Baseball at its best

Puckish Bill Veeck -- glorious rascal that he was -- enjoyed razzing institutional baseball for having an abnormal fascination with things long gone and safely buried beyond the sacred mist of the past. ‘‘The name of the game is necrophilia,’’ he would rasp while flicking the ashes from his butt into his wooden leg.

You must wonder how the dear fellow would have handled the moment of his own canonization in Cooperstown. Unfortunately, the Hall of Fame electoral process, which can be inscrutable as well as capricious, denied us that joyful experience by cleverly delaying Bill’s much deserved election until five years after his death in 1986. No doubt the electors were playing it safe, being wary of what the game’s greatest maverick might say in his acceptance speech. Not even Bill had any idea of what he would unleash with a microphone in his hand before a captive audience in a setting awash in runaway nostalgia.

There’s been only one memorable speech in all the annals of the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. That came in 1966 when out of nowhere Ted Williams issued a simple but stirring appeal on behalf of the pioneers of black baseball. Five years later the doors were opened to the fabled ghosts of the old Negro Leagues, giving baseball another chance to give itself another lusty pat on its own back.

These yearly July gigs are hardly the occasion of notable oratory. What is said is little noted and soon forgotten. And when you strip away all the sweet folderol, the occasion has to be recognized as a shameless piece of self-promotion. But who cares? Cooperstown is a veritable Brigadoon and baseball folks are never happier than when they are looking backward. (More and more longingly, one might add.) As the irascible Veeck himself understood better than most, baseball is never better than when it is reveling in the mystic chords of its own memory.

So it was that the enshrinement of a couple of larger-than-life, too-good-to-be true characters in this year’s ceremonies was precisely what baseball needed in these anxious times. For sure the game is booming. Commissioner Bud Selig was pleased to point out that just the day before the ceremonies baseball had experienced a record, one-day, gate. But money isn’t everything. Not even in baseball. The very fact that Mr. Selig was in Cooperstown wallowing in a celebration of the good old days instead of in San Francisco where the most hallowed record in all of sport might have been eclipsed spoke many volumes. Who can blame Selig for seizing upon any excuse for minimizing his contact with Barry Bonds? Who would fault him for preferring the company of Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr.?

The Gwynn-Ripken consistory featured all the usual bells, whistles, raves and tears before a stunning turnout of 70,000 adoring disciples. There were 200 busses from Baltimore alone and four jumbo-jet charters from San Diego. If you, too, have been to our American Mecca you will also find it hard to conceive of 70,000 intensely driven hero-worshippers hitting that quiet little village on a given day. My first visit was in ’66 for the induction of Maestro Williams, along with the estimable Casey Stengel. I don’t recall the attendance. It wasn’t a big deal back then. I doubt it was much more than 1,500 with only a few being mere fans. Times have changed. And so has the symbolic value of the Hall of Fame and its governing concept. We seem to need it much more nowadays.

Gwynn and Ripken serve that need well. They are called “throwbacks” and seen as exemplars of all that baseball loves to think it used to be and desperately yearns to be again. They are termed “ambassadors,” a weighty distinction. They are exalted as personifying traditional baseball values. It’s already fashionable to refer to them as “the last clean” Hall of Famers, which is a bit presumptuous. What is beyond dispute is that both are extraordinarily worthy.

Ripken’s image couldn’t be sturdier if it had been chiseled out of Mount Rushmore’s granite sidewall. He’s had a lifetime in the game without a misstep, which is almost as amazing as all that “Ironman” stuff. There were better defensive shortstops, but none smarter. In one season (1990) he made only three errors. He had 3,184 hits, 431 homers and 1,695 RBIs.

Gwynn -- as sturdy as Ripken and even more gracious -- was probably the best pure hitter since Williams. He won eight batting titles and had a lifetime .338 while topping the .300 mark 19 times. In one stretch, he hit over .350 five straight seasons. It remains a great injustice that the year he was hitting .394 in August, the season was suspended by the infamous strike. With typical modesty he makes no great claims for what might have been. ‘‘I think I could have given .400 a run,’’ he now says. ‘‘But I don’t know how I would have handled September.’’ It’s a September we should still deplore having missed for reasons that still rankle

Gwynn and Ripken. They are the first Hall of Famers who actually played in the 21st century and yet they seem so much more the property of a distant time. They seem to belong more to the Golden Age between the two Great Wars, or that even more precious era just after WWII, when the scene was relatively simple and less cluttered and we truly believed all the ballplayers were just like Gwynn and Ripken. Was that important? It seemed so at the time. Scott Fitzgerald must have been thinking of baseball devotees when he wrote, ‘‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’’

There’s comfort back there, beyond the sacred mist. Although sometimes I wonder if we are seeking refuge in the past or trying to redo it, and maybe get it right. Baseball wrestles with that hopeless dilemma constantly.

On August 10 there will be an odd example of the point. That’s when the Cleveland Indians will strive -- rather weakly, I’d say -- to pay homage to the memory of Larry Doby and his major but largely ignored role in the desegregation of baseball. As you know, this year marks the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s arrival in Brooklyn that smashed -- as every schoolchild knows -- the nefarious “color line.” The Robinson anniversary was robustly observed in every ballpark this spring. There was much fanfare and everyone felt swell about that. But there was nary a word uttered about Larry Doby.

Doby has been a favorite subject in this space for about 20 years. Bill Veeck brought him to the Indians only 11 weeks after Robinson debuted with the Dodgers. Doby was younger, less schooled in the game, less experienced in the world, and much less prepared for the difficult task than Robinson. Jackie had almost two years to prepare. Larry had four days. In every detail, Larry compared favorably with Jackie. He endured as much grief, overcame it with as much dignity, achieved near as much on the field, while receiving none of the accolades. By the time Doby made it to Cooperstown, he was 74 and almost dead.

On August 10, all the Indians will wear Larry’s number 14. For one day. Why the 10th? No one knows. He debuted on July 14. Only the Indians will honor him. You can bet there will be very little mention outside of Cleveland. Nor will there be any mention of Bill Veeck who, for my money, was a more important and more sincere benefactor of baseball’s desegregation cause than Branch Rickey, who gets all the credit.

What a difference 11 weeks makes. Veeck would have been vastly amused. But not surprised.