Still life, after all

On Jan. 19, just 10 days after the Baseball Writers Association of America denied 37 men a place in the pantheon of immortal major leaguers by refusing to elect them to the Hall of Fame, a pair of websites did something like the opposite, crediting two former players with their rightful positions in the larger house, the darker house, of good old-fashioned mortality.

On that day in January—a month named, incidentally, for two-faced Janus, the Roman god who gazed toward the future and the past at once—National Pastime reported that exactly 113 years earlier, in Brookfield, Mass., Boston Beaneaters catcher Marty Bergen murdered his family with an ax and then committed suicide. Meanwhile, over at FanGraphs, writer Carson Cistulli dusted off the sad tale of Al Thake, a 22-year-old Brooklyn Atlantics outfielder who in 1872 drowned while fishing in New York Harbor.

In postmortems of the postmortems, both sites made mention of the treatment accorded each decedent. National Pastime divulged that only one Beaneater teammate, future Hall of Famer Billy Hamilton, attended Bergen’s funeral, while FanGraphs offered proof that no fewer than four obituaries were published in the aftermath of Thake’s unlucky, untimely passing.

Tones and details differed across the obits, with one noting that Thake “stood high in professional fraternity for integrity of character and genial disposition,” and another stating that the body of Thake, “of 293 Smith Street, was found on the beach”—a passage about as flowery as a line from The Plumbers Handbook. A third noted that the “melancholy occurrence” took place when Thake “fell out of the boat and the tide carried him instantly beyond the reach of his comrades,” while a fourth claimed that he “was a good swimmer, but it is thought he got entangled in the fish lines.”

What the obits had in common, of course, was the one fact central to a death notice and thus to life itself: the man had up and died. Like Bergen, though under wholly different circumstances, Thake had succumbed to the equalizing law of nature, the universal rule that inspired 16th-century artists to render unto posterity a vast collection of vanitas still life paintings—the tableaux often included bubbles to symbolize the brevity of life, and human skulls to represent the certain and indiscriminate nature of death—and ancient Romans to conceive of a timeless caution to peasants and patricians alike: memento mori. Remember your mortality. Remember you must die.

Jamie Moyer notwithstanding, baseball is a game best endeavored by relatively young men, players whose ability to hit inner-half heat or throw outer-half cheese has conferred upon them an apparent resistance, if not a seeming immunity, to Father Time and his odious sidekick, the ageless Angel of Death. The age-20 season of Mike Trout, for example, would seem a sturdy wedge against the wellchronicled and otherwise inevitable age33 decline, a downturn that as far as Trout is concerned has been dispatched to unthinkable distance by a catch that will never get old, that made time hold still, that will preserve the boyish upstart in a moment spent waaaaaaaay above the center field fence, where, as a different ageless Angel, he will always rebel against the graybeard while resisting the demands of gravity.

And what about those headlong baseline sprints of the young Bryce Harper? You can just picture them, can’t you?—the helmet flying off, the legs churning, the 19-year-old body trying to outrace, desperately, an opponent just dyyyying to kill the spirit he so immodestly embodies, a freshness envied by the elders and celebrated with every step its agent takes in defiance of their retaliatory pursuit.

You can say it’s just a bubble, a vapor, smoke that will drift and vanish like all the impermanencies of every still life on Earth, but the paintings are still here, aren’t they?—in permanent collections, before passing audiences, reminding every mortal of the fate that awaits him but also memorializing if not quite eulogizing the artisanal strokes that put a series of passing moments into the permanence of the framed vanitas. Cooperstown waits for this one, you imagine: Harper, heading there fast.

At the same time, those Brycian sprints look like deft warranties against the “anti-aging” strategies of an over-the-hill A-Rod, the secret nostrums and esoteric rituals designed to rescue a 37-year-old body from a hostage-taker—hello, human condition—that is consistently opposed to ransom offers.

