Three times last week, distinguished columnists of this newspaper took after George Steinbrenner with smoke curling from their typewriters, if not from their ears.
Richard Cohen, Colman McCarthy and Haynes Johnson found Steinbrenner guilty of despoiling the baseball they once loved. Far be it from me to leap into a public dispute, but as Yogi Berra said at a ceremony honoring him, "I want to thank you for making this day necessary."
Cohen loaded his typewriter with double-ought gauge pejoratives and fired both barrels at the Yankee owner. Steinbrenner is "irrepressible and infantile" and the face of baseball today, in its ruined state, is George's: "jowly, immature, constipated with rage and greed." Cohen pined for the good ol' days when players were common townsfolk who "owned bars in real neighborhoods."
Under the headline, "Baseball's Vulgar Obsession," McCarthy described baseball as a "sleepy game . . . organized horsing around." The idyllic sport is vulgarized by Steinbrenner's "unplayful crudeness of berating his players when they make mistakes . . . An atmosphere of vulgar combativeness is created." McCarthy invoked Walter O'Malley as a shining example of an owner who respected his players and his team's paying customers.
Johnson grew up in New York the son of a newspaperman with passes to all three ballparks. The Yankees were his heroes: " . . . They exemplified the finest in sports. They had class." But, alas, those days are gone, our columnist said, and it's George's fault for "putting on the most sustained no-class performance in the history of American professional athletics."
Lucky for George he didn't get on an elevator with these guys. They mean business. Their distinguished commentary left me dazed, and I hadn't been called a cowardly brat who ought to be broken into little pieces (to sum up the analyses). You'd have thought Steinbrenner burned orphanages as a hobby.
I understand why my colleagues pick on George, and I think they are wrong.
Even as grownups, they yet look at baseball with a child's eye, for the game imprints its beauty indelibly on a child's mind. But a child's vision is incomplete. Coleridge asks grownups for a willing suspension of disbelief; children come by it naturally. For them, ballparks are cathedrals of fantasy, and to step on a field is to be Babe Ruth.
So for distingushed columnists whose workdays are filled with weighty matters (does Al Haig sleep with a light on?), the sights and sounds of a George Steinbrenner are offensive because they clash with childhood memories. In those good ol' days, baseball was a simple game played by good guys for kindly owners.
Would that it were so, except as Yogi also said, "A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore," by which the pinstriped philosopher meant nostalgia is comforting but we should take it in small doses and never seriously.
"There's too much money in the game," Richard Cohen wrote, decrying "an incredible greediness." This was in the paper Oct. 29, 1981, which is 91 years after another dyspub ic newspaperman wrote, "A more ungrateful set of people than the majority of professional ballplayers it would be hard to find. Low drunken knaves have too long been allowed to hold positions on professional teams."
The knaves had demanded the unholy salary of $40 a game when owners, kindly men all, already paid the ungrateful louts $10. In 1911, the A's and Giants threatened a strike during the World Series if they didn't get some of the $500 paid for motion picture rights. Babe Ruth said he deserved $80,000, more than President Hoover's salary, because, "I had a better year than he did."
The exemplary Yankees of Haynes Johnson's bright memories caused his typewriter to overheat in production of adjectives such as "courageous" and "flawless." Such class, such pride.
Such class they fired Casey Stengel after seven World Series championships in 11 years. Such pride the general manager, George Weiss, hired detectives to tail Mickey Mantle. Such dignity they rejected a trade for a wonderful first baseman, Vic Power, because he was black and talked loudly.
Colman McCarthy's discovery of "vulgar combativeness" in baseball is akin to a tourist from Iowa reporting the presence of a 550-foot tall obelisk within sight of the Capitol. The lowest of knaves were the Cardinals' Gashouse Gang of the 1930s. Wrapped in a warm blanket of nostalgia these days, the Gashousers were crude and obscene men who persisted in ethnic slurs until provoking brawls.
If anything, today's baseball is a stroll in the park after days so dark that in 1948 players threatened to strike if Jackie Robinson played. Only the warning of expulsion put off that vulgarity. A.B. (Happy) Chandler, then commissioner, promised that any player who walked off the field would never again walk on.
I could go on with this. Nothing new under the sun. Cohen is upset that the Yankees used money to buy Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield; they bought Babe Ruth for $100,000 in 1919. McCarthy says Walter O'Malley should be Steinbrenner's model; O'Malley sold Jackie Robinson to the Giants (talk about cold-hearted) and O'Malley took the Dodgers out of Brooklyn for a better deal in L.A.
Our distinguished columnists leave the impression baseball isn't worth their attention anymore. Too bad, because baseball is matchless in its sports drama. If, as adults, we pay too much attention to people and ideas we missed as children -- old Yankee owners Jake Ruppert, Dan Topping and Del Webb came with Steinbrenner-size egoes and eccentricities -- we rob ourselves of grownup joys available in seeing Reggie and Fernando work in October.
I admire Steinbrenner's work in New York. The Yankees were moribund when he bought them in 1973. With skillful use of the free-agent market and with $4 million a year spent on scouting and development of minor league players, Steinbrenner moved the Yankees into the World Series four of the last six seasons.
Bet on this: The Washington Post's distinguished columnists in the year 2011 will harrumph over the bizarre behavior of the new Yankee owner. And the columnists will pine for the good ol' days of the late '70s and early '80s when the Yankees had class and dignity, when the bold owner George Steinbrenner led baseball into its days of greatest glory.