Eyes on the Prizes

I confess. I'm not really in the mood to review 2023 baseball. Watching the games themselves was the usual mad fun, but watching the business around them was as disheartening as I've experienced in a lifetime with the game.

Somehow, some way, not even Commissioner Pepperwinkle's tinkering and tailoring could keep the games themselves from providing what baseball customarily provides. Not even the pitch clock, which Pepperwinkle now wants to squeeze even tighter no matter the havoc wreaked upon pitchers already risking their health with hard throwing first and hard thinking as a near-afterthought.

Not even the continuing free cookie on second base to open extra half-innings. Not even the disgraceful continuing lack of umpire accountability. Not even (almost) his shameful pass handed the Athletics' capricious owner to bolt for Las Vegas after trying and failing to hold Oakland up for a brand-new real estate supersite that might just so happen to have a publicly paid for ballpark in there somewhere. Not even Pepperwinkle's deafening silence when the Orioles silenced a broadcaster whose only crime was discussing a comparative stat the team itself provided him to discuss.

Not even the circus into which Shohei Ohtani's free agency was turned before he signed with the Dodgers, or the braying by assorted social mediacrities that, in essence, it's better to throw things at the big bad Dodgers than to throw things such as a salary floor at the indifferent ownerships who continue allowing allegedly-underendowed teams to just sit back and take it. Or (we're talking about you, Angel fans) things such as compelling those who came to baseball as marketers away from building teams by box office appeal first and baseball cohesion as almost an afterthought.

And, not even a postseason entry system that enabled the Show's eighth-best team to meet and beat its 12th-best team in a World Series that turned out to be more engaging than you'd think to expect from a five-game set that followed a pair of seven-game League Championship Series thrillers. (Try this one on for size: the champion Rangers lost their postseason Superman, Adolis García, while winning Game 3, and still went forth to clean, stuff, and mount the engaging obscurities in Arizona uniforms in Games 4 and 5.)

Pepperwinkle has proven remarkably steady in his insistence that the only fans who matter are those at the ballpark who think a baseball game might be a rude interruption to their cell phone texting and chat sessions. And, in his continuing insistence that the common good of the game is almost nothing more than making money for it, the play be damned and the integrity of its championship be double-damned.

But I would like to know why, three years after the Negro Leagues were given their overdue and recognised officially as major leagues, there remain major baseball awards still bearing the names of those who did everything within their means to uphold and perpetuate the old disgraceful and decades-long-discredited colour line.

There's no legitimate reason on earth why each league's Most Valuable Player Award should continue bearing the name Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Yes, he finished what such very few men as Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson tried (as a manager) to start and cleaned up baseball's first and worst gambling infestation. But, yes, too, he obstructed baseball's racial integration while sounding duplicitous at best when questioned directly about it.

"If you're looking to expose individuals in baseball's history who promoted racism by continuing to close baseball's doors to men of color, Kenesaw Landis would be a candidate," said a three-time National League MVP, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt. "Looking back to baseball in the early 1900s, this was the norm. It doesn't make it right, though. Removing his name from the MVP would expose the injustice of that era. I'd gladly replace the engraving on my [plaques]."

For whom to re-named the MVPs? I have two candidates:

Happy Chandler. Landis's immediate successor, though chosen after the end of World War II. Prodded by legendary Pittsburgh Courier baseball writer Wendell Smith, Chandler said, "I'm for the Four Freedoms, and if a black boy can make it at Okinawa and go to Guadalcanal, he can make it in baseball." To Bums author Peter Golenbock, decades later, Chandler said the race issue exposes Landis as a commissioner whose "independence" was in name alone:

For twenty-four years Judge Landis wouldn't let a black man play. I had his records, and I read them, and for twenty-four years Landis consistently blocked any attempts to put blacks and whites together on a big league field. He even refused to let them play exhibition games . . . For twenty-four years the record will show that my predecessor said, 'If you're black, you can't play.' Why? Because that's what the owners wanted him to do. Landis has a reputation as an independent commissioner that he doesn't deserve.

