Recently in New York Sports Category


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I write today about a moment in New York history that took place outside of New York City. It's a moment when New York lost the all-time major league home run record to a player from Atlanta.

Thirty-five years ago today, Hank Aaron hit the 715th home run of his career, surpassing legendary New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth, who had held the record since May 1935.

Of course, the Babe's 714th and final home run wasn't hit as a member of the Yankees: he had, by that time, become a member of the Boston Braves. Home run number 714 was, by the way, the Babe's third of the afternoon, although the Braves lost 11-7 to the Pirates. You can read eye-witness accounts of those home runs in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ruth played his last major-league game five days later in Philadelphia: he hurt his knee playing in the field in the first inning, left the game, and retired two days later.

Aaron finished the 1973 season with 713 career home run, just one behind Ruth's mark, and during that summer and the winter, he received constant hate mail and several death threats. By all accounts, Aaron was permanently scarred by the experience. Tom Stanton's Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America offers a gripping account of the year leading up to Aaron's breaking of the record. And you can read the piece that Sports Illustrated published about Aaron's home run here.

Aaron held the record until August 7, 2007, when Barry Bonds hit career home run number 756. Bonds currently has 762 career home runs.


Tony Peoplesh Play It

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"Once I live in America, . . . I want to live in America.  Dot' sh a' kin' a man I am!  One must not be a greenhorn." So says, Jake, the protagonist of Abraham Cahan's novel, Yekl (1896). Jake shows that he's no greenhorn by talking about American sports, especially baseball. Understanding baseball makes Jake feel less like a Semite and more like a Yankee, particularly because "all college boys and tony peoplesh play it."

A College Baseball Team in 1893.

When I teach the novel, I suggest that Cahan is invoking a developing cultural mythology that links baseball both to individualism and Americanization. In 1886, Harper's magazine reported that "the fascination of the game has seized upon the American people, irrespective of age, sex, or other condition." Mark Twain declared that baseball was "the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century."

In 1919, Hugh Fullerton, one of the nation's leading sportswriters, would write in the Atlanta Constitution that baseball "is the greatest single force working for Americanization.  No other game appeals so much to the foreign born youngsters and nothing, not even the schools, teaches the American spirit so quickly, or inculcates the idea of sportsmanship or fair play thoroughly."
Much later in the twentieth century, the novelist Philip Roth would write an autobiographical sketch entitled "My Baseball Years," in which he described baseball as

this game that I loved with all my heart, not simply for the fun of playing it (fun was secondary, really), but for the mythic and aesthetic dimension it gave to an American boy's life -- particularly to one whose grandparents could hardly speak English.  For someone whose roots in America were strong but only inches deep, and who had no experience, such as a Catholic child might, of an awesome hierarchy that was real and felt, baseball was a kind of secular church that reached into every class and region of the nations and bound millions upon millions of us together in common concerns, loyalties, rituals, enthusiasm, and antagonisms.  Baseball made me understand what patriotism was about, at its best.

Another child of immigrants, A. Bartlett Giamatti, once president of Yale and later President of the National League, also extolled the Americanness of baseball. In a speech delivered before the Massachusetts Historical Society, Giamatti claimed that "baseball fits America so well because it embodies the interplay of individual and group that we love, and because it expresses our longing for the rule of law while licensing our resentment of law givers."Giamatti speculated that baseball had become America's national pastime because

we cherish as Americans a game wherein freedom and reunion are both possible.  Baseball fulfills the promise America made itself to cherish the individual while recognizing the overarching claims of the group.  It sends its players out in order to return again, allowing all the freedom to accomplish great things in a dangerous world.  So baseball restates a version of America's promises every time it is played.  The playing of the game is a restatement of the promises that we can all be free, that we can all succeed.
Giamatti also stressed that at the heart of the game lies "the basic confrontation between two lone individuals.  It is primitive in its starkness.  A man on a hill prepares to throw a rock at a man slightly below him, not far away, who holds a club." Moreover, Giamatti asserts, because players are "sufficiently physically separated on the field . . . the individual cannot hide from responsibility in a crowd, as in football or Congress."For these reasons, Giamatti declares that "individual merit and self-reliance are the bed-rock of baseball."

