idea took off like an M80 on the Fourth of July, engaging students, historians, and the community. The Latino Baseball History Project is now housed at Cal State San Bernardino. Professors Francisco E. Balderrama and Richard Santillan have just published Mexican American Baseball in Los Angeles (Arcadia Press, 2011), and plan to continue to reclaim this history county by county, and, ultimately, throughout the U.S.
Contrast that approach to MLB’s refusal to move the 82nd All-Star game from Phoenix in the wake of Arizona’s passage of AB 1070, the controversial racial profiling bill. Despite considerable protests, baseball commissioner Bud Selig refused to address the issue. He remained mute. He later designated former Diamondback Luis Gonzalez to be the All-Star Game ambassador. And I remember thinking, Why does an all-star game need an ambassador? Why does the national pastime require an ambassador within its own borders? Possibly because MLB felt it needed a Latino World Series hero for damage control in Arizona.
“Patriotic Pitch” is The Reliquary’s latest challenge to establishment thinking. The exhibit shows how appallingly wrong-headed – not to mention wrong-hearted – American patriotism has sometimes gone. And how Organized Baseball has cheerfully gone along. As Albert Spalding recalled of the bloody Civil War, “It had been a great war for baseball.”[vi] Spalding would go on to benefit immensely from U.S. military initiatives, serving as sort of the Johnny Appleseed of baseball during his 1888 World Baseball Tour, and planting outposts of his sporting goods enterprise in towns near and far.
This exhibit is based upon Rob Elias’s thought-provoking book, The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad. Elias suggests that a country that has been at war somewhere, somehow for virtually all its existence — you could look it up[vii] — might take a hard look at its practice of foreign policy. (Summed up, when in doubt, invade Canada.) He argues that Organized Baseball is culpable in its uncritical complicity in “making the world safe for baseball.”[viii] In a recent e-mail, Rob explained. “As I’ve tried to indicate in the book, readers can draw their own conclusions about the legitimacy and appropriateness of the history of U.S. foreign and military policies, but they shouldn’t pretend that organized baseball hasn’t been a huge and major booster for those policies, for better or worse.”[ix]
If Elias’s book has a mantra, it comes on page 1: “The true patriot is one who gives his highest loyalty not to his country as it is, but to what it can and ought to be.”[x] (Albert Camus) What Elias proposes is not the sort of unquestioning patriotism that Dale Petroskey exhibited when he was president of the Hall of Fame and Museum. (In 2003, with an anniversary celebration of the film Bull Durham scheduled, Petroskey rescinded an invitation to the film’s stars Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins because of their outspoken opposition to the Iraq War.) As Elias puts it: “Routinely patriotism has been defined not as support for the nation’s ideals, but rather as loyalty to official policies.”[xi] From personal experience, I can tell you that this is not always a popular opinion, living as I do in Orange County.
But we are here for baseball. Let’s return to Camus’ comment and rephrase it: “The true fan of baseball is one who gives his or her highest loyalty not to the game as it is, but to what it can and ought to be.” Which is what the Baseball Reliquary does so well. In honoring people from the Left, like Lester Rodney, an early white advocate for integration, and labor organizer Marvin Miller, who fought for fair pay and pensions, pioneering women like Ila Borders and Pam Postema, and black ball players like Dock Ellis and Curt Flood who got the short end of the bat, the Reliquary reminds us fans of the injustices, complexities, and nuances inherent in this game – as well as the resilience of the human spirit. Two of our inductees into the Shrine this year remind us of just that – Pete Gray and Maury Wills.
To encourage an institution, whether MLB or the U.S. government, to be what it can and ought to be, calls for the good use of language. George Orwell’s essay of 1946 “Politics and the English Language” still resonates with its indictment of the ways politicians find to manipulate words. Orwell argues that the correct use of language can ultimately be a moral choice – one that I would add can extend to baseball. Consider the evasive language used to avoid integration for so long, for ducking the steroids crisis, when everyone in baseball knew what was going on – and these are just two examples. Remember the Reliquary’s event “Love to Hate: The Dodgers-Giants Rivalry?” One conflicted soul showed up in a Dodgers cap and Giants T-shirt. The joint was packed, and we could have talked ‘til midnight. The key word here being “talked.” And I was reminded of my childhood in New York City, arguing passionately over the qualities of the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants. When I learned of the near-fatal beating of Giants fan Bryan Stow on Opening Night at Dodger Stadium this year, I thought, A man wants to take part in a century-plus tradition of baseball rivalry and now this? What words might have been found to encourage, no, demand, safety at that troubled ballpark? Words fail me here.
I wonder, too, whether any other sport commands a 974-page dictionary. The third edition of Dickson’s Baseball Dictionary sits on a shelf near my computer, a reminder that getting the words right matters. But striving for this doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time along the way. When author John Schulian gave the keynote here in 2005, he commented that baseball had grown too serious. “Can you be funny playing for Steinbrenner?” he asked. Part of his lament had to do with language. Listing the players’ “canned quotes and clichés, sportswriters’ lack of wit — but not you, Chris Erskine — and the shrillness of sports talk radio,” Schulian urged that “baseball perform Tommy John surgery on its funny bone.”[xii] Now Vin Scully is nearing retirement. And where, oh where, is the man or woman who might step into his conversational story-telling tradition? We need more Ring Lardners, more Robert Coovers, and more Chris Erskines. These guys can write funny. We need that.
The Reliquary, long may it reign, never forgets that baseball is a game, and that it is meant to entertain. Ergo, our third inductee, the San Diego Chicken aka Ted Giannoulas. When Skip Caray first interviewed him, the announcer asked, “Why did you cross the road?” to which the Chicken replied, “To get away from a stupid question, Skip.” Caray cracked up, and the exchange became their signature closing line.
In closing let us return to Walt Whitman, who called this country “essentially the greatest poem.” He wrote that line in the Preface to the first edition of his opus Leaves of Grass, which he would revise throughout his life. How innocent was Whitman, the country, the game of baseball 150-plus years ago. We are no longer innocent as to how this country is run. Wars take their toll. We know that mistakes — big ones — have been made. Likewise in baseball. And as with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, this country, Organized Baseball, and the Baseball Reliquary are all works in progress. With its latest exhibit, the Reliquary proposes that it is good and patriotic to examine what baseball and this country stand for. Why not a patriotism that not only expresses gratitude for the privilege of living here but also leaves room for constructive criticism? Poetry and the good use of language are essential to this. Today, once again, the voters of the Shrine of the Eternals – the people – have spoken. This year, they have, I think, gotten the inductees just right. Besides, the Chicken is here! All will be well.
[i] “Gate-crasher made headlines,” Los Angeles Times, July 7, 2011. AA6.
[ii] Maggie Haberman, “Newt Gingrich: ‘I was doing things that were wrong,’” March 8, 2011, http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0311/50913.html#ixzz1G4F7yVxZ
[iii] Newsweek, April 18, 1994. Paul Dickson, Baseball’s Greatest Quotations, page 107.
[iv] Don Malcolm, “Post-Cooperstown Post Modernism,” Endless Seasons: Baseball in Southern California, July 2011, Society for American Baseball Research, page 14.
[v] Walt Whitman, Preface, Leaves of Grass, 1855.
[vi] Robert Elias, The Empire Strikes Out, (New York: The New Press, 2010), Page 8.
[vii] Elias, pages 35-36.
[viii] Elias, page 79.
[ix] E-mail to the author, June 8, 2011.
[x] Elias, Page 1.
[xi] Elias, Page 2.
[xii] John Schulian, keynote address, The Baseball Reliquary Shrine of the Eternals Induction Ceremony, July 24, 2005.