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Lies, Damned Lies, and Baseball History

Mythmaking, the truths that are not always self-evident, and the debates baseball needs to have.

President’s Race
George Washington wins a race at a Washington National’s game.
Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images

You’ve all heard the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. It’s a story that has persisted in the popular rememberings of the first President of the United States to showcase his character and exceptionalism.

You may also know that the cherry tree story, ironically, is a lie. It is the creation of Parson Weems, who wrote a flowery book about Washington the year after his death. The book was seen as a fanciful creation after its publication, but the myths surrounding the first president have persisted. Some, like the cherry tree, feel fairly benign. Others covered up less savory truths. Another popular myth is that Washington had wooden teeth. In fact, after losing most of his natural teeth, he had several sets of dentures made from the teeth of various animals as well as the real human teeth of the enslaved people he owned.

Washington is painted as the Founding Father with the best record on slavery. After all, he freed the people he enslaved in his will. However, he did not free them while he was alive, despite living in a state that allowed it. He also ruthlessly pursued enslaved people who escaped his possession. Giving him wooden teeth rather than the teeth of the enslaved is part of a process that helps to obscure anything that doesn’t scaffold Washington’s mythology.

These myths serve a purpose, even when they feel benign. They reflect not what is factually true, but what we want to believe is true. The fawning over Washington in American history and American culture is so intense that reading something even remotely critical of him feels like a blasphemous rejection of American orthodoxy.

And so it is in baseball and in baseball history. More than any other sport, baseball reveres its past. But the baseball history the baseball establishment sells is built around a specific framework and its intentions are distinctly political. When the Baseball Hall of Fame opened in 1939, just before World War II broke out in Europe, the proprietors of the museum latched onto a tidy myth about the origins of the game. Abner Doubleday, a major general in the Union army during the Civil War, was said to have invented baseball in a cow pasture in Cooperstown, New York a century earlier. The Doubleday story isn’t true; it had been disproved by baseball historians even before the Hall opened. Yet, like the story of George Washington cutting down a cherry tree, it persisted because it told a convenient, appealing story.

An alternate story, that Alexander Cartwright invented the game in Hoboken, New Jersey, also circulated. That has far more basis in fact, but it also obscures the truth that the game of baseball’s invention was less an event and more a nebulous confluence of various bat and ball games. Organized baseball had already opted to latch onto the mythical tropes of Americana and so it needed a definite origin story with a definite inventor, a Commander in Chief of baseball, to set its course and define its history as distinctly and exceptionally American.

The institution of baseball purposely sought to frame and distribute this type of history. It built up baseball as a reflection of the best of the United States, crafted from a warm nostalgia. It played well during the isolationist leadup to US involvement in WW2. It was embraced and celebrated during the conformity of the post-war and Cold War eras. And it found a new foothold in the post-9/11 world of demonstrative patriotism.

It’s a history that celebrates Jackie Robinson integrating the major leagues while ignoring the very real damage plundering players from the Negro Leagues did to Black baseball and the opportunities for Black people in the game. It’s a history so ingrained that, without a second thought, tributes to Henry Aaron by white sportswriters and athletes asserted that he ignored hatred and wasn’t angry about the treatment he received. It’s a history that puts the onus on athletes like Robinson and Aaron to brush off mistreatment and abuse, rather than a history that forces the perpetrators of the mistreatment and abuse to reckon with their actions and the legacy of their denial.

Like American history, baseball history strives to uphold a white male power structure. When public opinion turned enough against segregation, baseball slowly integrated. But rather than address the racism of the past, baseball history was written to elevate the white men who led the effort. Rather than acknowledge that deserving human beings were purposely kept out, baseball history focused on the behavior of Black athletes, telling us, “He was successful because he kept quiet and ignored hatred. This guy, on the other hand, was not successful because he kept complaining about the racism we dumped upon him and so we had no choice but to keep him out.”

I can hear some of you asking, “Who cares about history? It already happened. What matters is what we do now.” Yes, history is in the past and we can only change the way we behave now. But history is what has laid the groundwork for how we perceive ourselves and our place in the world. It lays the groundwork for who has access to certain positions. It both creates obstacles, and removes them. You may not be a student of history, you may have slept through every one of your history classes in school, but you have absorbed the lessons of history that you were meant to absorb.

So here we find ourselves in early 2021. When the baseball discourse this year wasn’t focused on the slow-to-get-Hot Stove, it was focused on the Hall of Fame voting, particularly the candidacy of Curt Schilling and the character clause in the voting instructions. Schilling has been vocally racist, misogynistic, transphobic, and encouraging of white supremacist violence. He was also a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher. He was once beloved by baseball fans, as much for his pitching talent as for his embrace of baseball history. He collected memorabilia and possessed a knowledge of baseball history that few players did. It endeared him to anyone who was prone to being swept up in the tide of specific nostalgia that baseball peddles.

Schilling is a perfect symbol of the attachment to mythology that baseball has. He echoed baseball’s reverence of its past with his embrace of baseball history. He created an instant legend with his bloody sock. If not universally beloved, he was well-regarded when his playing days were over. His public perception took a sharp turn when he publicly aligned himself with white supremacist causes and he has been at the center of debates in baseball ever since.

A popular argument regarding Hall of Fame voting and the character clause is that Hall of Fame voters shouldn’t be making that type of judgment. They are baseball writers, not moral philosophy scholars. On a broader scale, however, these (mostly white male) voters are already making those types of judgments every time they write about baseball. It comes through in the language they use to describe players. It’s evident in the way they discuss off-field problems. They are trusted and widely read. They are establishing an historical record. If it’s true that Hall of Fame voters were asking to change their votes for Schilling after January 6th, it’s just emblematic that the people (again, mostly white men) writing our history truly don’t understand that their words have consequences.