Cahan thus uses baseball to serve as a marker of Jake's embrace of American individualism. The film Hester Street, which I'll discuss tomorrow, includes a wonderful scene of Jake playing ball with his son in Central Park, just after lecturing his greenhorn wife, Gitl, and their greenhorn friend Bernstein, about what it means to be an American.

Thanks for the Memories

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A couple of weeks ago, another in a long line of Meaningless Baseball Records was set when Derek Jeter passed Lou Gehrig in the non-category of Most Hits at Yankee Stadium. Never mind that Jeter still trails Gehrig in total career hits by over a hundred; the press, the fans, and even the players unleashed a chorus of hosannas that made the Bronx shake.

yankee_stadium.jpgOf course, this is Yankee Stadium's swan song, and any opportunity to heap encomia on the venerable arena (it opened in 1923, the first three-tiered ball park and the first to call itself a "stadium") was not to be shunned. But from Queens, where Shea Stadium is also scheduled for demolition, nothing. Who has the most hits in Mets' history? Does anyone know or care? It happens to be Ed Kranepool, who has probably never been mentioned in the same sentence with Jeter or the Iron Horse.

That's part of the Yankee Stadium "mystique" that even visiting players acknowledge, the echo of baseball history that they experience either as a paralyzing burden or a spur to greatness. It's much more than just a baseball park, of course. Three Popes have celebrated mass there; Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Graziano all fought title bouts there; and both the New York Yankees and Giants football teams played there as well. But it never worked as a football stadium.
The gridiron sat awkwardly in its peculiar dimensions, and nobody (I'm speaking from memory here) had a great view. It was indeed the House That Ruth Built, or at least, that was built for him: after the Yanks stole him from the Red Sox, flush with cash, they tailored their new home to his peculiar strengths. The result was as lopsided a baseball field as has ever been seen: the Babe was a dead-pull left-handed hitter, and the right-field stands stood only 295 feet from the plate - a pop fly by Ruthian standards. By contrast, left-center was an enormous poke -- over 490 to deepest left center -- and perhaps righty Joe DiMaggio's career home-run stats are as impressive as Ruth's when that's taken into account. Fans used to entertain themselves in the off-season by speculating on what trading Joe D for lefty Ted Williams would have meant: Joe would have been bouncing balls off and swatting them over the Green Monster at Fenway, and Williams could have picked up where Ruth left off.

My first memory of Yankee Stadium (the old one, mind you, not the 1975 make-over) was sitting next to my father, watching a DiMaggio line drive split the outfielders for a double during his last season, 1951, against Boston. Later in the same game, Ted Williams defeated the Yanks' defensive shift (pretty much the same as the one used against Giambi these days) by scorching the ball just inside the unguarded left-field foul line; I could see him laughing as he stood on second base, though Dad had to explain to me the subtleties of his gambit. Another vivid memory is of a game that my high-school baseball coach took the team to, in which Mickey Mantle, in the ninth inning, hit a two-hopper to the shortstop that lifted him off his feet and literally knocked him on his ass. Mantle, sensing an infield hit, turned on the speed and ten feet from the bag went down as if shot. To stunned silence, he curled into a ball and tumbled over and over, clutching his thigh. The play ended the game, with the Yankees losing, and the crowd filed out in silence, like mourners leaving the funeral chapel. That quadriceps pull was one in a long line of leg injuries that cost Mantle his speed and stability, and the chance to become the greatest outfielder in history.

