Friday, October 12, 2007

The Really Deep Questions

Tonight was one of those nights where I ended up having to work late. One of the downsides to having to take the train out to Long Island from Penn Station is that like tonight, the train is filled with loud, beer soaked sports fans.

This evening, the train was filled with New York Rangers hockey fans on their way home from a Rangers game at the nearby Madison Square Garden. It was quite obvious because many of them were wearing their New York Rangers jerseys.

While I was sitting in an aisle seat with a solitary Rangers fan occupying the window seat to my left, trying to read a book I had purchased a couple of nights earlier (more on that in another post), I couldn't help but overhear two men standing near the open area near car doors the front of the car who were having one of those alcohol fueled arguments about sports trivia.

The question one posed to the other was "Who is the greatest baseball player of all time?" The one man, whose voice was slightly slurred, declared "The greatest player of all time, and you will never convince me otherwise, was Babe Ruth." He started to list "the Babe's" accomplishments in support of his assertion. I will call this man Bud. The other man, who I discovered upon turning around was an African-American man with a sort of spiked afro and with big, bulging brown eyes, who I will call for no particular reason Leon, pitched his case for his choice, Willie Mays.

The two men went back and forth at each other, pausing for brief moments to enlist anyone who happened to be sitting or standing near them to offer their opinions as to which one of them was right. When I looked back at one point, I made eye contact with Leon as he called out "Does anybody else want to contribute to this discussion?"

Now, I have to confess that unusual for most guys, I care very little about professional sports. Throughout my childhood and into my late teens I was a big baseball fan, rooting for the Mets during my younger years, and then becoming a Yankees fan later on. I was also big into collecting baseball cards. But by the time I reached college, my interest in sports started to fade. To be quite honest, it all started to seem so silly for me. I asked myself, "why should I care which team won the World Series or the Stanley Cup or the Super Bowl? The world was not made a better place depending on which team won." I no longer read the sports sections of the newspapers and I stopped watching games. After a while, so much time had elapsed that many players that I had admired while growing up were either past their prime or retired and I knew little about the new crop of players, unless they were well known athletes like Derek Jeter.

But while Bud and Leon were arguing over whether Babe Ruth or Willie Mays were better baseball players, I recalled something I had read several years earlier in a column by Newsday's resident angry black man columnist, Les Payne. My memory is a bit hazy, but I think it was about Mark McGuire, who had set the record for the time for the most home runs in a single season. Apparently, some critics were arguing that McGuire should get an asterisk next to his home run total for the year, either because of the steroid controversy or because it took him more games to reach the record than Ruth had played. Payne argued that it was Babe Ruth who should have the asterisk next to his name because the Major Leagues that Ruth played in was a segregated institution. Babe Ruth never had to go to bat against African-American pitchers from the Negro Leagues. Though I often found myself in disagreement with Les Payne's opinions, I felt he did make a very valid point. If the Major Leagues were integrated during Babe Ruth's time, would Babe Ruth have hit as many home runs as he did if he had to take the plate facing the best pitchers that the Negro Leagues had to offer?

So, when Leon asked his question, I raised my head to get his attention and said "Babe Ruth never had to bat against black pitchers!"

Leon said "That's right. Thank you. I was thinking about that too but I didn't want to raise it," clearly inferring that because he was black, it would have been seen as playing the race card, whereas a white man such as myself raising the issue could be seen as being more objective.

Bud, who was standing in the aisle a couple of rows ahead of me, turned around to face me. He started to say to me about how many games Babe Ruth won as a pitcher for the Red Sox and that Willie Mays never pitched a game. But I repeated my point that Babe Ruth played during an era when major league baseball was segregated. I also added, as did several other passengers, that it was silly to compare Willie Mays to Babe Ruth because they played in different times against different people.

With that, I had nothing more to add to the conversation and returned to reading my book. The Babe Ruth/Willie Mays debate tapered off and Bud and Leon changed the subject to some obscure trivia question. Still, I couldn't help but be amused at how some people can become so passionate and animated in debating trivial questions such as whether one baseball player was better than another. Part of me thinks that with all of the truly important things going on in the world that people should be paying to, talking about, reading about, and watching professional sports is an unhealthy distraction. Then again, maybe it is precisely because the world is full of so many problems that a lot of people follow sports so passionately. The problems will always be there regardless, so why not shut it all out and take pleasure in rooting for the home team?


Harry Nads said...

Imagine if the question posed was "whose God is better... Christians or Muslims." You would have been lucky to get out of there alive.

Back to your topic- I have heard many discussing that same question. I am a sports geek and I feel the same way as you (and many others) in that you cannot compare players of different eras. Just like you cannot compare football teams of different eras (ie 1970's Steelers, 1980's 49ers, 1990's Cowboys, 2000's Patriots.)

chooseDoubt said...

Always hated sports (boring) and thought the way people get so emotional about them is just pure madness. Nice article Tommy. You've inspired me to write one of my own about football.

Baconeater said...

Babe Ruth didn't play against any Dominicans or blacks. If I played in a league that only had Jewish atheists in it, I might have had records just as good as Babe's.

Baconeater said...

The black pitcher argument isn't very good though. There aren't too many great black pitchers or even good black pitchers. But have blacks and Dominicans in the field would have made it harder for Babe to get a good batting average which allowed him to swing for the fences more. The big question is how would Willie Mays or Henry Aaron have done in the same era if either were the only black guy playing at the same time as Babe. Chances are they would have done better.
As far as pitching goes, the pitchers are much better today than they were back then. It is more of a science than it was, and I'm not sure but I think they have developed or refined more types of pitches.
Oh, and I stopped following baseball, same with hockey, in 1990 pretty much. I love the NFL though.

Tommykey said...

Thanks for the input BEAJ.

To be honest, apart from Satchell Paige, I don't recall the names of any other pitchers from the Negro Leagues who were picked up by the Majors.