If not Chandler, then:

Frank Robinson. The late Hall of Famer made his groundbreaking namesake's final baseball wish come true and became baseball's first black manager. But Robinson was also the first and remains the only player ever to win the MVP in each league, with the 1961 Reds and the 1966 Orioles. He could be a character (he brought his clubhouse kangaroo court from Cincinnati to Baltimore) but he could also be deadly serious. He could handle adversity with aplomb. (Managing 3/4 of the Orioles' notorious 1988 season-opening 21-game losing streak, he said of a local DJ sworn to stay on the air until the Orioles won a game, "We're gonna kill the poor guy.")

But Robinson also knew whom the fans came out to the park to see in the first place. "People come out to see the players," he once said. "When do you see a manager anyway? When he's out on the field arguing with the umpires, making a fool of himself and you know you can't win, and when he brings out the lineup card." The only part he left out was when the manager goes to the mound to make a pitching change. (During that infamous Oriole streak, Robinson once said, "The way we're going, if I called up another pitcher he'd just hang up the phone on me.")

It'd be tough to choose a name change from between two wise candidacies, of course. But either one would have to be a huge improvement over continuing to hand out the MVP when it still bears the name of the commissioner who refused to let all but white men play the American game.

Or, continuing to hand writers a Hall of Fame award whose name the Baseball Writers Association of America changed from segregation-supporting Sporting News publisher J.G. Taylor Spink to (wait for it!) the Career Excellence Award. Those who forgot or didn't know Spink's stance, this was Daryl Russell Grigsby writing in Celebrating Ourselves: African-Americans and the Promise of Baseball:

In August 1942, [Spink] wrote an editorial saying that baseball did not have a color line, but that segregation was in the best interests of both blacks and whites because the mixing of races would create riots in the stands . . . Spink's defense of segregation was largely not based on fact but on fear and prejudice.

Please tell me that's not a man whose name you wished to continue seeing on the award the Hall of Fame confers to honour the best baseball writers and their distinguished careers. But whose name should take place of both Spink and the ridiculous Career Excellence nonsense? This might be an even harder choice than a successor name to Landis on the MVP, but I have more than one candidate to consider, too:

Roger Angell. He was the first writer elected to Cooperstown who didn't work a daily baseball beat. It took a campaign by San Francisco Chronicle writer (and former BBWAA president) Susan Slusser to get him nominated and elected. Short summary: Angel wasn't baseball's Homer; Homer was ancient Greece's Roger Angell.

Alison Gordon. The first lady on the daily baseball beat, when the Toronto Star hired her to cover the Blue Jays in 1979, before making a second career as a crime novelist whose stories hooked around baseball.

Jim Murray. He was to the Los Angeles Times what Fred Allen would have been, had Allen chosen sportswriting instead of radio comedy. Murray also accepted his Pulitzer Prize for commentary by saying it should have gone to someone bringing down corrupt governments instead of quoting Tommy Lasorda correctly.

Claire Smith. The Padres tried manhandling her out of the clubhouse during the 1984 NLCS. Padres first baseman Steve Garvey said not so fast, then buttonholed her to give her an interview. It provoked then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth to rule equal clubhouse access for writers regardless of gender. From the Hartford Courant to the New York Times to the Philadelphia Inquirer to ESPN, Smith's Hall of Fame career can be summed up in two words: baloney proof.

Red Smith. The closest daily baseball writing came to a poet laureate. And, a man who wasn't ashamed to admit in print when he'd blown it, whether admitting the owners weren't among the simon pure or the Olympics were too much of a relic produced by 19th Century FOX.

Wendell Smith. The first black writer to become a member of both the BBWAA and the Hall of Fame. His Pittburgh Courier work did the heaviest lifting on behalf of ending official baseball segregation and enabled him to whisper a name in Branch Rickey's ear when the Dodgers president (who'd longed to integrate baseball but couldn't so long as Landis lived) asked Smith for one: Jackie Robinson.

It wouldn't be any kind of distortion or erasure of baseball history to change the official names of those awards. It would merely acknowledge that certain baseball people were far less than once presumed to be, and that the game's high honours should be named for the far more honorable among them. Nothing more, nothing less.

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