Over the following decades, perversely, I seem to have attended more games at the stadium when the Yankees had lousy teams than when they were on top. In the early 60's, all my friends were baseball crazed and we went all the time (with a student ID, it cost no more than a movie), and we got to watch Howard and Boyer and Kubek and a team that was always in contention. But after I was married, though I successfully made my wife a baseball fan, the roster had turned over: the big bopper of the early 70s was Curt Blefary (who?), and his supporting cast included the likes of Horace Clarke, Stan Bahnsen and Jerry Kelley. I remember us arriving there on a promotional day when anyone under 14 got in free. Nancy was 22, but we thought she could pass; she put her hair in a pony tail and untucked her blouse, bought one seat, and made it past the ticket-taker before a security guard gave her the fish-eye and sent us back to the box office. But we kept going to games, though the stadium was literally disintegrating around us: one night (it was a playoff game), a light mist was falling, and we thought we'd be OK because we were in the lower deck protected by the mezzanine, but the water was channeling down the rusting girders over us and splattering on our heads like a cold shower until we gave up and left in the fifth.

Still, win or lose, the park itself -- particularly in the daytime -- had grace and majesty, a dependable thrill whenever I emerged from the ramp into the sun and saw that distinctive columned façade and that extraordinary curve (is there a mathematical name for it?) that enclosed two-thirds of the field. Anyone could have thought up Shea - just draw a circle, stick a diamond in it, and fill it with seats. Some of the newer parks like Camden Yards and Jacobs Field, at least on TV, look inviting and stylish. But none of them has the charisma of the ballpark in the Bronx.

Dave Anderson asked, in the Times last week, what's the big deal about the Stadium closing? It's not as if the team is moving to Los Angeles; they'll be at the same subway stop, a few hundred yards away, in a new Yankee Stadium that will closely resemble the old one. Granted, Dave.

But the idiosyncrasies will be gone. No more Monument Park right there on the field of play (everyone has seen film of Bobby Murcer trying to wedge himself between two stone slabs as he chases down a ball); no men's rooms with long troughs for urinals; no more wooden seats, painted blue, with just the right curve for the spine. Instead, diminished capacity because of the sky boxes, huge price increases, and of course a very iffy team in the midst of a difficult transition. No longer will a rookie outfielder trot to his position in the first inning thinking, "I'm standing where Babe Ruth stood." Instead, it will be more like "Hey, I might be the best right fielder who ever played here."

Further reading: Harvey Frommer, Remembering Yankee Stadium: An Oral and Narrative History of "The House That Ruth Built" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2008).

Richard Horwich teaches English at New York University and writes about Shakespeare, sports, and food.

Merkle's Mistake

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The Chicago Cubs defeated the New York Mets last night, 9-5, clinching home field advantage throughout the National League playoffs and damaging the Mets' playoff hopes.

This morning's New York Times reminds us of a match-up between baseball clubs from Chicago and New York that took place one hundred years ago today in the old Polo Grounds in Harlem, which also adversely affected the New York team's playoff chances.

On September 23, 1908, the New York Giants had a one-game lead over the Chicago Cubs in the standings, and their game was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth. With a man on first and two outs, nineteen-year-old Fred Merkle, the Giants' rookie first baseman, hit a single, sending the runner to third. The next batter hit a fastball over second base, a clear base hit, and the man on third scored, giving the game to the Giants. Had the ball not been hit out of the infield, Merkle could have been called out at second on a force play, but because the ball was hit out of the infield, Merkle didn't run all the way to second -- which was customary. But Johnny Evers, the Chicago second baseman, retrieved the ball, took it to second, argued that Merkle should be called out and the run nullified. The umpire at second refused to rule, but at 10:00 p.m. -- from the safety of his hotel room -- he ruled Merkle out.

 New York Giants first baseman Fred Merkle in 1908.

To make a long story short, the game was ruled a tie; the Cubs and Giants ended the regular season tied, forcing a one-game playoff -- which Chicago won. They went on to defeat the Detroit Tigers in the World Series -- and that was the last World Series the club ever won. Make of that what you will.

Merkle went on to have a respectable 14-year career, but he never really lived down his "mistake" -- which, given the conventions in use at the time, wasn't really a mistake at all.

Kevin Baker's account in the Times is more detailed and a lot more vivid. Take a look.

And you can read the Times account of the game from one hundred years ago here.

