On Harper/Gossage: Rethinking Baseball’s Cultural Roots

Featured Image: Goose Gossage and Thurman Munson after winning the American League Championship Series on Oct. 7, 1978. | (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Modern Pastime

The scene after Bryce Harper was hit by a pitch from Braves pitcher Julio Teheran, August 6, 2013. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

I know, I know. You’re a little late on the whole Harper-Gossage thing, Tapley. In my defense, I’ve been talking myself out of writing this piece for about a week. But eventually, words write themselves.

Here’s the thing: I can relate to this argument from both sides. You’ll discover I have some clear convictions about this discussion, but I want establish common ground with the Gossage argument and the Harper argument first. Bear with me. I’ll argue at the end that we’re forgetting to consider inclusiveness and elitism in this argument about Baseball’s cultural identity.

Let me pepper in here in the early goings that Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper and John Manuel had a nice discussion about this issue in their podcast from March 10th. Find it here.

The Gossage approach: Baseball has a rich history that warrants respect, and celebrating is tacky and disrespectful.

Goose_Gossage

Gossage and a Goose on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1980. Photo Credit Unknown.

Let’s take the first half of that statement first, which is of course just my own paraphrasing of Gossage’s arguments. This sentiment is wrapped up in a nostalgia that feels unique to baseball. There is almost a brand of Nationalism for baseball; the game is wrapped up in the coming of age of the United States, after all. For better and for worse.

I’m sympathetic to these feelings. If you can watch the Ken Burns Baseball documentary and not feel stirred, then we are different kinds of fans (which is fine, by the way). I find there to be great warmth in romanticizing the lore of baseball history. I have no intention of criticizing the practice.

But let’s not over do it. The history of baseball isn’t without its flaws, even if we look only at the way the players have historically behaved. There’s been rampant gambling and corruption. There’s been cheating on large, covert scales, and on creative, ball doctoring scales and the like. There has been the unnecessary threats of treacherous flying spikes, the still pervasive threat of batters getting plunked at the behest of a perturbed pitcher, absurdly abusive treatment of umpires, and so on.

You may disagree that what I listed above are examples of wholly bad, undesirable norms in a sport. That’s ok; we may be different in our assessment.

You may notice that I haven’t mentioned anything about the whole color line thing. That’s ok too; I’m getting there.

Suffice it to say, it is an unreasonable stance to suggest that we should keep doing things like they were done in the past for sake of tradition alone. For one, not everything about the game’s past is desirable. There is good stuff and there is bad stuff, and the deciphering is on us. “Preserving the game’s past” as an argument is bunk also, because of a fundamental lack of specifics. The game has been so different in different eras. Do we want players to conduct themselves like the players circa the civil war, during Ty Cobb’s time, during The Babe’s, during the colorful 60’s and 70’s, the height of the steroid era? What gives? Which unwritten rules should we be reading up on?

Ok. Nostalgia and affection for baseball through remembering our Game’s lineage is good. But defending your preference for how baseball should look in 2016 by declaring “that’s how the game was and should be played,” is…. lacking a little umph when you get right down to it.

What about the second part of the Gossage argument, that celebrating in baseball is tacky and disrespectful? Well, it certainly can be. I for one see a big difference between wearing excitement and fun on your sleeve versus the machismo that so often manifests in sports. I’m talking about dancing when you score a touchdown versus dunking on someone and hovering over the defender on the ground. Fist pumping and beating your chest on the mound versus hitting a bomb and staring down the pitcher as you circle the bases. There’s self- and we-directed triumph, and there is you- and them-directed gloating.

Let me transition to Harper’s argument to further this point.

The Harper Approach: baseball is tired and players can’t express themselves.

bryce harper chocolate

Reigning NL MVP Harper after getting chocolate sauced. Photo Credit: Nick Wass/AP

Gossage accuses Harper of not knowing anything about the game. That’s nonsense. For one, Bryce has been in baseball essentially his whole life. He’s also reputed to be a student of the game’s history, for what it’s worth. And I’d ask Goose Gossage what exactly it is that makes his credentials so unquestionable, beyond just being older? Did he play in some yesteryear era beyond what we are aware? No, his playing time was limited to his era, as is the case with Harper. Gossage’s patronizingly condescending tone is undeserved. He’s not so special.

That being said, neither is Bryce Harper especially ordained to explain the social ecosystem of MLB just because he is an outstanding player that has apparently studied the careers of some gritty Pete Rose types.

