Mitchell Nathanson is a professor of legal writing at Villanova University, and the author of A People's History of Baseball, excerpted to mark the Labor Day weekend here at The Classical. Professor Nathanson was kind enough to take a few questions about his work, the book, and who really runs baseball.
The Classical:In your book, you talk about presenting "counter-stories" to the anodyne, mostly cheerful history of baseball that MLB espouses—for every Black Sox scandal that teaches a canned moral, there's a Hal Chase; for every PED bust, there are steroid-era records that will never be asterisked or erased. What do you think some of the counter-stories of the future might be for baseball, or some of the issues that will shape how we see the future history of the game?
Nathanson: I think we’re in the midst of one right now: the Melky Cabrera “tainted” batting title story. As it becomes more and more likely that he’ll win the NL batting title, there’s going to be an ever-increasing push to strip it from him by whatever means necessary in order to protect the “integrity of the game.” Of course, this assumes that that PED story is a black-and-white one—involving “good guys” like Andrew McCutchen and “bad guys” like Melky Cabrera. The truth is that everyone and everything is shrouded in gray. I don’t know what McCutchen (or Derek Jeter for that matter) takes to enable him to hit consistently well over the course of a grueling season but I’m willing to wager that it’s more than milk and spinach. Those days are over (in fact, they never existed). The only difference between the so-called good guys and the bad ones is that the supplements taken by the alleged bad guys have been banned whereas the ones taken by the alleged good guys haven’t been—yet. Don’t forget that that bottle of Andro spotted in Mark McGwire’s locker in 1998 was purchased legally as a widely available “over the counter” nutritional supplement. The truth is that pretty much anyone who wishes to compete—at the professional or even the amateur level—takes something to at least dull the pain enough to enable them to make it through nine innings or eighteen holes. Supplements are a growing fact of modern life and the lines between what is acceptable and what isn’t are blurred and only becoming blurrier by the day. This holds true, by the way, for the people who write, often sanctimoniously, about the game as well. I’m pretty sure that more than a few of the scribes calling on Bud Selig to do something, anything, to purge Cabrera’s name from the record book are meeting their daily late night deadlines with the help of a Five Hour Energy drink or something like it.
In chapter five you write about "Wait Til Next Year" and the denial of history, a chapter which resonated for me as a fan of a benighted franchise (the sad-sack Indians). Why do you think Americans and specifically baseball fans so strongly root for underdogs?
Well, strictly looking at the numbers, it has to be the case. With 30 Major League teams and only one winner, that makes 29 losers, so you have to know going in to a season that you’re most likely going to be disappointed by the end. So if you want to root at all, it has to be a matter of blind hope against the odds. Otherwise it’s just a frustrating experience. But digging deeper, I think that we’re uncomfortable rooting for losers so we actively seek to trick our minds so as to enable us to see hope where there really is none. As an Indians fan, this surely must resonate with you (as a longtime Phillies fan, it certainly does with me—the 1980s and ‘90s were dark days, baseball wise, in Philadelphia). How Cubs fans can happily proclaim “wait ‘til next year” each September when history shows that “next year” will almost certainly look just like last year (not to mention the last 104 years), is beyond all reason. Still, they (and all fans, if to a somewhat lesser extent) do it and engage in this form of mental sleight-of-hand in aneffort to move blissfully from one year to the next. Speaking solely as a baseball matter, this is a harmless enough trick but, as I discuss within that chapter, it’s indicative of a larger societal malady that is anything but.
As a scholar and a baseball fan, what are some of your favorite books about the game?
Fiction-wise, I absolutely loved Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s The Celebrant and Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. I think that people either love or hate Harbach’s book but I’m very strongly in the former category. On the nonfiction side, my two longtime favorites are Jim Bouton’s Ball Four (I reread it every few years just because I feel the urgent need to do so) and Arnold Hano’s A Day in the Bleachers. Anyone interested in experiencing an afternoon at the Polo Grounds circa 1954 ought to read it. Hano does a great job of stripping away the romantic layer of the game and presenting the fan’s experience as it truly exists, complete with wagering in the stands, obnoxious seatmates, and crowded subways. It’s fantastic. Turning to the business of baseball, I don’t think there’s a better look at the inside of the game, and the insides of the club owners’ minds, than John Helyar’s Lords of the Realm. And when it comes to baseball and the law, I really like Brad Snyder’s A Well-Paid Slave, which chronicles Curt Flood’s quest for free agency. I annually assign his chapter focusing on the oral argument of Flood’s case before the Supreme Court to my first-year oral advocacy students. If anyone wants to see just how to lose a case at oral argument, they should read Snyder’s take on the performance of Flood’s attorney, the former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, in front of his former colleagues. It’s but one tragedy in a book filled with them.
