“To discover the substance of a granfalloon, just prick a hole in a toy balloon.”
— Kurt Vonnegut
Peter Gammons once wrote about the late 1970s Red Sox, the team that under the stewardship of Don “The Gerbil” Zimmer, eternally wound up the bridesmaid, never the bride, in its titanic struggles with George Steinbrenner’s New York Yankees for the American League payment, a piece equating the fan’s relationship with the hexed franchise to the vicissitudes of star-crossed love.
“It’s like loving a bad woman,” Gammons said. “You go back to her, even though you know you shouldn’t.”
So why not equate the follies of romantic love with baseball, and the recent revelations of systemic corruption in baseball with the revelations of Yankees third baseman and three-time American League Most Valuable Player Alex Rodriguez’s use of illegal steroids via a consideration of one of the contenders for the title “The Great American Novel,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Here we go!
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegiac classic The Great Gatsby is a lamentation for a lost past, a past that never can be regained. Baseball is the sport most “in love” with its past: It’s records, its history, are integral to the fabric of the game. That past, the records which delineate its history, have been blown to pieces in the steroids era, as one record after another has fallen. The history has been irrevocably lost.
Babe Ruth was considered the greatest baseball player ever, until Barry Bonds began shattering his seemingly unassailable records for slugging, runs scores, and most intentional walks after emerging as “The Incredible Hulk” of baseball after dosing himself with a sophisticated, new generation of steroids and human growth hormone, both of which were illegal to possess and use without a prescription. Bonds will go on trial this year in a federal court on charges that he perjured himself by denying he used illegal performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).
Ruth’s most famous records have to do with home runs. He was the first player to hit 30, 40, and 5 home runs in a season(doing all three in one season, 1920) before establishing the record of 60 homers in a season. In 1919, Babe set the record for most home runs in a season at 29, beating Ned Williamson’s old, tainted mark of 27, that had been set in 1884 in a very small park. (Lakeshore Park, Williamson’s home ball yard (also known as Union Base-Ball Grounds, home of the Chicago White Stockings of the National League, now known as the Cubs) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Base-Ball_Grounds
, had a short right field fence, less than 200 feet distance. Balls hit over the right field fence had been ruled ground-rule doubles in previous years, but in 1884, the rule was changed by the White Stockings, to give them an edge, and those hits became home runs. Of Williamson’s 27 home runs, 25 were hit at home.) Buck Freeman had hit 25 homers in 1899, and Gavvy Cravath, who six times led the National League in home runs in the 1910s, finishing in the top 3 nine straight years from 1912 to 1919, slugged 24 in 1915. These were the “records” sportswriters referred to at the time, not Williamson’s depending on the frame of reference one wanted to use: Before 1900, or after.)
Babe bettered his single-season home run record with 54 in 1920, when e became the first player to hit 30, 40 and then 50 homers in a season, and the following year, established a new record of 59 in 1921. Six years later, he hit 60 for the 1927 Yankees, considered by many the greatest team that ever played. That record stood for 34 years, another slugging, left-handed hitting right fielder with another great Yankees team, Roger Maris of the 1961 World’s Champions, hit 61.
The National League record of 56 home runs was set in 1930, by Hack Wilson.
Mark McGwire in 1998 broke both Maris’ major league record and Hack Wilson’s N.L. mark with 70 homers. That record stood for only three seasons, when Barry Bonds set the new ML and NL marks with 73 taters, as well as establishing the record in all of professional baseball. (The professional single-season home run mark had been set by 1st basebeman Joe Bauman of the Roswell Rockets in the Class C Longhorn League in 1954. Playing 138 games, during which he supported himself pumping gas at his Texaco service station, Bauman slammed 72 dingers. Wearing #43 on his Roswell jersey, Bauman also batted .400 (199 hits in 498 at bats, or .399598) with 150 walks and 228 RBI. When queried about his record, Joe – who never made it to The Show – quipped, “If I knew how I did it, I’d have bottled it and sold it”. Seventy-two is still the minor league, single-season record.)
