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I remember two boys from the 1950s.
The first of them took the subway out to Ebbets Field as often as he could to see “his” team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. (When in the grandstands with his friends, he thought there was nothing funnier than to yell “Beer here!” as the fellow selling brew walked by — and then duck fast.) So many years later, I think he could still name the nine Dodger starters of that time from Roy Campanella behind the plate and Jackie Robinson at second base to right fielder Carl Furillo (known as “the Reading rifle” for his throwing arm). He’d probably put either Don Newcombe or Sandy Koufax on the mound. And in center field, of course, was the Duke (Duke Snider) who hit at least 40 home runs five years in a row, a record only otherwise reached in that century by Babe Ruth and Ralph Kiner. In 1957, he hit two in his final game in Brooklyn as his team prepared to head for the West Coast and become the Los Angeles Dodgers (the rats!).
The other little boy of those years spent time ducking and covering under his desk preparing for an event he only half-grasped, the potential nuclear destruction of his hometown, New York City, by our mortal Cold War enemy, the Russians. He went to the movies to see atomically irradiated giant ants invade Los Angeles (Them!), space ships destroying whole planets (This Island Earth), and this world being turned into an atomic wasteland (On the Beach). He read post-apocalyptic novels like A Canticle for Leibowitz. Asleep at night, he dreamed about nuclear explosions and felt the heat of destruction broil his body. He read with a certain fascination about what Americans who had built their very own personal bomb shelters might do if the neighbors tried to squeeze in when facing impending nuclear doom. (Shoot ’em!)
Of course, that “he” was me. In the terms TomDispatch regular, author of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland, and former New York Times sports columnist Robert Lipsyte lays out today, those were my own two versions of the Big Bang. More than half a century later, strangely enough, I’ve disarmed one of them. (I no longer watch my formerly favorite team, the Mets.). The other, unfortunately, the potential nuking of this planet, I can’t do much about. I only wish I could. But as baseball’s World Series approaches, along with a world series of nightmares from hell in Ukraine, let Lipsyte tell you more. Tom
How the Four-Bagger Leads to the Real Thing
The time has come to ban The Bomb.
Of course, all those nuclear ones in the arsenals of the “great” powers, but — since I’m a sportswriter by trade — let’s start with the home run. Call it a four-bagger, a dinger, a moon shot, or (in my childhood) a Ballantine blast for the beer that sponsored so much baseball. One thing is certain, though: the dream of the game-changing home run has shaped our approach to so much, from sports to geopolitics. Most significantly, it’s damaged our ability to solve problems through reason and diplomacy.
So, consider banning both The Bomb and the home run as the first crucial steps toward a safer, more peaceful world.
For 102 years now, since Babe Ruth first joined the Yankees, we’ve been heading for this moment when a frustrated American lunatic might potentially try to take this country hostage by threatening violent civil war, while a frustrated Russian lunatic tries to take the world hostage by threatening to annihilate it.
Saving both the country and the world by disarming the lunatics can only be accomplished via the careful little steps that no longer seem to be a priority either in the playbooks of baseball or in the arsenals of liberal democracy. Over the past decades, they’ve largely been discarded in favor of the idea of the big bang, be it for deterrence, intimidation, or, in two horrendous moments in 1945, actual big bangs that created the politics of mutually assured destruction as a forever possibility.
How did that happen? In sports, blame it on baseball, which gave up much of its original artistry for the triumphal explosion that now overrides all else, potentially wiping out both past mistakes and future hopes. To set a proper example, the home run should be cancelled if the world is to be saved.
It’s easy enough. Just change the rulebooks so that a ball hit out of the park doesn’t count. It’s not even a ball or a strike, just a nothing, another missing baseball. Get over it.
Getting rid of the home run will be a particularly hard sell in the glow of the round-tripper renaissance born by the extraordinary season of the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge. It unfolded, handily enough, as the specters of both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin haunted the non-sports networks. By hitting 62 home runs in a single season, an American League record, Judge brought back the shock-and-awe thrill of it all in a creamy cloud of nostalgia that has briefly obscured the terror of the real bombs.