Harper says baseball players can’t express themselves. Unwritten rules keep players from feeling free to be their more vibrant selves, he suggests. It’s safe to infer that Harper is talking about (a) the culture that looks down on celebrating, and (b) the practice of plunking players for acting too excited about an on-field accomplishment. He thinks both are lame, tired, and bad for the game.

Before I fully agree with point ‘b,’ let me just say that point ‘a’ is almost certainly overblown. MLB players do express themselves. Teammates celebrate, sometimes with little rituals. Pitchers do get jacked up on adrenaline and show it, and some even have signature gestures. Batters don’t go to great pains to get out of the box quickly when they know they’ve just hit one deep.

I have no doubt that there are strong clubhouse voices badmouthing these practices. Baseball is inclusive of that voice as a significant part of its culture. Bryce Harper seems to be very annoyed by that voice.

I will get all defensive about Bryce Harper’s right to not get thrown at just because he pimped a home run a little bit, or because his intensity rubbed someone the wrong way.

I’m not going to get all defensive of Bryce Harper’s right to not be annoyed by critical voices in the clubhouse. People are entitled to their opinions, after all.

For instance, I think that some of the celebrating found in other sports that many baseball writers seem to be eagerly expressing a progressive support for is over-the-top pageantry. It isn’t a turn-on for me. I don’t ascribe any “you’re a bad human-ness” to players who engage in WWE-style crowd pleasers out there. I just think it’s lame.

And that’s fine!!! It’s ok if there are things happening on the baseball field that aren’t my cup of tea. Because here’s the thing:

Baseball began as an American pastime. It must be an inclusive melting pot if it is to continue to reflect that.

This is the important point that has been lacking from nearly all of the conversations I’ve encountered on this Harper/Gossage thing. This really isn’t about the Old Guard vs. the New Guard. It’s about inclusiveness, and the accidental embracing of a myth.

Modern Pastime Goose Gossage Bryce Harper

Roberto Clemente receives the ball he hit for No. 3,000. Bettmann/CORBIS

The “unwritten rules” of baseball were conceived by a group of men that was non-representative of what baseball was, even at the time. The baseball culture so many devoutly uphold is the work of a league that excluded people of color. The culture of the Negro Leagues did not have its due influence on these unwritten rules. You don’t have to dig very deep into the annals of those leagues to find a wealth of stories recounting vibrant players who were certainly unencumbered by any stuffiness that was taking root among baseball’s exclusionary elite. The dominant American culture of the time had a monopoly on what we are still referring to as the culture of The Game. But Baseball has been about much more than its European immigrant roots for going on 100 years now. You can still see the differences of those segregated baseball cultures today. Go watch a black sandlot league game. Better yet, join a league. Argue that I’m wrong if you can.

Further, baseball has spread its wings with wonderful success since the navigation of the game’s culture was laid upon by only a select few. Latin American baseball is thriving, and has been for some time. The culture of baseball in, say, Nicaragua may not be untouched by that of the United States, but it is certainly possessing of its own mojo. The game in Asia is of less pertinence to this conversation right now, but even that is changing. The culture there is leaps and bounds from our norms.

The point is this: Baseball is not a thing of political borders. It is not a thing of an official language. It is a beautiful game, which by the virtue of its beauty has spread far and wide. A great diverse array of baseball cultures have matured over time, and each one is something to be grateful for if you truly love baseball.

Inclusiveness of all of these baseball cultures in MLB is good for The Game. If you disagree, well, then we are different kinds of fans. I can accept that.

An argument that I can’t bring myself to validate though, is that the cultural roots of the European immigrant brand of baseball in the U.S. should carry greater weight than that which grew up in the Negro Leagues, or which has developed in many corners of Latin America.

All of these cultures are The Game.

These ‘unwritten rules’ that we keep lamenting and defending are only part of the picture in the first place. Let’s stop leaving that out of this conversation, lest we continue to accidentally perpetuate an unfortunate myth.

Modern Pastime

A detail from Robert Thom’s painting depicting Babe Ruth’s “Called Shot” in the 1932 World Series, is part of the Hall of Fame’s collection of artwork. B-325.76A (National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Modern Pastime

The vibrant Satchel Paige’s high leg kick. Photo Credit Unknown.

Modern Pastime

Pedro Martinez early in his career. Photo Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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