The baseball strike of '85, that nonevent in an age of instant (and instantly forgettable) events, demonstrated again the capacity of Americans for sentimentality, self-delusion and myth-making.
To judge from the welter of commentary and "man-in-the-street" interviews -- or, in this case, "average-fan-before-the-network-TV-cameras" interviews -- to which the nation was subjected before the strike came and went, this wasn't a labor-management dispute, a battle for big bucks by fabulously wealthy and famous practitioners on both sides. No, it was an affront to fundamental American values. It was a seditious assault on "The Game." It was an offense against that worthiest of citizens, "The Fan."
How dare they go on strike, more than one irate fan muttered into the unblinking eye of the camera? Let them be so reckless as to walk off the field and we'll walk away from them when they try to come back. And much more of the same.
Now this sort of nonsense is familiar. It highlights an enduring desire among the populace to make gods of mere mortals, in this case professional athletes. There seems to be an irresistible need to view them as something more than people who are hired to entertain the masses by playing games. Strangely, no such delusion affects the fans when it comes to the Bruce Springsteens, Madonnas and Michael Jacksons of the rock-concert world or to Hollywood and TV actors by the hundreds.
Everyone understands that they are professional entertainers who perform for extraordinary profit.
Somehow that doesn't seem to be the case in one of the biggest businesses of all, professional sports, especially professional baseball. More than any other such business, baseball has been invested over the decades with semiofficial national status. It isn't just a game where a lot of money is made; it's the "national pastime," a sport in which Everyman can emerge from the small towns and sandlots and remote rural areas to become an American hero, whether a real-life Rube Waddell type of player or a fictional Roy Hobbs one.
I suspect a lot of the mythology stems from the great scandal of 1919, when the Chicago White Sox, one of the most powerful and wonderfully talented teams in baseball history, threw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. The series had been fixed by the gamblers, one of whom subsequently was murdered. Out of that came the celebrated incident (and in my cynicism I've often wondered whether it wasn't another carefully planted myth) in which a tear-stained kid, a real fan, approached the great "Shoeless Joe" Jackson of the White Sox after the indictments were handed with his cry, "Say it ain't so, Joe."
In fact, as one of the best of baseball writers, Fred Leib, later wrote, blame for the fix rested on more than the players and the gamblers. The owners shared in it. As Leib wrote of Charles Comiskey, owner of the White Sox, in his memoirs "Baseball as I Have Known It" (Coward, McCann):
"Comiskey offered $10,000 to anyone who could give him information that any of his players had done anything crooked in the series. A poor boy who had grown rich in baseball, he was in danger of losing perhaps $1.5 million (1920 prices) in star ballplayers. While Comiskey later helped in the prosecution, he didn't particularly want to see his lifetime earnings go down the drain. Yet, many writers and fans regarded him as the real culprit of the "Black Sox" Scandal because of his penny-pinching handling of his players. While Eddie Collins received $12,000 a year as a result of a holdover contract from the Federal League war, Jackson, a lifetime .350 hitter, received $8,000, and Eddie Cicotte, twice a near 30-game winner, was paid only $6,000 for his 1919 efforts."
But the myth endures about the purity -- i.e., noncommercial -- and public-interest nature of "The Game."
That in no way should diminish the pleasure baseball gives those who pay to see it in person, watch it over the tube or follow the daily box scores in the papers. In that respect, this summer already has been notable in baseball lore. Great achievements have been accomplished. Nolan Ryan, who has toppled the once seemingly invulnerable all-time strikeout record of Walter Johnson (3,499), became the first player to strike out 4,000 batters. Now he heads for 1,000 more.
Just before the brief strike, Tom Seaver won his 300th career victory -- a milestone achieved by a handful of baseball greats, among them the legendary Johnson, Grover Alexander, Christy Mathewson and, wonderful name, "Old Hoss" Radbourn.
On the same day, a continent apart, Rod Carew sliced his 3,000th career hit -- another figure reached by only a few players in the long history of the sport.
Others, such as Phil Niekro, who also aims for his 300th win this season, are approaching the record books. And, of course, the end of the strike now means that we should soon witness the breaking of one of the most hallowed of all-time records, one that has stood, aloof and seemingly invulnerable, for nearly 60 years. Sometime this season, and possibly this month, Pete Rose will have accumulated 4,192 major league hits to beat the record of the immortal Ty Cobb.
All these are evidence of singular personal achievement and perseverance. They are testimony that extraordinary material affluence has not softened Americans. On the contrary, these kinds of performances bring confirmation of the notion that in physical prowess, at least, today's breed of Americans is the best.
And it's a pleasure to see a player like Rose surpass a player like Cobb. Cobb was a notoriously dirty player, constantly getting into fights and requiring police escorts to prevent fans from assaulting him. Once he climbed into the stands to attack a cripple who was "riding him." He would sit in a dugout during a game, filing his spikes to a razor's edge -- and not for show alone. He slashed opposing players. Once he cut a 16-inch tear in Frank (Home Run) Baker's trousers while sliding into third, spikes high and flashing as always. Ten stitches were taken to close the wound in Baker's leg. The great Ty Cobb was not a nice guy.
The present group is far more appealing, in person and in demeanor. It is also admirable for another reason, and here I confess a prejudice. In a nation that worships youth, the old crew performs better than ever. It's quite remarkable. Rose is 43. Ryan is 38. Seaver will be 41 this fall. Carew will be 40 in a few weeks. Niekro is 46.
So go for it, Pete. Keep going for it, Nolan, Tom, Rod and the rest. Get out of the way, Yuppies. Let's win one for the geezers. But let's not pretend it's only a game, either. It's a business, fans, and a very big one indeed.