At the Intersection of Hope and Worry: How Baseball and Society Learn from History

This article was written by Alan Cohen

This article was published in the The National Pastime: The Future According to Baseball (2021)


Sixteen months ago, we were stuck in our homes wondering if, or under what circumstances, baseball would return. To some degree, as I began this essay in April 2021, things had not changed.

There were encouraging signs during the summer of 2020. Once, as I was walking my dog, Buddy, we happened on a batting cage at the rear of the local high school. The sound of bat on ball was unmistakable, and before long the kids were playing games. The big leagues had an abbreviated season, and there were even a limited number of fans in the stands during the World Series.

There is continued optimism in 2021. I have been a datacaster since 2013, entering pitch-by-pitch information into a computer system used by MLB-affiliated teams. I was in Florida at the end of March and worked at four spring training games. Minor league ball in Hartford, Connecticut, recommenced on May 11.1 On May 23, my wife and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary partially with a day at the ballpark. (Frances performed the National Anthem and, with attendance restrictions lifted, more than 5,000 fans were at the game.)

For this researcher, the past 15 months have been spent thinking about the future and remembering the past, with equal parts hope and worry.

Upon receiving the task of writing about “The Future According to Baseball”—a daunting prospect at the very least—I looked back on my years as an insurance underwriter, something I do not do often. An underwriter’s goal is essentially to predict the future by looking in the rear-view mirror. Often, the rear view is not pleasant—like the flashing lights of a police car, or an ambulance. The future, then, is a traffic ticket or a hospital stay.

The one essential thing I have learned is that baseball research has as much of a chance of being compartmentalized as society in general, which is to say none. Baseball, society, history, and the future are all interwoven. And I have learned that there is a special challenge in maintaining the balance between the elements of thought and the elements of baseball.

I have also discerned that in a society that is litiginous, baseball will most assuredly be part of that equation. In the early part of the twentieth century, issues such as baseball’s status with the anti-trust laws were grabbing headlines. A century later, disputes in baseball are still finding their way into our nation’s courtrooms and legislative bodies.

In terms of baseball, what is in our rear-view mirror and what does it mean for the future?

As historians, we do look back, but we also have the task of making our stories relevant. And baseball has great relevance to our society as a whole; the relevance of Jackie Robinson and the all-too-slow integration of baseball which, in actuality, is yet to be complete; the impact of larger than life characters such as Babe Ruth on the world as defined by entertainment; the players who by happenstance serve as the role models that many children lack in their everyday lives.

All of this has been underlined by the events of the past 15 months—as a medical crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic has social, economic, and political consequences, with the trauma stretching from Minneapolis to New York to Atlanta to Chicago.

What impacts and is relevant in society often has affected baseball. Take Sunday baseball, for example. The United States, in its formative years, saw “Blue Laws” enacted in several states and base ball, like most endeavors, rested on Sundays in a religious society.2 But economic and social pressures to allow Sunday baseball arose in the final two decades of the nineteenth century. Indeed, part of the motivation for the American Association was the desire for Sunday baseball in cities west of Pennsylvania.3 In the twentieth century, the pressure increased until the final bans were lifted in Pennsylvania prior to the 1934 season. What does this rear-view have to do with the future in 2021?

Across the land, society is changing and behaviors once restricted are gaining in favor. One such behavior is gambling. Whereas a century ago, eight Chicago players were banned from baseball for life for their involvement with gamblers during the 1919 World Series, and as recently as 32 years ago Pete Rose suffered the same fate for gambling on the outcomes of his own team’s games, the taboo against gambling seems to be dissipating. Sports gambling is becoming legal in more and more states.4 It has become commonplace to see sports betting advertisements during televised baseball broadcasts. As the integration of baseball 75 years ago set the path for desegregating other American institutions and the eradication of Jim Crow, the eradication of the line between gambling interests and baseball is symptomatic of a society that currently accepts gambling in everyday life. (Whether or not this is beneficial to baseball in the short or long run is debatable, but I believe a future betting scandal is inevitable.)

I stumbled on Sunday baseball when researching another topic. My very first two biographies for the SABR BioProject resulted in explorations ranging from the trivial (players homering in the same ballparks as minor leaguers and major leaguers5) to the obscure (the Hearst Sandlot Classic and youth baseball), to the challenging and rewarding (Negro baseball). Looking back while researching these stories over the past 15 months, I also gained a glimpse of the future as I stared into my computer.

I, like others of my generation, learned baseball from my parents. One generation passing on its love of baseball to another generation was, in my youth, a part of American culture. Opportunities given in baseball to persons of color have resonated and often set the stage for opportunities given to the previously disenfranchised population in other aspects of the American society.

