Books & Culture

Scorch the Field

It is good for us to play sometimes, and not fight. In reality, people are united by what the political utilitarian cannot recognize: by play and song and worship.

In 1947, a few months after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in the National League, the Cleveland Indians jumped into the ring, signing Hall of Fame outfielder Larry Doby, who was in the middle of his career, and Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige, who was 41 years old and had spent what looked like a full career in the Negro Leagues. Paige quickly became one of the most beloved athletes in American sports.

Everybody had stories about Satch. He was a prodigy of agelessness. Whitey Herzog, who got to know him 10 years later, said that one day he and Paige were on the infield before a game, and Paige pointed to a hole in the center field fence, more than 300 feet away. 

“Wild Child,” said Paige, “how much do you want to bet I can throw the ball through that hole from here?” 

Herzog knew better than to lay down any money. Paige did the trick. He was over 50 at the time. It was no one-time trick: as a 49-year-old, he went 11-4 for AAA Miami, with a 1.86 ERA. When people asked him what his secret was, Paige said, “Never look back, because something might be gaining on you.” When they asked him what made his arm so strong, he joked that he’d gotten a lot of practice when he was a kid, throwing rocks at white boys.

He had unusual talent on and off the field. When Paige joined the Indians, his catcher Jim Hegan asked him if he could sing—a skill that seems to come from a different world entirely. Sure, Satch could sing. So Hegan, who had learned the art from his father, got together a barbershop quartet. Paige sang bass. Hegan, Paige, and two other teammates would go behind the backstop before games at home, to regale the fans with song.

Players were a lot closer to the fans in those days, in more ways than one. Most of them had served in the military during World War II (Ted Williams, perhaps the greatest hitter the game has known, gave three full seasons to his country during that war, and then the greater parts of two seasons during the Korean War). Many came from the working class, using their athletic talent to get free of the coal mines and steel mills (Stan Musial). Others came from farms and ramshackle towns that had yet to shake off the Great Depression. Others came from big and crowded cities. 

Most players made good but not great wages, so that they had to work in the off-season, too, and the work they did might have made them less prone to injury on the field. Whitey Herzog, for example, went south for the winter to work on a construction crew.

By no means do I mean to suggest that all was daisies and good feeling in those days. Let one story stand as an exemplar. 

The Saint Louis Browns signed Willard Brown, a Negro League star, in 1947. Brown, who liked to swing a heavy bat, felt that the Browns’ bats were too light, until he came upon one that belonged to the fiery outfielder Jeff Heath. It had been discarded, because the knob had broken off. Brown slugged a home run with it—the first home run hit by a black man in the American League. When Brown got back to the dugout, Heath took the bat and smashed it to splinters against the wall.

That action did not cost Heath his career, which was winding to its close anyway; it was his last season with the Browns. Heath’s sin was the inverse of catcher Jim Hegan’s good deed. I do not mean that Heath was a vicious racist and Hegan was a lover of all mankind. I do not know enough about the men to make those summary judgments. I mean that what Jim Hegan did brought people together and was wholly good for his team, and what Jeff Heath did fired up enmity and was bad for his team. 

If you ask which action was more political, the answer depends on what you mean by the word. If you mean having to do with a common good, then Hegan and Paige and their singing pals were more political, and not because they wanted to show that white men and black men could sing together. The races had nothing to do with it. They were making no such point at all. The good was in the singing. But if you mean acting in a politically partisan way, then wrecking a bat because a black man hit a home run with it was more political—more political, and, ironically, more destructive of the goods for which we have political systems in the first place.

And here I come to the behavior of ballplayers in recent days: kneeling together at the national anthem, in honor of Black Lives Matter. I find it to be more like what Heath did than it is like what Hegan and Paige did. Let me explain. I am not speaking about the intentions of the ballplayers, which probably run the full range from piety and charity through indifference and timidity to envy and enmity. Nor am I making any point, here, about what the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is taken to mean, or about the objectives of the group.

I am saying that the intrusion of highly partisan politics onto the ballfield hurts what the ballfield is for, and inverts the order of goods. For politics must always be subordinate not only to the highest things, such as faith in God, but to ordinary human things, as C. S. Lewis saw: a couple of friends talking at their ease, a man reading a book he enjoys, a family at dinner. 

The motto of the fascist Mussolini denied this healthy subordination: “Everything within the State,” he said, “nothing outside of the State, and nothing against the State.” As we might put it now: everything is politically charged; the personal is political; silence is violence; hate has no place here, and so forth.

In Mussolini’s Italy, there was no haven from roving fascist informants, listening to your conversations to see if they might arrest you for expressing the wrong opinions. In the old Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wondered whether he might safely talk about his own life, let alone about the Communist Party. In America right now, many people do not dare to say what they think, or even to notice what is right in front of their noses. Everywhere we turn, we see the blaring banners of political posturing and strife: at the dinner table, in the local choir, at school, in shop windows, and now on the ballfield. 

Look beyond the absurdity that men who knock a ball around a field will have some great insight into social problems that people who do not knock a ball around a field lack. I would say the same about almost all college professors, scientists, journalists, lawyers, and politicians. The ballplayers are compromising the essential work that they do towards the common good. It is good for us to play sometimes, and not fight.In reality, people are united only by what the political utilitarian cannot recognize: by play and song and worship. 

We need you to play, you baseballers, not to make political gestures. Your job is more important than that. Be like Satchel Paige and Jim Hegan. Don’t be like Jeff Heath—no matter what you think of the cause.