Today: Baseball Myths
With the Boston Red Sox taking home the World Series win for 2018, why not take this moment to reflect on some of baseball’s greatest myths… and debunk them? America’s favorite pastime proves rich in colorful legends and storytelling. Not surprisingly, exaggerations and myths abound, too.
Baseball has inspired stories of heroic feats, bitter tragedies, and shocking upsets since its inception. But these stories didn’t always happen the way we’ve been told. Here’s a breakdown of some of baseball’s greatest fables.
Abner Doubleday: The Dubious Inventor of Baseball?
Ask any baseball junkie how the game got started, and they’ll probably mention Abner Doubleday. As the story goes, he singlehandedly invented baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. All in day’s work, eh?
Not really. Turns out, Doubleday was actually a student at West Point in 1839, and records show no ties between him and the game of baseball. What’s more, Doubleday never made any claims about his “special contributions” to the game. Ummmm… like inventing it. So, how did his name get inextricably intertwined with the history of the sport?
It all started with a myth woven about Doubleday by Abner Graves, a mining engineer. A special commission created by A.J. Spalding, the sporting goods magnate and former major league player, bought Graves’s tall tale hook, line, and sinker. Why? Because it placed Cooperstown, New York, at the center of American baseball history. In fact, this myth helped Cooperstown’s city fathers cement their claim to the sport, ensuring their city would house the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
William Hoy: Father of Baseball’s Hand Signals?
Make no mistake, William Hoy represented a true baseball legend playing for the Cincinnati Reds and a handful of other teams from 1888 to 1902. All told, he boasted an average of .288 and played in 1,797 games. He claimed 2,048 hits, 40 homers, 1,429 runs, 725 bats in, and 274 assists. He did great things for baseball.
He also helped change American perceptions about the aurally and vocally challenged. You see, Hoy was completely deaf and mute having contracted meningitis at the age of three. Yet, his disabilities never stopped him from rocking the majors. So, it stands to reason that he invented the hand signals used in baseball, right?
Wrong! While Hoy used hand signals, they came from his coaches and other teammates and were gaining currency in ballparks across the US. Why? Because the noisy din of baseball crowds made it difficult for umpires, coaches, and teammates to communicate. Two years after Hoy’s retirement, the larger-than-life umpire, Bill Klem, made them standard practice.
Shoeless Joe Jackson: The Mafia’s Player?
What happens when you mix baseball sluggers, nefarious gangsters, and the World Series? As Americans found out in 1919, tragedy. According to the myth, Joseph Jefferson “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and seven of his Chicago White Sox teammates conspired with underworld gamblers to fix the 1919 World Series.
But for a guy trying to lose, Shoeless Joe played flawlessly. He made no perceivable errors, averaged a .375, and got 12 hits. To this day, statisticians continue to defend him, pointing out that a record like that doesn’t equate with a man trying to sink the series. Yet, despite a jury acquittal in 1921, Shoeless Joe was banned for life by Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. So, did he throw the World Series or not?
No, according to Shoeless Joe. He accepted $5,000 of the $20,000 promised to him by the gamblers because the team’s lawyer tricked him into signing a contract with them. (Jackson could neither read nor write.) Once he realized what was up, he tried to return the money and appealed twice to Charles Comiskey, owner of the White Sox. His seven teammates also confirmed that Jackson never attended meetings with the gamblers. While the evidence rested on Shoeless Joe’s side, he still paid the ultimate price, dying disgraced and banned from the game he loved.
Babe Ruth: A Shot Caller in 1932?
According to hallowed baseball lore, in the fifth inning of Game 3 of the 1932 World Series, the New York Yankees megastar, Babe Ruth, taunted the Chicago Cubs’ crowd by pointing to center field. In the next moment, the crack of the bat meant Ruth hit a home run off Charlie Root, pitcher for the Cubs, breaking a 2-2 tie. Today, this iconic moment in baseball history stands as a testament to Ruth’s unmatched skill. But did he really call that shot?
Sorry to disappoint you again, folks, but Ruth himself said, “No.” Or, rather, “Hell, no.” Speaking to Hal Totten, a Chicago sportswriter in 1933, the heavy hitter explained, “Now, kid, you know damn well I wasn’t pointing anywhere. If I had done that, Root would have stuck the ball in my ear. I never knew anybody who could tell you ahead of time where he was going to hit a baseball.”
So, what was Ruth pointing at? The games between New York and Chicago proved wildly contentious with vitriolic abuse pouring from the crowd and players. Ruth most likely pointed at the Cubs’ dugout trading slurs and insults with the opposing players.
Jackie Robinson: The First African American MLB Player?
After 58 years of Major League Baseball (MLB) segregation, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. An amazingly talented player, he contributed immeasurably to baseball, the Civil Rights Movement, and popular culture. In fact, he won the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously. But was he the first African American MLB player?
Nope. That honor goes to William Edward White, a former slave, who played a single game with the National League’s Providence Grays on June 21, 1879. What’s more, Moses Fleetwood Walker played with the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884 participating in 42 games as a catcher. His brother, Welday Walker, also joined the Blue Stockings for five games before moving to the Pittsburgh Keystones, part of the short-lived National Colored Baseball League.
But in 1889, the National League and the American League voted to segregate the game of baseball setting civil rights irrevocably backward for nearly six decades. What’s more, research shows that William Edward White, unlike the Walker brothers, pretended to be white to avoid derogatory comments and abuse from his teammates. But Jackie Robinson had to face the ugliness of segregated America head-on, which along with his amazing baseball feats, makes him one of the all-time greats of MLB history.
Baseball legends prove nearly as old as the game itself. Passed down through the generations, they represent a rich American legacy. But many of them only tell half the truth. From Shoeless Joe Jackson’s 1919 scandal to Babe Ruth’s iconic 1932 “called” shot, the truth proves crazier than the fiction.
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com.