According to the late Bill Veeck, who owned three major league baseball teams, the true harbinger of spring isn’t the blooming of crocuses or birds flying north, but the sound of a bat on a ball. Another owner, Walter O’Malley, explained that baseball is more like a disease than a business. I’ve been infected with that particular illness most of my life, and I don’t want to be cured. Besides, it’s a form of patriotism! The poet Walt Whitman called baseball “our game – the American game.”
The 2011 season started over a month ago, and Red Sox fans ask the perennial questions. “Is the team healthy? Will the new players work out? What about the relief pitchers? Can Daisuke Matsuzaka throw strikes?” We are back in “Wait ‘til next year” mode, and it is now next year.
They got off to a rocky start, but it’s a long season. We’ll just have to wait a while longer for answers to these and other questions. Meanwhile, this is a good time to look at another reason why baseball fascinates so many of us – the wisdom of its sages. Has any other sport produced such philosophers? I doubt it.
You wouldn’t know it from the name of this column (“Looking Back”), but one of my favorite pieces of advice is “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Those words come from Satchel Paige, the ageless pitcher who played in the Negro Leagues most of his career and finally made it to the majors late in the day. He also said, “Avoid running at all times.” Of late I’ve been ignoring that advice as well.
We all know about Yogi Berra, who claims “I never said most of the things I said.” Maybe not, but I’m sure glad he said them. Thanks to him, we all know “It ain’t over till it’s over,” but my favorite Yogi advice is “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” A close second is, “You should always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise, they won’t come to yours.”
A. Bartlett Giamatti (father of the actor Paul, whose latest movie Win Win is a winner) traded up from being a Yale professor to becoming Commissioner of Major League Baseball. He was born in Boston, not far from Fenway Park, so he knew what he was talking about when he said of the game, “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.” Fortunately, at least when it comes to baseball, broken hearts have short memories.
Baseball is how many of us measure the seasons. Commissioner Giamatti wrote, “it begins in the spring … blossoms in the summer .. and leaves you to face the fall alone.” Hall of Fame infielder Rogers Hornsby once said he spent his winters staring out the window waiting for spring. My friends and I did the same thing in Claremont long ago. We usually couldn’t wait, so we would oil our gloves and start even before the snow melted. I remember how hard it was to find baseballs in snow banks.
It’s more than just balls and strikes, hot dogs and statistics. As our Walpole neighbor Ken Burns pointed out in his PBS series, baseball helped Americanize many of those who arrived at Ellis Island starting in 1892. My grandfather, who left the Old Country in 1906, was one of those immigrants. I caught the disease from him.