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NOISE FROM THE DUGOUT

A Season of Losses
By Tom Goldstein

In late May, Doug Pappas, a Manhattan attorney who loved to write about the business of baseball, passed away while on vacation in Big Bend National Park in Texas. He was just forty-two. That his death came as a result of heat prostration while hiking in the desert is both tragic and ironic, given that Doug was one of those guys who exuded energy and life.

I first met Doug several years ago at a Society for American Baseball Research annual convention. I'm pretty sure it was our mutual interest in baseball's flawed economic structure—and mutual dislike for Bud Selig—that stimulated our first few conversations, but I was also drawn to Doug's sarcastic wit, his breadth of interests, his political sensibilities, and his self-deprecating manner. Doug was just a fun guy to be around, and every summer at subsequent year's conventions we'd invariably find ourselves lamenting yet another incredible scheme that Selig and his cronies were foisting on baseball fans, if not railing against the country's new generation of robber barons themselves. I guess we were just kindred spirits in that regard.

Doug was a brilliant researcher and astute analyst of baseball's business affairs, having founded the SABR Business of Baseball Committee in 1994, but for many years his published work on the subject was primarily limited to articles he wrote for that committee's newsletter (one such article, a blistering critique of baseball's so-called Blue Ribbon Report, was reprinted in vol. 18, no. 1 of this journal). In late 2001, however, Doug began writing regular online pieces for the popular Baseball Prospectus website, and it wasn't long before a whole legion of baseball fans considered him the authority on baseball's collective bargaining agreement and revenue sharing structure. Doug didn't have the name recognition of well-respected online columnist Rob Neyer of ESPN.com, for example, but as Eric Fisher of the Washington Times wrote after Doug's death: "Pappas passionately took on the conventional wisdom propagated by Bud Selig and key figures in Major League Baseball in a manner still unmet by most mainstream media." And Neyer himself was quoted as saying of Pappas, "He was sort of a one-man truth squad. . . . His own stuff was great, but he also had this immense ability to react to something I or anybody else wrote in such a fresh and original way. Even those of us reasonably aware of what's going on in baseball are not skilled enough to really challenge what's being said all the time. Doug could do that."

It would be a sad enough year in EFQ's little baseball orbit if the only loss in 2004 was Doug Pappas's tragic death, but earlier this year Larry Ritter also passed away. Ritter, as most serious baseball fans know, was the author of the groundbreaking classic The Glory of Their Times, an oral history about the "early days of baseball told by the men who played it" that is arguably one of the most influential baseball volumes ever published. Here's what I said about the book five years ago in these pages:

 

Unlike the many baseball biographies and histories that preceded it, The Glory of Their Times relied exclusively on tape-recorded recollections of players from the first part of the twentieth century to tell the story of the game's heyday. Although the transcripts were edited and the text rearranged to make the conversations flow smoothly, there was little author embellishment and no ridiculous "folk" tales to "juice up" the players' accounts. The result was a wonderful series of remembrances that brought to life for later generations of fans the vivid, exciting world of baseball when it was quintessentially a game and the players "would have played for nothing." Ritter's ability to put these men (most of whom were in their seventies or eighties at the time they were interviewed) at ease so their stories could be remembered not only "sparked a renewed interest in the early days of baseball," it also inspired the oral history boom that has since followed in many writing disciplines over the past thirty years.

 

I don't know what the exact inspiration was that led Ken LaZebnik to found this journal more than twenty years ago, but I know I wouldn't be serving as its editor if not for a book like The Glory of Their Times. Ritter's classic wasn't the first baseball book I ever read, but it was the first that really brought home the majesty of the sport, the first that convinced me why I should care about the early history of the game and about all those players who performed in the shadows of the early stars. It suggested to me something about big time sports that wasn't simply focused on glitz and greatness and championships—but about comradery, humility, vanity, and other qualities just as essential to understand and appreciate. The Glory of Their Times probably didn't dramatically change my life, given that I was pretty much immersed in sports and baseball by the time I first read it, but it certainly gave me an appreciation for baseball as literature that I'd never had before. So much so that Ritter is one of only a handful of authors in my lifetime who I've felt compelled to write in praise of their work. Here's what Ritter wrote back:

 

April 8, 1972

Dear Tom—

Thanks very much for taking the time and trouble to write. I appreciate it. I'm glad you liked the book so much. You can imagine how much I enjoyed doing it! Every once in a while I pick it up & read parts of it over again and I always, without fail, get a great thrill when I do.

