Alternate baseball: chapter oneby Shane Tourtellotte
December 19, 2012
Those are potent words, words that open up seemingly limitless possibilities. Baseball fans are as easily influenced by them as anybody else, perhaps more. A sport so well suited to telling stories has so much potential to have told different stories, if one little thing had gone differently—and baseball is a game made up of very many little things.
There is a genre dedicated to these possibilities, the offshoot of science fiction known as alternate history. It often concentrates on the biggest changes possible for maximum dramatic effect: World War II and the American Civil War are popular branch-points. Not too many of the genre's practitioners make baseball their focus, partly because it's a more narrow concern than big wars, and perhaps because science fiction readers may not overlap that well with baseball fans.
(There is a partial exception. Author Harry Turtledove, who writes alternate history novels like other people write text messages, penned a long series branching from a Confederate victory in the Civil War. One of the background details in that other world is that baseball never quite caught on after the secession, and the national pastime in the Union and Confederacy alike ended up being football, a more martial game for twin nations forever at odds with each other. He had another series where Mickey Mantle ended up playing for a major-league Kansas City Blues team, but that apparently only happens when lizard aliens invade Earth.)
That means there's a lot of open ground to play in, for someone who wants to play the "what if" game with baseball. Good. Baseball thrives in wide-open spaces.
This concept isn't entirely new to THT. Steve Treder has been doing counterfactuals on teams of the past for years now, re-jiggering their trades and acquisitions to see if he could build dynasties where none were before. I wouldn't presume to tread on his turf, but there are plenty of other ways to play this particular game, plenty of other niches within this niche to take for myself.
So periodically, for as long as I can find good examples and you can stand reading about them, I am going to tell some stories about baseball that never happened, but could have. They aren't your usual hot-stove fare, though there is a certain relationship. Hot-stove talk usually centers on remaking the present, imagining the right trades or signings that will put your team in the thick of things next year. (Sounds like Treder's work, when you phrase it that way.) I will instead be remaking the past, and I will try to be more ambitious than just changing where a pennant flies one year.
Part of the game, at least for some practitioners, is to use the smallest possible change to produce the greatest, furthest-reaching effects. There's nothing very sporting about, say, postulating "What if the New York Yankees never existed?" and writing your fantasy from there. Unless, that is, you can use some long-forgotten and apparently unrelated incident to start the chain of causation that leads to the Yankees popping out of existence.
I won't be doing that, but I will be hewing to the "smallest possible change" principle. (I like a challenge. Okay, technically I like succeeding at a challenge.) Allow me to present a warm-up example.
A tale of two Abners
Scenario No. 1
Change: Abner Graves forgets to mail a letter
Result: Incalculable baseball history is destroyed by natural disaster.
Abner Graves is the sole reason why most of us have ever heard of the village of Cooperstown, N.Y. That, and a commission founded to reach a pre-determined conclusion.
Albert Spalding, sporting-goods entrepreneur and one-time baseball player, was dogmatically convinced that baseball was a purely American invention. The idea of British descent through the game of rounders (or of some obscure game, mentioned in a Jane Austen novel, called "base-ball") was intolerable to him. When ur-sportswriter Henry Chadwick (a limey, naturally) pressed the case of baseball's British roots just after the turn of the 20th century, Spalding retaliated, intending to end the debate once and for all.
He formed a commission, headed by one-time National League president Abraham Mills, to investigate the origins of baseball. Mills was a reliable partisan of the American-only camp, and the other members were all friends of Spalding. They set out to reach their conclusion, one that, with the prestige of the Spalding name behind it, would surely be accepted as the final word. And there was no doubt what that conclusion would be.
Except that the Mills commission members could find no evidence for their conclusion that even they could puff up into usefulness. For two years, the commission basically sat around shuffling papers and waiting for something to come along and give them meaning.
That something was Abner Graves. He wrote the commission two letters in 1907, laying out a patchy and self-contradictory story about how a West Point cadet named Abner Doubleday invented the game in 1839 in Cooperstown, N.Y. The closest Graves' stories came to truth was that there was an Abner Doubleday at West Point in 1839, a man who would end up a general in the Civil War. Graves would eventually prove enormously, tragically unreliable: In his old age, he would shoot his wife dead and end his days in an insane asylum.
Any cursory investigation would have destroyed the fable. Doubleday's many diaries made no mention of the game. Examination of West Point's records would have shown Doubleday couldn't have been in Cooperstown when Graves claimed he was there. Abraham Mills himself had been a longtime friend of Doubleday, who died in 1893, and had never heard a breath of any connection to baseball. Mills was in a perfect position to demolish this house of cards.
