Baseball and History and Futility

The title is misleading: this post has nothing to do with the Kansas City Royals or the Pittsburgh Pirates.

I generally dislike when people say they “eat, sleep, and drink” their work. It is valid, however, when historians say it. I am in the middle of a research trip away from my family and friends that will run between one and two years. The amount of research I have to do, primarily archival research but also whatever secondary research I can squeeze in and organizational busywork in between, means that I do not have much time to go out, make friends, have fun, etc. I literally have dreams about my research, which range from wonderful dreams to absolute nightmares (what? This research is horrible. Someone already wrote your book last year. Also, a virus ate your hard drive. Also, nobody loves you). Sometimes the dreams are vivid and awesome (I have traveled back in time in my dreams… to do research. Luckily we do not smell our surroundings in our dreams).

One of the things that has kept me sane is baseball. I am a huge baseball fan; it is the only sport I follow. Most days involve coming home from the archive, pulling some German beer or Rhenish wine out of the fridge, and turning on mlb.tv to watch the previous day’s game. I am able to put my mind at ease and focus on something completely different for a time. The first thing I said when the Giants finished winning the World Series was “when do pitchers and catchers report?” Okay, it was the next day since I was sleeping when the game was played. And there was nobody around to hear me. But I said it. I promise.

One of the reasons so many fans are so incredibly passionate about baseball is the history. There are constantly questions of where a person, a team, a game, a series ranks in history. There are more books about baseball history in some form or another than probably all the other major American sports combined. They are better, too. There are myriad reasons for this. For one, baseball writing has always been lyrical. For another, since individual accomplishments are so much easier to recognize in baseball than other team sports, it is easy to become a passionate fan and follow the player’s career. For a third – and when discussing serious history, probably the most important – baseball is deeply embedded in the fabric of American social and cultural life. There is a reason the steroids scandal hit baseball so much harder than the NFL.

There is quite simply a stronger emotional attachment to baseball. Jackie Robinson’s arrival in the major leagues is still considered a pivotal moment in American racial history. It certainly gets mentioned more often than, say, the integration of the armed forces during World War Two. While there are some idioms and metaphors borrowed from basketball and football, there are many more from baseball. Americans have turned to baseball to ease their sufferings one national crisis after another. Some think we are too cynical to still fall for that, but does anybody not believe that the 2001 World Series did not help New York recover from 9/11 that much faster?

As the regular season wore down and the days off between playoff games, the failure to introduce instant replay, and Bud Selig’s response to the first two problems being wanting to add more playoff teams sapped my will to go on, I began thinking more about the parallels between how we think about and understand baseball and history.

This will be from a unique perspective, i.e. mine: a historian undertaking historical research and watching baseball. A historian’s thought on baseball analysis, you could say. I am not entirely certain how this will develop, but this will be a weekly series in which I will devote posts to the following:

  • 1)      Narratives in baseball and history: Part one, Part two, Part three
  • 2)      Theory and methodologies (e.g. advanced baseball statistics)
  • 3)      Causality
  • 4)      The Future (which, sadly, will not be about how we can turn Base Wars into a reality)

Some of these will almost certainly take more than one weekly post. That, or they will be really long. Welcome to a historian’s version of the baseball off-season.

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7 Responses to Baseball and History and Futility

  1. Pingback: World Spinner

  2. Noel Maurer says:

    Holy, s@#t, Batman! Does Selig really want to add more postseason teams to the random mix master? And who was complaining about the days between playoff series? WTF???

    Instant replay good, some sort of shot clock on hitters better, revenue-sharing better still … and fewer postseason teams. Take it back to four!

  3. Indeed, Robin, he does. Do any google search of Bud Selig and Second Wildcard. The part that drove me crazy was that he started talking about this just as everyone was begging for instant replay. He says it would make the sport more “fair.” I think it would make nobody care about the regular season.

    Lots of people are complaining about the number of days between playoff series. This year was better than last year, where it seemed to take two weeks just for the ALDS. The problem is TV ratings. They do not want to have two games at once during the playoffs so they stagger then, then leave several games between series even if they go the full five for seven games. Makes it very hard for the casual fan to maintain interest, and it’s not baseball. Baseball is an everyday sport.

    I’d keep the playoff system as it is. Just make them play the five or seven games in a row, maybe one day off in case of a rainout, and extend the ALDS to seven games too.

    Instead of a shot clock, I would just have the umpires required to enforce the rule that if a pitcher takes (fifteen?) seconds to throw a pitch the batter gets an automatic ball. We have the rules, they just need to be enforced.

  4. Noel Maurer says:

    I’m with you on the ALDS extension, although I’m not sure whether it would matter. Consider a team matching where the better team is expected to win 55% of the time. In a seven-game series, its chance of winning goes up 2.6% compared to a five game series. Is that a lot?

    Similarly, imagine a team that is expected to win two-thirds of its games against its opponents. Its chance of winning rises 5.1% by going from five games to seven. Is that a lot? As someone who is still bitterly bitterly angry over the 1997 ALDS, I want seven games, but the Yankees’ chance of being cheated out of their rightfully five World Series in a row losing would have declined only about 3 percentage points, from 32% to 29%. In terms of increasing cosmic justice, that ain’t a lot.

    I also agree completely on enforcing the pitchers’ rule, but much of the delay nowadays comes from batters taking their sweet time as they fiddle with their gloves or whatever. That psychological arms race is only going to get worse, and I suspect the game will need a shot clock or something to that effect. But enforcing the existing rule (which is, in effect, a shot clock on the pitcher) would be a start.

  5. Noel Maurer says:

    The obvious conclusion to the above, of course, is that going back to four playoff teams would greatly increase the chance that the two teams in the Series are indeed the two best in their respective leagues. But I understand why mileage would vary on that, and I agree that without a radical NFL-style equalization in team resources, it would be impossible.

    Although as a Yankees fan I myself would find the result quite agreeable.

  6. Noel Maurer says:

    Nothin’? WTF, dude?

  7. Pingback: Baseball and History: Narratives, Part Two | History and Futility

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