West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 10 | August 08 - 14, 2007

Talking Point

Jock soc 101: Rise of performance and fall of valor

By Jerry Tallmer

In 1930, when Babe Ruth signed a new contract with the Yankees at $80,000 a season, the guys with press cards in their hats asked him how he felt about making more money than the president of the United States, Herbert Hoover, whose annual salary — as this country headed deeper into the Depression — was $75,000. “I had a better year than he did,” said the Babe.
 
(Mr. Herbert Hoover sees a rainbow in the sky,
So let’s have another cup of coffee
And let’s have another piece of pie.)
 
Once upon a time, in the days when life was a simpler matter, before television, before night games, before steroids, before universal illiteracy, before the hundred-million-dollar salaries that make Ruth’s good year all but invisible, every schoolboy — and every editorial writer — knew the sad, sad story of the tear-stricken lad who, clutching at the sleeve of Shoeless Joe Jackson as that matchless ballplayer was leaving a Chicago courthouse, sobbed: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

But it had been so. Eight members of the heavily favored Chicago White Sox had been paid to throw the World Series of 1919 to the Cincinnati Reds, and though Joe Jackson, one of the eight, had played throughout the series as hard as he always did, still he’d known about the conspiracy and had kept that knowledge under his cap. Guilty as charged.

The jolt on our culture, on our innocence, was profound, even if Ring Lardner’s “You Know Me Al” had been peeling the gloss off of jockdom as early as 1917.

An incidental character named Meyer Wolfschiem — a stand-in for the actual Arnold Rothstein — appears fleetingly in Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” (1925). “Who is he anyhow, an actor?” someone asks Jay Gatsby, whose own past is a shady question mark.
 
“No.”
“A dentist?”

“No, he’s a gambler.” Gatsby hesitated, then added coolly: “He’s the man who fixed the World Series back in 1919.”
 
The fix is in. In July 1927, two years after “Gatsby,” there appeared in the Atlantic Monthly a great short story, “Fifty Grand,” by Ernest Hemingway, which more than dramatized what was going on in and around the boxing ring, and has been going on ever since the Greeks and Romans.

The fix is in. Jack Brennan in the Hemingway story could pick up a desperately needed $50,000 by losing his next fight. When he realizes mid-fight that he’s been double-crossed by his gambler pals — been set up to win — he double-crosses the double-cross with a hammer-blow punch to the balls of his double-crossing opponent.

(“‘This isn’t your night’” — Terry Malloy caustically quoting big brother Charlie, in the back seat of that taxicab in “On the Waterfront,” 1954. The fix had been in. Again.)

Now we are in an era when the fix is in on all sides in virtually every sport you can think of, from bicycling to boat racing to horse racing to tennis to track and field to distance running to dog-rearing to football to basketball (what else is new?) to lacrosse to boxing to … I don’t know, badminton?

But I don’t care about all those others. I care about baseball.

All theater depends on a paradox, a contradiction in terms — what’s called the suspension of disbelief.

Baseball is theater (subtext, ballet). From that moment of “Say it ain’t so, Joe” in 1919 — before my birth and most of yours — what has been and is required of everyone who loves the game, follows the game, is a suspension of disbelief in regard to its honesty in every respect, including the medical, each and every day.

So that is what we do. We suspend disbelief. We watch the game, listen to the game, go to the game, read about the game, talk about the game, argue about the game, joke about the game, offer prayers to the game — and keep disbelief locked away in the closet with other hobgoblins, other impedimenta of reality. Daily hospital reports, for instance. Who’s on, who’s off, the Disabled List.

Do you wonder why there are so many more injuries on the diamond than there ever used to be? Why somebody is pulling a hamstring, or — worse — pulling muscle away from the bone, in legs, knees, ribs, shoulders, thighs, backs, every other day? I don’t. It has to do at least in part with all the junk so many players have fed into their bodies over the years, if they’re not still doing it.

Has to have been.

And all for what? For fame, for glory, immortality? No, yes, no, maybe — but one can say with utter certainty for just a few millions of dollars to be piled on top of those already amassed hundreds of millions. (The one possible exception here, I have a hunch, is Barry Bonds, who may indeed be seeking immortality — black man/white world immortality — more than all those storehoused dollars he knows he’ll never spend.)

Now the kicker.

I myself am of two minds — more paradox! — on the current scandals, or worse, in sports. Gambling, point shaving, drunk driving, violence, rape, wife beating, dog fighting, gun carrying, sudden death and all that I put on one side. Bad stuff. Steroids, boosters, performance-enhancing additives of all kinds I put on the other. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

I mean: We all do it. All human society does it, ingests one thing or another — or many things — for physical, emotional, and other kinds of improvement.

I mean: What’s the difference between Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds or Jason Giambi or Gary Sheffield packing themselves full of some muscle-enlarging home-run helper and Joe Schmo from Kokimo gulping down a Viagra on behalf of another sort of home-run muscle enlargement?

I mean: Just listen to any two 5-minute cycles of television commercials these days and write down all the crap that’s available for you to poison yourself with in search of the body bigger, stronger, faster, purer, healthier, happier, younger, more beautiful and that much nearer to deathier.

I mean: Did you ever take an aspirin? To improve the condition of your body, more particularly the condition of your head? That’s an additive, aspirin is. A tricky one, too, not without its dangers. Did you ever take a Valium? A vitamin? A Prozac?

I mean: I personally would rather be caught dead than swallow certain of the foregoing, but I will not cast the first stone. Because we all do it, one way or another — each man kills the thing he loves — yet we don’t have our medals stripped from us or an asterisk stuck in alongside our name. We just go up there and keep swinging. Love the sinner, not the sin.

And yes, I do think Pete Rose — who would I’m sure have spat out any steroid that wandered his way — should be up there in Cooperstown in baseball’s Hall of Fame.


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