Article

Michael Hammond


Hairs vs. Squares

Baseball, social change, and tradition.

With the cooler temperatures of autumn come falling leaves and the advent of playoff baseball. Springtime hopes of fans pass through the summer grind of 162 games that produce the best teams to vie for the World Series. The Chicago Cubs finished the season with the best record in baseball. That fact alone points to an identity crisis for fans who are used to waiting 'til next year. The Texas Rangers, Washington Nationals, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers round out the division champions. Wild card winners include the New York Mets, San Francisco Giants, Baltimore Orioles, and Toronto Blue Jays. These teams represent the largest metro areas in North America.

And the playoffs cannot come too soon. A contentious summer brought a divisive presidential election and ongoing concerns about racial justice and police shootings. Protests and violence escalated over the summer in Dallas, Charlotte, and other cities. Professional athletes used their big stage to protest against social inequality and a lack of justice for all Americans. There are parallels here to 1968 and the early 1970s. In the midst of social upheaval, the most traditional of American pastimes might seem an empty escape from reality. However, baseball has long enjoyed a complicated relationship with the national culture. Baseball offers the familiar rhythm and pace of tradition while absorbing social change.

On March 31, 1968, in a televised address to the nation, President Lyndon Johnson famously stated he would neither seek nor accept the Democratic nomination for president. Four days later, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and America appeared to be unraveling. The start of the major league baseball season was delayed due to riots around the country. When teams opened the season a few days later, Johnson could not appear in public to deliver the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Senators game, and sent Vice President Hubert Humphrey instead.

Humphrey, about to launch his own presidential campaign, hoped to start the baseball season on an upbeat note after a period of national mourning and urban riots in most cities, including Washington. But before the vice president tossed the first pitch, the crowd began booing him. Their catcalls had nothing to do with the Vietnam War, MLK, or politics. They were angered when Humphrey walked to the visitors dugout to greet his home state Minnesota Twins, the same team that had been the original Washington Senators before they relocated to the Twin Cities in 1961.

Baseball is like that. The game once celebrated as America's pastime was built on a legacy of intentional escape from the burdens of everyday life. Rivalries and tradition are more important to fans than the political or social issues of the day. The game's enduring appeal is found in its strong connection to the past. Today's game looks almost identical to its earliest days, and the ballparks, rules, and uniforms reflect a different era. Even as the game and the business around it adapt to the demands of more recent years, fans cling to elements of the game that—to them—are unchanged from the beginning of the game itself.

This appeal to tradition, however, is a burden for baseball. Tradition opposes modernization and social change, but the game must find a way to respond to the entertainment demands of modern society. Casual observers may complain that the game is boring or too long, but jettisoning tradition means losing dedicated fans. Baseball is at its best when tradition comes up against the movements of society. The game can provide relief from politics or social conflict. But it also grants an opportunity to recognize social change precisely because baseball tradition is so highly valued and slow to change.

Baseball has traversed the foul lines and shaped the United States in important ways. The best-known instance is the 1947 rookie year of Jackie Robinson, as he was the first African American major leaguer in over sixty years. Robinson's debut helped to launch the modern Civil Rights movement, just as President Harry Truman signed executive order 9908 commissioning a study on rights and race in America. Truman's charge to the President's Committee on Civil Rights in 1946 led to a year-long study that created the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department, desegregated the armed forces, and moved the Democratic Party toward a civil rights platform. Truman was responding in part to lynchings and attacks on veterans who had returned from World War II only to face discrimination and violence at home. The work of the committee in 1947 coincided with Robinson's rookie season. His achievement was important not only in its symbolism, and not merely because he famously turned the other cheek when provoked by hostile crowds, death threats, and fellow players. Robinson succeeded in breaking the color line because he was one of the best ballplayers anyone had seen. With each game, he slowly refuted a presumption of white dominance by displaying his character and excellence as a player.

The political and civil rights revolutions of the 1960s brought hope that the promise of Jackie Robinson might be fulfilled. Baseball players found themselves involved in social change, even as they perpetuated the myth of simple baseball tradition. This was especially true during the upheavals of the '60s and '70s. And not only for African American players, but also for all players who languished under a paternalistic system of contract labor dictated by team owners. These changes would also require a break from tradition, and an embrace of social change.

