- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 20 Nov 1980, p. 116-132
- Kuhn, Bowie, Speaker
- Media Type
- Item Type
- Some comments on the effects of baseball on society. A brief history of the sport. Ways in which baseball has become a part of our language. Canadian franchises. Baseball's ability to unite geographical areas; to unite people; to refocus social concerns; to change the life of an individual, with anecdotal examples.
- Date of Original
- 20 Nov 1980
- Language of Item
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- Full Text
- NOVEMBER 20, 1980
Baseball Today and Tomorrow
AN ADDRESS BY Bowie Kuhn, COMMISSIONER OF BASEBALL
CHAIRMAN The President, Reginald Stackhouse
Ladies and gentlemen: So many baseball games have been won in the ninth inning that this unpredictability of the sport has inspired the saying: "It ain't over 'til it's over."
That could be said about baseball itself because in the late sixties there were many convinced that baseball's future was behind it, that it had little to feed on but memories of a past that was glorious but still past. Gone seemed the days when Sinclair Lewis in the 1920s could write about George Babbitt thinking there were some "objects which had an eternal importance, like baseball and the Republican Party."
By 1980 it is clear that, if both once seemed dead, both have since had a resurrection. In the past ten years, baseball has demonstrated it has the secret of perpetual youth--namely, the capacity to renew oneself. One change after another has been made--changes like expansion of the major leagues, televising regular season games, playing the World Series in prime TV time, and player free agency.
After years of decline, attendance has increased, new records have been set, and once again the World Series seems the only thing that really matters for two tension-packed weeks each autumn.
As in most human activities, much of this has been due to leadership, especially that of our distinguished guest of honour today, Mr. Bowie Kuhn, Commissioner of Baseball.
In that office since 1969, he has had general charge of co-ordinating the two major leagues as well as other dimensions of the vast and complex network known as professional baseball. The office of commissioner has been vital to the sport since 1919 when, following the bribery scandal of that year's World Series, the leadership of the first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was credited with restoring public confidence.
Fifty years later, a crisis no less serious challenged baseball and once again it turned to a commissioner. Mr. Kuhn's appointment was both logical and fortunate. A baseball enthusiast since childhood, he worked as a scoreboard boy for the Washington Senators, for the great sum of a dollar a game and free admission. After higher education at Princeton University and the University of Virginia, he entered the law, but significantly devoted nineteen years of his practice to serving the National League.
The owners of both major leagues knew him to be a skilled negotiator. They soon discovered he was more--a leader with courage to take hard decisions, with imagination to develop new ideas, and the ability to communicate with press and public.
Of the many changes that have come about in these years of Bowie Kuhn, none has been more important for Toronto area fans than expansion. But we look forward to one more great innovation. Past performance notwithstanding, we look forward to an AllCanadian World Series between the Expos and the Blue Jays.
It is a great pleasure therefore to begin the march towards that goal by having Mr. Bowie Kuhn with us today, and to say now: "Mr. Commissioner, you're up! )5
Dr. Stackhouse, members of the Empire Club and friends of baseball: I am delighted and honoured to be the guest of the most distinguished Empire Club of Canada. I believe that this is the first time that any of the five Commissioners of Baseball has ever been given this marvellous rostrum to come and speak to our friends in Canada.
I must say, I am impressed by the diversity of some of the two thousand speakers over the years. I see personalities as fascinatingly different as Gene Tunney, Jan Smuts and Rose Kennedy, and I am very happy to join in that group.
I am also fascinated to note that The Empire Club of Canada was founded in 1903. Those of you who are baseball historians will know that we hold that date in common because in that year the very first World Series was played. So the Empire Club and the World Series have equal longevity and, I would say, distinction--as I look with admiration at the record of both.
To come to the subject of today--the title I gave was "Baseball Today and Tomorrow." Since that truly pedestrian title is of my own creation, I feel free to wander away from it and to talk about the past. But since the past is said to be prologue to the future, I guess I can still hit the mark.
In this particular, I am reminded of our All-Star game in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. The big All-Star lunch on the day of the game is a very gala affair, with all kinds of celebrities-governors, mayors, leading figures from sports and entertainment all show up. We usually have a humorist, and the humorist that day was one of my personal favourites, Jonathan Winters, who does marvellous humour about baseball--which I won't attempt here, although I have been known in private to do it!