During the years when America’s written and unwritten policies regarding segregation kept persons of color from availing themselves of educational, economic, and social opportunities, including the chance to participate in organized baseball, there was a flourishing of Negro baseball. There arose, in Black America, not only a love for the game but also parallel institutions to “mainstream” ball, including leagues and newspapers covering the games. But the Black newspapers were weekly publications, and thus the exploits of heroes such as Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige lacked the daily, detailed documentation given to their White counterparts. Black audiences flocked to games. To them, baseball was more than just statistics and what happened on the field.

Entertainment was a higher priority than statistical analysis. Box scores and the like were secondary to spectators having fun while cheering on their favorite players. So our rear-view mirror on the Negro Leagues is obscured by a bit of dirt, with the fun and spectacle shining through.

For decades, researchers like Larry Lester, Gary Ashwill, and Neil Lanctot, to name just three, have been scraping away at that dirt. Although Blacks and Whites play on the same field, the stories of how they got there—or anywhere else in society—are anything but similar. In the future, steps will continue to be taken to complete the chronicle of Negro baseball and that chronicle will be there for all people to share and understand.

In my research into the Hearst Classic, I have come across some unsung role models including Victor Feld in New York, Oscar Vitt in San Francisco, Ottie Cochran in Pittsburgh, Bunny Corcoran in Boston, and the Wrambling Wrecks in San Antonio, Texas. These adult leaders and sponsors have, in their time, assured not only the future of baseball but also the futures of men and women who will benefit society in the years ahead—the future.

WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?

In New York, the Greater New York Sandlot Athletic Alliance traces its origins to the New York Journal American Sandlot Alliance.6 Those involved in the program were, at the time that they participated, the future of baseball. A teenage Joe Torre, for example, was in the program in 1958.7 He was National League MVP a few years later and now serves as Special Assistant to the Commissioner of Baseball.

Adult leadership from New York Journal-American sports editor Max Kase to early program director Rabbit Maranville to Tommy Holmes guided the New York program in its first 20 years.8,9 Victor Feld is the current president of the GNYSAA. A member of the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2020, with induction ceremonies slated for August 25, 2021, Feld is being honored for a lifetime of working with area children.10 Each year, boys and girls are awarded scholarships by the GNYSAA, and the current head of the Parade Grounds League, Ruben Ramirez, was MVP in the GNYSAA All-Star game in 1968. He has spent the entirety of his adult life in the field of education.11

In this instance the sight in the rear-view mirror has been remarkable! A baseball institution from a bygone era, the Heart Classic, has paid current dividends.

Another view takes us to San Antonio. In 1949, a group of disabled World War II veterans banded together to lend a hand in the city’s annual youth All-Star game. Each of the veterans’ disabilities—from missing limbs to paralyzed bodies—was such that the veterans were on full government support. Each year, the game was the highlight of the summer, and the two top ballplayers were sent to New York to participate in the prestigious Hearst Sandlot Classic.12

After sponsoring the all-star games in conjunction with the American Legion in 1947 and 1948, the San Antonio Light, in 1949, began an affiliation with the disabled veterans. Known as the Wrambling Wrecks, the group had been formed by Bill Harrell (who had lost his hands in the war and used hooks to navigate his way during his post-war life) to help other disabled veterans to remain active.13 The affiliation continued through 1992, when the newspaper stopped publishing. The Wrambling Wrecks continued to hold games through 1998. Not only did the games determine the players to go to New York for the Hearst Games (through 1965), but they also raised funds for charities supported by the Wrambling Wrecks.

With each passing year, the event grew bigger and better, and over the years, greats of the game such as Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Frankie Frisch were on hand, along with scouts from every major-league team.14,15,16 Stars from the entertainment world, including actors Joe E. Brown (star of the baseball films Elmer the Great and Alibi Ike) and Dan Blocker (Hoss Cartwright on television’s Bonanza) also appeared. There was entertainment for the whole family (tickets were $1), and kids got in free. One lucky spectator drove away in a new automobile. Writer Harold Scherwitz chronicled the “Wrambling Wrecks” event from 1949 through 1970, and even the most obscure of players were included in his coverage—because on that night really nobody was obscure and each of the players had stars in his eyes. He wrote these words in 1962:

