Land of 1,000 Coincidencesby Chris Jaffe
April 06, 2009
I have twin interests that I spend a lot of time studying: baseball and history. Naturally, I put them together when I can in these articles here at THT. Recently, I stumbled into an interesting idea that combines two sources.
First, my local library has a copy of a book by John Solomon called The Baseball Timeline: The Day-by-Day History of Baseball, which says what happened on which date in baseball history through 1996 (when it was published).
For no good reason whatsoever, over the last decade or so I've collected a bunch of historical dates in an Excel file. It's just fun to look at from time to time. I'm a real nerd that way.
Well then—how about I compare Solomon's book with my list and see when eerie and interesting parallels happened between the world of sports and, well, the actual world?
There is a tradition of making grandiose statements based on these sorts of comparisons, claiming that baseball encapsulates the spirit and soul of America or some similar overblown rhetoric. Frankly, those statements are a load of hooey. Just because our attention largely focuses on baseball that doesn't mean it's the axis around which the world revolves.
What follows below is pure and simple a list of coincidences. It's a fun exercise, not meaningful. If you want to find any meaning, this could be seen as a sign of how resilient the national pastime is, that it keeps going through all this stuff. There is something to that, but I still don't know how far I'd like to take it. Ultimately, fans flock to sports as a diversion. They help us keep our minds off the stuff I'm comparing the events to.
Regardless of how meaningless it may be, it's still fun. Below are 10 of the most interesting historical coincidences I found. (Note: there is little to no double-checking in my dates files, so some of these might be off. Hey, it's all meant in fun anyway.)
1. May 1, 1920: the great disappointment
Federal government authorities, most notably the politically ambitious attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, told Americans that on this day radical elements in the nation planned something huge to subvert the nation. Taking advantage of a series of strikes and mail bombings in 1919, Palmer had made his reputation over the previous year stoking fears among the masses of leftists around the nation.
When 1920 opened, Palmer orchestrated a round up of 6,000 radicals, mostly immigrants he intended to deport (and 90 percent of whom were released because Palmer lacked grounds to arrest them). History knows this period as America's first great Red Scare.
However, he assured the nation, Mayday 1920 would be the worst. This was the day America needed to beware.
Virtually nothing happened. Oh, I'm sure if you look it up you could find some evidence of some no-goodnik somewhere spitting on a sidewalk or something, but by and large the day was a giant fizzle. It was the Y2K of its time.
Baseball also had a substantial event that lacked a real payoff on this date. The Boston, the Braves and Dodgers tangled in what appeared to be a meaningless game. However, starting pitchers Joe Oeschger and Leon Cadore turned it into something special. After each allowed an early run, they both hunkered down after that, stopping the offenses cold.
Not only was it 1-1 after nine innings, but when darkness forced the umps to call it after 26 innings, that remained the score. Amazingly, both pitchers were still in the game at that time. It was one of the greatest duels of them all, and the greatest tie game in baseball history. Then again, tie games by their very nature have disappointing resolutions.
2. May 25, 1935: greatness squared
This day marked the last great moment of Babe Ruth's career. In his last season in baseball, Ruth batted for the Boston Braves, a terrible team in the midst of a 115-loss season. Ruth's bat was pretty much gone, as he'd hit only three homers with a batting average less than his weight.
On this day, the talent of old returned, and Ruth blasted three mighty home runs, the final three of his illustrious career. Legend has it that the last one was the longest of his career. It was a genuinely tremendous achievement.
As amazing as that was, it was not the most impressive athletic achievement of the day. At a Big Ten track and field event, of all things, a performer achieved feats that Ruth could only dream of. In barely an hour's time, one young man broke three world records and tied a fourth, establishing himself as a historically great athlete. Based on that, he would be favored to win numerous gold medals in next year's Berlin Olympics. His name, of course, was Jesse Owens.
3. June 11-15, 1938: "It's a bird! It's a plane! It's...Johnny Vander Meer?"
Any baseball fan who prides himself on knowing his history can tell you who Johnny Vander Meer is. He is the only person who ever hurled consecutive no-hitters. While pitching for the Cincinnati Reds, he held the Braves hitless on June 11, 1938, and then four days later repeated the trick while facing the Dodgers in the first night game ever at Ebbets Field.
As heroic as his accomplishment was, that week the world was introduced to someone who could achieve even more impressive feats. On June 14, the first Superman comic went on sale. (I believe the date on the comic was a bit later, but that isn't necessarily the day it first hit the stands, I think.)
4. June 22, 1941: a dark day for comrades
This is a very important date in history, as it was on this occasion that Hitler's forces invaded Russia in Operation Barbarossa, widening the scope of WWII. Militarily, it was a dumb move by Hitler. Aside from having to contend with the vast size of Russia, it turned the war in Europe into a two-front affair, as England was still in the fight. Hitler, however, was motivated by ideology, as he passionately hated communism. This was his chance to assault the reds.
Turns out, it was a bad day for Reds everywhere, as that day Cincinnati, the defending world champs, dropped a doubleheader at home to Brooklyn. Yeah, that's right—this entry is based on a damn pun.
5. July 19, 1946: how perfectly appropriate
This is the least important historical event listed, but it is just so perfect I had to include it. On this day, tennis player Ilie Nastase was born.
Though he was one of the best tennis players in the 1970s, winning numerous titles. Nastase is best remembered for his on-court antics, for which he earned the nickname "Nasty." He was John McEnroe before John McEnroe. If anything that sells him short, as he could be even worse than the all-American superbrat. From what I know, much of the tennis player code of conduct was created in response to Nastase's actions.