He was also in a perfect position to swallow it without the least critical examination, and pass the myth off as history, proving the American provenance of baseball. And that is precisely what he did.
Some people saw through the tale from the beginning, but most accepted the authority of the Mills Commission, at least at first. Abner Doubleday and Cooperstown became part of American history, or legend. And when Cooperstown businessman Stephen Clark hatched the idea of building a baseball Hall of Fame in his hometown, official baseball gave its blessing.
If Abner Graves' eccentricity (to put it mildly) had never swerved toward fabricating the Doubleday origin myth, the Mills Commission might still have found some way of imputing a purely native birth to the game. But it would have had nothing to do with that little town tucked away in central New York state. The Baseball Hall of Fame as we know it would not exist—at least, not where it is.
But the idea of honoring baseball, and its greatest practitioners, in concrete form was in the air during the 1930s. If it didn't coalesce around Cooperstown, it would have done so somewhere else. The most plausible candidate would be the place where baseball could most accurately be said to have been born, if not gestated: Hoboken, N.J.
Alexander Cartwright's now-famous 1846 game at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken is widely considered the starting point of baseball as we today know it. By the 1930s, this seminal role was already known and acknowledged. The Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, prodded by a campaign led by Cartwright's grandson, inducted him as a pioneer in 1938. The next year the major leagues, in the midst of a centennial celebration based on the phony 1839 birthdate, held an Alexander Cartwright Day across baseball.
At the time when the groundswell for a Hall of Fame, absent Cooperstown, would have been mounting, Cartwright and Hoboken were front and center in the awareness of the game's history. Bruce Cartwright's campaign, rather than being limited to getting his grandsire a consolation plaque, could have turned instead to making him the acknowledged father of baseball, and the centerpiece of a Hall of Fame based in the city, perhaps even on the grounds, where the Cartwright rules had their first inter-mural test.
Recreating Elysian Fields would surely have been part of the equation. Cooperstown has Doubleday Field, built on a convenient patch of ground to represent the place where Doubleday (didn't) lay out the first baseball diamond. Today it remains a part of the Hall of Fame experience, despite its fictional rationale. To have the known, confirmed site of Cartwright's first game under the Knickerbocker Rules, and not incorporate it into a Hall of Fame at Hoboken, would have been a true bonehead play.
There would have been some awkwardness. Even in their heyday, the Elysian Fields were squeezed by the encroachments of a growing city. (The concept of fair territory may have been forced by the need to avoid nearby roads, and a glue factory.) Within a quarter-century of 1846, Hoboken gobbled up much of that open ground. By the 1930s, the site of the Cartwright game was apparently occupied by a Maxwell House coffee factory. Any Hall project wanting to reclaim the birthing ground of baseball would have found nine decades of progress in its way.
As adept as the baseball powers proved in finessing the whole Doubleday thing, they probably could have worked their way around this difficulty. There was still enough parkland left to make a reasonable recreation of the Elysian Fields. It wouldn't have been quite where Cartwright played, but a point could be stretched. With that, and a building as close to the old home plate as possible, something special could still have been made.
Momentum for the project would have built during the late 1930s and early 1940s, and I can envision an official start being made, with a groundbreaking and a charter election for members, in 1941. Just in time for World War II to interrupt. Such a non-essential enterprise as constructing a baseball museum would have been shelved during the war years, although elections to the Hall would have proceeded, keeping the project in the public mind. One might well have seen Hall of Fame Games involving the old-timer inductees, held as fundraisers for the war effort. (See below for how something like this altered the history of baseball in another way.)
It would have been a tight squeeze, after V-J Day, getting the Hall built in time for the Cartwright Centennial in 1946, and I'm guessing it wouldn't have happened. It would have been to a partially completed Hall of Fame that the living inductees flocked for their formal inductions. There would have been plaques, there would have been a hall where those plaques would hang, and there would have been publicity enough to ensure the support needed to complete the Hall.
Once it was completed, maintaining the Hoboken Hall would not have been too tall an order. The Cooperstown Hall has the advantage of the extended Clark family backing it with its substantial financial reserves. The Hoboken Hall would probably have lacked such private underwriting, but it would have something Cooperstown has always lacked: direct access to one of the greatest flows of tourists in the world.
The old Elysian Fields site is directly across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan, putting it within easy reach, not only of millions of residents both in New York City and northern New Jersey, but of the millions of sightseers who come to the Big Apple every year. From Manhattan to the Elysian Fields would be a quick drive through the nearby Lincoln Tunnel, or a quick ferry ride from around 20th Street to the docks almost abutting the recreated Elysian fields, a shorter trip than going from Battery Park to the Statue of Liberty.
