The one constant

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers, but baseball has marked the time.” ~ James Earl Jones as Terence Mann in ‘Field of Dreams’ 

In 1918 there was a pandemic similar to the one that would come 102 years later. With troops returning home from WWI battlefields, they brought with them the Spanish flu, which killed 650,000 Americans and 50-100 million across the globe. One of the victims was Silk O’Loughlin, the most renowned umpire in the Major Leagues. The start of the 1918 season was delayed a week, and a condensed season was played. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t a great idea but baseball trudged on. 

A year later, eight members of the Chicago White Sox allegedly threw the 1919 World Series in exchange for money from a gambling syndicate led by Arnold Rothstein. Despite an acquittal in a public trial in 1921, MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned the eight players from professional baseball. It was a black eye for the sport, but baseball survived. In 1920, the Yankees acquired Babe Ruth from the Red Sox and he slugged a then record 54 home runs bringing back old fans and inspiring new ones.

Even when the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, baseball found a way to navigate troubled waters. With no disposable income Major League attendance plummeted 40 percent between 1930 and 1933. Only two teams finished the ‘33 season in the black and several were on the verge of bankruptcy. So, baseball got creative. Teams shrunk rosters, players including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig took pay cuts, women received free admission and night games and the All-Star Game were born. 

Baseball endured war. A month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Commissioner Landis wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt seeking advice on whether baseball should continue. FDR responded with what is now known as the “Green Light Letter,” stating, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.” And despite 500 Major Leaguers serving in the military during WWII, including Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, and Joe DiMaggio, baseball did continued.

Much of America experienced the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake as it happened, due to baseball. The two teams – Oakland and San Francisco - most affected by the quake happened to be warming up for game three of the World Series at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Four minutes into the ABC broadcast, the television feed flickered out and Al Michaels could be heard saying, “I tell you what! We’re having an earth quake.” The quake was a magnitude 6.9 and responsible for 63 deaths and nearly 4,000 injuries. The 62,000 fans that crammed Candlestick, were evacuated, only to find downed bridges and damaged roads on their commutes home. Ten days later, baseball was back and the A’s went on to sweep the Giants.

We didn’t have a world series in 1994. We did have Opening Day however. The players went on strike in mid-August and the work stoppage continued 232 days. Fortunately for baseball fans, there was a sideshow in Alabama as the best basketball player on the planet was suiting up for the Birmingham Barons. While the strike hurt baseball, it may have saved basketball. MLB was still dealing with the strike as ’95 spring training was set to begin. The battle between owners and the players union intensified and hard lines were being drawn. In March, Michael Jordan decided to leave the drama of baseball behind and return to basketball. Thank God. I couldn’t stand the thought of another Finals between the Rockets and Knicks.

As baseball continued, many fans remained bitter. The pettiness of millionaires fighting with billionaires had robbed us of our national pastime. The sport limped along through the next few seasons but it needed a shot in the arm. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa provided that injection (pun intended) during the summer of ’98. As the two raced to see who could surpass Roger Maris’ 37-year-old home run record, they brought baseball back to the forefront of the American sporting world. For example, I was at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska on the second to last day of the ’98 baseball season. Memorial Stadium is a church and Nebraska football is a religion, but as the Huskers routed Washington on that day, the largest cheers came from replays on the big screen of McGwire hitting home runs 67 and 68.

Baseball had entered a new long-ball era and fans loved it. It was entertaining and we turned a blind eye to the fact that McGwire, Sosa and Barry Bonds suddenly resembled NFL linebackers (we’d deal with that a few years later). Then, three years following the home run race, the world changed. On September 11, 2001 we woke up to unimaginable horror. America stopped for about a week, and in our mourning we searched for signs of comfort and normalcy. Again, we turned to baseball. The Mets hosted the Braves on September 21, for the first game in New York following the terrorist attacks. And as crews still sifted through the rubble at Ground Zero, the Yankees and Diamondbacks gave us one of the greatest World Series of all time. 

Baseball does mark the time. It’s hard to tell whether baseball endures because America endures or vice-versa. It’s Uncle Sam’s loyal, old dog. We take it for granted most of the time, as it patiently sits in the corner providing background noise. Then, when we need companionship, entertainment and comfort, it’s always there. Until now.

Baseball is low on the list of priorities and concerns right now but today was supposed to be opening day. Like robins, leaves and lawnmower engines, opening day signals spring and hope. Instead, the world has stopped and baseball has too. 

But as FDR wrote, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.” Baseball will keep going. I don’t know how, when or in what form, but there will be baseball again. Right now it’s just in a rain delay. So let’s roll out the tarp - wash our hands, stay home and share some baseball pictures. #baseball2020