Jonathan Winters arrived early for the little reception that is held first, and he drew my wife Louise and I off into a corner. He said that as he sometimes got carried away and perhaps stepped on a few people's toes, maybe we could take five minutes while he ran through his act with us, so that we could tell him if it was okay. So he ran through it and it was side-splitting. We could hardly listen, we were laughing so hard. When he was through, I told him everything was all right, that there wasn't a thing in it for him to be concerned about.
So when the time came for him to get up at the luncheon, he gave his talk and not one word that he had said to us appeared! Jonathan is a man who you just turn on and it comes rolling out. Whatever the stream of consciousness that is running through his head is what you hear. He is something.
I asked your distinguished president if he had some ideas of what I might talk about in terms of baseball today and tomorrow, and he said that he would be interested to hear some comments about the effect of baseball on society. Now you know why your president is such a distinguished educator--because he asked me to talk on such an erudite subject. But I am going to try to oblige, because I am fascinated by a subject that I hope will interest you, and that is the impact that baseball has on language.
Stopping there for a moment to be just a little more discursively historical--the game of baseball is said to have been invented by a fellow named Abner Doubleday in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. It is possible that he had a ball and a bat, but it is thought by many to be more legendary than actual that Abner himself invented it. Indeed, Abner comes down to us in history, insofar as it can be documented, more as a rather distinguished Union general in the Civil War than as the man who was involved in the legend which is known in that area as "the legend of Fly Creek."
The origins of baseball plainly trace back to England, to the English game of rounders. One can look back to the nomenclature of the game of rounders and find many of the current words: bat, hit, strike, plate, foul, field, team, mound--all were part of the game of rounders as it was played virtually in mediaeval times in England. It came to this continent with the first settlers. It was played in New England, where in time it came to be known as town ball. Ultimately, in 1845, a very inventive fellow named Alexander Cartwright set down some rules. And that was really the most important happening in the early history of baseball. He set down the ninety feet, which may be the most distinctive thing about baseball, and which distinguished it from rounders.
In any event, the language is fascinating. If you read Mencken's American Language, you will find a large section on the impact of baseball--how it has contributed in terms of descriptive words and metaphors to our language. For example, we call something we like a "hit." The man who fails has "struck out," or at best, "doesn't get to first base." A person who is wrong or indiscreet is "way off base." When we are unprepared, we are "caught out in left field." Our salesmen in industry make "pitches." When we understand a situation, we "get the pitch," otherwise we don't "catch." The opponent in an argument who makes an extreme statement to retrieve a lost point is "really reaching for it." An unfortunate mistake is a "real blooper." A person who behaves eccentrically is a "screwball." When we refuse to get discouraged, it is because we'll "get our innings." If you are getting pressure from both sides, you are the victim of a "squeeze play." Until you get going, you're just "warming up," and after that, you're "right in there, pitching." When you cover every contingency, you "touch all the bases." When you compete outside your class, you are "not in the same league." A man who is ready to co-operate is "willing to play ball with
us." The fellow who operates against big handicaps has "two strikes against him," and someone who does something purely for effect is "making a grandstand play." A person who tries to refuse an invitation gracefully asks for "a rain check." When you understand quickly, you "get it right off the bat," and when someone asks you an embarrassing question, he has "thrown you a curve." An accurate statement is "right down the middle." When success is assured, you are "home free" When you are alert, you are "on the ball" When you defend someone, you "go to bat for him," and a person who is responsible for a project has his associates "back of his play," and all of that is "team work."
Nobody would understand all of that better than a man who used to be known in his youth as Dutch Reagan, a one-time sportscaster of the Chicago White Sox games, who today, as President-elect of the United States of America, hopes to maintain a "high batting average" in office and to make a "hit" as President. Baseball has contributed mightily in terms of secondary meanings. These phrases, like "make a hit" or "strike out" are used in every conversation without even thinking about baseball, which I guess is one of the most fundamental definitions of secondary meaning. And through the likes of Dizzy Dean, and many others, with his battered syntax and malapropisms, baseball has contributed a lot of slang to the language which has been one of the charms of the game. Read Ring Lardner if you want to see the effective use of baseball slang in great storytelling.
But I have noticed, however, a modern trend in a different direction. On the plane, coming up, I picked up something that I want to present to you because it catches that point perfectly. Russell Baker, the columnist of The New York Times, has been giving this whole thing some thought, and he is disturbed by a tendency he sees, that the language of the game is starting to get respectable. For instance, in the old days we used to talk about how fast a pitcher could throw. Now we talk about his "velocity." We used to talk about a pitcher being wild--now we talk about his "lack of location." Russell Baker says:
Until quite recently, the language spoken by baseball's practitioners and hangers-on crackled with terseness, vibrancy and metaphor. Now, it is becoming as arid as the tongue of a federal bureaucrat and shows alarming signs of drift toward the mumbo-jumbo jabber of sociology.