To quote the fictionalized shade of a noted author, oh yes, people will most definitely come. The pilgrimage might lose some of its bucolic romance and the expenditure of effort that makes it feel more worthwhile, but with so many more people able and willing to make the journey, the Hall and baseball will gain immensely.
Baseball will also gain a different sense of its past. The Cooperstown myth encourages a vision of baseball as a rural game, something played on the outskirts of small towns or in unused corners of farmland. The Hoboken Hall would tell a different story: denizens of the cities searching for open land in which to play their game, a balance struck between the urban and the pastoral. With that narrative, Hoboken could end up seeming as natural a place for the Hall of Fame as Cooperstown does to us.
The Hoboken Hall will, mostly, thrive. The decline of the city in the 1960s will bring some concerns that the Hall will be stuck in a giant slum, driving away visitors. There may indeed be a tailing off of attendance during that time. Loose talk of moving the Hall of Fame will arise, with Cincinnati popping up as the natural choice, being the birthplace of professional baseball.
But the Hall is too well entrenched by now, and vital enough to create a bubble of affluence in its corner of Hoboken (something like the Boardwalk casinos of Atlantic City contrasted with the rest of the city). It stays, becoming ever more a part of its city, of its region, and of the heart of baseball.
It could even be said to have influenced the New York Yankees' move at the start of the 2000s. The building of a new stadium on the West Side of Manhattan was no sure thing, and the pull of the nearby Hall of Fame might have been the tipping point. The Bronx may have lost its tenant of 80 years, but baseball gained one of its greatest images. The view from the observation gallery in the left-field arc of the new Yankee Stadium's main concourse, looking northwest across the Hudson to the Elysian Fields, is one that millions of baseball fans have seen and cherished.
If only that view were not now tinged with sadness and loss.
The storm surge from Hurricane Sandy two months ago swamped much of Hoboken, drowning the Elysian Fields and leaving the Hall itself aswim. The recreated ballpark will recover, but the collection of baseball history husbanded by the Hall of Fame is another matter. Innumerable relics of the game, some in the main displays and many more in basement storage, have been ruined by the floodwaters, along with extensive library files that in many cases are literally irreplaceable.
New Yankee Stadium was similarly battered, and its own wealth of Yankees memorabilia took serious damage that a new or restored stadium in the Bronx probably wouldn't have suffered. Even that is a mere flesh wound compared to what befell the Hall of Fame in Hoboken. Their doors remain shuttered as the Hall calculates the enormous losses, and tries to piece together what remains to fill the Hall again as it once was.
It's obvious to any observer, though, that it never will be what it was: Too much has been destroyed. Talk of relocating the Hall to Cincinnati has sneakily, almost apologetically, arisen again. Traumatized as they are, the traditionalists of baseball fandom just might accede to uprooting this institution of their game, if it means another disaster like this won't happen again.
So if the Hall of Fame is reborn in Cincinnati, count on the building being sited well away from the Ohio River.
Okay, that got rather dark at the end for something that was supposed to be a warm-up. It did demonstrate, though, the unexpected changes that can be wrought by one mundane tweak to one otherwise obscure man's daily life. Make the man in question much less obscure, and you can get your world-altering changes a little faster—though still in some unexpected places.
Hammering Hank's pinstriped exile
Scenario No. 2
Change: Hank Greenberg remembers to pack a jersey.
Result: A Pirate loses, and a Dodger gains, his plaque in
Like very many American men his age, Hank Greenberg spent 1943 in the Army. Like a much more select group of men his age, he got to spend a substantial fraction of that time in the uniform, not of the military, but of baseball. The armed forces knew how to leverage its celebrity inductees for promotion of the war effort. For movie actors, this meant everything from war bond drives to training films. (Look hard enough, and you can find clips of Ronald Reagan doing the latter.) The range of usage for baseball players was a bit narrower, but no less assiduously exploited.
One such showcase was the All-Star War Bond Game of Aug. 26, 1943. Played at the Polo Grounds, it gathered a truly astonishing collection of contemporary talent and past legends, including Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Walter Johnson. Greenberg was signed up for the Army All-Stars team in the contest, and flew out to New York for the game and its preliminaries, which included a public workout session the day before.
The trouble was, Greenberg did not bring along a uniform of the Detroit Tigers, his team until he was first inducted in 1941. He'd have a special all-star jersey for the game, but the players were supposed to be in their familiar team uniforms for the practice. Nobody on hand could find him a Tigers uniform, so they did the next best thing: They found a Yankees uniform that would fit him, and suited him up. (Even though they were at the Polo Grounds, nobody apparently thought of acquiring a Giants jersey. Not even wartime fully trumped the divide between the American and National Leagues back then.)
