During the first week of July I taught another class in the Special Studies program at the Chautauqua Institution. This year I called it: "Can Baseball Survive The 21st Century?"
I had a very receptive class of attentive adult listeners who asked good questions. I was glad that there was rewarding interest in my first book THE IMPERFECT DIAMOND: A History of Baseball's Labor Wars.
The topic of the endless player-owner conflicts in baseball seems especially relevant these days because the sport has always has been peopled by nay-sayers who think the game was always better in the past.
As early as 1912, sportswriters were complaining that the games were too long! Around the same time, John Montgomery Ward, the polymathic leader of the 1890 Players League which actually outdrew the established National League in its one season, gave up his brief job as president of the Boston Braves because he felt the players of HIS day were more serious about the game than contemporaries.
I'm not a cockeyed optimist about the future of the sport in an expanding spectator sport market, but here is what I see as some positive signs:
**The games in 2023 are shorter by a half-hour on average from last year's unacceptable average of over three hours a game.
**The All-Star Game was more exciting than usual even if Felix "The Mountain" Bautista, closer for my Orioles, served up the game-winning 8th inning HR to Rockies catcher Elias Diaz. (Happily, Bautista suffered no hangover from his defeat because he successfully closed the Birds' first two post-ASG wins.)
Diaz, a 32-year-old journeyman, is probably having a career year for one of the few teams that has no prayer of making the playoffs. The most obscure of the All-Stars, Diaz's heroics proved yet again that baseball remains the most delightfully unpredictable of all our sports.
As always I offer a fervent wish that the analytic hordes swarming around every MLB franchise don't try to take that unpredictability away from us in the name of "the next big thing."
In addition to the disproportionate rise of the analytic crowd, there remains the unwholesome marriage of television and MLB. I realize younger fans like all the new bells and whistles, but personally I can do without the in-game interviews.
It reached a new low in the ASG when pitchers Nathan Eovaldi and Josh Hader were interviewed as they were pitching. Thank God a line drive didn't rocket towards them at the mound while they were chatting with the prattling Fox Sports broadcasters Joe Davis and John Smoltz. It also looked like Padres outfielder Juan Soto might have caught a foul ball in the right field corner if he hadn't been distracted by an interviewer.
Since I prefer to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, let me add some more comments on my Chautauqua experience. Located in southwestern New York State about 50 miles from Erie, Pennsylvania, the Institution was founded in 1874 as a retreat for Methodist Sunday school teachers. (Somewhat remarkably, there is no evidence that [Wesley] Branch Rickey ever spoke there - I guess his baseball work in St. Louis, Brookly, and Pittsburgh and devotion to his southern Ohio roots kept him from coming.)
There is important political as well as religious history at Chautauqua. William Jennings Bryan gave his "Cross of Gold" speech there during the 1896 campaign against eventual winner William McKinley. Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his "I Hate War" speech during the 1936 campaign.
Today's Chautauqua has become more secular and it brims and overflows with inspiring music, art, and dance as well as stimulating lectures every weekday morning at 1045.
On the Fourth of July I heard an especially memorable talk by Scott Simon, the longtime host of NPR's Saturday morning news and features show. I knew he was a big Chicago Cubs fan but I didn't realize his father's best friend was Cubs broadcaster Jack Brickhouse and his aunt married Charley Grimm, legendary Cubs first baseman and manager.
An author and journalist who has traveled the world, Simon told a moving story of attending a soccer game in Kabul between the Afghani national team and a British team that took place during the brief interval when the Taliban had been routed by Allied forces.
When the Afghanis scored the first goal of the match, a British woman paratrooper showed her support by
taking off her burqa letting her hair become visible. It was the first time in six years that Afghanis could revel in the beauty of flowing female hair and the crowd went wild. Soon women all over the stadium took off their
Simon could not hold back tears telling this story of a moment that did not, alas, lead to freedom and self-expression in a country now ruled again by the Taliban. It did show the transcendant qualities of sport at its best.
Chautauqua's summer programs last nine weeks through the end of August. It is a gated community so everyone there must carry a gate pass although Sundays the grounds are open without charge to the larger community. For information on programming this year and the themes for 2024, the sesquecentennial anniversary of Chautauqua, check out chq.org
As readers of this blog surely know, I had to see live baseball not just talk about it. I attended the Fourth of July day game of the high-flying Jamestown Tarp Skunks against the Elmira Pioneers, two teams in the Perfect Game Wooden Bat Summer League.
The Tarp Skunk nickname is a homage not only to the spunky animal in the area but also to Howard Ehmke, Connie Mack's surprise choice to start the 1929 World Series against the Cubs. Ehmke hailed from Chautauqua County and later became an inventor of a tarpulin used in many ballparks.
In this age of inventive logos, there is now a skunk tail featured through the last number on the back of every Tarp Skunk uniform. I'm not sure I like it, but it certainly is different.
There are only three regular season home games left for the Tarp Skunks, the last one on Fri July 28. They play at classic Diethrick Park built in 1939 and located 20 minutes from Chautauqua. Brief playoff series will follow. For more info, check out tarpskunks.com
That's all for now - heading to Baltimore to talk about my new book on scouting BASEBALL'S ENDANGERED SPECIES at the Babe Ruth Museum Tues July 18 at 4p. Missed the Orioles split of the four game series at Yankee Stadium because I was at Chautauqua.
Looking forward to seeing live the last two games of the Orioles' three-game series against the Dodgers. I'm not ready to call it a preview of a sequel to the 1966 World Series, but I can dream, can't I? More on this
adventure in the next post.
In the meantime - Always remember: Take it easy but take it, and stay positive test negative.