Judge’s record season also managed to obscure for the moment just how tawdry the very idea of a home-run record had become. After all, the major league home-run record is now 73, set in 2001 by Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants. Until Judge came along, that record, like Bonds himself, had been mired in a Trumpian or Putinesque sports version of disgrace and disgust, though ascribing sane motives to Bonds is far easier than to Trump or Putin, because Bonds is no lunatic.
In fact, he was a truly great player, apparently so maddened by the ascendence of rival hitters seemingly on performance-enhancing drugs that he, too, may have reached for chemical help. The runner-ups to him for the single-season record, Mark McGwire (70 dingers in 1998) and Sammy Sosa (66 in 1998), were also linked to steroid use.
Ironically, it was in 1998, a year stained by the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, that the McGwire-Sosa home run rivalry was credited with diverting the nation from the shame of the White House — and it could only do so because home-run records held such powerful magic.
The record for ultimate power without drugs demands respect. In that sense, the most impressive previous one was set at 61 in 1961 by Roger Maris. He was a Yankees outfielder and a thoughtful, decent player without much flair. Despite all those homers, he was no Bombardier, especially because he was playing alongside a charismatic superstar, Mickey Mantle, whom fans had long hoped would supplant the until-then ultimate record of that ur-superstar Babe Ruth. Maris was never quite accepted as such after he broke Ruth’s 1927 60-homer mark.
Enter The Babe
In his time (and for decades thereafter), the Babe was Mr. Baseball and, in some ways, Mr. America, too, the very symbol of this country’s emerging power after World War I. His style of play — Bam! — was the one our leaders began to see themselves bringing to global dynamics. He was the face of the Roaring Twenties (unless you’d prefer that flying fascist Charles Lindbergh or that gangster-in-chief Al Capone).
Ruth had been a sensation, a metaphor for appetite, celebrity, food, sex, and victory. In 1920, his first year with the New York Yankees, the 25-year-old Ruth hit what was then a nearly inconceivable number of home runs: 54. Until that moment, 15 or so homers were usually enough to win the home-run title. An exception was 1919 when Ruth, then still a Boston Red Sox pitcher, hit 29.
The Babe appeared at a propitious moment for baseball. His achievements counteracted the negative effects of what came to be known as the Black Sox scandal in which members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in a gambling scheme. There was gloom and soul searching. The national pastime fixed? The nation corrupted?
At least in the mythology of baseball, the emergence of Babe Ruth and the Yankees was credited with helping save the game itself and perhaps the pride of the nation as well. Through sheer power! Bam!
The Yankees would, in fact, get into the World Series in six of the next eight seasons as they developed into baseball’s powerhouse franchise. With all those homers in mind, they would come to be known as the Bronx Bombers. The United States went on to swing its own big bats in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan in 2001 and the Persian Gulf again in 2003, all en route to becoming, at least in the minds of its leaders and the Washington foreign-policy crew, the world’s leading superpower.
Time out. Are you finding this hyperbolic or, given the nature of baseball, not serious enough to put on the same page with those endless wars or the once all-American weaponry that has now become Vladimir Putin’s threat to the world? Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Barry Bonds a key to our future? Not likely, huh? Well, just hang on to my theory that we’re in thrall to The Bomb (or do I mean enthralled by it?) and that, to survive, we’d better begin disarming — and keep reading.
Enter Aaron Judge
Enter Aaron Judge, a large, friendly, humble 30-year-old, an accomplished all-round player who’s considered “clean” or steroid-free.
On October 4th, in Toronto, in the first inning of the next-to-last game of the 2022 regular season, Judge, to his great relief and that of so many fans, hammered number 62. Mission accomplished! (Sadly, an apt enough phrase, given the way President George W. Bush featured it in reference to his 2003 invasion of Iraq — only to later regret it for obvious reasons and have it used again in 2018 by Donald Trump in reference to Syria, where U.S. troops remain to this day.)
