A panel of baseball enthusiasts, historians and professionals gathered on the Lincoln Center campus to discuss the national pastime and its continued resonance with the American public.
“Baseball provides continuity at the dinner table,” said panelist John Thorn, official historian of Major League Baseball and author of Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game (Simon and Schuster, 2011). “It is our family album. It is our scrapbook. It is our lineage.”
Moderated by Leonard Cassuto, Ph.D., professor of English at Fordham and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Baseball (Cambridge University Press, 2011), the panel also included Omar Minaya, former general manager of the Montreal Expos and New York Mets, Alan Schwarz, an award-winning sports reporter for The New York Times, and Matthew Jacobson, professor of American studies and history at Yale.
For 90 minutes, the panel discussed such topics as the decline of African-American participation in baseball, statistical analysis, revenue sharing and whether baseball ever enjoyed a signature Golden Age—because every generation, the panel agreed, considers their respective era the game’s Golden Age.
“The Golden Age of baseball,” said Thorn, jokingly, “coincides precisely with when you happen to be 12.”
Minaya marveled about baseball fans’ sepia-toned view of the game.
“Of all the sports, there isn’t another that people can paint such a great picture of how great it was,” he said. “Baseball has a way of creating this past that is somehow greater than today.”
The majority of the discussion, however, focused on baseball’s recent Steroid Era, two decades when a percentage of players—including some of the sports’ biggest stars—took performance-enhancing drugs. Surprisingly, the panelists couldn’t reach a consensus on how the era will be viewed by future fans.
“There will be fewer pitchforks and fewer torches 20 years from now,” Thorn said. “It is possible that we may come to view the Steroid Era with some sympathy. I hope so, because it is not a problem created by the players alone. Everybody has some guilt.”
Schwarz, who has covered baseball for 20 years, wasn’t as forgiving.
“This one is at the foot of the [Major League Baseball] Players Association,” he said, “because they treated steroids as a civil rights issue rather than an entertainment issue. The thing that makes me angry is, my son is going to turn five in a couple of months. We may go to Citi Field that day and he may look up at me and say, ‘Daddy, who hit the most home runs ever?’ I won’t take pleasure in telling him. It’s not fun to say Barry Bonds, like it was to say Hank Aaron. That’s what they took from us.”
As a former scout and front office executive, Minaya admitted few people initially appreciated the extent to which players were taking performance-enhancing drugs, or how they would affect the game.
“The reality of it was,” he said, “we just didn’t know enough about it.”
Jacobson said the continued handwringing over steroids revealed a certain level of hypocrisy, given the game’s thorny past.
“The steroid conversation is put on a different plane than other issues,” he said. “We tend not to talk about how Babe Ruth didn’t have to face the Juan Marichals and Bob Gibsons of his generation. The insistence of steroids sets up a false purity of every other record in the book.”
At one point, Minaya asked why baseball seems to be held to a higher standard than other sports.
“Baseball is a much more significant cultural institution than any of the other sports,” responded Thorn. “It is the museum of our archaic values. Whatever we believe of ourselves as Americans, not merely as baseball fans, we expect that to be mirrored in baseball. We have an ownership stake in baseball that we don’t have in the others.”