Fourteen years of contributing some fun to the local athletic scene has brought these men (the Wrambling Wrecks) banged up in World War II, before the public as good citizens as well as good soldiers. Most of them were athletes before the loss of legs, arms or eyes, paralysis or other war injuries put them on the sidelines as competitors. The Wrambling Wrecks have dived into the task of setting up the game, selling the tickets, and handling most of the details. The tasks assigned to various members have snapped them out of natural unhappiness over their war injuries in many cases. The sense of accomplishment and the realization that they are paying their way and doing something for their organization has turned out to be a beneficial therapy that can’t be bought. Their organization has gained a standing in the community with the best. Baseball has benefited, and Texas has been supplying topflight ballplayers as its representatives in the New York game.17

Although only five of the 39 players from the Texas games who represented San Antonio in New York over the years went on to the major leagues (including Davey Johnson, who was still in uniform 54 years after his first San Antonio appearance), many of the stories involve players who did not make it to the Show. They, like the Wrambling Wrecks, contributed, often off the playing field. And the spirit of the Wrambling Wrecks was very much in evidence in February 2021 as veterans were among the coalition that brought help to those in Texas impacted by the terrible winter storms. With the Wrambling Wrecks around, the future of baseball and society is bright.

 

Insignia of the Wrambling Wrecks, the group of disabled veterans that sponsored youth games in San Antonio, Texas.

Insignia of the Wrambling Wrecks, the group of disabled veterans that sponsored youth games in San Antonio, Texas.

 

In Pittsburgh, insurance executive Austin T. “Ottie” Cochran18—who had played some good quality semipro ball—headed up the Greater Pittsburgh Amateur Federation, and his efforts were chronicled by Andy Dugo in the Hearst publication in that city, the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph. Mentoring the young all-stars were former Pirate players including Pie Traynor, Lee Handley, and Wilbur Cooper. The most successful of the young players was Dick Groat, who represented Pittsburgh in the Hearst Games in 1947 and 1948. A couple of the ballplayers who played in the area AllStar games had their futures in football. Joe Walton from the 1953 game and Mike Ditka from the 1958 both went on to successful careers in the NFL and were on opposing sides in the 1963 NFL championship game.

In San Francisco, the call went out to Oscar Vitt to head up the Examiner Baseball School. A veteran of the game, Vitt had teamed with Ty Cobb, roomed with Babe Ruth, and managed Bobby Feller. In the ensuing years, Vitt would be joined by former Pacific Coast League players and area high school and college coaches in a selection caravan that went throughout northern California. In 1952, he saw a young Frank Robinson try out at Oakland.19 Each year at the New York game, where he served as the manager of the US All-Stars from 1949 through 1961, Vitt would characteristically say that “this year” he had the best players ever.20 His teams in New York included Hearst MVP Al Kaline in 1951 and catcher Ron Santo in 1958.

 

Ossie Vitt, as a young Tiger, being pushed in a wheelbarrow by Jack Onslow, 1912 (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

Ossie Vitt, as a young Tiger, being pushed in a wheelbarrow by Jack Onslow, 1912 (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

 

In Boston, the youth were encouraged to dream about playing at Fenway Park in the city’s annual All-Star game, most often lining up as the Records versus the Americans, as the game was sponsored by the Boston Record-American. The force behind these games was Arthur “Bunny” Corcoran, who organized tryouts and selected players, more than 30 of whom, over the 25-year history of the Boston event, would move on to major league baseball. The Red Sox were very much involved in these games as they saw the games as an opportunity to scout the players of the future while giving thousands of boys each year the opportunity to try out for one of the 30 slots in the big game in Boston. Hearst MVP Bill Monbouquette (195421) and Tony Conigliaro were such players.

But most of the players, of course, did not make it to the majors. Their stories provide the tapestry of baseball and the optimistic outlook that characterizes players and fans alike, an optimism that is as American as the game. The selection process involved tryouts in several locations in the Boston area. In 1971, the year of the last of these All-Star games, one player would not be denied.

The young man was from Everett, Massachusetts, and his story is the stuff from which legends are made. He went to tryout after tryout before finally being selected, at the very last tryout, as one of the 90 semi-finalists. At the time, he was a 16-year-old in-fielder.23 Then came the time to whittle down the 90 to 30, for the two 15-man team rosters in the final game. In the morning game on July 29, he went 1-for-2, scored the winning run, made the best fielding play of the game, and was selected as one of the 30 finalists.24 The personification of persistence, he eventually became far better known for his ice hockey skills, and Mike Eruzione captained the United States Olympic team to the Gold Medal in the Miracle on Ice in 1980.

WHAT MIRACLES DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?

