Second question: In Medieval Latin, the word trivia no longer referred to a road that forked into two, but, rather, to the three disciplines in the lower division of the Artes Liberales. What were those three liberal arts?
Answer: grammar, rhetoric and logic, into which we now attempt to journey.
A Game of Firsts
– Who was Levi Meyerle? Besides being a guy with a career .731 fielding percentage, Long Levi registered the first double and first triple in big league history, in April 1876.
– The first assist is credited to the aptly named Davy Force, in 1876.
– The first player to wear a helmet in a game: Giants catcher Roger Bresnahan, in 1905.
– First to bat in Canada? Lou Brock, against the Montreal Expos, on April 14, 1969.
– First to receive five intentional walks in a game: Andre Dawson, on May 22, 1990, the final time just before Dave Clark, pinch-hitting for future manager Lloyd McClendon, singled in future manager Ryne Sandberg with the winning run in the bottom of the 16th.
Baseball, like any sport, is a game of continual triumphs and corresponding defeats, and together they fill a moment until its replacement arrives with its balance primed for a tilt. As members of the audience, we abide these little contests with various levels of interest, waiting with angst or patience for the routine flies and six-pitch walks to yield to the drama of the extraordinary act. And when that act at last arrives – a triple to complete the cycle, a strikeout to finish the no-hitter – it seems without equal or precedent, an exploit sui generis. And yet despite whatever ovation has crowned the moment, it almost always has a predecessor and, if so, an archetype, even if it arrived at a time that now appears quaint.
Every field of endeavor must have its pioneers, those who populate the frontiers of experience while claiming, without necessarily intending to do so, the groundbreaking feats to which the annals might give notice. The first to answer nature’s call during a ballgame? History doesn’t say. But it does say who hit for the first cycle – Athletics outfielder George Hall, in 1876 – not only because Hall managed to hit a single, double, triple and home run in one game but also because he did so at a time when the league had gained official recognition and when the act was codified and recorded.
Timing isn’t everything, but it also isn’t trivial. That Hall’s was the first didn’t make his the best, and that Brock Holt’s is the latest doesn’t make his the least. But for as long as the record books acknowledge the ordinal succession of achievements, there will always be a post-Cuddyer cycle but never a pre-Hall cycle. His exploit is the answer to a question, regardless of whether we ask it, but is never diminished by its role.
Now we wait for the next cycle. It won’t be diminished, either.
It just won’t be first.
– Who earned the victory in the first All-Star game, in 1933? Lefty Gomez. The save? Lefty Grove. Neither Lefty retired National League pinch-hitter Lefty O’Doul. That job went to righty General Crowder, who enticed a Gehringer-to-Gehrig groundout.
– The most positions played in All-Star competition: five, by Pete Rose.
– Dodgers catcher Mickey Owen went homerless in 1942 but for his pinch-hit dinger in the All-Star game, the first in the history of the Midsummer Classic. In his only other All-Star at-bat, in 1941, he flied out to AL left fielder Ted Williams, who’d go on to hit the game-winning homer in the bottom of the ninth and then dash happily around the bases.
Once upon a time, in those old midsummers when a man like Larry Walker could turn his helmet backward and bat from the other box, the All-Star game ranked as the most trivial of baseball affairs, a breezy pageant whose first runner-up went away undamaged and whose winner took home no prizes other than memories and pride.
In that blithe era – indeed, at its sundown – Barry Bonds could respond to a stolen homer by hoisting the thief, Torii Hunter, upon his absurdly inflated shoulders, and Hunter could respond with a laugh. Back then, an All-Star selection likely meant more to each player than the outcome of the game itself: a boost to the ego, a bump to the paycheck and a chance to play his way into new TV rooms, but nothing that might track him into October and flip his batter’s box from home turf to hostile territory.
The final score was a secondary consideration, important, yes, but still a trifle when compared to the joys of getting there and being there. Larry Walker could go Bizarro World against the Big Unit, and everybody would laugh. Cal Ripken Jr. could go yard in his final appearance, and everybody could cheer. Severed from team spirit, rooting interests could have their Kumbaya in the players playing the game for fun.
Then, in the year after Bonds played clownish linebacker to Hunter’s impish tailback, the atmosphere changed so dramatically that it seemed the product of a separate and distinctly dystopian biome. Baseball lost its midseason recess, and All-Stars their midsummer playground, when Commissioner Bud Selig declared that the home-field advantage in the World Series would hinge, more or less, on the eighth-inning sacrifice bunt of a second baseman from the (insert the name of the last-place team that supplied a lone representative).
No longer would the All-Star game commit its prime resource to the enjoyable minutiae of memory. No longer would an at-bat like John Kruk’s in 1993, when he mimed a heart attack in response to the Big Unit’s heat, serve as the enduring image of a game without big ripples. No longer would home runs like Reggie Jackson’s in 1971, a 530-foot blast off the transformer at Tiger Stadium, stand apart from the win it might have aided.
Now, according to the propaganda, it mattered.
And now, according to many fans, it sucked.
So there’s your answer to a trivia question: When did Bud Selig drain the carefree spirit from the All-Star game by making its outcome a matter of consequence? Yep! – in 2003!