For a career, Babe broke Roger Connors career mark of 138 set in 1897 during the 1921 season, when he finished the season with 162 homers. He added to the record, retiring with 714 in 1934. That record stood until 1974, when Hank Aaron broke the mark, establishing the new career mark for a career at 755, when he retired in 1976. Aaron’s career mark was bested by Bonds in the 2007 season.
It was felt that Alex Rodriguez would redeem the tainted record, as he was “clean.” A-Rod, the youngest man to reach the 500 homer mark, would surely top 800 homers, purifying baseball’s holiest records. Baseball fans are in love with records. (The reason that Barry Bonds went over the top in juicing himself, to claim the record from McGwire and reclaim the mantle of the game’s best player that he had lost to McGwire and Sammy Sosa during their home run orgies of 1998-99.) If the single-season homerun record is the game’s and fans’ greatest sweetheart, then the career mark is a very close second, emotionally, the difference between, perhaps, “the love of one’s life” and the gal one got hitched to and had a good marriage with.
After 2007, both records were united in one man, the first time since Babe Ruth’s single season mark was bested by Roger Maris. Both records were now in the hand of the hugely unpopular and highly tainted Barry Bonds. It was if a rape had occurred. A-Rod was seen as the Shining White Knight who would rescue the career mark (if not the single season mark, which seemed out of reach of any one man without the aid of PEDs, even though A-Rod had hit 57 home runs himself in his best season).
However, storm clouds gathered. Jose Canseco, the clown who blew the whistle on juicing in baseball in his first baseball memoir, in his second book Vindicated, wrote that A-Rod was dirty. Then, early in 2009, it became official: A-Rod had tested positive for steroids in 2003, his first MVP season, and the first of his three season when he topped the 50 home run mark.
Within days, the apologists and relativists among the sportswriters went to work. A Sports Illustrated writer, in the same magazine that blew the lid off of the scandal of the man now termed “A-Roid” by New York’s tabloid press, was writing that players have been juiced from time immemorial. The writer reminded us that the players of olden days took amphetamines (speed) and dabbled with steroids as far back as the 1960s, as if this condones the current climate of cheating?
One felt like asking: Have you ever read THE GREAT GATSBY?
One of the underlying themes is the corruption of American society, and F. Scott Fitzgerald uses Jay Gatsby (the former Jimmy Gatz) as a mirror of the American success story of those times, the Roaring Twenties, a time like those we’ve just been through during the second Clinton Administration and the Bush 43 years.
The character of Jay Gatsby was based on a corrupt stock broker who ran a bucket shop, similar to what Bernard Madoff, the broker who swindled as much as $50 billion from his clients, was running. (A bucket shop is a brokerage that takes money but never executes the trade.) This particular broker funneled the money into illegal gambling.
Fitzgerald also gave Gatsby the past of a bootlegger who had come built up a chain of drugstores as a front for distributing illegal booze; as drugstores had licenses to acquire liquor, it was a perfect front for peddling booze. Like the fictional Gatsby, both men — who made millions, had enjoyed a high regard from the High Hats of New York Society, and who — when put on trial — were afforded a great deal of sympathy, had come from nowhere. They were self-made men with no pasts. (The past is a very important thing in THE GREAT GATSBY, as it is in baseball.)
Well, as we all know from Sunday school, the wages of sin are death.
“The Man Who Fixed the World Series”
“…[T]hat’s the man who fixed the 1919 World Series.”
–Jay Gatsby to Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby
It is no coincidence that F. Scott Fitzgerald put Arnold Rothstein (Meyer Wolfsheim) in the book The Great Gatsby. If you have any doubts who Wolfsheim is, Gatsby tells Nick that Wolfsheim is “The man who fixed the 1919 World Series” (Fortuitously, one of the characters Gatsby had been based on actually WAS involved with Arnold Rothstein.) Fitzgerald had found a great metaphor for one of the underlying themes of the book.
