Ty Cobb singled, rounded first, returned to the bag and then yelled arrogantly at the shortstop, "I'm coming down on the first pitch, Krauthead."
"I'll be ready for you, Rebel," Honus Wagner answered. On the first pitch, Cobb took off and raced down the base lane. He slid into the bag, as always, with spikes high and flashing.
Wagner took the throw from his catcher, swept down the ball inside his gloved hand, and slammed it into Cobb's teeth, loosening three of them.
"We also play a little rough in this league, Mr. Cobb," the impassive Wagner said to Cobb, who had been tagged out, in more ways than one, and lay sprawled in the dirt below him.
Wow, sports fans. That bit of baseball lore about the collision of two superstars during the Pirates-Tigers World Series decades ago, recounted in the late Fred Leib's sports-writing memoirs, stirs the old nostalgia. There were giants in the land way back then. If that cliche doesn't grab you, how about this one? They don't make them that way any more.
Except they do. And what's more, better.
For some weeks now, partly out of escape from depressing news from abroad and home and partly out of old habits, I have been scanning the morning sports pages in search of the daily progress of a young Oakland outfielder, Rickey Henderson. The search has not always been satisfactory.
Sometimes, among the agate lines of daily sports data, there would be a small box telling where Henderson stood as of that day. On others, nothing. The breathless and florid TV sportscasts, where electronic hype is daily enshrined, offered even less information.
This is curious. We live in a time of media overkill, when commonplace performance is hailed as phenomenal (and so rewarded financially) and better than average play is proclaimed great. A few seasons ago, when Pete Rose was on a streak chasing Joe DiMaggio's record of hitting in 56 consecutive games, his daily play was covered like the second coming. He fell far short, of course. Earlier, when Hank Aaron and Roger Maris were after Babe Ruth's home run records for total career and single season, respectively, the coverage was akin to a World Series and World War all rolled into one.
Not so with the latest record-breaking baseball epic this season. And one that in many ways stands as the most extraordinary feat of all.
Oh, there have been stories about the achievement along the way, especially last week, but Rickey Henderson remains hardly a household word. Yet day in and day out he has been performing better at what he does than anyone in the long history of professional baseball in America.
Weeks ago he passed Ty Cobb's mark of stealing 96 bases in one season. For 47 years Cobb's record had stood alone, presumably out of reach of ordinary baseball mortals. Then it was broken by Maury Wills of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who stole 104 bases in 1962. Twelve years later Lou Brock of the St. Louis Cardinals set another mark when he stole 118 bases in one season.
Earlier last week Henderson tied Brock's record and kept on running. Friday night he shattered it with four more steals. And he still has a month of play in which to add to his season's all-time record.
There is an exquisite irony in the way Cobb's record has been broken.
Cobb was the most hated and feared, as well as the best, major league player. By all accounts he was a mean man with a sadistic streak, the sort who literally would sit on the bench during a game filing his spikes razor sharp and then enjoy cutting infielders who dared get in his way. Once, sliding high into third, he cut a 16-inch tear in the third baseman's pants and left a wound that required 10 stitches to close. He spoiled for fights, and had many, was capable of viciously kicking stray dogs and was filled with personal hatreds. Those who knew him said he hated Catholics and Jews, but especially blacks, for whom he had almost a pathological dislike.
Now the three players who have broken his base stealing record all have been black.
Why Rickey Henderson hasn't got the press attention he deserves is a mystery.
Perhaps it's because the novelty of breaking this particular record has worn off. He's not the first to do it. Perhaps it's a matter of geography or personality. Henderson, playing for a West Coast team, doesn't benefit from the kind of media exposure someone would get, say, wearing a Yankee uniform in New York. And he's not the sort of swaggering loudmouth that for some reason attracts media spotlights. He's sounds like just a modest, quiet, decent guy. Perhaps it's because, in the baseball pantheon of crowd-pleasing performances, the stolen base is overshadowed by the home run or the strikeout, though I don't buy that one. Few individual acts in sports are more electrifying than watching the duel between base runner, pitcher, catcher and infielder.
Or perhaps we're just jaded. Today, smashing legendary baseball records is becoming old hat.
Pete Rose, who already owns barrels of them, aims at notching another supposedly untouchable mark: eclipsing Cobb's lifetime record of 4,191 hits. Nolan Ryan approaches Walter Johnson's career strikeout mark of 3,508. Steve Garvey, though admittedly still having a long way to go, in the order of a thousand plus, pursues Lou Gehrig's record of playing 2,130 consecutive games.
As for Rickey Henderson, who's he? And besides, fans, in case you haven't heard, records are made to be broken.
Don't let it get you down, Rickey. There are still some of us who cheer and say:
Right on, Rickey. Run for it. You're proving that one sports cliche can be turned around.
Nice guys finish first.