The answer is a lot less trivial than it should be.
Oddities, Ironies and Coincidences
– As a pitcher, Warren Spahn registered 363 wins; as a batter, 363 hits.
– Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn posted his first bit league hit on July 19, 1982. Twenty-four years later, on July 19, 2006, Tony Gwynn Jr. posted his first hit in the bigs.
– Lou Gehrig hit his first home run on Sept. 27, 1923, and his last on Sept. 27, 1938.
– Duke Snider twice posted 199 hits in a season and once 198, but never 200.
– In 1973, the season in which he got the yips, Pirates pitcher Steve Blass walked 84 batters, the same number he had issued — in 161 more innings — the previous season.
– Lou Brock never stole home.
– Don Mattingly hit six grand slams in 1987 but none in his other 13 seasons.
Numbers must bow to their own power. They must submit to the authority to which their large populations lay claim, and to the probabilities that issue from the office of countable digits. Which is simply this to say: Given enough opportunities, what we might rightly call coincidence – and rightly or wrongly call irony – will always emerge from the field of play. And what we call oddity – six slams in one season, none in the 13 others? – will always distinguish itself from the millions of mundane operations that seem poised, with all the other cans of corn, to lift one at-bat or date into permanence.
Today’s double take – whoa, that’s incredible! – springs not from yesterday’s singular instant, or not always, but from its most routine. Had a forgettable dribbler been ruled a hit and not an error, the name Duke Snider would have shifted to another statistical grid and another explanatory tale, about how the future Hall of Famer legged out an infield hit to join the 200-hit club.
Had some forgotten umpire called a full-count fastball a strike and not a ball, the name Steve Blass would have remained firmly installed in the eponymous tale of players who suffer performance anxiety, but sure enough, it would have been absent from a tale like this one, about actions that find within the range of probability a way to last in weirdness.
Still, you have to admit that a momentary quirk had no bearing on at least one fact, and that it’s odd that Brock never stole home.
Tragedies of Relative Proportion
– On Oct. 15, 1892 – the final day of the season – Reds right-hander Bumpus Jones threw a no-hitter against the Pirates in his first big league start. It would mark the last time that the distance between the mound and home plate measured 50 feet. The following season, baseball would extend the distance to 60 feet, six inches. Jones would pitch in just seven more games.
– On Sunday, Oct. 3, 1937, in the first inning of the season’s final game, Cleveland third baseman Odell Hale let a Hank Greenberg ground ball get past him, allowing Detroit’s Pete Fox to score. It would be the only run of the game, perhaps preventing Indians starter Johnny Allen from going 16-0 and tying Walter Johnson‘s American League record for consecutive wins.
– John Paciorek, brother of 18-year big leaguer Tom, debuted on Sept. 29, 1963, and went 3-for-3 with two walks, four runs and three runs batted in. Owing to a back condition, it would be his only big league game. He would retire with a line of 1.000/1.000/2.000. Seven years later, pitcher Larry Yount, brother of Hall of Famer Robin, would make his major league debut by entering a three-run game in the top of the ninth inning. Due to elbow pain, he would leave without throwing a pitch and never return to a big league mound.
No, not everyone can make it. And even among those who do, some will reach early peaks that yield to falls so precipitous that you wonder if the climbs were worth it, if the players would have preferred a dawning sadness to the pain of the sudden drop. Perhaps the realm of John Q. Citizen is more bearable if you have never known the summit.
Others will achieve sustained success, with the bold-faced stats to prove it, but by a few degrees of a baseball’s bounce will fall just short of the rank of the great ones. Deaf to petitions of wishful thinkers, the guards of stardom will point to that one instant – that one defining action – and call it tragic but everlasting. Perhaps the realm of good-but-not-great is more tolerable if you have never glimpsed the greatness on the other side of the veil.
Still others will grab that one cup of coffee, that one sip of what is and will always be, and live for the rest of time with its taste. You wonder about that flavor, and how it might have changed with the years: bitter, sweet or bittersweet, or maybe some other tang that the rest of us can’t imagine. From Flame Delhi to Reds Gunkel and Lutz, and from Moonlight Graham to Larry Yount, these men emerged from scattered points and times to reach the shining diamonds that motivated their boyhood throws, only to fall away so quickly that the memory of their time there must have mingled immediately with dreams of getting back. And yet they never got back. They followed the light, and the light brought them in and destroyed itself.
But now each tragedy, such as it is scaled, has turned into trivia – a lifetime of effort reduced to a peak of achievement that doubled as a disappointment, and the disappointment reduced to an interesting fact. Still we return blood to that fact, breathe air into what remains of its ghosts, and while we wonder about the sorrows of Bumpus Jones and Johnny Allen, we wonder, too, if men like Larry Yount and Flame Delhi might have happily volunteered to miss a record-setting win by the space of a glove. And while still in a state of inquiry, we might also wonder if players like Elmer Gedeon and Harry O’Neill – each killed in battle, O’Neill after catching two innings of his only big league game but never getting to bat – would have volunteered for a lifetime of baseball disappointment in lieu of the sad alternative.