Why baseball American should be so impoverished at the moment when the sport is flourishing as never before is anyone's guess. Mine is that it is going through a period of highbrow pretension, brought on perhaps by the hordes of collegemen cluttering up the locker rooms, and the advent of highfalutin sports writers too self-conscious about their master's degrees in creative writing to risk playing a kid's game at the typewriter. It is enough to make a man pine for Dizzy Dean, who having been struck in the foot by a batted ball waited on the mound while a doctor examined him.
"This toe is fractured," the doctor said.
To which Dean replied, "Fractured, hell! The damned thing's broken!"
Baseball has had a mighty impact on our language, and that's not going to change very much.
Now I want to digress to say a word about something very dear to me--the Canadian franchises. I remember in 1968, when my firm represented the National League and I was privileged to sit in on the expansion meeting of the National League. There was an application on the table from Montreal and that was the first thing put to vote. Bingo! It went through without a dissenting vote. I think it surprised some people that it went through so easily because there were a lot of fine cities applying.
Then they began to consider and argue over who else there would be, and I sat there thinking, "Where, oh where, is Toronto?" What a perfect match it would have been for the National League to have had Montreal and Toronto together. But all we had at that time was a letter from an official in Toronto, I don't remember who, saying that if there was any interest in the National League in Toronto, to please let him have further details. Well, the League was not in the mood to go through that sort of procedure!
I have often thought back to that day, particularly as Toronto came in later with such success, and thought how history might have been a bit different had something been working here in Toronto at that time. The National League was then so interested in Canada, that had Toronto come through with a strong bid they might well have got in at that time.
But things have turned out happily for Toronto. Obviously, Montreal has done very well. They have been in the pennant race the last two years. They have averaged over two million people the last two years. But today, I am a little more interested in those Blue Jays, because although the Blue Jays did not have a spot in the standing last year that you could call exciting (unless you like to see the standings upside down), some very significant things happened to the Blue Jays last year. And from the professional point of view, that is what you look at.
The Blue Jays won fourteen more games last year than they did the year before. That is a big gain in wins. In fact, only three teams in the major leagues exceeded that gain of the Blue Jays. It was a significant development, and portends well for the future of the Blue Jays.
More important than that, and more important than seeing the Blue Jays in first place on May 10 last year (I'll never forget that--it just didn't seem possible), the organization, the ownership, behind the Blue Jays has structured well here. With Peter Bavasi they brought in one of the brightest young executives in the game, and the system he has put into effect is a sound kind of system. It is a building kind of system and you can be sure that the fourteen-win gain last year is a product of the kind of structure that he is building here which is going to be very productive in the future.
And then I look at the attendance in these four years and I see six million people for this young franchise, which has obviously had to struggle in those years. And I say that's impressive. Isn't it too bad that somebody didn't get here earlier! But I am happy that we're here in Toronto and I have boundless optimism about the future of this franchise, about what it is going to be and the kind of support it is going to get from this great metropolis of Toronto.
I will now turn to another subject, the subject of baseball's ability to unite geographical areas. That may seem a little out of the way for a boy's game, a child's game, which may not seem all that important to some. And yet, properly viewed, baseball has had an enormous impact on the political scene where it has been played.
For instance, 1968 was a bad year for racial disturbances in the United States. Cities were burning. One city which, at a certain point, managed to put out the fires and gather itself together and get away from the horror that was shocking everyone was the city of Detroit. In that year, the Tigers were making a run on the pennant. Mickey Lolich was one of their great pitchers, of whom, perhaps, more later. The politicians of the city said that nothing could have saved Detroit in 1968, the feelings were so bad, except for the impact of the Tigers and how they pulled things together. It quieted things down, brought blacks and whites together, and they were able to watch in some kind of unity as the Tigers went down and won that pennant, pulling the series out with three wins by Lolich.
The same thing happened in San Francisco in 1971. The Giants were having one of their good years, but the city was having tremendous problems. They asked Willie Mays, the great vibrant star of the Giants, to go on television and plead with the people of the city to pay more attention to something like baseball and to forget the hatred that was dividing the races in San Francisco. And there was the same magical effect. The city quieted down, and the people turned their attention to the Giants, away from acrimony, and the day was saved. The politicians there will also tell you about the tremendous impact that baseball had at that time. Of course, one of the earliest events was the 1942 pre-season point when Franklin Roosevelt said that he wanted baseball to continue. This was just a month after Pearl Harbor. None of the people in baseball was sure that it would be permitted to go on until F.D. R. wrote his famous "green-light" letter, in which he said:
The people ought to have a chance to have recreation to take their minds off their work. Baseball provides a recreation. I believe it best for the country to keep baseball going.
