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Last week’s annual Baseball and American Culture symposium at the National Baseball Hall of Fame attracted the largest attendance of scholars, writers, and informed fans in its 21-year history. There were so many interesting presentations that concurrent sessions were the rule and it was impossible to hear many of the papers and commentaries. For me it was a very pleasurable experience to be able to discuss the complex issues of labor and baseball on the “Trust, Anti-Trust and Curt Flood” panel without worrying about how tabloid headlines might distort the discussion.

Don’t get me wrong! I like the directness of tabloid headlines – “HEADLESS WOMAN FOUND IN TOPLESS BAR” being one of my favorite New York Post headlines along with the more recent one, BUBBA OF ARABIA, printed after Bill Clinton revealed the names of many of the Middle East oligarch donors to his foundation - but for panels discussing the intricacies of the rise of salary arbitration in the 1970s and my own session, it would be nearly impossible to come up with a headline that could do these complex and important subjects justice.

I was glad that I could make the point that though Curt Flood was courageous and principled, his law suit was less significant in the battle for free agency than the willingness of more than two dozen major leaguers willing to challenge the restrictive reserve system through salary and grievance arbitration. Kudos to Ed Edmonds, University of Notre Dame Law Professor and Associate Dean, for his
meticulous presentation on this subject and to Cooperstown-based author Jeff Katz for his paper on the 1981 baseball strike.

The opening Wednesday night plenary session, “Remembering George Powles,” was inspiring. It was devoted to honoring the memory of Powles (1910-1987), the Oakland, California high school coach who mentored and influenced such future baseball greats as Curt Flood, Joe Morgan and Frank Robinson, basketball’s Bill Russell and Paul Silas and football quarterback John Brodie. A rare Heywood Hale Broun TV feature from 1971 was screened in which Curt Flood and his high school chum Vada Pinson sang the praises of Powles as a person who was color-blind in his devotion to helping young athletes master their sports and improve their lives.

Pacific Coast League president Branch B. Rickey was in attendance at the conference as was another grandson of the Ferocious Gentleman, California attorney John K. Jakle. They both noted the similarity between Powles’s refusal to accept segregated accommodations for his youth teams playing for American Legion national titles in the 1950s Midwest and Branch Rickey’s insistence a half-century earlier that the one black player on his Ohio Wesleyan baseball team Charles Thomas must be allowed to stay in the same hotel as his white teammates.

It seems one cannot be around any thoughtful examination of the baseball enterprise without some incisive Rickey presence. Marjorie Maddox, the granddaughter of Branch Rickey’s older brother Orla and an English professor at Lock Haven University in western Pennsylvania, read from her new book, “Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems” (Wordsong Press of Honesdale, Penna.), an engaging volume accompanied by John Sandford’s delightful illustrations.)

“Shower away the day” and “turn the page” are two of the most used clichés in baseball but like most clichés there is a lot of truth to them. Yesterday I was in attendance as the defending American League champions Tampa Bay Rays lost a two-run lead in the bottom of the eighth at Yankee Stadium without the ball leaving the infield. The game-changing runs scored on a bases-loaded walk, an error at third base by Willy Aybar subbing for Evan Longoria who is out with a sore hamstring, and an infield grounder hit so softly that weak-kneed Hideki Matsui was able to beat the double-play relay to first.

Bouncing back from defeat is what baseball and life are all about. Later this morning I will have a conversation with Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon that will be taped in front of some students in the Columbia Sport Management program where I’ve been teaching sport history for the last three years. Will share later this week how Maddon plans to keep the Rays moving forward in spite of injuries, a lot of tough losses so far this season, and the difficulties of repeating as champions. Another cliché worth repeating is “Uneasy rests the head that wears the crown.” Especially in an American League East division with the always-formidable Red Sox, the emerging Blue Jays, and the Yankees who are coming from behind to win regularly these days and made six defensive plays yesterday that merited stars on my scorecard.

Ciao for now!

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