In a sense, The Great Gatsby is an indictment of the corruption of the 1920s, of an entire society rotten with corruption; because of the gloss, we forget that this was understood by the audience Fitzgerald wrote the book for. The modern reader also forgets that Fitzgerald, for all his identification with the Jazz Age he named, was well aware of the corruption. (As a Catholic, how could he not have felt guilt over it? As a Catholic, how could he not be aware of the paradox of the bulwark of civilization being corrupt, and of a Church and society that cold absolve the corrupt of their sins. Indeed, what does Nick do at the end of the book but absolve the bootlegger Gatsby of his sins? They are minor compared to his greatest flaw, his adolescent attachment to a romantic past, which parallels many a baseball fan’s adolescent refusal to see that the game he loved has devolved into a whorish form of entertainment, like “Professional wrestling.”)
The audience of the 1920s would have understood that Jay Gatsby, the All-American boy (a top, drawer WASP type, as Wolfsheim points out, “An Oxford man!”), a type that was crystallized in Jack Armstrong of the crystal radio sets of the times (remember, how after the funeral, Gatsby’s father reads Jimmy Gatz’s notes as a teen: Read one book or one magazines to improve the mind each week; be better to my parents; do calisthenics each morning; practice public speaking) — this All-American boy, in pursuing the American dream and climbing the ladder of success (since he had no inherited wealth, spelled out in that he was even gypped out of his inheritance by the mistress of his original benefactor) was corrupted.
Jay Gatsby’s romantic view of the world had made him blind to the fact that he is in danger of losing his soul. (As it is, his soul is in hock already, if not in forfeit.) This is the tragedy of The Great Gatsby, as I see it, but Nick Carraway, of course, never spells this out. (Nick is simultaneously telling the story from his vantage point in the present/future while serving as a character in the book’s action in the present/past, and we are experiencing his coming into knowledge via this experience, but unlike the omniscient narrators of the Victorian age, still alive in contemporary fiction of the 1920s, it’s not spelled out. Did Fitz learn this kind of elision from his young friend Hemingway?)
Replaced by a Harlot
The Great Gatsby, a product of the culture of the first quarter of the 20th Century, is relevant to we baseball fans of the first decade of the 21st Century: Faced with another corrupt age, we remained blissfully unaware, and in love with the baseball of the past, a slip of a girl, while a corrupt harlot had taken her place….
Think of Jay Gatsby’s nostalgia for the past, his belief that it could be recaptured (something the younger, less experienced Nick knows cannot be true). Gatsby is stuck in the past with his first impressions of Daisy, a teenage “girl” that no longer exists as Daisy is a woman and mother now, a woman who married for money, Psychologically, Gatsby is in denial of his present. He is involved in an act of self-abnegation (though he and we the readers don’t quite realize it, until the end).
Why can’t you recapture the purity of the past, he is essentially is telling Nick, but Daisy is not the girl, virgin in tacto of the past. Jay Gatsby’s awkwardness when being introduced to Daisy’s daughter is a brilliant stroke. Daisy is involved in a life, whereas outside of his “business” activities, emotionally, Gatsby is not. A grown man, a combat veteran and a gangster, he essentially is something that will become more common as the century wore on: A Peter Pan, a man who didn’t grow up emotionally. A Romantic, he is outside society’s norms.
Gatsby’s an outsider as a criminal, too, a cultured WASP “Oxford man” to the crude, Jewish Meyer Wolfsheim, who wears human molars as cuff links, although the background is not as quite thoroughbred as Wolfsheim assumes, though it doesn’t matter, as the surfaces count, as Gatsby has made him a wonderful front. Gatsby disappears after the lunch with Wolfsheim after Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan arrives, underscoring the fact that Jay Gatsby doesn’t really exist in “Society,” either. The self-made man as a chimera.
Once the accident occurs, and Jay Gatsby can no longer live in the past, itself a kind of front for the real life he lacks, Gatsby is doomed, for when Daisy is revealed as corrupt as society at large (which mirrors his own corruption), he has no future. Gatsby no longer has a reason to exist.
