“But I didn’t love baseball. Because baseball would never love me back.”
– Bill White, in Uppity: My Hidden Story of the Games People Play
Of all the major sports in North American culture, baseball has to be the one most concerned with love. Fans often talk about why they love the game, to share stories of team loyalties passed down over generations, memories made and cherished. Players talk about why they love the game, too, are asked about it like clockwork every Fathers Day, Mothers Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Opening Day. Players are obligated, even, to love the game to a degree deemed adequate; they must be enthusiastic enough, passionate enough (in a respectful way, of course; to “disrespect the game” is not love, but something else entirely).
Love of the game is invoked every time a team pitches a massive taxpayer contribution to fund a new stadium, or every time some “Save America’s Pastime”-esque legislation is floated before governing bodies. To love the game is the cardinal virtue of cardinal virtues, the greatest of these, encompassing everything good and diminishing anything that may be bad. Because love of the game, of course, is never just love of the game: it is love of a values system, of a country, of a certain team, of a certain aesthetic, a certain style of play, a crystalline idea held in the hands — look how it glitters; look how we treasure it, how, when the light hits it just so, you can think of nothing else other than its beauty. What exactly those values, this country, this team really is — to what end, exactly, that love is directed — well, as long as you have love in your heart, then it doesn’t really matter, does it?
I have been thinking about this, the love of baseball, because of the sickly back-and-forth lurching of negotiations between MLB and the MLBPA over the past few months, because of the discussions that lurching has caused, and because I have been reading Bill White’s autobiography. Bill White was a longtime major leaguer, was the voice of the Yankees along with Phil Rizzuto for two decades after that, and was the president of the National League during the early-90s expansion and labor crisis. Bill White had about as diverse and lengthy a career in baseball as one could possibly have. In 1961, his willingness to speak out about the segregation Black players experienced during spring training in St. Petersburg spurred a boycott of Cardinals owners Anheuser-Busch, eventually leading Busch to purchase property on which white and Black players could stay together. He was the first Black play-by-play announcer for a major league team, and the duo of him and Rizzuto as the voices of the Yankees became legendary. And he was the first Black president of the National League.
White, before he became a professional baseball player, was in school to become a doctor. He initially took the contract from the Giants’ Leo Durocher because it would pay his tuition. It was never White’s dream to become a baseball player, or a baseball broadcaster, or the president of a league. His view of these always came from a place of ambivalence — the viewpoint of an outsider, someone who had not bought the myth and would not be sold one. He credits this ambivalence for his willingness to speak bluntly and honestly about the injustices he and his teammates faced as players; to negotiate contracts openly; to publicly name racism within the ranks of MLB’s executive class, despite being painted as “bitter” and “angry”; to tell owners, umpires, and Commissioners alike when he thought they were losing the plot. And when it became clear that the position of Commissioner was to become an arm of the owners’ interests, White simply walked away from baseball. “And I’ve never regretted it,” he writes.
It is rare, in the thousands of pages of baseball auto/biography that I’ve read, to encounter someone inside the game so willing to say that they did not love the game of baseball, that they had “no respect” for the business of it. In newspaper archives, back to the first decade of the 20th century and all the way up to profiles of high school teams in 2017, the narrative of love of the game as virtue, love of the game as essential to baseball’s character, is ubiquitous. To see an overt rebuttal of it is jarring.
For White, though, the idea that all — or even most — players loved the game, that they were living the dream, that they would even play for free — it was “pure nonsense.” White believed that for most players, “love of the game” had nothing to do with it. It was just something they had to say, something they had to try to make themselves believe — to make sure the myth continued to be true. The front office and owners certainly didn’t believe it:
“They would keep you on as long as you were useful, but the minute you weren’t, you’d be gone — and it wouldn’t matter what you had done in the past, or if you had a sick child at home, or if you were broke and had nowhere to go. Baseball was business, and while baseball owners may have loved owning baseball teams, most of them didn’t love baseball players.”
And yet, the myth spun on. When Bud Selig’s 20-year marriage fell apart in 1976, one newspaper report attributed it to “love of baseball.”
One might have thought that baseball’s shift toward a more analytically-inclined ethos would have done away with all of this. Sabermetricians seek answers that are founded in fact; they ask questions that challenge slippery narratives. Perhaps that is indeed the case more in communities like these, wherein an analytical mindset is encouraged and celebrated.
But that narrative of love-of-game as virtue still holds a particular power over the public. It is still part of the myth-building of Major League Baseball, of baseball as a North American institution. And it still permeates the discourse surrounding baseball, bending and morphing to fit the shape of whatever the issue of the era is. When people decry the problems they see with the game, whatever problems those might be — wanting a universal DH, or not wanting it; greedy owners, and/or greedy players; being overly regressive, or overly progressive — these problems are often contrasted with the ideal love of the game. The people who are causing problems, it is theorized, do not love the game enough, or not in the way that they should, not the true way. No wonder MLB Network chooses to promote their Griffey doc with this quote:
— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) June 22, 2020
No wonder, because it feels good to love things. People love to love things almost as much as they love to hate things. No wonder, too, because many people do love the game. It is wonderful that people can find so much beauty in baseball, that they can feel so passionate about it. A love of baseball improved my life in bizarre and unpredictable ways. It has done the same for many others with all kinds of different relationships to the sport.
All the worse, then, that the concept of loving the game is used in the way that it so often is: a cudgel wielded by the powerful, to manipulate, exonerate, excuse, evade, hammering narratives into shape. You will accept this, because you love it. If you don’t love it, well, why are you even here?
Over the coming month leading up to the planned Re-Opening Day, there will doubtless be many more debates surrounding the state of the game — warranted debates, critical ones. We are entering uncharted territory, attempting to restart the sport in the midst of a pandemic that has killed over a hundred thousand people in this country alone. In the midst of an international reckoning with institutional violence against Black people that the sport has made largely ineffectual gestures toward acknowledging.
There will be — as there has been — an effort to use love of the game to distract, appealing to emotion, the soft glow of happy memory. And, for many people, there will be dissonance. Loving the game, but not loving it. Loving the game, but worrying. Not loving the game — wanting to, not being able to. Never having loved it at all, and being frustrated by the spinning of wheels, so much ado when so many more important things are happening.
I keep thinking about a scene in Bill White’s book. He writes about going to visit an ailing Phil Rizzuto in a nursing home:
Once I came in and found Phil, wearing a nice sweater, sitting by the window, looking outside. It was his favorite spot, a place to catch the morning sun. I sat down in a chair next to him, and Phil tried to turn and say something, but by this time it was hard for him to talk. Instead he held up his hand, and I took it in mine.
For the next forty-five minutes we sat there, holding hands and saying nothing. I wondered if maybe having me next to him reminded him of the broadcast booths in which we had sat together so many times.
Two old men, two baseball players, old friends, holding hands in a sunbeam. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry — but I’m pretty sure Phil would have wanted me to laugh.
Bill White never loved the game, a game that didn’t love him. That didn’t matter, in the end. He could see what was important — illuminated, sharp in a sunbeam.
Rachael is the current managing editor of The Hardball Times and dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.