Baseball built to heal in times of tragedy
National pastime has helped U.S. overcome catastrophic events
With the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination upon us, you've likely heard the confession from Pete Rozelle many times. He was the NFL commissioner of yore, and among other things, he was famous for his ability to get things emphatically right. Instead, he went to his grave claiming he got things emphatically wrong in the moments following the horrific events of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963.
Rozelle ordered his NFL teams to play Sunday, just two days after the nation was rattled to its core by the killing of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in broad daylight in downtown Dallas. Then, prior to the opening kickoffs around the league that weekend, the accused assassin was gunned down on national television. The world also sobbed as Kennedy's body was transferred during a solemn funeral procession for the ages from the White House to the Capitol.
Whether Rozelle really blew it is debatable, but this isn't: No other sport functions as well as baseball around a national tragedy, which is why it never will lose its tag as our national pastime.
Just ask those around New England. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings this spring near Fenway Park, the healing began in a hurry when Red Sox slugger David Ortiz pledged his team's allegiance toward rebuilding the city's psyche. He spoke at -- where else? -- Fenway Park, which nevertheless was packed despite worries of possible copycats. Before, during and after Ortiz's speech, the Red Sox emphasized a phrase: Boston Strong.
That was the city's rallying cry. That, along with the play of the Red Sox, and they eventually rode the post-bombing vibes of New Englanders all the way to a World Series championship.
Actually, this was Baseball Strong. With much help from an ever-changing core of socially conscious individuals, baseball has been strong, motivational and pivotal (as well as red, white and blue) through nearly every national turmoil you can name since the turn of the 20th century. You can start with World War I, which threatened to do what the 1994 work stoppage did more than seven decades later -- wipe out a season. But the 1919 season was saved after the war came to an end courtesy of the Armistice between the Allies and the Germans in October 1918.
A decade later, there was the Great Depression, but there also was Babe Ruth inspiring the hearts of financially devastated folks with his infectious smile and drives over the farthest of fences. Between Ruth, his gifted successors on the Yankees and the coming of night games to baseball during the latter 1930s, baseball did nearly as much for America during the Great Depression as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. So it wasn't surprising that, when the nation became a huge player in World War II at the start of 1942, FDR sent his so-called "Green Light" letter to Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
The letter arrived with Landis pondering whether to put the Major Leagues on hold -- you know, despite the game already sending a bunch of able-bodied players to battle the Nazis. Said FDR in his letter to Landis: "I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going," which is exactly what the commissioner did. First, Landis dropped any plans to downsize the 1942 season or worse. Second, he fulfilled the president's request by adding more night games. To hear Roosevelt tell it, they would give Americans a way to release tension after spending their mornings and afternoons in war activities.
Players still joined the military, though. For years, I enjoyed calling the late Bob Feller around Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. There wasn't a better way to celebrate those holidays than to converse with the Hall of Fame pitcher who served as Chief Petty Officer on a battleship in the Pacific Ocean. Feller never failed to disappoint. He always had something fresh to say about baseball's connection to patriotism.
The United States needed patriotism in various forms during and after Nov. 22, 1963, and Kennedy press secretary Pierre Salinger said as much to Rozelle by telling the NFL commissioner that the martyred president would have wanted the games played. Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick was spared such a decision -- the World Series had ended the previous month with a Dodgers sweep of the Yankees. That said, even if Frick had faced the same circumstances that Rozelle did, no worries for baseball. We know as much, because five years later, baseball kept showing again and again it could handle national tragedies nearly as horrible as the JFK one.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., was shot and killed, and Major League teams were close to Opening Day, including King's hometown Braves, who started the season six days later in St. Louis. Every team played as scheduled. Then Robert Kennedy was shot on June 4 in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers were in the midst of a long homestand. The Dodgers continued to play games, even after the brother of the assassinated president died on June 6.
Nobody complained above a whisper about the playing of baseball games in the aftermath of either the King or the RFK situations because FDR's "Green Light" letter was unofficially in effect.
Which proved wonderful for Detroit. After a series of riots destroyed much of the city during the summer of 1967, more of the same was predicted when the following June and July arrived. Those riots never happened in Detroit in 1968, but the Tigers did. Given the captivating ways of Al Kaline, Denny McLain, Willie Horton and a host of others, the Tigers were credited with saving Detroit from the violence. It also helped that the Tigers kept prospering through conquering the Cardinals in one of the most memorable seven-game World Series ever.
Twenty-one years later, there was a massive earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area during the middle of the World Series between the Athletics and the Giants. After a brief interruption, the Fall Classic continued, to the delight of most.
World Wars. Assassinations. Riots. Earthquakes. How about the epitome of baseball's ability to soothe the masses during a catastrophe, which was the aftermath of 9/11? Not only were all eyes on New York City during the days after the Twin Towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, but folks were focused on the local baseball teams for comfort.
The Mets were up first by hosting the arch-rival Braves. Even though fans at Citi Field weren't particularly fond of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, an unabashed Yankee fan, they filled the night with endless chants of "Rudy, Rudy, Rudy." There also was that chilling rendition of "God Bless America" by Diana Ross, and the Mets won a thriller on a late-inning home run by Mike Piazza.
Across town, the Yankees went on to reach the World Series that season. President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch for Game 3 at Yankee Stadium, and despite nervousness in the air over who or what might be lurking among the tens of thousands in the crowd, and despite his bulky bullet-proof vest, Bush fired a perfect strike.
The crowd roared, along with much of the nation.
Baseball Strong, indeed.