The New York Knickerbockers

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This is a week of endings for New York baseball. The Yankees played their last game at Yankee Stadium last night and will move across the street to a new stadium next year. The Mets final season at Shea Stadium also seems also to be coming to its end, though (as of today) they remain in the hunt for both the division title and, failing that, a wild card berth. But when you have to start a rookie pitcher against the National League's best team (the Chicago Cubs, who have already clinched the Central Division title) and that rookie gives up a grand slam to a pitcher; and when the governor of New York, David Patterson, jokes about the unreliability of the Mets' relief pitchers ("The Mets bullpen is gonna kill me. It's not the Fed, it's not AIG,'s the Mets bullpen.") . . . well, perhaps the handwriting is on the wall.

So it might be a good time for New York fans to find some cheer by remembering the city's association with the beginnings of the game.

One hundred-sixty-five years ago today, on September 23, 1843, a bank clerk named Alexander Joy Cartwright (1820-1892) codified the constitution and by-laws of the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. While still a member of Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 12 during the previous year, Cartwright had been playing regular games of "town ball" on a vacant lot in Manhattan. The by-laws for the New York Knickerbocker were signed by the team's Committee on By-Laws, which included Duncan Curry, the president; William Wheaton, the vice-president; and William Tucker, the secretary and treasurer. The by-laws also contained a set of 20 rules, written down by Cartwright, which were later published in pamphlet form. Many of the Knickerbockers had been members of the Gotham Base Ball Club, which had been formed in 1837, and it is thought that the Knickerbocker Club may have existed informally before its official founding moment.

Members of the New York Knickerbockers baseball team. Alexander Cartwright is in the top row, center. [Source:]

Something close to baseball was being played in the New York area since at least 1823. In 2001, George A. Thompson Jr., a research librarian at NYU, discovered two newspaper accounts of a game played in April 1823 in New York City on a site just west of Broadway between what is now Eighth Street and Washington Place (largely occupied, appropriately enough, by buildings belonging to NYU). It seems that both the National Advocate and the New-York Gazette and General Advertiser had  received the same letter from someone who had observed the game.

The Gazette summed up the letter in a paragraph that began: "We have received a communication in favor of the manly exercise of base ball." The Advocate published a longer account: "I was last Saturday much pleased in witnessing a company of active young men playing the manly and athletic game of 'base ball' at the Retreat in Broadway (Jones'). I am informed they are an organized association, and that a very interesting game will be played on Saturday next at the above place, to commence at half past 3 o'clock, P.M. Any person fond of witnessing this game may avail himself of seeing it played with consummate skill and wonderful dexterity." Thompson noted at the time that the letter contained no explanation of what "base ball" was, suggesting its author assumed that it would be familiar enough to newspaper readers.

It was Cartwright's rules, however, that ultimately distinguished "baseball," which became known as the "New York Game," from both "town ball" and another variant called "The Massachusetts Game." Cartwright's rules laid the foundation for modern baseball:three strikes to a batter, three outs to an inning, tags and force-outs in lieu of hitting a runner with a thrown ball, and the addition of an umpire. (Throwing the ball at a runner is still played in some schoolyard variants of baseball, and it's called "pegging.") The rules also established the idea of "fair" and "foul" territories; in town ball, the batter could run no matter where the ball was hit. You can find a listing of the rules in the Wikipedia entry for the New York Knickerbockers and more information about the team at

The Knickerbockers eventually began to play their games in Hoboken, New Jersey at a place called Elysian Fields. What baseball historians refer to as "the first officially recorded game" took place at Elysian Fields on June 19, 1846. Cartwright's Knickerbockers lost to the New York Nine that day, 23-1, but in the end they prevailed: the game was played according to "Knickerbocker Rules," which were then widely imitated. Their style of play ultimately proved more popular than the variant played in Massachusetts.

So you see, as my father-in-law would put it, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox come by their rivalry honestly.

