Baseball History For People Who Like Baseball History

 

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This is the Zapruder film for Angels fans

 

A couple of weeks ago I was watching a White Sox game (note: I don’t know why, either) and, as it will, a third strike was dropped. The catcher easily threw out the batter/runner, as they do. Maybe this one was slightly closer than usual, or maybe it was just because the game was boring and whatever I was reading wasn’t holding my attention, but I started to wonder about the dropped third strike. It’s a strange rule, giving new and unfair life to the batter. Now, as the beneficiary of one of the oddest (and honestly, dumbest) dropped third strikes in recent memory, it shouldn’t bother me, but it did. I vowed to find out why this rule existed, and what in baseball history caused it to be there.

And then promptly forgot about it, probably by the next pitch.

However! There are people who are much better than me, and coincidentally, my great and good friend Brett Kaufman took a break from aiding and abetting terrorism and sent an article from the invaluable people at the SABR Society. It’s from last year, but it pretty timeless, in the same way baseball is. Apparently, the dropped third strike has its roots in a form of German protobaseball.

The story begins in an unexpected source: a German book of children’s games published in 1796 titled Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Körpers und Geistes für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden (“Games for the exercise and recreation and body and spirit for the youth and his educator and all friends in innocent joys of youth”) by Johann Christoph Friedrich Gutsmuths.2 Gutsmuths was an early advocate of physical education. He is best known today, outside the rarified field of baseball origins, for his promotion of gymnastics. In 1793 he published the first gymnastics textbook, Gymnastik für die Jugend (“Gymnastics for Youth”). His 1796 work extended the scope to additional games. These include a chapter Ball mit Freystäten—oder das Englische Base-ball (“Ball with Free Station—or English Base-ball”).

Gutsmuths wanted people to run, as Germans do, and to exercise, even if they couldn’t hit a loftily-tossed ball (think beer league softball). Through the literal centuries, through the wild and murky past of baseball forming in cities and towns across the nation, as different rules were enforced differently, this idea came and went, and finally stuck. It’s now part of the unquestioned canon.

That’s one of the coolest things about baseball. We know exactly when James Naismith founded basketball. The history of football is pretty understood. But baseball has all these weird quirks, these little foggy twists in time. Researchers are always finding stories about a group of Norweigan tree-fellers in Wisconsin playing a recognizable game in the 1820s, or something (that’s made up, but you know). We keep learning more about it, like it’s some ancient civilization that’s continually being dug up. It’s so cool to see how it influences even what’s happening at Guaranteed Rate Stadium.

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Guaranteed Rate Field: The Nadir Of White Sox Fandom

 

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Just think of this and be happy.

 

 

It’s been a rough year to be a White Sox fan. It started with an unbearable redneck muppet who could barely find the Mendoza line complaining that his kid wasn’t allowed to manage games, and somehow went downhill. The actual season started out great before collapsing into just another mediocre year. Another in a long string of middling and plodding seasons for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2008 and, in that time, only came actually close once. Another year where in June you could squint your way back into contention, but every two or three game streak was followed by a bad week. The emblematic moment of our season was when one of the best pitchers in the game, and one of the best we’ve ever had, cut up the 1976 throwback jerseys because he didn’t want to wear them. That hurt for reasons I’ll explain in a second. The fact that the Cubs are the best team in baseball, with the brightest future, and who are doing everything right, and are genuinely likable, just makes it worse.

But there is a new low now. This is worse than Disco Demolition (which was awesome). This is worse than the Ligue boys (who were Cubs fans). This is way worse than the grand Comiskey name being changed to U.S. Cellular Field. I can’t…I can’t even type it.

BREAKING: Guaranteed Rate has purchased naming rights to U.S. Cellular Field. Will be known as Guaranteed Rate Field thru 2030.

This is just…it’s the worst. It’s the worst name. Worse than Enron, probably, because when the Astros stadium was first named that no one knew that they were a country-wrecking band of criminals. Some shady third-rate mortgage company with a terrible name? It’s disgusting. I like Jerry Reinsdorf, and I get that parks have to have naming rights these days, but this is abhorrent.

Worse, it is embarrassing. Being a Sox fan always means eating some crow, which for many turns into bitter anger and misplaced aggression. We have to listen to fans of a team that hasn’t been in the World Series since the end of WWII talk about how we don’t matter, and for the most part, they are right. Sports aren’t entirely about success. They are about the trappings of fandom, and our trappings aren’t glamorous.

And for the most part, that’s been fine. Many of us actually like it. We have our insularity, and we have our weirdness, and we have our quirks. Our history isn’t illustrious, and it is frequently grimy, but in a cool, late 70s, early 80s sort of way. We like it. We like bad fashion and dumb jokes and an owner who created an exploding scoreboard. We like being the weird cousin that no one cares about. There is an aggressive tribal attitude to it, sure, but there is also a sense of family. We have our family history, and that includes terrible choices, like those 1976 throwback unis. They were dumb, but they were fun, and they were ours. That’s why Sale cutting them up was such a blow. Our best player isn’t one of us, like Beuhrle and Konerko and Jermaine Dye and even (especially) Ozzie were. And more to the point, he shouldn’t be. Why would he? We’re not relevant, and just middling. That’s why this season is so hard.

