Henry Aaron: 1934–2021

A personal memory of the all-time great.

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Henry Aaron, the greatest baseball player in history, died this morning at the age of 86. Because he played in an era in which baseball was a part of what it felt like to be an American, his impact on the sport extended far beyond baseball. America needed Hank Aaron (and Willie Mays and so many others) in ways that it still has not started to appreciate.

In baseball, his statistics will always be eye-popping: if one removes his 755 home runs from his hit total, he still had more than 3000 hits. That is only the beginning of his importance in baseball history. I caught a glimpse once of how he carried himself as a person, which for me has long represented some of the reasons he could have that impact on American society far beyond his baseball card stats. I’ll tell that brief story below.

On April 8, 1974, Aaron hit the 715th home run of his career in Atlanta in the fourth inning of a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was a member of the Atlanta Braves and had been for two decades. His 715th homer broke a record for career home runs that had been set when Babe Ruth hit his final home run in 1935. (Aaron’s final record of 755 homers stood until 2007.)
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Pandemic Diary 8: The Flat Curve

I could never hit the curve. Also, as if consistent physical incompetence was to be sole consistency that nature would bestow on me, I could not throw the curve, either.

Never athletic anyway, the absence of athletic ability from the start of my life was not a factor in any life decisions. And now, disabled as I am, almost every physical activity qualifies as athletic. (I walk a couple of miles each day because I can and ought to.) But I wanted to be a baseball player …
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One of Life’s Curveballs

On June 12, 1970, Dock Ellis, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who would go on to some success and much controversy, threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. No-hitters are headline news but not usually career- or even season-defining.

If you are a baseball fan, you may know why Dock Ellis’ no-hitter is remembered, 45 years later. If you are not, please keep reading, as this is not a post that is about baseball.
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A Letter from Jackie Robinson

[This is one of my favorite posts from 2015. A sports story that is not about sports.]

On June 12, 1970, Dock Ellis, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who would go on to some success and much controversy, threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. No-hitters are headline news but not usually career- or even season-defining.

If you are a baseball fan, you may know why Dock Ellis’ no-hitter is remembered, 45 years later. If you are not, please keep reading, as this is not a post that is only about baseball.
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All but the Grand Slam

Some flash fiction-comedy follows.

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“Metaphors was as rare for me as things I can’t find anywhere.”—Pop Hinks.

Pop was describing a time when he was stretching, reaching, striving for an easy analogy, a way to convey the idea that one thing led him to thinking about another, second, thing. It eluded his thinking brain like a bird that had flown away from his grasp, though. The whole thing was a moment and a bird and Pop himself. Just those three things and they were themselves complete and entirely themselves.
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A Missing Ingredient

Forty-five years ago today, Dock Ellis, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who would go on to some success and much controversy, threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. No-hitters are headline news but not usually career- or even season-defining.

If you are a baseball fan, you may know why Dock Ellis’ no-hitter is remembered, 45 years later. If you are not, please keep reading, as this is not a post about baseball.
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Chicago’s Cult of Harry: Harry Caray at 100

When I moved to the Midwest in the summer of 2000, I learned that Phil Rizzuto was not the baseball announcer who had coined the phrase, “Holy cow!” I also learned that there was a controversy about this, and that, as a Yankee fan and native New Yorker—and worse, someone unaware of a controversy—I was on the wrong side of said dispute. Born wrong.

No, I was informed, the recently departed Harry Caray was the first to use the phrase on-air and was the announcer with whom it should be associated. Not the beloved Yankees announcer. For Cubs fans, a long-simmering resentment against all things New York became easy to openly express after a “Seinfeld” episode featuring a Phil Rizzuto keychain that exclaimed “Holy cow!” when its head was squeezed unfairly cemented in popular culture the notion that the saying was Rizzuto’s.

Upon learning that I was from New York and a sports fan, one new friend—in our very first conversation—brought up the issue. “You know who used to say ‘Holy cow,’ right?” As an astute observer of humankind and its many denizens, I picked up that there was only one answer and if I said “The ‘Scooter'” I would be inciting conversational violence. But I was not certain what the correct answer was. From my lofty, ivory tower, New York post, I was oh-so dimly aware that Harry Caray, the voice of several Midwest baseball teams over several decades, who had passed away just two seasons before, had been in a feud with my beloved Yankees announcer. Or that Cubs fans were in a feud. I also “knew” that it was possible that both used a really common euphemistic exclamation, Caray in the broadcast booth and Rizzuto on the field and later in the booth.