From the perspective of people's history, what current issues in baseball best capture the theme of power, and its use and abuse? Who has the most power in baseball?
Historically, the office of the commissioner of baseball has been the locus of the power within the game, although that’s not so much the case anymore. Interestingly, the office itself was created by the owners in 1921 in the unspoken hope that the newly-crowned commissioner would abuse the power granted to him. That’s why the owners granted commissioner Landis autocratic power—the power to rule from a perch high above both the owners and the United States legal system, and power which the owners agreed would not be challenged by them (they waived their right to challenge his rulings in a court of law). They did so in the hope that Landis would be unencumbered to issue harsh and, let’s face it, sanctimonious rulings such that the public’s trust in the game would be restored in the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal. And Landis fulfilled their every desire in this regard—issuing rulings, banning players (or not banning them when he probably should have) in the absence of due process and/or hard evidence. Eventually, the owners grew tired of this power and threw Fay Vincent out when he had the audacity to act independently, following Landis’s example. Today the commissioner is little more than a mouthpiece for the owners and the Players Association has the power. While there are many who say that they’ve abused their position (and point to the association’s reluctance to embrace drug testing as a prime example), I have to take issue with that because the owners have never showed a willingness to treat the players or the Players Association fairly or with the respect they deserve and, with regard to the Players Association, command. Even after the game switched from an owners’ game to a players’ game, the owners attempted to undercut the players at seemingly every turn (witness the collusion scandals in the 1980s and Selig’s (aborted) attempt to suspend the players mentioned within the Mitchell Report after trying to coax as many of them as possible to cooperate with Mitchell’s investigation by promising that no suspensions would be forthcoming as a result of the investigation). Those are only two examples of many. Given all of this, I think that it’s understandable that the Players Association has shown an unwillingness to partner with ownership on many issues. The owners come to the table with unclean hands. In my opinion, they have a lot to do before the players can be reasonably expected to trust them.
Will there ever be a non-MLB baseball league that matters?
In terms of a professional league, I can’t see it. The startup costs are astronomical and, beyond that, MLB has expanded into seemingly every market that can support Major League-quality baseball, as well as several that cannot (I’m looking right at you, Tampa), so there doesn’t seem to be much of an opening for an alternative league. The AFL and the ABA succeeded in the ‘60s, or at least made significant inroads, because there were so many areas of the country that were underserved by the established NFL and NBA at the time. MLB avoided that problem by settling with the upstart Continental League before it even got off the ground. As I discuss within the book, this is why MLB expanded, against its will, in 1961, ’62, and ’69. It has gradually expanded since then to the point where, now, I think that every city that can even arguablyclaim to support a Major League franchise has one.
But let’s look beyond the professional leagues for a moment. There are all sorts of amateur leagues that matter very much—to the thousands of people who play in them every weekend. I grew up thinking that baseball was a young man’s sport—by 18 or so you were either good enough to play college or professional ball or you were done forever (unless you want to count softball as the functional equivalent of baseball. I don’t.). For me, that meant that I was finished. Or so I thought. Now, in my mid-forties I’m playing hardball again (in a 45+ amateur league) and the experience is eye-opening. We have players from all walks of life, of all talent levels, and with all sorts of stories to tell. The most incredible thing I found when I came back to baseball was that the game’s beautiful balance remains in place despite the inevitable decline in physical skills; the lost steps in the sprint from home to first are equalized by the reduced zip on the throw from short or third, with the result being that most grounders are bang-bang plays at first, just as they were when we were kids. In short, the game “works” just as well when you’re older as it did when you were young or as it does for the very best players on the professional level. All in all, I’m amazed anew at the seemingly perfect dimensions of the baseball diamond. A collection of MIT physicists couldn’t have done a better job. For all of the faults of the professional game, and there are many, it is the game’s most basic geometry that ultimately renders them irrelevant in the big picture. In this respect, baseball leagues of virtually any stripe matter, and to a great degree.
What's your single favorite episode from the history of baseball?
The next one. That’s the beauty of baseball—there’ll always be something else and no matter what it is, it’ll be worth discussing and debating. I’m reminded of something I read in the New York Times this very morning, in an article on baseball in, of all places, France. Baseball, remarked the president of a French team, is “like wine. You can talk about wine for half an hour before you even taste it … Baseball is wine, and soccer is beer. You just drink it, but you don’t talk about it.” From that perspective, people like me who write about baseball are always thirsty. Forever anticipating our next glass.