As we emerge, as a nation, from the darkness of the pandemic, baseball is not so much a National Pastime as a common attitude. The American spirit is best shown when we endure the shared moments of frustration and spring forward with optimism and achievement. We saw this in baseball when a team down by three games in a Championship Series came back to advance to the World Series and win its first World Series in 86 years. Many saw it when a country, after years of economic insecurity in the 1930s, saw prosperity two decades later. Moving forward with a shared purpose is what America should be about and what success in baseball has always been about.

We have been there before. As the decade of the sixties ended, a decade known for much challenge and frustration, from the outcry of the civil rights movement to the disillusionment of Vietnam to the emergence of a generation accompanied by the crescendo of music from rock to country to folk to Motown, people from many different walks of American life all got glimpses of one another. Unfortunately, that glimpse did not lead to unity. The shared sense of accomplishment when humankind walked on the moon was as fleeting a moment as the time it takes a home run to travel from home plate to the stands. And in subsequent decades the desire for “security” outdistanced the desire for societal cohesion.

Since the moon landing, baseball has changed, too. Expansion to new markets, the designated hitter, and free agency have all had both supporters and detractors. Some speak with a reverence for the past, a time when things were different. But they weren’t necessarily better. Yes, baseball was “integrated” at the major league level in 1947. But in the thirteen seasons through 1959, only 124 players of color had entered the game.25 That was less than 10% of all players entering the game during those years.26 It would be decades before Black managers became accepted in dugouts with the likes of Frank Robinson, winning the Manager of the Year award and Dusty Baker and Dave Roberts leading teams to the World Series.

A spirit of giving back to the game has helped baseball and society at large. From the likes of Rabbit Maranville and Tommy Holmes and Oscar Vitt being involved in youth games; to Black legends like Buck O’Neil (unknown to most White fans before 1994) getting involved in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; to Roberto Clemente’s dedication to humanitarian aid—that is a great history of the past and tapestry for the future.

Some see the big money being paid to today’s athletes as a barrier that will keep the players from giving of themselves in the years to come. A look in the rearview mirror finds that for decades and decades, salaries were deemed too high, but that did not get in the way of the likes of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb offering their time to work with kids.27 As long as there are challenges in the community at large, look for ballplayers and teams to come forward with help and direction. In 2020 alone, baseball players and teams stepped up to the plate with initiatives ranging from the Players Alliance dedicated to fighting racial inequity, to teams like the Dodgers with their COVID-19 Community Relief program.28

The future of baseball and society as we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century seems at times to be outside the realm of predictability. During the past year, after being isolated in our homes, we stepped out to encounter our neighbors and got to know each other better. In the broader sphere, after generations of racial injustice, America is on the verge of confronting the true impact of segregation, more than 70 years after baseball took those first steps towards integration.

Frankly, the situation remains, in society as in baseball, anything but predictable. There is, however, the eternal battery of hope and enthusiasm, blended with worry and fear, defining America. Just as they define baseball on Opening Day. 

ALAN COHEN has been a SABR member since 2010. He chairs the BioProject fact-checking committee and serves as Vice President-Treasurer of the Connecticut Smoky Joe Wood Chapter. He is MiLB First Pitch stringer for the Hartford Yard Goats, Double-A affiliate of the Rockies. His biographies, game stories and essays have appeared in more than 50 SABR publications. His major area of research is the Hearst Sandlot Classic (1946-1965) from which 88 players advanced to the majors. He has four children and eight grandchildren and resides in Connecticut with wife Frances, their cats Morty, Ava, and Zoe, and their dog Buddy.

 

Sources

In researching the “rear-view mirror” that is a major part of this story, the author used articles from the following:

Baseball-Reference.com

Boston Record-American/Sunday Advertiser

Pittsburgh Courier

Chicago Defender

New York Daily News

New York Journal American

Philadelphia Inquirer

Pittsburgh Courier

Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph

San Antonio Light

San Francisco Examiner

New York Journal American

Philadelphia Inquirer

 

Notes

1. Dom Amore, “Goats Win Home Opener in Latest Sign Normal Life is Returning,” Hartford Courant, May 12, 2021: 3-1.

2. Alan Cohen, “Never on a Sunday: Baseball’s Battles with the Blue Laws in Rochester,” in Don Jensen, ed., Base Ball 10: New Research on the Early Game (Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland Publishers, 2018), 190-202.

3. Charlie Bevis, Sunday Baseball: The Major Leagues Struggle to Play Baseball on the Lord’s Day, 1876-1934 (Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland Publishers, 2003), 34-50.