And now this. “The Cell” was at least a decent dimunitive. US Comiscular was fun to say. There’s nothing here. It’s bland and insulting and a disgrace. No one can ever– ever!– say “let’s catch a game at Guaranteed Rate Stadium” without rolling their eyes. Everyone has every reason to make fun of us. They always made fun of us anyway, but we had our defenses. Now, year by pathetic year, and terrible business decision by terrible decision, those defenses are being stripped.

I’ll always be a White Sox fan, until the day I die, and will be passionate about them. I’ll always love going to the ballpark with my family. I’ll love our traditions.  I’ll still mostly call it “Sox Park”. But others won’t. It’s even more of a joke. This really hurts.

A Cubs’ Fan In Summer

 

A not-terrible place to watch a baseball game

 

My good buddy Brett Max Kaufman, who by day is a national security lawyer at the ACLU, also has for a cause a group even more damned than the forgotten wretches in Gitmo: the Chicago Cubs, and their fans. Well, not this year, of course. They are legitimately great, and brain-breakingly fun. He has an excellent piece over at The Classical describing how strange it is to be on the cusp of something he never thought could happen.

This—this air of concrete possibility—is new, and accordingly the young Cubs season has required Cub fans to make an emotional adjustment. We’re having more fun than ever, stumbling around dazed and delirious, smiling at strangers, shaking our heads. But the stakes are no longer merely philosophical. Growing up, I did not see any “meaningful games” this early in the year; I just saw games. Generations of us have watched in dejected disbelief as the Cubs blew one (and then another, and another) in May, but we always did so with a knowing wink at a universe we knew drove an impossible bargain. Occasionally, the games became important later on, with the weighty, improbable momentum of an entire summer behind them, and those particular failures left their marks. But Cub fans’ overall exposure—game to game, season to season, generation to generation—has always been relatively limited.

This is no paean to losing, no panegyric to the benefits of misery. Them being good is clearly for the best. It’s a recognition though, of what it all means.

As a Sox fan, I’m happy for Brett. I’m happy for all Cubs’ fans, and even for most people who just claim to be fans. It’s not a Chicago thing, per se. It’s for the people in it who care, and for whom this would mean so much. Part of me hopes they don’t do it, just because it would be unbearable, but I hope they go all the way. It’ll be a hell of a story.

A Few Thoughts on The White Sox, Of Interest Only To Me

  1. 1-0! The Cubs aren’t the only first-place team in town!
  2. On more of an ontological level, nearly every season projection has had the Sox as a “possible surprise team”- that is, if things break right, they could be able to make the post-season. The questions that rise: is “consensus surprise pick” a logical impossibility? And is “possible surprise” so vague as to be entirely meaningless?
  3. On that, my prediction is that they’ll win somewhere between 78 and 130 games, depending on my mood and what is happening at any given moment. Adam Eaton gets hit by a pitch in the first? Big on-base team this year! Caught stealing two batters later? We’re not going to score any runs. The joy of baseball is that it is a long a long and languid season, punctuated by impossible excitement, and that the moment-to-moment doesn’t matter, but you can’t convince my imagination of that.
  4. The defense already seems markedly better. Yes, the smallest possible sample size, and yes, this is just the anecdotal eye test, but come on. It can’t be any worse than in 2015, unless a new punitive MLB rule forbids the outfield from wearing gloves.
  5. I have no idea yet if Brett Lawrie is a delightful goon or an obnoxious hypercaffeinated bro. Maybe both? It’s the Swisher Variance.
  6. Jimmy Rollins can still move, man. I hope that when I’m 37 I still have most of my speed. (Note: I am, and nope)
  7. Another nice thing about baseball is that you can flip and watch a bonkers awesome basketball ending and not miss much of your game. Unfortunately, because I was only watching intermittently, I didn’t realize I had the “UNC broadcast” and couldn’t figure out why they were only focusing on their crestfallenness. I was actually angry- are there not any Villanova fans, I complained bitterly to my wife- and conjuring up all sorts of nonsense bias scenarios. Along with speed, a sense of proportion and rationality is the first thing to go.

In Which I Converse With My Dearly Departed Father About a .207-Hitting Muppet And His Son…

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A scenario in which one can reasonably assume that the dead can interact with the living, but can’t get ESPN. 

Bob: Hey!

Me: Whoa! Oh, hey.

Bob: Isn’t it a little early for a beer?

Me: It’s uh…I don’t think…I mean

Bob: (laughs uproariously, in surround sound)

Me: (laughs uproariously)

Bob: So, how are our beloved White Sox doing? How do they look this year?

Me: Well…they’re the talk of spring training! Every news outlet is doing a story on them. Even People magazine!

Bob: Well, that’s great! They must have gotten some powerful lumber-wielders and slick leather-slingers to complement their already fearful coterie of flamethrowers. 

Me: Well…actually, it’s about a 14-yr-old boy.

Bob: …

Me: Yeah

Bob: I assume he’s some kind of phenom? A Griffey-esque prodigy who the suits at MLB won’t let play, due to some kind of rules against taking kids too early- a policy, by the way, about which I’ve been meaning to complain to Management, that we don’t have here. 

Me: Nope. Just a kid whose dad wants him in the locker room all the time. It’s sort of tearing the team apart. It’s all anyone can talk about. So yeah, big news. Big, big news.

Bob: …

Me: …

Bob: I gotta go. I’m having dinner with Groucho. 

Me: Oh, tell him I said hi!

Bob: Nope.

Fin