Amok in Washington Square Park

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circus_amok_redline.jpgYesterday evening, my family and I went to Washington Square Park to catch Circus Amok's second show of the day. This year's show is called "Sub-Prime Sublime," and it features some of the circus's trademark set pieces: the opening on stilits; the introductory patter by director and bearded lady Jennifer Miller; juggling by "the Liberty Sisters" (Sybil, Statua, and Liberty Belle), all of whom have beards; tumbling fun; and left-liberal politics. As its title suggests, this year's show takes aim at those responsible for the lending practices and speculation that have brought the country to the brink of economic cataclysm. Indeed, givent the events of the past week, the show has probably become even more timely than it was at its first performance at the beginning of the month. Dick Cheney loomed large (as a target) in last year's show, "Bee-Dazzled," but this year the Bushies barely rate a mention, though Sarah Palin is excoriated at the conclusion of the show by a large puppet-head representing Shirley Chisolm.

This year's edition sends a blonde-wigged Dorothy (played by Michelle Matlock), who has been rendered homeless in the aftermath of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco, on a quest to visit the CERN particle accelrator in search of answers to the great mysteries of the day, accompanied by the Liberty Sisters (Miller, Carlton Ward, and Fernando Wanderley) and Harry Potter (Victor Vauban, Jr.), who's trying to escape being burned. In addition to Chisolm, the finale features a visit from R. Buckminster Fuller.

My kids, almost-eight- and four-years-old respectively, laughed hysterically at the hijinks, and the older one pronounced it better than last year's (I think he got more of the jokes).

Here's a video excerpt of the show shot by yours truly:

You can catch the show at Bedford Playground at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday; Battery Park at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. on Friday; Seward Park at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday. The final performances of this year's season take place on Sunday in Tompkins Square Park at 12:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m.

This One's for Cyrus

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Shea Stadium from Corona.jpg

Those of you who've heard Cyrus talk about growing up at the nexus of many cultures may also have heard me, on occasion, joke that Cyrus identifies, ethnically, as a Mets fan.

So I had to direct his (and your) attention today to the new Bowery Boys podcast on Shea Stadium.

Who are these Bowery Boys and how do they find the time to come up with such great material?

[/blog envy]

I don't want to repeat myself, so if you're interested, see "Unsubsumed Virtuosos and Solo Operators" on

Never count the New York Yankees out. They have history and tradition on their side, not to mention a payroll that approaches $200 million, about three times that of their opponent in the American League Division Series, the Cleveland Indians. And tonight the bats came out of hiding, and the Yankees defeated the Indians 2-1, avoiding a sweep and earning the right to play another game.

Of course, as the Yankees discovered to their chagrin early last week in Cleveland, on any given night the $65 million payroll can defeat the $200 million payroll. But the bigger budget surely helps you to survive the grind of 162 games that gets you to the postseason. And you have to admire the team for refusing to give themselves up for dead in late May, when they were 14.5 games behind the Red Sox with a 21-29 record. Eventually they started to hit — a lot. And they found some bullpen help in their own minor league system, in the form of a fireballing 22-year-old named Joba Chamberlain, whose father was born on the Winnebago reservation in Nebraska.

ny-yankee-logo.jpgYup, it’s the Yankees, not the Indians, who have a Native American on their team. Not to mention one of the most famous Japanese sluggers in Hideki Matsui and an ace pitcher (Chien-Ming Wang), who hails from Taiwain, in addition to the usual complement of nationalities and ethnicities that you can find on a major league team these days. The Yankees have emulated not only New York's emphasis on big business, but the city's cosmopolitanism as well. And so has US baseball.

I’m not a Yankee fan, though I’m not a Yankee-hater either. It's just that it's often seemed a little like rooting for Microsoft. But maybe that's what most Americans think about New York City generally.

Context is everything. I started watching baseball as a third-grader in New York in the fall of 1969, so I became a Mets fan. I’ve been one ever since, through good times, bad times, and ugly times. I’ve even held myself personally responsible for some of those ugly times (this year included), as the result of a certain bargain I made during the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. I’ve written about that on my site in a piece called “The Crypto-History of the Historic Collapse of the New York Mets.”