Baseball hearts glowed all over the land. And baseball did keep going and the reason was very plain. Roosevelt saw that baseball could do something for the country in its time of need, so baseball continued all through the war. It was not at a very high level of performance, as you will remember if you watched it, but we played it.
And I think another thing which dramatically illustrates the ability of baseball to pull people together is, as Dr. Stackhouse mentioned, the World Series. Take this year in the United States and Canada. I cannot give you an absolutely precise number, but we know more than 150 million people followed the World Series on television. That is two-thirds of the population, which is awesome! Nothing else generates that, day after day. It is an absolutely stunning achievement. And it is a great unifier in terms of the happy relations that exist between the United States and Canada. I hope we can anticipate again such great baseball as the Philies and Kansas City gave us this year in all the decades ahead.
There are a lot of forces at work in baseball which give joy, and there are also forces at work which are known to discombobulate commissioners. May I tell you about one of those? Anyone who knows me will know that I am about to get into what is known in baseball circles as "the Charlie and Bowie show." If you don't know what that is, I'll tell you.
Charlie, in baseball, is Charlie Finley, and Bowie is me. It has been rumoured that we were not friends. In his better moments, Charlie did things like suggesting that we cut the number of balls to make a walk from four to three, and the number of strikes for a strike-out from three to two. Charlie is a great believer in orange baseballs. Charlie was the man who called the Commissioner a village idiot when he said he couldn't sell off all his stars for cash. Then, because he didn't think he had quite the right tone, he changed that to "the nation's idiot.".
Dear Charlie is the kind of man who tells stories. For instance, two years ago when I went to Japan, he called some people together and he said: "I have good news and bad news. The good news is that our dear Commissioner has gone to Japan. The bad news is that he's got.a round-trip ticket."
Well, I am happy to report to you, and I am sure you won't think me mean or petty for telling you this, that on midnight on Thursday, November 6, Charlie's ownership of the Oakland Athletics ceased--without a return ticket.
There are other forces in the game which lend spice. For instance, this happened just in this past season. It doesn't happen too often, but it does every now and then. There was a batting order problem with the Dodgers. Dusty Baker grounded out and a run scored. Then the fun started. Philadelphia pointed out, correctly, that Ron Say should have batted, not Baker. After a heated argument, Say was called "out." This was correct. He should have batted and didn't. Baker, therefore, with the Philies succeeding in their argument, was permitted to return to home plate, where he hit a three-run homer to win the game! But my personal favourite happened in Philadelphia in 1978. 1 don't know why Philadelphia gets mixed up in all of these. The Mets were in Philadelphia, playing the Philies, and Lenny Randle is at bat for the Mets. It's ball four. Normally, in the game of baseball--if you understand the rules--when the umpire says "ball four" the batter puts his bat down, throws his helmet away and walks down to first base. Not Randle. He's still standing there at home plate with his bat on his shoulder. And also, normally, when anything like that happens, the umpire would say, "Son, you know, with four balls you go down to first base." Or maybe his manager would come out and say, "We like to get men on base. You'd better go down and take it."
But that didn't happen. The next thing you know, the pitcher from Philadelphia winds up and throws the rarest of all baseball pitches, the old four-and-two pitch. And Randle hit it for a triple!
I got a letter the other day which I want to share with you. It shows you that baseball is very provocative--a great debating society. It's full of controversy, and that's part of its charm, although that doesn't always charm commissioners.
This letter came from a lady who obviously thinks we are very wicked people, and that I in particular am a very wicked man, some sort of white-collar criminal. She wrote this letter to the Attorney General of the United States, and she says:
You will see from the enclosed copy of my letter of May 23, 1980, to The Los Angeles Times, that organized baseball may subliminally be teaching people in general, as well as children in public schools, how to transfer and project the presently creditable art of stealing bases into stealing in countless other ways. Such teaching therefore could be (1) why baseball is so popular with so many people; (2) why the media give baseball and its personages coverage out of all proportion to that given anyone else in our society; and (3) why many persons of larcenous nature seemingly seek repeated game-watching reinforcement of their conscious or unconscious thoughts. If baseball can aid and abet stealing bases, then stealing is or should be sanctioned by society. But the art of stealing bases seemingly causes the unwary to fall into a monopolistic trap set by organized baseball. Note that here I am dealing with organized baseball only because it sets the rules for others to follow.