For the Dodgers of the '60s, baseball was a ticket to stardom beyond the game. When New York City's master planner Robert Moses thwarted Dodger owner Walter O'Malley's plan for a domed stadium in Brooklyn, "Dem Bums" moved to Los Angeles in 1958 and became Hollywood darlings. The '60s provided a chance for some Dodgers players to attain baseball success, but also the stardom that television and motion pictures had cultivated in Southern California. These players were confronted by the anxiety of keeping their job—a place on the team—while also responding to the shifting world around them, as Michael Leahy shows in The Last Innocents: The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

For Maury Wills, his breakout season in 1962 led to a National League Most Valuable Player award. More important, it meant he had secured the job of starting shortstop on the Los Angeles Dodgers. He could count on traveling with the big league club and staying in a better dormitory during Spring Training at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida. But Wills—an African American who signed with the Dodgers after a personal appeal from his hero Jackie Robinson—would remain a second-class citizen in Florida as well as Los Angeles. Despite his league-leading statistics and exciting, speed-based play, Wills would have to live in a less desirable neighborhood in South Los Angeles. And even with his MVP award, he would still be subject to a paternalistic and condescending contract negotiation each off-season. Wills became a leader on Dodgers squads that would contend throughout the 1960s. But despite his internal pep talks, he often caved at the prospect of hardline negotiations with Dodgers General Manager Buzzie Bavasi. The Dodgers negotiator took great pride in his manipulative tactics, including press leaks and fake contracts, intentionally left around his office for other players to see. If a player saw the low payroll that star players were offered on these bogus agreements, he was likely to sign for a lowball figure. And team control could get personal. Wills attracted the attention of all-American star Doris Day. Even though both of them were married, a romance blossomed. When the Dodgers found out about it, Bavasi forced Wills to end it. Wills had success, but the traditional power structure of baseball kept him in his place.

As the Watts riots erupted in August 1965, Angelenos found an escape from reports of the violence by heading to Dodger Stadium to cheer on their first-place team. For some of the Dodgers players, their safety after the game was not guaranteed. Catcher Jeff Torborg drove through the city with a shotgun in the back seat. And for most black players, including Wills, John Roseboro, and Lou Johnson, their homes were in the riot zone. Wills spent his hours away from the ballpark sitting in the parking lot of "Maury Wills Stolen Base Dry Cleaners" to ward off any looters who might take their frustration out on his business. The Dodgers had a reputation for promoting black players, largely due to their commitment to Jackie Robinson and his national prominence. Yet the culture in Southern California was still governed by the color line and racial tensions with the Los Angeles Police Department that would linger for decades.

The riots calmed down on August 17, 1965 after six days of violence that left 34 dead and more than $40 million in property damage. The Dodgers departed for a pivotal series with the rival Giants in San Francisco. On Sunday, August 22, in the final game of the series, a matchup of aces Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal turned ugly as brushback pitches knocked down batters from both teams. Despite an umpire's warning, when Marichal came to bat, Dodgers catcher John Roseboro buzzed his ear with a throw back to Koufax on the mound. An incensed Marichal repeatedly hammered his bat on the head of Roseboro. Dugouts emptied and a riot took place on the field. Roseboro and other Dodgers had firsthand knowledge of the frustrations of black Los Angeles citizens. But none of the players considered that the urban unrest had contributed to the incident. It was merely another chapter in the Giants-Dodgers rivalry.

The best Dodger of the 1960s was pitcher Sandy Koufax. He and fellow pitcher Don Drysdale held out for higher contracts together and discovered the leverage of collective bargaining. Drysdale and Koufax had each been offered Hollywood contracts and already appeared in television and film productions. When the Dodgers were faced with losing two of the top pitchers in baseball, they eventually moved toward the pair's demands. Koufax had greater success in pushing back against traditional power structures due to his great fame, enhanced by television appearances and coast to coast media coverage.

