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Bases very loaded

Spurred by fans’ ’roid rage, new books focus on our national pastime’s dark side. Meet baseball’s seven deadly sins.
By MIKE MILIARD  |  March 19, 2008


Hope springs eternal with each opening day. But even as the sun rises on the new Major League Baseball season, skies are cloudy for the game we love. Echoes of the Mitchell Report’s j’accuse still reverberate. One assumes more names are forthcoming — if not in official documents, then at least in Jose Canseco’s juicy new tell-all. But it’s worth remembering that, in one way or another, the sport has always had a split personality.

Baseball is a game of verdant fields, of balletic athleticism, of beery sunny Sunday afternoons. It’s also one of cheating and meanness and corruption and greed. “Some ballplayers were alcoholics, others gamblers,” writes Northeastern professor Roger I. Abrams in his new book, The Dark Side of the Diamond: Gambling, Violence, Drugs and Alcoholism in the National Pastime (Rounder). “Some were violent sociopaths. Although appealing as an escape from day-to-day life, baseball reflected what we are as a society, warts and all.”

It still does. Just look at Elijah Dukes, who this past year texted a photo of a gun to his estranged wife. (“You dead, dawg,” he intoned on the attendant voicemail.) Or Scott Spiezio, who was recently charged with drunk driving and assault and battery (and four other counts, including hit and run and aggravated assault). Or Jim Leyritz, who kicked off 2008 by pleading not guilty to DUI manslaughter. Guys like that make jerks like A-Rod (opting out, then in, for mega millions) or Nomar (snubbing kids on Dodgers autograph day) seem saintly.

This spring, the usual annual crop of baseball books is being tossed onto shelves. But not all offer heartwarming tales of father-son catches and scrappy bench-player heroics. Rather — perhaps feeling that ill wind blowing in from right field — many are zeroing in on the darker aspects of America’s game: baseball’s seven deadly sins.

1) Racism
Death threats mailed to Hank Aaron as he chased home-run history. Jackie Robinson summoned to Fenway for a tryout, only to hear a voice yell, “Get that nigger off the field!” from the dark of the grandstand, thereby ensuring the Sox would be the last baseball team to integrate. (Even the Bruins beat them to it.) As Abrams writes in The Dark Side, 19th-century superstar Cap Anson would have no truck with gambling, tobacco, or booze, “as long as the sport banned all black ballplayers from the game.”

It wasn’t much better for minorities who were allowed to play. In Chief Bender’s Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star (University of Nebraska Press), journalist Tom Swift has crafted a substantial, vivid story of one of the best pitchers of the game’s early years. Charles Albert Bender was a member of the Ojibwa tribe. He was much loved by his Philadelphia Athletics teammates. But opponents, fans, and media were a different story. Newspapers portrayed him as a crude caricature. “I’m sorry, old Pitch-Em-Heap,” said dead-ball-era star “Turkey” Mike Donlin as he strode to the plate, “but here’s where you go back to the reservation.” At the Polo Grounds during the 1905 World Series, the cat calls shrieked: “Back to the teepee for you!”

As we look forward to the 2008 campaign of Jacoby Ellsbury, the first Navajo in the majors (and on the other side of the rivalry, Yankee flamethrower Joba Chamberlain is a member of the Winnebago tribe), it’s worth remembering a time when it was a bit harder for a Native American to play America’s game.

2) Violence
“He came straight for me followed by half a dozen players with bats in their hands. He hit me in the face with his fist, knocked me over, jumped on me, kicked me, spiked me, and booted me behind the ear.”

Those are the words of Claude Lueker, a heckler — crippled, with only half a hand — describing getting his ass kicked by Ty Cobb in 1912. It comes courtesy of Ty Cobb: Safe at Home (Lyons), a new book by Don Rhodes that offers a fair-minded assessment of the off-field life of one of the game’s most talented and notorious figures.

Cobb is far from the only player prone to violence and ill-temper. (And, truthfully, Lueker was asking for it.) The game is full of bust-ups and scraps: Roger Clemens tossing a jagged bat shard at Mike Piazza, Pedro Martinez tossing Don Zimmer to the ground, raging Lou Piniella getting tossed from some 60 games over the years. As Abrams quotes Willie Mays in The Dark Side, “For all its gentility, its almost leisurely pace, baseball is violence under wraps.”

This diamond can be rough. Certain traditional rules are strictly enforced by the players themselves. Ross Bernstein’s The Code: Baseball’s Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-at-Your-Own-Risk Code of Conduct (Triumph) — its cover is the iconic image of 46-year-old Nolan Ryan whaling the shit out of Robin Ventura’s face — offers a glimpse at exactly how uniformed personnel (hint: not umpires) govern the goings-on inside the lines: bean balls and bench-clearing brawls, chargings of the mound and collisions at the plate, showboating and sliding hard into second.

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  Topics: Books , Celebrity News, Entertainment, Bill Lee (Baseball),  More more >
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