4. Christopher Keating, “Connecticut Senate to Debate Passage of Online Gambling,” Hartford Courant, May 26, 2021: 7.

5. With the Pandemic, two more ballparks (Buffalo, NY and Dunedin, FL) joined the list.

6. Dwelling on the program at length is doable for the author but unappetizing to most readers. See my previous articles on the Hearst Sandlot Classic. The author’s published articles on the Hearst Sandlot Classic include: Alan Cohen, “The Hearst Sandlot Classic: More than a Doorway to the Big Leagues,” in Cecilia M. Tan (editor), The Baseball Research Journal (Fall 2013), 21-29. Alan Cohen, “From Sandlot to Center Stage: Pittsburgh Youth All-Star Games,” in Cecilia M. Tan (editor), The National Pastime: Steel City Stories (2018), 60-63. Alan Cohen, “Bats, Balls, Boys, Dreams, and Unforgettable Experiences: Youth All-Star Games in New York (1944-1965)”, in Cecilia M. Tan (editor), The National Pastime: New York, New York: Baseball in the Big Apple (2019), (2017), 85-88.

7. Alan Cohen, “Joe Torre” for SABR BioProject.

8. Michael Friedman, “Max Kase Cited for Youth Work,” Yonkers (New York) Herald Statesman, August 27, 1970: 35.

9. Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times, The Rabbit,” The NewYork Times, January 7, 1954: 34.

10. The Hall Monitor: The Official Newsletter of the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame, November 12, 2020: 3, 6.

11. Dylan Kitts, “Restoring a Classic: Dormant Summer Sandlot Showcase is Revitalized on Diamonds,” New York Daily News, August 11, 2009: 25.

12. Harold Scherwitz, “Sportlights,” San Antonio Light, June 5, 1949: D1, and Raul Dominguez, Jr., “All-Star Game Continues Despite Waning interest,” San Antonio Light, July 22, 1989: H-7

13. Scherwitz, “Sportlights,” San Antonio Light, June 5, 1949: D1, and Raul Dominguez, Jr., “All-Star Game Continues Despite Waning interest,” San Antonio Light, July 22, 1989: H-7

14. “Alex, Knutson Named for Trip To Hearst Sandlot Classic,” San Antonio Light, July 22, 1959: 46.

15. “Ted Shows How It’s Done,” San Antonio Light, July 14, 1961: 32.

16. “Tigett, Myer Picked for Hearst Start Game,” San Antonio Light, July 29, 1960: 42, 46.

17. Scherwitz, “Worthy of Support.” San Antonio Light, July 24, 1962: 12

18. “Ottie Cochran Dies at 62 Playing Golf,” Pittsburgh Press, April 30, 1967: 3-2.

19. Walter Judge, “Examiner School Returns Gomez to Old Haunts to Instruct Kid Pitchers,” San Francisco Examiner, June 24, 1952: 27.

20. Morey Rokeach, “Vitt High on U. S. Stars After Drill,” New York Journal-American, August 16, 1960: 25.

21. Bill McSweeney, “Yawkey Finds Talent in Hearst Sandlot,” Boston Daily Record, August 16, 1961: 34.

22. David Cataneo, Tony C.: The Triumph and Tragedy of Tony Conigliaro (Nashville, Tennessee, Rutledge Hill Press, 1997), 28

23. Kevin Mannix, “Ten More Players Added to RA-A Sandlot Squad,” Boston Record-American, July 17, 1971: 30.

24. Kevin Mannix, “Red Sox Host RA-A Sandlot Game,” Boston Sunday Advertiser, August 1, 1971: 21.

25. Larry Moffi and Jonathan Kronstadt (editors), Crossing the Line: Black Major Leagues, 1947-1959 (Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland Publishers, 1994), was shown as a source in “Integration and the “Barrier Breakers”: Back Baseball 1945-1960 (“Charting History”) a lesson plan developed by Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The list showed 119 players. Another five players have been determined to have been inadvertently excluded from the list.

26. Per Baseball-Reference.com, Jackie Robinson was the 7,942nd player in the major leagues. When Tommy Davis made his debut on September 22, 1959, he was the 9,309th player in the major leagues, although those figures include the non-major-league National Association.

27. Al Warden, “East Defeats West 5-4 in Esquire All-American Tilt,” Ogden Standard Examiner, August 29, 1945: 12.

28. Press release, “MLB, MLBPA Jointly Commit $10 Million to the Players Alliance,” September 21, 2020. https://www.mlbplayers.com/post/mlb-mlbpa-jointly-commit-10-million-to-the-players-alliance; “Relief Efforts, Dodgers team website, MLB.com, accessed May 27, 2021. https://www.mlb.com/dodgers/community/relief.

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