Living in the present, players swing and miss on history
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- IBM once developed a marketing campaign that featured six widely recognized baseball statistics; numbers only, but numbers even a casual fan might identify without much hesitation -- 755, .367, 56, 1.12, 2,130 and 511. During Spring Training in 1991, copies of those figures circulated in the Mets clubhouse in an attempt to determine how familiar players were with the history of the game they played professionally.
Pitcher Frank Viola instantly identified each figure -- respectively, Hank Aaron's career home run total, Ty Cobb's career batting average, Joe DiMaggio's record hitting streak of 1941, Bob Gibson's ERA in 1968, Lou Gehrig's then-record for consecutive games played and Cy Young's career victory total.
Only first baseman Dave Magadan came close to Viola on the pop quiz. Most others failed miserably. Indeed, not only did pitcher Terry Bross not recognize any of the figures, he challenged the very notion that 1.12 could be an earned run average. "For a full season?" Bross said in a tone that was incredulous. "That's impossible."
And now we have 19-year-old Orioles Minor League outfielder Josh Hart, who, manager Buck Showalter recently determined, was unfamiliar with the great Frank Robinson. Hmmm. What do we make of that? It's not a mortal sin, and it's not even close to the admission of Vince Coleman some 20 years ago that he knew nothing of Jackie Robinson. (For those not familiar with Coleman: He was an accomplished basestealer and impact player with Whitey Herzog's Cardinals teams of the late '80s. And Herzog was the ... well, we can't do this. Can we?)
It is a tad unsettling that a kid in the Orioles camp was unaware of arguably the greatest player in the history of the franchise, a Hall of Famer who has served the game in so many roles since his retirement as a player in 1976. Robinson has coached and managed, of course. He has served as baseball's sheriff, as well as a consultant to the Commissioner.
"A lot of titles," Robinson said in 2009. "I've enjoyed the jobs I've had. And I worked at them. But I was best at being a player."
Yes, he was singled out, but Hart hardly is alone in the game. Lack of knowledge about what happened before last Thursday is rampant in the game and has been for decades, despite the age of information in which we live. When Don Mattingly played with the Yankees in the mid-'80s, he unabashedly admitted that, until adolescence, he had believed Babe Ruth was a cartoon character. The existence of the Baby Ruth candy bar only reinforced Mattingly's sense that the Babe was fictional.
A few weeks before the All-Star break in 1976, Randy Jones acknowledged he recently had done some research -- pre-Internet and therefore not so simple -- to familiarize himself with Cy Young. Good idea, because within six months, Jones became a National League Cy Young Award winner with the San Diego Padres.
And how scary was it when Sammy Sosa knew so little about Roberto Clemente? They weren't countrymen, but they were Hispanic right fielders who wore the same No. 21. And Sammy had designs on a plaque in Cooperstown. He talked of joining Clemente.
Ignorance of baseball history exists within the game more than ever these days, despite the multitude of hand-held devices that can connect any inquiring mind to scores of baseball websites. Clubhouses in big league parks are not to be confused with research centers. Fans and historians of the game are in the stands and press boxes, not in the dugouts, the batter's boxes or on the mounds.
Players often explain away their ignorance of the game's history, saying, "We played the game when we were kids. We didn't watch on TV or read about it." Wonder whether the Mantle, Aaron or Mays households purchased their first televisions in the 1950s.
I once had a newspaper boss who foolishly turned his back on baseball history. His instructions were to look ahead, not behind. I recall asking him in late summer 1998 how folks were to appreciate the Sosa-McGwire assault on Roger Maris' record if Maris' exploits went unexplored. I don't recall a compelling response but do recall his declining a look back to '61 and the M&M Boys.
He didn't understand that history is embraced in baseball far more than in other sports. He was unimpressed that the 714 that appeared at the end of each episode of "Dragnet," the old and poorly presented cop show, was believed to be a salute to Ruth's career home run total. He found no humor or historical edge in Casey Stengel's footnote about the Mets' dreadful inaugural season of 1962. After 120 losses, Stengel said, "I couldn't have done it without my players."
That quote never should fade away. It should be recalled, understood and appreciated.
I recall Barry Bonds once making light of a pregame scoreboard presentation that showed Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round The World." Bonds said, "Not my world." He thought the game was about him. His dad, Bobby, and his godfather, Mr. Mays, knew better when they played.
And I was personally offended a few years back when Alex Rodriguez passed Mays in career RBIs and chose to say nothing about the player many consider the greatest ever. His non-responsiveness stood in contrast to how Eddie Murray saluted Mickey Mantle when his career RBI total became the highest ever by a switch-hitter. (Yes, Yankees Hall of Fame center fielder Mickey Mantle was a switch-hitter.)
Shortly after the Giants completed batting practice at Citi Field early in the 2011 season, their shortstop Mike Fontenot passed through their dugout and into the runway that leads to the visitors' clubhouse. There he stopped and chatted momentarily with a passerby who gave him a brief and superficial description of one Ralph McPherran Kiner, a man unknown to Fontenot.
Fontenot's device immediately was put to use, and Fontenot uttered a "Wow!" when Kiner's seven successive home run championships and Hall of Fame status appeared. He was a tad embarrassed.
Three nights later, Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier, his extended hitting streak still intact, stood by his locker and assured a small audience that he was aware of the significance of the number 56 in a baseball history. "I have to know that one," he said. Yes, he did. His streak ended at 30 games.
But the average big league player these days is far more adept at creating numbers than identifying or defining them.
Too bad, as great a player as the late Ralph Kiner was, he made his bones in the New York baseball market because of his sense of the game and a remarkable recall of the history that didn't begin to develop after his retirement as a player. Kiner was no singular exception when he was an active player. "You'd read the papers when we played," he said. "Hotel rooms didn't have TVs, and we didn't have those hand-held things. We talked the game on buses and the trains."
What a concept!
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.