When I am confronted with a statement that is either false, uninformed, or ill-informed, but I do not see the value in debating the merits of facts, I will respond to such statements with a nod and say something like, “That is an idea.” Period. No emphasis on any syllable. Or even more aggressively passive-aggressively, “That is a sentence.” As if I am attempting an escape from a hostage-taking situation. I shared my theory about how both iconic baseball figures may have come up with the expression independently, since it is a common euphemistic exclamation, with my new Midwestern friend. He replied with a nod and said, with no emphasis on any syllable, “That is an idea.”

Harry Christopher Carabina was born in St. Louis, Missouri, 100 years ago today, March 1, 1914. For over fifty years he was a mostly regional, sometimes national, baseball and college football announcer. At some point in his career, he realized that as an announcer, he was not only the eyes of the fan in the broadcast booth, he was the fans’ voice, too. He wasn’t their representative, he was one of them, one lucky enough to be paid to watch a game he loved to watch. Thus, even though he had been an official broadcaster for teams that Cubs fans naturally detest—the White Sox and the Cardinals—when he became the voice of the Cubs in 1981, he was embraced as if he had always secretly been a Cubs fan. WGN, the station that broadcast the Cubs, was also one of the first “superstations,” which made him a nationally famous quirky regional personality. (Upstate New York, where I am from, did not have WGN, so Harry Caray was as much a rumor to me as Phil Rizzuto, heard on the non-national non-superstation WPIX, was to my Iowa friend.)

By the late 1990s, Will Ferrell started performing his Harry Caray impression on “Saturday Night Live,” and many other performers followed suit, but really, they are performing an impression of Will Ferrell’s Harry Caray impression. From my lofty ivory tower New York perch, I only knew Ferrell was poking fun at an elderly and much-loved baseball broadcaster, one much like my own beloved ‘Scooter’ Rizzuto. I did not understand why the impression continued after Caray’s death in 1998, but again, I was living in New York.

Former Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster is noted for his pretty funny impression of Will Ferrell’s Harry Caray:

Because it is almost the same distance to every major metropolis with a major league sports team, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where I lived, is one of the luckiest cities in the country for a sports fan. “Local” television broadcasts include the Cubs, the White Sox, the Cardinals; and the Bears, the Vikings, the Rams. I became a Cubs fan in part, I believe, because of all the day games that they play and that I could listen to while at my job writing instruction manuals. In August 2001, my “That is a sentence” friend and I drove to Chicago for a memorable day: a Friday afternoon loss game against the rival St. Louis Cardinals and dinner at Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse, a day that made me feel like I was finally a Midwesterner. The meal was terrific, and the Harry Caray name is now more associated with the seven establishments bearing his name and caricature (see the photo at the top of this post) than with the memorable broadcaster himself.

Which is too bad. Harry Carabina, born in desperate poverty in St. Louis, authored one of the unique success stories in baseball, in broadcasting, in America, when he invented Harry Caray. The success of those restaurants some sixteen years after his death, the fact that comedians still get gentle laughs at his memory, his long career, all stem from one man’s brilliant and rare talent at becoming beloved.

A last word from Harry Caray himself, from the last day of the 1991 season:

The Hall of Fame Is Not Broken, But It Is Dented

At 2:00 p.m. EST today, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) announced the winners of its Hall of Fame vote, held by mail in December. The official ballot has been growing in length recently, as the writers have failed to elect or have elected only one former player for several years in a row.

This is because some of the players on the ballot, many of them players with marquee names, are associated with on-the-field performances that may have been influenced by the consumption of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).

While they were players, Barry BondsRoger ClemensSammy SosaRafael Palmiero (who will not appear on future ballots after today’s vote), Curt SchillingMike PiazzaJeff Bagwell, and Mark McGwire were often described as “first-ballot Hall of Famers,” which is a compliment bestowed on a player to denote not just ordinary Hall of Fame greatness, but the highest level. “So-and-so won’t have to wait to be recognized, he’ll be elected right away.” (The BBWAA voting rules stipulate that five seasons must have elapsed between a player’s final game and their appearance on the ballot.)

