I was re-reading Ben Hunt’s superb series Things Fall Apart in the midst of research for my own contributions to Epsilon Theory (Notes From the Diamond) and was struck by a potentially encouraging contrast between Ben’s dire appraisal of contemporary politics on the one hand and famed incidents in baseball’s past on the other: incidents suggesting that seemingly irreconcilable differences between the bitterest of foes can not only be overcome but inevitably are — often sooner than the persons (or “tribes”) involved could possibly have imagined.
Consider perhaps the ugliest on-field example of tribalism in major league baseball (MLB) history: San Francisco Giant Juan Marichal’s clubbing of Los Angeles Dodgers catcher John Roseboro during an August 1965 game between two teams whose respective fan bases loathed each other almost as much as did the warring parties in the Dominican Civil War raging in Marichal’s home country at the time. Though hardly an excuse for the violence Marichal unleashed on Roseboro after the Dodgers catcher whistled a ball being returned to pitcher Sandy Koufax too close to his ear for Marichal’s comfort, Marichal’s extreme angst over the uncertain fate of loved ones back in the Dominican made him especially testy the afternoon he assaulted Roseboro.
For better or worse — and it admittedly took a while for the incident’s redeeming virtues to become manifest — another future Hall of Famer at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park that afternoon, Giants superstar Willie Mays, assumed immediately the role of peacemaker (“centrist” in Hunt-speak) after Marichal clubbed Roseboro, shielding the Dodgers catcher during the melee that Marichal’s assault unleashed and escorting a profusely bleeding Roseboro off the field to the Dodgers dugout for medical treatment. Mays underwent pretty ferocious criticism from Giants partisans following the incident, as did Roseboro, of course, albeit not as ferocious as the scorn cast upon Marichal — by Dodgers fans and the broader public generally — for clubbing Roseboro. Interestingly, and importantly for our purposes here, Roseboro as well as Mays ended up playing pivotal and supportive roles in Marichal’s eventual election to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1983, three years after his initial appearance on a Hall of Fame ballot, and four and eleven years, respectively, after Mays and Koufax took their rightful places in Cooperstown during their first years of eligibility for the Hall.
George Brett is a baseball Hall of Famer too, remembered by all serious students of the game as one of the greatest hitters ever — he’s the only MLB player in history to win batting titles in three different decades — and by even casual observers of the game as the chief protagonist in an on-field incident that ripened into an off-field battle involving two characters who fairly exemplify the anti-centrism that Ben critiques in Things Fall Apart. The incident involved Brett’s bashing of a ninth inning home run off future Hall of Famer Richard “Goose” Gossage that seemingly gave Brett’s Kansas City Royals a 5-4 win over their bitter rivals at the time, the New York Yankees, in July 1983.
As became clear during hearings conducted by American League president Lee McPhail that led ultimately to Brett’s acquittal (if you will), the bat that Brett used to take Gossage deep had more pine tar on its handle than MLB rules at the time permitted — a fact trumpeted endlessly by the attorney who represented the Yankees in a transparently frivolous lawsuit brought by Yankees fans upset that they’d been deprived of the privilege of watching the pine tar game’s final half-inning. (The umps on the day had ruled Brett’s homer invalid and awarded the Yankees a win, thus ending the game — temporarily as it turned out — after the visiting Royals had “completed” their ninth inning at-bats.) The attorney? Roy Cohn — the rapaciously divisive lawyer who served as chief counsel to Joseph McCarthy during his ignominious witch hunt for Communists in US government in the 1950s and later as a key advisor to (gulp) Donald Trump. Who was the other infamously divisive coot who played an important role in whipping up partisan emotions over the pine tar incident? The Royals’ director of promotions at the time: Rush Limbaugh. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Brett and Limbaugh remain on friendly terms, or so it is said. It is said too that Brett and Gossage have become close friends since wrapping up their MLB playing careers (in 1993 and 1994, respectively).
How long will it take for partisans on both sides of the latest headline-grabbing incident in major league baseball to either reconcile their views of the incident’s fundamental properties or, at a minimum, agree to disagree agreeably (sic)? I have no idea. But I do have strongly held views of what happened when Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts tried to snag a fly ball hit by Houston Astros star Jose Altuve during Game 4 of this year’s American League Championship Series (ALCS). Obviously, fans interfered with Betts, and the umps involved were unarguably correct to rule the unlucky Altuve ”out” on the play (Ed Note: David’s views may not reflect the views of Epsilon Theory or its other writers). Just as obviously, having been born as close to Boston’s Fenway Park as one could in the year of my birth (or indeed today) and still take one’s first breath in a well-equipped hospital, I’m rooting for my home town team to supplement its indisputably well-deserved ALCS triumph over the Astros with a win over the Dodgers in the World Series that commenced earlier this week. I’m rooting too for the divisiveness in American politics and culture that Ben discusses in Things Fall Apart to fade, if not as rapidly nor as completely as did the enmity between John Roseboro and Juan Marichal following their famed encounter in 1965, then soon enough to keep the “center” from splintering wholly and irretrievably.