Jimmy Gatz, recast as Jay Gatsby, had entered the netherworld, the world of Meyer Wolfsheim, the anti-society to Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s “respectable” society, to make enough money to be worth of her, as girls like Daisy don’t marry poor boys like the former Jimmy Gatz. But of course, it wasn’t the money solely that was the problem– it was the society he came from and the society he kept. Jay Gatsby would never have the “class” or cachet to be a husband to Daisy. (One thinks that if Fitzgerald had allowed him to survive, and written him into The Last Tycoon, after Fitz’s bouts with the movie industry, Gatsby would properly have wound up going to Hollywood and laundering money for the mob.)
The novel, being a work of art, is of course, far more complex than just this, but it is in there. And it is a testament to F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby that it is still relevant to the United States today, and can be used for this analysis, that we can see ourselves as we are now in it, a book more than three-quarters of a century old. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose)
“The Babe is Mighty and Shall Prevail”
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
–F. Scott Fitzgerald, THE GREAT GATSBY
“The Ruth is mighty and shall prevail. He did yesterday. Babe made two home runs and the Yankees won from the Giants at the Polo Grounds by a score of 4 to 2.”
–Heywood Broun, The New York World (October 12, 1923)
So what of the past, and other players use of drugs? Willie Mays on amphetamine never hit more than 52 home runs. Hank Aaron hit 40 or more home runs four times in a season, with a top of 45 in 1962, in the years the Braves were in Milwaukee. In 1966, when Hank was 32 years old, the Braves moved to Atlanta, to a stadium known as “The Launching Pad” as it was over 1,000 feet high over sea level. He hit 44 home runs in 1966, and three more times topped the 40 mark, hitting 44 again in 1969 (an expansion year) and a career high of 47 two years later. He also hit 40 dingers in 1972, which gave him 713 for his career, one less than Babe Ruth’s career record. (Along with his eight 40 homer seasons, “The Hammer” hit 39 dingers one season with Milwaukee and 39 and 38 taters in two other seasons in Atlanta.)
Hank Aaron does not hold the record for most home-runs hit by a man after the age of 40. His 40 home run season in 1973, when he was 39 years old, was his last. He broke the Babe’s record the following year, but the 40-year-old Hammer only hit 20 dingers for the season. Traded to the Milwaukee Brewers of the American League, where he could end his career back in the city and stadium in which he started his career (to take advantage of the Designated Hitter rule), Aaron hit only 12 and 10 homers in his last two season. He retired in 1976, when he was 42 years old and had extended the career home runs record to 755. (Babe Ruth still holds the American League record for career home runs, with 708 – like Hank Aaron, he switched leagues to return to the city where he started his career, but hit only six circuit-clouts for the Boston Braves — and Roger Maris the single season mark of 61.)
Now, there are articles on the Internet claiming that Hank Aaron must have juiced in the latter part of his career, to explain all those home runs he hit in his late 30s. The game has been corrupt all along, so the reasoning goes, so why penalize Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriquez or Roger Clemens? The only reason that people got angry was when the hallowed records of the past were broken. And while there was much joy when a white man (Mark McGwire) broke the single-season home run record (held by a white man, Roger Maris), it was because of the unpopular Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron’s record that the bitching began.
While one would think there was no racial spin here, as Bonds and Aaron are both African American, the revisionists say the reason there was no outcry when Aaron broke Ruth’s record was because he was an African American. Then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn quashed any investigation into steroid use in baseball and incidentally, kept it quashed so as not to stir up a racial hornet’s nest by challenging Hank Aaron’s record in those racially volatile times. The only reason Barry Bonds is getting a bad rap, is that Hank Aaron is a personal friend of current Commissioner Bud Selig, who employed Hank Aaron when Selig owned the Milwaukee Brewers, where Aaron ended his career.