Nevertheless, except for rare occasions like the 1986 season, the Mets toil in the shadow of the Yankees, one of the most famous franchises in all of sports and certainly the most storied team in US baseball history. Twenty-six World Series championships; thirty-nine American League pennants. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter, A-Rod: a parade of some of the most famous names in baseball history.

So, given the way in which the history of major league baseball has been intertwined with the history of New York, why has baseball as an institution worked so hard to deny the urban roots of the professional game? George Will has described “the myth that Abner Doubleday invented the sport one fine day in 1839 in the farmer Phinney’s pasture at Cooperstown” as part of this “agreeable nonsense about baseball being an echo of our pastoral past.” Actually, writes Will, “the thing Doubleday helped begin was the Civil War. (He was stationed at Fort Sumter when the first shots were fired.) The New York Times obituary of Doubleday did not even mention baseball” (Men at Work, 294).

Until recently, baseball historians agreed that, although baseball is now believed to have evolved from the English game rounders, its modern form does have a founding moment: on June 19, 1846 a New York bank clerk named Alexander Joy Cartwright led his Knickerbocker Base Ball Club to Hoboken to play the New York Nine. The Knickerbockers lost that day, 23-1, but in the end (so the story goes) they prevailed: their elaborate rules for playing baseball were widely imitated, and their style of play ultimately proved more popular than the variant played in Massachusetts.

In fact, however, Cartwright probably did not “invent” baseball either. A box score and newspaper account from The New York Morning News describes “a friendly match of the time-honored game of Base” that was played on October 21, 1845 at the Elysian Fields “between eight members of the New York Ball Club and the same number of players from Brooklyn.” The account contains indications that something close to the modern game of baseball was being played by different groups throughout the New York area in the 1840s and that several innovations in the rules believed to have been made by Cartwright were already in use in 1845. What this discovery indicates is that baseball did not have “the clear founding moment” that most fans would like to believe it did.

Indeed, most baseball historians believe that a founding moment for the game will never be discovered because the game most likely evolved over time. The 1845 account was rediscovered in 1990 by Ted Widmer, a Harvard graduate student, who is now the director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

Eleven years later, a research librarian at NYU, George A. Thompson Jr., discovered two newspaper accounts of a game played in April 1823 in New York City on a site just west of Broadway between what is now Eighth Street and Washington Place (largely occupied, appropriately enough, by buildings belonging to NYU). It seems that both the National Advocate and the New-York Gazette and General Advertiser had had received the same letter from someone who had observed the game. The Gazette summed up the letter in a paragraph that began: “We have received a communication in favor of the manly exercise of base ball.” The Advocate published a longer account: “I was last Saturday much pleased in witnessing a company of active young men playing the manly and athletic game of ‘base ball’ at the Retreat in Broadway (Jones’). I am informed they are an organized association, and that a very interesting game will be played on Saturday next at the above place, to commence at half past 3 o’clock, P.M. Any person fond of witnessing this game may avail himself of seeing it played with consummate skill and wonderful dexterity.” Thompson noted at the time that the letter contained no explanation of what “base ball” was, suggesting its author assumed that it would be familiar enough to newspaper readers.

The association of pastoral imagery with baseball, which began with the denial of the sport’s urban origins through the substitution of Doubleday for Cartwright, continued as the nineteenth century progressed, despite the game’s clearly urban demographics: the sports historian Allen Guttmann notes that in 1897 “only three of the National League’s 168 players were from the rural South, while 31 men came from Massachusetts alone” and that the “early years of the game brought forth a disproportionate number of Irish-American and German-American city dwellers” (From Ritual to Record,100-101).

All of which leads me to ask: what does it mean that our so-called national pastime is in fact an urban rather than a pastoral game, a sport whose institutional history is intricately intertwined with the history of New York City? I’m starting to think that all that “pastoral nonsense” isn’t all that “agreeable.” It seems to me to be complicit with a kind of Americanism that gets the country involved in quagmires. Perhaps it’s time we started embracing the urban roots of the American self — and the kind of cosmopolitan vision that the urban often makes possible.

Anyway, look for some baseball in our cultural history of New York City.

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