This little bump in the road went almost unnoticed among the bigger events. The old-timers beat the Army all-stars 5-2, and the overall fundraising Jubilee, of which this game was a central part, raised a jaw-dropping $800 million for the war effort. (Do the inflation calculations for better effect. For really huge effect, recall that the Manhattan Project cost about $2 billion.) Greenberg had done his bit at home, and would end up serving with a B-29 unit in India and China, this detour all but forgotten in his larger service.
That is, until New Year's Day of 1947. A half-page article in The Sporting News by Dan Daniel speculated on whether Greenberg would return to the Tigers next season. There was friction with owner Walter Briggs over salary, not to mention over Hank's rejected application for the general manager position. Greenberg might retire, Daniel wrote—but he would rather be traded to the New York Yankees.
And Daniel had the picture that was worth a thousand words, even if most of them were lies. It was a picture of Greenberg with a Yankees jersey in his hands and an approving look on his face, splashed across two columns, with the captions "Preview of What's to Come?" and "Hank Greenberg Admiring Yankee Flannels."
The picture, of course, was from 1943, and had nothing to do with the current impasse. It was convenient, if inflammatory, visual shorthand, and Daniel and his editors did not resist the temptation to use it. Greenberg would deny angling to get traded to the Yankees, which one supposes he would have whether or not it was actually true. It didn't matter. Once that copy of The Sporting News, and its incendiary photo, hit the desk of Walter Briggs, Greenberg's fate was sealed.
Briggs arranged for the other American League owners not to put a waiver claim on Greenberg, and Hammering Hank ended up snatched up for $35,000 by the seventh-place Pittsburgh Pirates. Capping off this display of owner spite, Greenberg learned of his exile from the American League by hearing a news report on his car radio. (It's also reported he received a telegram from Briggs, but that probably lagged behind even the 1940s media cycle.)
Greenberg was ready to retire after such treatment, but Pirates co-owner John Galbreath did some fast work to justify the hefty waiver fee his team had laid down. A lunch date between the two men resulted in a cascade of inducements from the Pirates. Greenberg was offered a $100,000 contract, the highest ever in baseball at that time, with an outright release at season's end so he wouldn't be chained to the franchise. The team would fly him on road trips rather than making him take the train, and he'd get a suite on the road, without a roommate.
The final concession came at the ballpark. Forbes Field was old and cavernous, especially in left field, the righty Greenberg's power zone. Galbreath proposed constructing a new bullpen in left that would be walled in, effectively bringing in the fences by 30 feet to give Greenberg's home run numbers a boost. Brought around by the gush of generosity, Hank signed the contract. In came the fences, and the area known as Greenberg Gardens was born.
Greenberg had a good if not great 1947 season for the Bucs, hitting 25 homers and leading the league in walks, though his batting average fell to a rocky .249. Pittsburgh slipped into a tie for last, and Greenberg did retire once he got his pre-arranged release. Greenberg Gardens ended up sticking around, though under an assumed name. Greenberg hadn't been the only righty exploiting the friendlier dimensions, and the second-year slugger who won his second straight NL home-run crown that season soon became more identified with the shorter wall than the departing veteran ever was.
Thus Greenberg Gardens became Kiner's Korner.
The short fence wasn't the only lift Ralph Kiner received from Greenberg. Hank tutored Ralph on the arts of hitting, while persuading management not to demote the slumping sophomore. So dedicated was Greenberg to this project that he gave up his solo accommodations on the road and roomed with Kiner. The payoff was massive: Kiner had 20 homers by the All-Star break, then turned blue-hot in the second half to finish with 51, tying him with Johnny Mize for the senior circuit lead.
The effect of the chain of events trailing back to Greenberg forgetting his Detroit livery on that 1943 trip to the Polo Grounds is inescapable. If Greenberg isn't dumped onto the Pirates, Ralph Kiner doesn't get a short porch to aim for at home, doesn't get the benefit of learning from a master power hitter, and may well find himself back in the minors for part of 1947.
Could Kiner have induced the owners to move in the left-field fence by himself? Awfully doubtful. He won the 1946 NL home run crown with a mere 23. With the majors readjusting to the return of many of its star players from military service, there was something flukish to the season, something that could be regarded as unreflective of underlying realities. When Kiner finished well back of Mize in 1947, due to a sophomore slump unbroken by either Greenberg's teachings or Greenberg Gardens, there would have been no obvious reason to change the geography of Forbes Field for some kid who may just have had beginner's luck against rusty pitchers in '46.
