"BASEBALL still needs to be prodded to remember that like all American institutions it carries the deep stain of bigotry, and needs to recognize it most especially on its special occasions," specifically Cal Ripken's breaking Lou Gehrig's record.
Oh, brother! I thought when I read that in a column last week by Washington pundit Thomas Oliphant of the Boston Globe. I recalled something William Buckley allegedly said to Eleanor Roosevelt, "Mrs. Roosevelt, it is not necessary to condemn racial discrimination in every conversation."
But that's Washington for you. Our own White House correspondent, Carl Cannon, complained in Perspective last month because eulogies to Mickey Mantle did not mention that Willie Mays was a better baseball player!
Oliphant wrote that shortstops John Henry Lloyd, Dick Lundy and Willie Wells were all "just as great" as Cal. But they played back when blacks were not allowed on major league teams. To atone for that, Oliphant said, the Orioles should give some money to the NAACP.
I don't know how "great" Lloyd, Lundy and Wells were, compared to Ripken or to the best shortstops of the white baseball era. Neither does anybody else.
For that matter, no one knows how the great white players of that era compare to today's players. Statistics aren't comparable. Why? Because of racism. (Now I've fallen into the Eleanor trap.)
Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in a 154-game season. Ted Williams hit .406 one year. But they did it against some pitchers who were affirmative action beneficiaries. The pitching (and the fielding) they faced in the course of a season would have been maybe 10 or 15 percent better if blacks had been allowed to play. Say 54 or 55 homers and .360 or .370?
Which brings me back to Cal Ripken. The record he set last week is comparable to the record he broke. A streak has nothing to do with the caliber of the opposition. Lou Gehrig's old record was more genuine than Ruth's or Williams' or any other record from the old whites-only days of major league baseball.
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That President Clinton came to see Cal break Gehrig's record on Wednesday was no surprise. Politicians like to associate themselves with sports figures and appear at events with built-in huge audiences.
I got to wondering if President Roosevelt went to see Lou Gehrig break the old consecutive games streak, or if he sent him a message or declared a Lou Gehrig Day when he retired, or anything like that.
I called the FDR Library at Hyde Park. Mark Renovitch searched the manuscripts and photo archives and found nothing showing FDR ever met or communicated with or thought of Gehrig.
FDR wasn't much of a fan, but he did his ceremonial and political duty by throwing out the first ball at several opening day games in Washington, back when the Senators, not the Orioles, were D.C.'s home team.