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn may be heading a monopoly created to control the production and distribution of commodities, the exclusion of competition. To the best of my knowledge, no other sport, industry or profession overtly espouses the art of stealing anything.
May I have your response and any legal opinions related thereto indicating how your department is acting in this matter. Very truly yours.
I have never seen a response from the distinguished Attorney General to that letter. But I do have one other little letter that I am going to read to you. It is very personal, and falls into what I call "the department of undeserved credit."
Dear Mr. Bowie Kuhn:
I admire you and your contribution to baseball. Even though I wasn't alive to see you play, I have read books about how great you were. Could you send me an autographed picture? Thank you. You can believe that boy got a picture!
I have one last story that I want to end up with. I have a hard time telling this story, because I find it very touching.
One of the things that your president suggested that I might talk about is the contribution that players make to society. I found this story in a newspaper article in The New York Post a couple of years ago. It is in the department known as "baseball can bring tears to your eyes." It's about that very same Mickey Lolich I was telling you about a minute ago, who was the pitcher for the Tigers in the 1968 series.
One of the things about Mickey that everybody always remembers is that he looks like a bartender. He is a fat guy with a beautiful big beer belly. He and Al Kaline, the great Tiger Hall-of-Famer, were running a baseball camp called Camp Huron, near Detroit. There were a lot of kids in the camp.
The story picks up with Lolich talking.
I couldn't believe my eyes when I met this boy, Vincent Waters. When I saw him for the first time he was fourteen years old, a fat, black kid, about 240 pounds, about five feet ten, mentally retarded, with difficulty in walking and talking. He couldn't do anything right. He put his T-shirt on backwards. He couldn't put a key in a locker door. He couldn't hold a baseball or catch it. The other kids made fun of him, treated him terrible. It was impossible to watch. Kaline suggested that he should be sent home for his own good. One of our partners, Bob Fenton, was instructed to call Vincent's mother and have her take him home. The money would be completely refunded.
Fenton made the call. The mother said, "I'm on welfare. I've scraped and saved all my life to send Vincent to camp. His father left us when he was born. All his life, Vincent has only cared about the Tigers. He idolizes Mr. Kaline and Mr. Lolich. He will sit in front of the television with his Tiger hat and his glove. Couldn't he just stay around, maybe, just to be near Mr. Kaline and Mr. Lolich?"
When Fenton told Lolich and Kaline this story, they decided to try again, said Lolich.
"Al took him behind the field, away from the other boys, and threw baseballs with him. Soon he was able to make contact with the bat. The other kids began to understand. We asked them to help. They took him to the pool--he couldn't swim--but they watched out for him. They began inviting him into the kids' games.
"The second week of camp, Vince was given a uniform and allowed to sit on the bench. In one game, the score was tied and Vince was sent out as a pinch hitter.
"I do all the pitching in these games, so the kids can say they hit against a Big Leaguer. I lob it in and they have fun. Vince came up and I lobbed it in. He missed the first pitch. Then he missed the second. When he missed the third, I called it a foul ball. Then he did the same on the fourth and fifth and sixth. On the seventh, the ball hit the bat and dribbled out to the short stop. The short stop, a twelveyear-old kid who understood, picked up the ball and hung around with it. He held it in his glove, took a couple of steps, and finally threw it to first.
"The umpire yelled, 'Safe!' and both teams leaped all over Vince to congratulate him. "At the end of that week, a banquet was held. Awards were given to the kids for most valuable player, best hitter, and all that. When I announced Vince Waters as the most improved player, the building rocked.
"Vince walked up to the microphone, stammered a little, and said, 'Can I say something, please?' He didn't talk very clearly, but we all heard him say 'I want to thank my mother, and my girl friend, and Mr. Kaline and Mr. Lolich for the greatest week of my life.' Then he turned around and gave me and Al a giant bear hug."
"When I saw how much they had done for my boy," his mother said, "I couldn't thank them enough. They saved his life. They made him somebody."
"I've been in baseball twenty years," said Lolich. "I think that was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me."
And the writer concludes, "The fat guy with the beer belly walked into the trainer's room. He needed a towel, because the tears were streaming down his face."
Thank you very much.
The thanks of the club were expressed to Mr. Kuhn by Charles C. Hoffman, a Director of The Empire Club of Canada.