In real life, Kiner led the National League in home runs for a record seven straight seasons, 1946-52. In our altered reality, he would have had far fewer. Even ignoring the real chance that Hank Greenberg saved him from being a flash-in-the-pan who ended up never matching his rookie prowess, his power numbers would have been seriously curtailed with the left-field wall of Forbes at its historical distance.
In the four years before Greenberg Gardens, Forbes Field had a park factor for right-handed home runs in the 60s and 70s (100 being league-average). In 1947, it spiked to 160, and stayed above league average as long as Kiner was a Pirate. When the Korner went away in the 1953-54 offseason, the park factor plunged from 121 to 32 (not a typo).
Three of Kiner's krow—er, crowns came as ties: in 1947 and '48 with Johnny Mize, and in '52 with Hank Sauer. Without the Gardens/Korner, Kiner would never even have shared them. He would also have lost the 1951 title: He led the league by two, and the 22 home dingers he hit could well have been cut in half playing with the original deep fence in left.
His 1946 crown is secure, and the one he claimed by 18 in 1949 would very likely have remained his. The 1950 title might be shaky: He won it by 11, but with 27 home longballs that, again, could have been halved playing in old Forbes rather than the House That Hank Re-built. I'll show a bit of forbearance and leave him the 1950 championship.
But what does that leave Kiner? Three home run titles rather than seven, and a lifetime home run total pushed down from 369 to perhaps 300. Add to that a career that was already truncated by injuries. His election to the Hall of Fame in 1975—on his final ballot, with one vote to spare—was widely considered a mis-step then, an opinion that has only gained strength since. Without those seven straight homer titles, with his lifetime total not remotely close to 400, there's no way the writers would have voted him in, and the various Veterans Committees would have passed as well.
So one Tigers jersey could have knocked Ralph Kiner out of Cooperstown. Would the redistribution of his home run crowns have nudged anyone else in? He tied Johnny Mize in '47 and '48, but Mize is already in via the Veterans Committee, and since his writers' vote topped out at 43.6 percent, it doesn't even change the timing. Kiner's shared 1952 title would have gone entirely to Hank Sauer. Sauer got 1.3 percent of the vote in 1967 and dropped off the ballot; this wouldn't have elevated him.
That leaves the 1951 crown, that had been Kiner's alone. And here the wheel of happenstance turns up possibly the greatest cause celebre in the history of the Hall of Fame, bigger than Ron Santo, much bigger than Bert Blyleven (thanks again, Rich), bigger than Barry Bonds will be in a few weeks. The 1951 home run title falls into the hands of ... Gil Hodges.
The Brooklyn faithful have been begging for Hodges' induction for decades now, the clamor waning only as Father Time has cut into their ranks. His candidacy has always been hobbled by the lack of what Bill James termed "Black Ink," the league-leading stats that show up in bold in every encyclopedia and now many web pages. As steady and productive as he was, Hodges never led the National League in any significant category, except twice in games played and once in strikeouts.
Give him the 1951 NL home run title, however, and now there is a second hook on which to hang a case, to go with his managing the 1969 Mets to their miracle. It isn't a strong hook, not one single title, but it's enough to move, say, five to 10 percent of the voters into his column. Since he peaked in the BBWAA voting at 63.4 percent, this still leaves him short.
But ... once a candidate gets close to that 75 percent threshold, an almost magnetic effect grips him, lifting him up. If he gets around 65 percent, and still has a couple of years of eligibility remaining, his election is close to certain, the slow climb of his numbers often accelerating. Real life saw Hodges crack 60 percent in 1976, his eighth year on the ballot, not quite into that zone. Give him an extra five percent for a home run title, and that nudges him to 65.1 percent, right where the magnetism takes hold. Call it two years to cross that last 10 percent, a cautious median.
It's ironic that a timely election would probably have dissipated the intense devotion that Dodgers fans developed for him over the many years of being denied. So be it. In 1978, in his 10th year of eligibility—and three years after Ralph Kiner dropped off the ballot with little notice or regret—Gil Hodges would have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
That is, if Hank Greenberg had remembered to bring a Tigers uniform to New York in 1943.
References and Resources
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
New York Daily News, to confirm the location of the proposed West Side Stadium
Cait Murphy, Crazy '08
The Sporting News
A Year in the Life of Hank Greenberg by Zach Sommers at The Good Point
Diamond Mind Baseball, for home run park factors at Forbes Field
And special thanks to Paul Golba, for brainstorming and for running the Forbes Field numbers
Shane Tourtellotte is a long-time, occasionally-nominated science fiction writer, currently living in Asheville, North Carolina. He will tell you all about the baseball novel he’s shopping if you give him an inch.