Tuesday, February 19, 2013

America's Pastime

Baseball. America's favorite pastime, or a once-legendary sport that is steadily losing popularity -- it depends on who you ask. (After all, according to Star Trek, the final World Series will be played in 2042.)

That said, it seems unlikely that baseball is on the brink of disappearing. After all, bat-and-ball games have been around so long that it's difficult to trace exactly where baseball "came" from. The first known mention of the name came in John Newbery's 1744 book Little Pretty Pocket-BookThe first all-professional team was formed in 1869, known as the Cincinnati Red Stockings, led by captain Harry Wright.

Since then, baseball has gone on to become one of the defining aspects of American culture, with more people attending Major League Baseball games each year than any other sport (including football). The game has acquired legendary status in American pop culture, with movies like Pride of the Yankees and Field of Dreams adding to the mystique of the game.

The month of February features birthdays of two of the game's most-famous players -- so read on to find out more about these unforgettable legends from baseball history.

-- Babe Ruth

Even if you don't know baseball, you know Babe Ruth. Beginning his career as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, he went on to play for the New York Yankees and became one of the most prolific home-run hitters in baseball history. (The sale of Ruth to the Yankees by Boston owner Harry Frazee is the defining moment that led to the infamous legend of "the Curse of the Bambino" -- the eight decades that passed before the Red Sox ever again won the World Series. Read more about that here.)

George Herman Ruth, Jr. was born on February 6, 1895, in Baltimore, one of eight children of a saloonkeeper. At the age of seven, judged to be a mischief-maker, he was sent to St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys. It was there that he was first introduced to baseball, learning the game from one of the monks. Ruth's brilliant left-handed pitching skills led to Jack Dunn, of the Baltimore Orioles, adopting Ruth in 1914 in order to secure Ruth's release. Ruth was picked up by the Boston Red Sox that same year.

By 1919, Ruth's 29 homeruns had set a sports record and ushered in a new era of baseball. He was sold to the New York Yankees in 1920, for a whopping (for the time) $100,000 (along with a $350,000 loan). He would go on to lead the Yankees to seven championships, which included four World Series titles. He made 714 home runs in his lifetime -- second only to Hank Aaron's 755. He's considered by many fans to be baseball's all-time great player.

His career ended in 1935 -- and his somewhat dubious personal reputation (he spent money as quickly as he earned it) made a career as a major league manager difficult to achieve. Instead, he became the head of the Ford Motor Company's junior baseball program -- helping to usher in a new generation of players.

To those of us in the 90s generation, Babe Ruth is of particular popularity thanks to his "appearance" in the 1993 film The Sandlot. Set in the 1960s, the movie tells the story of Scott Smalls, who's moved to a new town with his mom and stepdad. Desperate to make friends with the baseball-loving kids in the neighborhood, Smalls volunteers to filch a baseball from his stepdad's collection so they can continue their summer-long game. All's well until Benny Rodriguez, the star of the Sandlot, smacks a home run over the fence and into the adjoining yard. It's a great play, but the ball is now in the possession of The Beast, the massive guard dog that inhabits the yard. The kids offer to buy Smalls a new baseball for his stepdad, when Smalls makes his inadvertent confession: the baseball they lost had been signed by Babe Ruth. 

Antics ensue as the kids try to retrieve the ball before the return of Smalls's stepdad from a business trip. The problem seems hopeless -- until Benny Rodriguez receives a ghostly visit from the Great Bambino himself, who encourages Benny to give it his all. "Heroes get remembered," says Ruth. "But legends never die."

-- Honus Wagner

Johannes “Honus” Wagner was one of the finest baseball players in the history of the game. To this day, almost 100 years since he retired, he is still considered the best shortstop the game has ever known. 

He spent most of his career playing for his hometown's team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. Wagner himself claimed that he was offered $20,000 cash in 1901 to play for the Chicago White Stockings. But Wagner, who was making $2,700 for the Pirates at the time, turned it down. Playing in his hometown meant more to him than any sum of money. 

Wagner, born February 24, 1874, was the son of German immigrants to Western Pennsylvania. His father was a coal miner, like Wagner would most likely have become if not for his baseball talent. He was one of six children, five boys and one girl. All of the Wagner boys played baseball. His older brother, Al, was supposedly more talented, but was not that interested in pursuing a career as a baseball player (although he did play professionally for a time).

Wagner learned how to play every position in baseball, including pitcher. While pitching didn’t really work out that well for him, his versatility at other positions helped him find jobs and keep them. Wagner played his first professional baseball game in 1895, and two years later, he made his major league debut with the Louisville Nationals as a center fielder and, occasionally, as a first baseman. 

In 1899, the Louisville team disbanded, and Wagner signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He would end up playing the rest of his career with the Pirates, retiring in 1917. At that time, he held the all-time records for games, at-bats, hits, runs, stolen bases, and total bases.

He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936 as one of the five original inductees.

One of the most well-known facts about Honus Wagner is how valuable his 1909 American Tobacco Company baseball card is worth. Before the company had Wagner’s permission, it had a portion of the planned cards printed. Wagner did not give his permission, because he did not want young children buying cigarette packages just to get his photo. Even though he was a tobacco user (although not a cigarette smoker), he was very concerned about young boys getting involved in a bad habit. The limited number of cards and Wagner’s refusal to give his permission is what has made this card so valuable. No one knows how many cards are still in existence, but the most famous one recently sold for $2.8 million in 2011. While this amount is extreme, other ATC Wagner cards have sold for more than $75,000. So you might want to check your grandpa’s baseball card collection to see what hidden gems there may be!

-- Post by Tracy and Ms. B

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