At that moment, there was a new Bomber-in-Chief and might makes right was reaffirmed. No other sport, in fact, ever reinvented itself so thoroughly by focusing on one act — although football came close in 1906 when it legalized the forward pass. That, however, was an attempt to open up the game to prevent so many injuries from the brutal mass collisions of what was then essentially a rushing game. The year before, 19 young men had died and 159 had been seriously injured. President Theodore Roosevelt, a famous proponent of that supposedly manly game, demanded reforms to save it. The casualty rate soon dropped, but how well that all came out remains open to doubt, since the issue of traumatic brain injuries continues to plague football.
While football and baseball both became more dramatically exciting with their big bangs, in the process, baseball lost its brainy chess-like quality. Instead of eking out runs using cunning tactics like the sacrifice bunt, the hit-and-run play, or the delayed steal — all now categorized, whether nostalgically or derisively, as “small ball” — managers came to depend on their sluggers to muscle their way to victory, often at the last minute. As time went on and football, with its dramatic brutality, also often heightened at the last minute, became the dominant sport, the home run only gained more value as one of the best ways to lure in younger fans.
Power Is Sexy
The home run was once justified by the Nike slogan “Chicks dig the long ball,” a variant perhaps of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
Trump and Putin, like most long-ball hitters (although not Aaron Judge), tend to strike out all too often and be forgiven for it because their fans believe that they’ll soon turn it all around with a home run. No wonder the term home run has become synonymous with having done the best job possible, nailing the deal, case, or diagnosis. In truth, the home run should have become the symbol of the quick fix that may not hold, the brass ring that diverts us from the pleasure of the process, the big club created to intimidate opponents into submission that so often turns them into resentful insurgents.
Which is where we are now. The Russians are in the deep muddy exactly because the Ukrainians knew how to play small ball. They found that they could take a hit-and-run approach with those Russian tanks on the outskirts of Kyiv as effectively as the Vietcong ever did with American ones (and you may remember who won that war).
At the same time, Trump’s Republicans and Putin’s Russians have depended on the long ball. The January 6th insurgency was an attempted walk-off blast to drive home the Big Lie that Trump had really won the election. Had it succeeded, he would have been an autocrat by coup. It was, however, thwarted by small ball: the incredible courage and discipline of the police and the defense of the nation by Democrats through the democratic process.
The invasion of Ukraine and the attempted seizure of its capital, Kyiv, ostensibly to save it from Western aggression as well as “militarism and Nazification,” was Putin’s shot at a home-run-style putsch. He had envisioned his invasion as a triumphant blitzkrieg ending in a quick Russian victory. The duration, relentlessness, and success of the Ukrainian response surprised the world, especially America, which (in its version of finesse) then used sanctions and military aid to support that beleaguered country.
The struggle continues as the Trump team threatens bloodshed in the streets and civil war if their criminal goals are legally blocked. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin continues to threaten an all-too-literal big-bang response to Ukrainian battlefield successes via his country’s vast arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons stationed just offstage — with the fear of escalation into full-scale mushroom clouds and, as our president put it, “Armageddon” lurking in our future.
Talk about a potential Big Bang!
What Can We Do?
Getting out the vote, especially in this time of voter suppression, requires small ball in its most passionate and precise form. Small ball was always about hard work, discipline, and dedication. Think of non-violent demonstrations during the Civil Rights era. So, practice your political version of the sacrifice bunt, while making sure that everyone is on the team, knows the play, and turns out.
Far be it from me to advise the Ukrainians, especially in the arts of the hit-and-run and the sacrifice. Material aid and back-channel diplomacy are, however, also examples of small ball in their way, but the terror of the Big Bang still looms over everything.
Admittedly, metaphor seems shallow and easy when so many lives are at stake, but at least when it comes to baseball, if not this planet, it would indeed be possible to ban the bomb and return to a sports version of a small-ball world. Unfortunately, sports rules don’t work globally, so banning the real bomb seems all too unlikely.
If we could do that, though, you could let the home run stay and who would care?
But, alas, what’s happening on this planet isn’t a game after all.
Copyright 2022 Robert Lipsyte