Leahy portrays the tension that Dodger players felt, even as they lived the dream of playing in the big leagues. They carried personal anxieties and national tragedies onto the playing field even as they looked for ways to spark a labor revolution of their own. The political and rights revolutions of the 1960s, the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, and the intensifying war in Vietnam were known throughout the world due to the medium of television. Baseball was changing as a result of broadcasts as well. Players were told that "pay TV" promised big paydays in the coming decade. But major leaguers were not prepared to negotiate a television contract, as they had not even claimed a fair share of profits from Topps baseball cards. In Baseball's Power Shift: How the Players Union, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture, Krister Swanson explains how the press and public opinion helped the players organize against the paternalistic system of baseball owners.

For baseball players to earn respect—and a more equitable share of the massive profits the game promised—they had to overcome decades of government and legal reinforcement of the reserve clause, which bound each player to one team unless that team decided to release or trade him. This was one of the longest-standing and most powerful traditions in baseball, and it gave all control over compensation and contracts to the team owners. Players were treated like a laborer in a manufacturing business; their work served the interests of the ownership. Fans saw players as something other than factory workers; their relationship was more like that of a patron to an artist. As athletes became more recognizable and familiar due to marketing and television, fans followed star players and tracked their individual success. This empowered players with leverage and public support as they started to organize.

Change came with Marvin Miller, the decidedly un-athletic labor lawyer who had represented the United Steelworkers, and led the MLB players union starting in 1966. His efforts to organize a powerful negotiating force were met with resistance by the owners, but also by some commentators, who saw in his work a reflection of anti-establishment protests over the Vietnam War and Civil Rights. Yet, the players and Miller were also portrayed as greedy as they sought a larger share of team profits and control over their playing careers. A key turning point began a month after Richard Nixon's infamous "silent majority" speech in November 1969. Baseball owners had echoed Nixon's call for calm and respect for authority from the players. In December, centerfielder Curt Flood was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. He was in the prime of his career, having won seven consecutive Gold Glove awards at one of the toughest defensive positions.

Flood admired Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he met on multiple occasions. A gifted artist, Flood painted a popular portrait of the slain leader. For Flood, the trade was a violation of his rights guaranteed by the 13th amendment that banned involuntary servitude. The Supreme Court ultimately heard Flood's case in 1972, ruling 5-3 against him and in favor of baseball's retention of the reserve clause. Thurgood Marshall authored the dissenting opinion, arguing that baseball players were just as deserving of their rights under the law as any other citizen. Although Flood lost his case, Marshall, Flood, and Miller pointed toward a strategy that would turn public opinion toward the rights of players to have a role in shaping their careers, and a means for collective bargaining. After Flood's holdout, more players and fans agreed that the reserve clause had to be altered to give some level of free agency to players. The tradition of keeping players subservient to ownership for their entire career was losing support.

The traditional look of baseball was challenged as teams looked for ways to capitalize on the cultural shift of the 1960s. The most innovative and non-traditional team of this period was the Oakland Athletics, owned by Charles O. Finley. Finley Ball: How Two Outsiders Turned the Oakland A's into a Dynasty and Changed the Game Forever is a recollection by Nancy Finley, the owner's niece. Her father, Carl Finley, helped his brother Charles manage the business affairs of the A's, first in Kansas City, and later when they moved to Oakland for the 1968 season.

Charles Finley challenged the traditional corporate structure of his fellow baseball owners, and they rejected him for it. He was a self-made man who grew wealthy in the insurance industry and considered himself an innovator and marketing genius. Among his ideas to liven up the game were the designated hitter, day-glo orange baseballs, and a donkey mascot named "Charlie O" after the owner himself. He tagged his star players with nicknames so that they would be more memorable to fans, and it worked for Blue Moon Odom and Catfish Hunter. He hired 11-year old Stanley Burrell—later to earn fame as rap star MC Hammer—as a team executive and his clubhouse spy. Tradition was nothing but a nuisance to Finley.

The first players strike took place at the start of the season in 1972, another step toward shifting power from owners to players. 1972 was eventful in many other ways. It was the year of Nixon's campaign against McGovern, which included the Watergate break-in. Nixon went to China that year, J. Edgar Hoover died, and The Godfather won best picture. Jackie Robinson died three weeks after throwing out the first pitch for game two of the World Series. Hairs vs. Squares: The Mustache Gang, the Big Red Machine, and the Tumultuous Summer of '72, by Ed Gruver, documents the 1972 season from the strike through game seven of the World Series between the A's and the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds represented stereotypes of the Midwest. Their team was sparked by the ultra-competitive Pete Rose, an all-star player who compensated for a lack of physical giftedness by outworking and outhustling his opponents—and then telling you all about how he did it. The Reds abided by the traditional appearance guidelines of baseball: high stirrup socks, clean-shaven faces, and moderate hair length.