Thanks again for writing—

Larry Ritter

 

Two days after Larry Ritter passed away (on February 15), I also lost my dad, Lloyd Goldstein. Like Larry, who died at age eighty-one, my dad wasn't shortchanged in life, living a few months past his eightieth birthday before succumbing to a heart attack. He did spend the last fifteen or so years of that life valiantly fighting Parkinson's disease, however, though he rarely complained and refused to be incapacitated by the affliction. Like many Parkinson's victims, my dad lost his balance a lot, leading to many falls and some nasty cuts and gashes—and more than a few trips to the emergency room. But whether bloody or bruised (or both), my dad would always hop up with a sheepish expression on his face, pretend that nothing had happened, and try to just go about his business—blood sometimes dripping down his face.

You'd think a guy like that would have made a perfect catcher or second baseman, but my dad didn't play baseball. In fact, he wasn't an athlete at all. I don't think he ever understood the value of sports or, Lord knows, why anybody would want to read about it. (If he ever read anything in this journal during the years I've served as publisher, he never told me about it.) My dad wasn't a man of great imagination, so I'm sure he was always baffled by why one of his children would eschew a legal career and stable professional life in favor of a circuitous path tied to sports and literature—especially when there was unlikely to be a significant payday at the end of the rainbow. He never discouraged me from any of these adventures, however; he just didn't know how to encourage me. People of his generation seldom had the luxury of such follies. My dad's father emigrated to this country in the early twentieth century to flee famine and the Czar's army in Russia, learned a profession, and spent almost all of his waking hours behind a drugstore counter as a pharmacist. It's little wonder, then, that my dad would grow up thinking of sports as a waste of time that got a person nowhere in the world. He wanted more for his family—and a chance to enjoy in America's prosperity without being chained to a job seven days a week. So he studied dentistry, and that tough, wiry body of his carried him through almost fifty years in that profession—retiring only because some of the complications from Parkinson's made him feel that he could no longer provide the high level of care that he gave to his patients.

Unfortunately, I never really knew my dad. He was reluctant to talk about himself (another trait also characteristic of his generation), and as I grew into adulthood and he couldn't simply relate to me as his youngest son, there developed a significant void in communication. As a result, I could never understand why he seemed to care so little about the big questions in life, and I'm sure he never understood why that was all I seemed to care about. So we danced around the increasing gaps between our lives, my dad wondering if I was ever going to grow up and get a real job, me wondering if he would ever have an epiphany and see something of value in the endeavors I chose. Because it was only my dad going to work every day, sick or not, throughout my childhood that gave me the luxury to ruminate about the world and its great mysteries—and what the hell I might want to do in it. I guess he felt remaining neutral was the best course to take.

I don't have a lot of experience dealing with death, so if these meager efforts at capturing some essence of three people whom I never really knew come up short, I hope readers will indulge my inadequacies. In a world where people are being routinely slaughtered around the globe for reasons that I will never truly fathom, I'm not sure why these three lives are any more important than all those people I'll never know who have perished this year as well. And, in truth, they aren't. Because everybody matters; everybody impacts somebody else. Like baseball, life is a team game. And every day we lose a lot of good players.

—EFQ

TOM GOLDSTEIN, publisher of Elysian Fields Quarterly, is a graduate of the William Mitchell College of Law.

This column first appeared in EFQ 21:3, Summer 2004

© 2004 Tom Goldstein

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