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General News    H3'ed 6/16/20

Tomgram: Robert Lipsyte, Trump and Bouton, Two Ballplayers for this Silent Season

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

There was only one time in my life when I might actually have been jealous of Donald Trump. That's when -- as TomDispatch jock culture correspondent Robert Lipsyte, author of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland, reminds us today -- he was captain of his high school baseball team (and already making up grandiose lies about himself). Actually, even then (had I known of him) I wouldn't have really dreamt of being him, not when I could be Pee Wee Reese or Sandy Amoros or any other member of a Brooklyn Dodgers team of the mid-1950s. That was my ultimate dream then, eternally nixed by the fact that I couldn't run fast or hit a baseball with any power and that, as an infielder, I had a distinct aversion to getting low enough to field a wicked grounder lest it pop up and bonk me on the chin. So my own baseball career proved brief indeed (and remained almost completely inside my head).

This comes to mind at a time when, like so much else in this country, sports has been knocked for a pandemic loop. If you think of it in a certain way, thanks to the inability of the present captain of our splintered American "team" to deal with Covid-19, that virus hit a grand slam in this country. No question about it -- four RBIs as it clobbered the seasons of professional football, basketball, and baseball out of the park, leaving Americans with nothing but a spring of death, suffering, police riots, and protest.

Yes, the National Basketball Association is planning to finally pick up its suspended season in a "bubble" in Disney World in Orlando, Florida. God knows when or how the National Football League, now preoccupied with the knee it never took, will open this fall or winter and whether baseball will even have a season. Just in case you hadn't noticed, we're in a new American landscape and, that being so, it might be worth a moment to look back with Lipsyte at the world of sports that Donald Trump played such a role -- the rare thing he won't brag about -- in our losing. Tom

Remembering Ball Four
So We Can Forget You-Know-Who
By Robert Lipsyte

In 1964, an 18-year-old New York Military Academy first baseman named Don Trump slammed a game-winning home run against Cornwall High School that perked the interest of scouts for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Boston Red Sox. No question about it -- the big kid was a professional prospect!

That same year, a 25-year-old New York Yankees pitcher named Jim Bouton, an All-Star the previous season, won two World Series games against the St. Louis Cardinals. Hall of Fame, here we come!

Neither of those hotshots fulfilled their baseball promise. Unpacking why not might just help us survive another day without baseball at a time when -- thanks to that now grownup first-baseman -- we really need the diversion. And it may remind us of what we're missing.

As you may already have guessed, Don Trump was never really a pro prospect. That home run, in fact, would prove just a foretaste of his talent for hyping himself. It never happened. He made it up. In fact, his team didn't even play Cornwall that year. Trump, who actually was his school's team captain, has long claimed that he was the best athlete there, a boast rarely challenged because coaches and classmates tended to praise him once it became in their best interests to do so.

And what about that Yankee phenom, nicknamed "Bulldog" by his teammates (including legendary superstar Mickey Mantle) for his ferocious tenacity on the mound? Only six years after his World Series heroics, sportswriters would be furiously writing him off as a "journeyman" ballplayer, a "social leper" who had betrayed the game to produce a "tell-all" book written for him by a lefty journalist.

This year, Jim Bouton, who died in 2019 at age 80, will get more of the acclaim owed him as a revolutionary sports figure thanks to the publication of an excellent new biography and a forthcoming 50th anniversary Kindle edition of his memoir, Ball Four, arguably the best sports book of all time. In 1999, Ball Four was, in fact, selected by the New York Public Library as one of the "Books of the Century."

Baseball Anthropology

Parts of Ball Four may now seem quaint. (Who would be shocked today to discover that ballplayers of that era actually cursed, popped amphetamines, or tried to peek at women through hotel windows?) In 1970, however, that book turned the national pastime on its head. Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to have it banned or at least force Bouton to declare it "fiction." Players who didn't bother to read it nonetheless felt violated by it or were convinced that they should feel that way. Traditional sportswriters, whose status depended on the idea that they were the only conduit fans had to the true life of the locker-room, were infuriated. They had been exposed as faux insiders.

As former Wall Street Journal reporter (and sportswriter) Stefan Fatsis said, in retrospect, "I think you can argue that Ball Four completely reshaped journalism."

No one who's written about Bouton's book, however, has caught its deeper spirit better than his widow, the psychologist Paula Kurman, in an introduction to that 50th anniversary edition. "Ball Four," she wrote, "was an extraordinary study of a strange, isolated tribe -- from inside the tribe -- which any anthropologist would be proud to have authored. It was a universal fable, in which our hero sets out to seek his fortune, or the Holy Grail, and must do battle with those who try to stop him. It was a man from a macho world -- openly talking about his feelings and insecurities. It was a kid calling out that the Emperor had no clothes on."

For starters, it reshaped the perceptions that many sports fans then had of their heroes. It humanized them. Not surprisingly, the book spent months on the bestseller list, less for its mildly bawdy anecdotes than for the way it reinforced the passion of baseball fans for their game. Rigorously edited (but not written) by Leonard Shecter, a progressive, uncompromising veteran of the pre-Murdoch-era New York Post, Ball Four was a strange and unexpected valentine to what was still the national pastime then. (Today, it's undoubtedly football, a tribute to American brutality.)

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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