The Oakland A's of 1972 were a contrast, literally and symbolically. Oakland was home to the Black Panthers and Hells Angels, and racial tensions and protests continued in the Bay Area that year. Charlie Finley had selected bright green and yellow uniforms, gleaming white cleats, and strongly encouraged long hairstyles as well as mustaches and beards. Star outfielder Reggie Jackson had grown a mustache at the start of the season, which made him the first big leaguer on record with facial hair since Wally Schang in 1914. The notoriously cheap Finley seized the opportunity and paid his players a bonus of $300 to wear a mustache for the season. On Fathers' Day, any fan with facial hair got into the A's game free. Soon the whole team sported mustaches, and the A's stood out against the traditional clean-cut image of ballplayers. Reds General Manager Bob Howsam thought the A's were a joke. He had taken the Reds policy against facial hair so seriously as to remove the 19th century-style handlebar mustache from the "Mr. Red" mascot on the team logo in 1968. One Oakland columnist derided Reds manager Sparky Anderson as a "short-hair freak." Oakland versus Cincinnati represented innovation and splashy marketing against tradition and values. Soon baseball players would persevere against the reserve clause and open a new era of moderated free agency. The traditional power structure of America's pastime was slowly shifting.

In recent years, Major League Baseball has struggled to compete for viewers and fans as louder and faster sports attract attention away from the deliberate nature of baseball. In response to this market competition, teams have enhanced their ballparks with amenities such as playgrounds, gourmet dining, boutique shopping, carnival games, party decks, and of course, ample Wi-Fi and device charging options. It is possible for a fan to purchase a ticket to a baseball stadium, remain occupied with options within the stadium, and never sit in a seat and watch the game. Baseball's distinctive appeal to a simpler time directly challenges the drive to reinvent the game for television, Internet, and the drifting attention of casual fans.

Baseball's tradition problem comes in protecting the valuable tradition of the game, while simultaneously responding to changes in technology and society. This is why baseball is often presented with romanticized, even religious imagery. Romanticized paeans to the game, found in the verse of Bart Giamatti or the play-by-play of Vin Scully, carry the weight of a vicar's homily. The ballpark is the "green cathedral" and the playing field is the "emerald chessboard." Abandoned ballparks, such as Detroit's Tiger Stadium, are viewed as hallowed ground. This often results in decades of internecine battles to preserve the space for its holy purpose of ball playing. When the stadium is demolished, fans continue to make pilgrimage to see any remnant of the old facility. Relics of the old game—historic balls and other equipment—regularly fetch millions at auction. A line of popular baseball cards even features shreds of actual game worn uniforms, offering fans the chance to own a holy relic of the game.

Like religion, baseball has its doctrinal guardians who protect the integrity and purity of the game. While innovators may contrive new and popular ways to celebrate the sacredness of the game, these methods remain subservient to the traditions and foundational ideals of the game that were handed down at its creation. There are even parallel debates over the question of origins, with purists protecting the Doubleday myth while modernists appeal to historical criticism to find a more moderated evolution of the early game into modern baseball.

Baseball's dilemma is that the romanticized view of the game is a fantasy. Nostalgia for a simpler past also gives baseball its appeal across class and political boundaries. Fans from a variety of viewpoints can share in the joy of celebrating their shared team allegiance. But the same ballpark that is a respite from work and family pressures also displays class distinctions between the luxury boxes and the bleachers. In order to perpetuate the myth that baseball is insulated from the world around it, each player has to suspend the burdens of life and maintain an outsized affection for playing the game. This is the challenge of the game for the fans, and also the men who play and participate in it. Baseball has been at its best when tradition was strong enough to bend toward a changing world while maintaining the great and unique character of the game.

Michael Hammond is Academic Dean of the Arts, Humanities, and Biblical Studies at Taylor University. He is also editor of the "Religion in American History" blog.

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