Man & Superman (Before Steroids)
There was a balance in the game, that stretched back through history, to the time of Babe Ruth and the death of the deadball era (the game of Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner that was superseded by Ruth’s powerhitting), that was breathtaking to behold. Putting the dead ball era aside (where Ty Cobb could rack up a truly breathtaking lifetime average of .367 over 24 seasons), from 1919 through the strike of 1994-95, before the huge, post-strike upswing in power hitting that saw someone like Brady Anderson do what Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Reggie Jackson, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson and Ted Williams could not do – hit 50 home runs in a single season – for three-quarters of a century, the game remained in balance. It was a balance blown apart by the corruption of the Bud Selig as Commissioner/steroids era.
When I was in my teens and twenties, Sports Illustrated every few years declared some basketball player or football player the best ever. That was never done with baseball. That was, not until the beginning of the Selig Steroid Bowl era circa 1998. Soon, Barry Bonds was the greatest player ever. He even surpassed records thought unbreakable, such as Babe Ruth’s slugging average (which Bonds passed in his 73 homer season, .863 to .847;Bonds is the only person other than Ruth to slug .800 in two seasons, and nearly beat the Babe when he slugged .799 in 2002; The Babe’s next highest mark was .772) and his walks in a season (232 vs. the Babe’s 170).
When the F.B.I. and the Justice Department moved in on Barry Bonds, whose goose is being kept from being thoroughly cooked by a trainer who allegedly helped him with his PED usage who prefers jail to testifying against his childhood friend, A-Rod was proclaimed the greatest player ever.
Until the Bud Steroids Bowl Era, sabermetricians, the statistics nuts who have revolutionized baseball thinking, assumed that the great hitter in baseball was Babe Ruth, though he may have been equaled by Ted Williams. However, since the Big Dude also won 93 games as a pitcher, plus took an ERA title, and led the American League in games started, shutouts and complete games as a left-handed starting pitcher, in addition to putting together a scoreless innings pitched in the World Series skein that wasn’t broken until 1961 (that record was broken by Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford, in the same year that Maris broke Ruth’s single-season homer record: “It was a bad year for the Babe,” Ford said to reporters, after setting his own scoreless innings pitched record during the ’61 series), generally, it has been conceded he was the greatest baseball player ever.
As for the power game and this new baseball that lasted eighty years, Bill James (the Emperor of the Sabermetricians) pointed out correctly that The Babe wasn’t some superman. It was just that The Babe did it first, and for a generation, did it more times than anybody, those super-seasons of high average, tons of power, and scores of runs both scored and batted in. However, the parameters he set — seasons of 54 & 59-60 dingers, 160 RBI, 177 runs scored — well, the Babe set the limits of what could be achieved. They were equaled but not surpassed. (The slugging mark was considered, along with Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, one record that would never be topped. It was, by Barry Bonds.)
What was amazing is how the best players the game produced, the Jimmy Foxx’s and the Lou Gehrig’s and the Hank Greenbergs and the Ted Williams and the Mickey Mantles and the Willie Mays and the Hank Aarons and the Frank Robinsons and the Harmon Killebrews and the Reggie Jacksons — their best achievements all fit within these parameters. That Hack Wilson, and Jimmy Foxx, and Hank Greenberg could never equal or top that 60 mark (poling 56, 58, and 58, respectively), that no other player but The Babe (who did it four times) cold hit 50 dingers more than twice in a career (that included Foxx, and Kiner, and Mantle, and Mays) was something constant.
This constancy was one reason that Roger Maris was made to officially suffer in 1961, when he was punished by Ford Frick, the baseball Commissioner who had been The Babe’s ghostwriter when he was a sports journalist. It was determined by Frick that since Maris hit his 61 dingers in a expansion year in which two new teams that were put on the field that were minor league caliber, and did it in 162 games (whereas the Babe had only 154 games), there would be an asterisk next to his new record.
Yes, there was something human and constant in the history of the game, that was part of its beauty, and part of the reason it could seduce us, as Jay Gatsby had been seduced, into a love affair with the past. Then came Bud Selig’s post-strike steroids era, the car accident that shattered all the illusions, and broke our love affair with the past.
Bud Selig is the George Wilson of baseball. He just didn’t reveal that true nature of the granfalloon that was baseball by pricking the toy balloon, he shot us dead in the shimmering pool of our memories.
You can look it up.