Which is why it is perfect he was born on July 19, 1946. On this day, in a battle between the Red Sox and White Sox, umpire Red Jones set a record by ejecting the entire Chicago bench. Fourteen players went to the showers at the same time.
In olden times, they used to think it meant something if a child entered the world the same time as an eclipse or an earthquake or some other sort of natural phenomenon. It's a shame we're past that in these less-superstitious times because Nastase was born under the perfect sports-world sign for himself.
6. October 20, 1955: "The king is dead, long live the king!"
On this day, J. R. R. Tolkien released the third and final volume of his Lords of the Ring trilogy, The Return of the King. That same day, Pirates general manager Branch Rickey stepped down, effectively ending his illustrious baseball career.
7. October 16, 1962: you think you had a bad day?
This was not the highpoint of Willie McCovey's life. He had a chance to be a hero. He found himself in the situation that anyone who has ever held a bat dreams of, and he came achingly close to making every boy's childhood fantasy his personal reality.
In the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series, McCovey stood at the plate with two outs and the tying and winning runs in scoring position. With one good blast, he could win the Series, the first ever for the home crowd in San Francisco. Making the drama more perfect and storybook-like, the opponents were the New York Yankees. After all, if you're a kid imagining this scenario in your backyard, you're likely either playing with or against the Yanks.
Sure enough, McCovey hit a mighty blast—the sort of screaming rocket that every child dreams of blasting. Alas, it went right to second baseman Bobby Richardson, who caught it in self-defense to end the game.
This cannot have been a happy moment for McCovey. For that briefest of instants, he must have had the greatest feeling of euphoria, only to see it immediately be replaced with tremendous disappointment. In an interview, he was once asked how he would like to be remembered, and he said as the man who hit the ball over Bobby Richardson in the Series. But it was not to be.
However, somewhere in the world someone is always having a worse day than you. On October 16, 1962, that somewhere was in Washington DC—the White House to be exact. The someone was John F. Kennedy. You see, that morning he was given some incredibly bad news: a US spy plane that flew over Cuba two days earlier noticed some missile sights being assembled. The Cuban missile crisis had begun.
8. April 17, 1970: you can see the punch line coming, right?
On this day in history, car maker AMC introduced a new vehicle: the Gremlin. This is one of the most ill-fated objects ever produced in the history of wheels. Ordinarily naming a large mechanical object after a mythical creature that destroys large mechanical objects would be a terrible notion, but given the Gremlin's reputation, its name was all-too-appropriate.
Dave Barry made a good joke about the US autos of those years. Once domestic car makers noted that Americans began buying small imports, they had an idea to counteract that. They wouldn't make good compacts. Instead, they'd wean people off the concept by making hideously bad ones.
Barry remarked it was always easy to find a US compact from those days in a parking lot. Just stand around, wait until you here the sound of an auto part falling to the ground, and start walking in that direction.
Thus, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at what happened in major league baseball that day. Just as the Gremlin was unleashed, baseball announced the Milwaukee Brewers had been awarded to local businessman Bud Selig.
9. October 11, 1975: a pair of American classics
Ask 100 baseball fans what was the greatest World Series of all time, and your most common response will likely be the 1975 contest between the Reds and Red Sox. (Get in a time machine before 1991, ask the same question, and 1975 will almost certainly be your #1 answer.)
It's most famous for Fisk's dramatic home run in Game 6, but plenty of drama surrounded the entire Series. Game 7 featured a tight, come from behind victory by the Reds. Another game contained an infamous non-interference call from an umpire. The Series itself was a remarkable David vs. Goliath affair as the Red Sox nearly knocked off the seemingly unstoppable 108-win Big Red Machine.
Well, arguably the greatest of all Series began on this date. The opening shot was nothing special (aside from the fact it put the upstart Red Sox ahead by one). It did, however, have one very nice feature: it was over in two hours and 27 minutes.
Since it ended much more quickly than modern Series games, that allowed people to tune in and catch the debut episode of a new TV show NBC trotted out, beginning 11:30 EST. The same night the 1975 World Series began, George Carlin served as inaugural host of Saturday Night Live.
10. April 26, 1986: buildings that should never have been built
The Metrodome in Minnesota ranks high among the most heinous baseball stadiums ever built. It's loud and worse than that irrefutably ugly. In particular, its bland gray roof makes for unappealing aesthetics. It's the sort of soulless building you'd associate with your worst cubicle nightmare or some indifferent Soviet gulag.
On this day, a massive windstorm rolled across Minnesota's 10,000 lakes and tore a hole in the roof in the midst of a game. So not only was it ugly, but the damn place was poorly constructed. The game was delayed for a bit, but kept on going.
The Metrodome may have been baseball's worst buildings, but in the larger scheme of things it pales in comparison to other horrible buildings, as an event halfway around the world proved rather dramatically.
The place was the then-USSR, in a town that is currently in Ukraine. The town's name? Chernobyl. Yea, that Chernobyl. The nuclear event there had a minor oopsie—the world's world nuclear meltdown.
I have no love for the Metrodome, but I have to admit, it sure beats the Soviet nuclear energy program.
References and Resources
A major resource for this was Burt Solomon's The Baseball Timeline: The Day-by-Day History of Baseball from Valley Forge to the Present Day. New York: Avon Books, 1997.
If I recall correctly, the Dave Barry line came from Dave Barry Does Japan by Ballatine Books in 1993.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.