Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Winners, Losers, and the Disappeared

When Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, there was outrage.  How dare this mere mortal, a man who didn't revel in the spotlight, how dare he eclipse the Babe?  Besides, if anyone was to do it, it should have been Mantle.  The two battled it out until the Mick developed a hip infection in Septembe.  He ended with 54.  But Maris did it, slamming his 61st in the season's last game.
Tainted, they said.
It wasn't just that Maris was unworthy.  It was the rules.
In 1927, when Ruth hit 60, the season was only 154 games long.  In '61, when Maris hit 61, the season was 162 games.  Extra chances.  Ford Frick, the Commissioner of Baseball said the number of games mattered.  Maris didn't hit 61 in 154. (He actually only got 59 in the shorter not-actually-a-season season.)
Thirty-seven years later, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire both broke the record.  Their numbers, too, are tainted.  This time by steroids.
Other things have changed over the years, too, of course.  When Jackie Robinson broke the color line, a whole group of brilliant players began finding their way to the majors.  The effect was to raise the level of play as superstar black and Latino players took spaces previously held by mediocre whites.
Historians paw through game accounts and box scores, discovering error and recomputing, for instance, Ty Cobb's lifetime batting average.*
Record books can take account of these sorts of things by separate charts, by larding the data with footnotes, by . . . .
The numbers, though, whatever they are, with qualification and explanation, with asterisks or without, the numbers are there.  In the books.
As Casey used to say, you can look it up.
In law, we undo.  That verdict doesn't count.  The precedent is overruled.  Separate but equal comports with the Constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the law.  Separate but equal does not comport with the Constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the law.  And it never did even though it actually did for a while.  
Danny Brown was guilty of the murder of Bobbie Russel for 19 years until he wasn't guilty of it any more and was released from prison except the prosecutors still think he's guilty and want to try to figure out a way to prosecute him again.  But it's all out there for anyone with the interest to dig up.
Then there's Nikolai Yezhov.  At least, there was.

And then there wasn't anymore.
History, they say, is written by the winners.  Stalin had Yezhov executed.  And disappeared.
There's nothing new in any of this, though we used to be taught that rewriting history was a commie thing.  Americans didn't do that sort of thing.
This morning, the NCAA decided just how to punish Penn State for allowing Jerry Sandusky.
  • $60 million fine.
  • Lose 20 scholarships for 4 years.
  • No postseason games for 4 years.
Oh, and declare that 111 wins under Joe Paterno didn't occur.
Not because scholars went back and saw they were mistakes.  Not because he cheated or his team did.  Not because of anything that happened in those games.
Just because Joe needed to be punished (though he's dead and won't know about it).  So we take him out of the record books.  No longer at the top of the heap.
Erased from the photo.
They're taking his statue away, which makes some sense.  I mean, there's good reason not to be honoring a man who stood by while children were raped.
But denying the wins?
That's rewriting history.
It's not an asterisk, a footnote to explain that he allowed child rape because the team came first.  Instead, it's a denial of fact.
This didn't happen.  Penn State didn't win those games.  Paterno didn't coach the wins.
But it did. Penn State did. Paterno did.
They took away Jim Thorpe's medals because he wasn't eligible (so they say), to compete.  He shouldn't have been running.  He just didn't get caught in time. 
But Joe?  His teams had a perfect right to play those games.  And still they say that he didn't win them.  Not that his teams shouldn't have been in them.  Not that there was anything improper about how they were won.
Just that Joe turns out to have been a bad guy.
So call rewrite.
History, shmistory.
It's who makes the rules.

*Apparently it should be .366 not the .367 it was thought to be until recently.

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