Each of the players named above is making a repeat appearance on the ballot. They can never join the pantheon’s pantheon of first-ballot Hall members. They each have one other thing in common: Each one’s name has appeared in either legal documents concerning matters related to PEDs, at worst, or mere blog posts discussing the issue, more frivolously.

Two problems are colliding with the vote this year: 1. The voters are emphasizing one hazily-defined word in their own voting criteria more than they have in the past, and 2.) The BBWAA set an arbitrary rule that voters can only check off a maximum of 10 names on any year’s ballot. (Not that the Hall will limit inductions to a maximum of 10 in a given year–the controversies should there be a tie for tenth place the one time it might happen needed to be avoided–but that any voter, and there are about 550 of them, is limited to voting for a maximum of 10 former players.)

The second problem first: I just listed eight players who are making repeat appearances on the ballot this year, and about four “first-ballot Hall of Fame” players are making their first appearance on the ballot, players whose names have not been associated with PEDs, except in articles in which it is pointed out that their names are not associated with PED use. (The four, according to me, are Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, and either Mike Mussina or Jeff Kent. Look at that “or” there: if I were a voter, I would not be able to limit myself to 10 names.)

The 10-vote maximum rule is an arbitrary one that can easily be remedied if the BBWAA sees fit, and one or two years of allowing more to be included might clear the backlog. The reason(s) for the backlog are not so easily remedied.

The ballot states and has always stated one criteria for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame:

Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

Which word do I think is the hazily-defined one? Integrity refers to how the player performed in the game on the field. Did he cheat on the field during games? If a player breaks the integrity of the game in this way, not only will he not get into the Hall, he will more than likely earn a lifetime ban from anything to do with professional baseball, like Pete Rose or the 1919 Chicago White Sox players.

“Character.” I am not the first to consider this word and its place in this particular voting rule. Is the ingestion of PEDs off the field to build up physical strength or speed up recuperation from injuries a character issue? If the chemicals were not taken by every major league player, there is the near-certainty that those players who took PEDs created for themselves an advantage over their rival “clean” players. Further, even if it is a character issue, did it have an impact on the integrity of the games they appeared in?

Many of the baseball writers and Hall voters have found their way into some tangled thickets of logic while trying to connect character and integrity. A few have found integrity by issuing blanket denunciations of the entire “Steroid Era” and not voting for anyone who played in the era. Others have found integrity by voting for the entire slate every year with the reason given that if the entire era was tainted than it was an even playing field for all and certain players excelled to a Hall level on that equal field.

The examples of tangled logic come when certain writers decide to use their ballot to draw distinctions between specific players. I have not yet seen a column or blog post in which someone has written, “Player X is alleged to have only used steroids for three seasons but for the rest of his career he is said to have been clean, while Player Y used them for the majority of his career, so he’s not getting into the Hall,” but they do come close with Barry Bonds.

With Bonds, the standard line has become something like, “He was a Hall of Fame-caliber player before he is alleged to have started using steroids, but then he started using steroids. So he’s out.”

What is a Hall of Fame for? The BBWAA has only one other stipulation about qualification under its “Automatic Election” clause: No election can be based on a single or singular performance, like a perfect game or .400 batting average. That is the only limitation. Other than that, it’s on the field performance. Is a player someone who ticket buyers spent money to see play? (I suggest Nolan Ryan as an example here.) For an extended period of time? If not, did teams keep hiring him to play, season after season for an extended length of time? (Like my pet cause, Tommy John.)

I am in the group that sees the steroid era as having been an even field and am inclined to include in the Hall all the players that excelled in the PED-infested era (which we still appear to be in). All things being equal, certain performers excelled and certain others did not, just like in any other era of the game.

The game’s overseers banned the spitball in the 1920s, as the pitch can give an advantage to the pitcher who uses it over the pitcher who does not. But there are spitball pitchers from the spitball era with plaques in the Hall. It was a different era, so the spitball is handled as a artifact from a period in history that we are no longer in. Sort of like steroids may be in the future.