Also in the discourse this offseason are the stories that have broken about men in baseball abusing the power over women that history has given them. Jared Porter, the now-former New York Mets general manager, harassed a woman reporter, who was from a different country and still learning English, with hounding texts and unsolicited, lewd pictures. Mickey Callaway, the Angels’ current pitching coach, was an open secret throughout baseball for his harassment of women reporters. Just today, we learned the Mets fired another coach, Ryan Ellis, after several reports of sexual harassment were filed against him three years ago. In each of these instances there were people with power in baseball who knew about the harassment and did nothing to stop it and nothing to hold the men responsible until their actions became the subject of national stories. They did not find it egregious enough for consequences, because to them, it wasn’t the sort of behavior that demanded consequences.

These are, of course, just a few examples of the issues that the baseball world is grappling with. These are just a few of the problems that have been allowed to putrefy for too long. While baseball has been tidily building its neat nostalgia, people held outside its history have been lobbing the truth at its walls. There are Twitter wars and screaming matches in the comment sections of articles over the truths and perceptions of who baseball admits to its power club. When the truth of your life and existence is so different from the polished mythology that baseball pushes, it can feel like you’re yelling at the rain.

The concept of truth is tricky. Our perception of what is true changes based on our life experiences, the books we have read, and the people we have talked to. It changes as we change. It morphs to mold our perception of reality. The version of the truth that we accept and believe is a direct reflection of our values, morals, and ethics, as well as our self-interest.

The lie, on the other hand, seems like it should be more straightforward. But the lie knows how to camouflage itself. It is a deliberate misrepresentation that cloaks itself in half-truths and bigger ideas. It tells a story, not to make us better, but to manipulate us.

For all the talk lately about being on the right side of history, it’s impossible to know for sure how people in the far-off future will interpret our current lives and history making. All we can do is seek and speak the truth as we know it today. In writing our history, we are laying the groundwork for how people perceive themselves now, and in the near future. This is why it matters what’s being written and debated now. When nationally known and widely-read writers cover Trevor Bauer and downplay his online harassment as “controversial” and link to information about the women he harassed online, it matters now because it puts the women who were already harmed at risk of more harm, and it downplays the seriousness of Bauer’s harassment by telling a large audience that the truth of his behavior isn’t self-evident. It matters in the future because it establishes the behavior we accept from people in a position of power. It matters because the historical record is being written now. It should not be written with lies.

The task of writing history and the consequences it brings is intimidating. It should be intimidating. Many writers don’t seem to realize that, whether they want to or not, they are making a choice that will reverberate. Ultimately the Hall of Fame character clause isn’t really about whether a player is a “good” person, however that is defined. It’s about whether the inclusion of that player is good for baseball’s mythology.

The history we choose to believe is often written by those with the power and the influence to make us believe it’s true. We can shift the balance of power by listening to and accepting the truths in the versions of history told by people who have not had that power before. This is why accepting contradictions to the history we’ve been taught is so hard. It isn’t just because our truths are challenged, but because it shifts the balance of power. The more voices and truths we accept, the more evenly the power is spread.

That is where the resistance to change lies. The myths of American history were built to support white male power. The myths in baseball do the same. To challenge those myths is to disrupt the entire foundation.

Today, spring training begins. After a year of living through a pandemic and a year of boiling politics, the game of baseball is a welcome break in the storms. It’s a sense of normalcy and joy and a reminder of a simpler time. It’s a holy holiday in the religion of baseball.

As the players take the field, Mickey Callaway will also be there, coaching the Angels pitchers. In Seattle, Kevin Mather is still the President and CEO of the Mariners. You may remember that he, along with former Executive Vice President Bob Aylward, and former President Chuck Armstrong were all credibly accused of “inappropriate workplace conduct.” None of them lost their jobs over it, and Mather was promoted. The incidents were reported in the Seattle Times in 2018, but they occurred nearly a decade earlier. Mather has reaped the benefits of sexually harassing women before the Me Too movement took off, and has avoided any sort of reckoning in the years since.

This offseason, stories have come out and the public platforms of social media have exposed many egregious things happening in baseball. They reflect baseball’s history, and its stubbornness in clinging to the structures and dynamics that have always defined it.

Throughout its history baseball has wrung its hands and worried that its existence is being threatened. Where it was once gambling, it was later steroids. It has been the draw of faster, Blacker sports, like the NBA and the NFL. It has been “kids these days!” who don’t appreciate the traditions of yore. These worries have all been excuses to cover up that, in a changing world, baseball fears changing its power structure more than its demise.

And so we debate and argue and yell. We have to. We are choosing what we accept as valid truths today. We are debating and discussing and discoursing to decide the way our history will be presented. We are choosing the stories that lay the groundwork for how we understand the present. It’s messy work; the myths we are peeling away from the facts have been entrenched for too long and they are stubborn against our efforts.

Baseball is changing and the power establishment is going to fight it. But we owe it to baseball now, and baseball in the future, to accept new truths and to shape a history that bears the truth about the people who live it. We can reclaim baseball as a game that reflects the best of us, and a game that shows the rest of the country what’s possible.

The strife among baseball fans, writers, executives, and players will decide who is welcome into the baseball world and who baseball is for. The conflicts are working to strip baseball of its mythological veneer and rebuild it around the truths we want it to represent.

Today, spring training begins and baseball fans who are tired of the politics will express relief that we can finally focus on baseball on the field. But the most important battles in baseball are not for roster spots.

These are debates baseball must have now. The outcome will decide what—and whose—history we hallow.