It is strange to remember, then, that A-Rod, too, played in the majors at age 19, as did Tony Conigliaro, each so brilliant in the colors of springtime that he never could have foreseen the way his paint would dry, never could have predicted the way the world would eventually view him. And what of Ray Chapman and Cy Bentley? After debuting in the bigs at 21, each would see a final pitch in a way he might never have imagined, and each would add to an unfinished canvas—one that includes Thake’s sad bubbles and Conigliaro’s tragic skull—the specter of death and something like the opposite of aging.

Seasons are long but seem short in hindsight, collapsed into a handy series of summary capsules and clickable lists of synoptic numbers, but the players themselves move swiftly into our memories of them, our mental and sometimes material images of stunning displays of skill and power and mind-blowing speed, each delivered by arms and legs not yet ceded to the greedy clutches of old-age complaint, the gimpy knees and creaky elbows.

Stilled in the frames we hang in our halls, then, are the instant achievements of not-yet-retirement-age cells: Reggie thumping the third of three Game Six homers, his 31-year-old muscles forever poised in a quick uncoiling; Willie closing in on the World Series drive, his 23-year-old body always in a moment that prohibits eternal rest; Jackie Robinson sliding into a precious home plate, his 36-year-old toes always winning (or not!) what could have been lost, and always awarding to the host body an apparent amnesty from the brutal mandates of time; and finally, Robin flailing in an older man’s armpit, his 26-year-old face pummeled into hilarious perpetuity by a 46-year-old fist.

Okay, maybe that last one’s a bad example, but still, there it is, a permanent piece in baseball’s collection of lasting impressions, and an image that steals from time’s trajectory an instant when everyone is young enough to fight, when the pride of vitality is reason enough to bleed, and when, like Gilgamesh, grown men pull against the power of mortality to take the plunge toward the everlasting, because what else is there but to vanish, to be forever retired, to be cast toward the grave and away from the field of play?

Swept into permanence by the swiftest of passing actions, each masterwork—Jackson’s completion of the hat trick, Mays’ over-the-shoulder catch, Robinson’s theft of home—seems indeed to have been a kind of magnum opus, the term ancient alchemists used to describe the process for creating the famed Philosopher’s Stone. And what did people want with this Philosopher’s Stone? Why, when their chances of obtaining it seemed pretty unrealistic, did they work so diligently to produce the magical substance?

The answer still echoes in the silly infomercials of today, with their facile pledges of never-ending youth, and in every religion that still promises what Gilgamesh briefly embraced and then permanently lost: eternal life. Mindful of the bill that everyone must pay, the alchemists claimed that by ingesting just a bit of the stuff, a person could cheat the Reaper and live forever, youthfully, with the speed and vigor of Mercury, Adonis and Zeus, gods whose power derived at least in part from their refusal to surrender to age.

Here in the real world, of course, no such elixir exists. Knees stiffen and postures stoop, regardless of the alchemy that some mortals seek, and sooner or later—though too often sooner—life pulls the plug on the thumping heart, even if that heart belongs to a big-league ballplayer and even if that player yielded exploits so prone to preservation that they will outlast the body that gave them life. And here today is the late Roger Maris, slamming No. 61 into the adhesive permanence of a U.S. postage stamp. Maris, who died in 1983 at a relatively young 51, wouldn’t live long enough to see the stop-action snapshot of his record-setting swing take on the immortality that his body could never match, but he would live long enough to see it enshrined in the venerated canon of baseball imagery, alongside the deathless images of Mays, Robinson and Bobby Thomson, whose Shot Heard Round The World would eventually take shape as The Shot Seen Through Time.

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And here for all time, just as he was there for a short time, is the young Flying Scot, his swing needing just 200 microseconds of a single minute—3:58 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, to be precise—of a single day—Oct. 3, actually—in the Year of Our Lord 1951 to send a Ralph Branca fastball into an image so timeless that it seems a keepsake in a precious public gallery, and yet into records so bloodless that they can’t possibly speak to the bliss and heartache that they actually represent—real emotions, permanently divided and distributed by the tiniest slivers of time and space, that in many cases have gone to the grave with the people who carried (or dragged) them around for the rest of their natural lives.

Also left unstated—box scores are good at objective summary but not so good with predictive wisdom—are the future prospects of the 20-year-old center fielder who waited on-deck while Thomson sent that ball into the life of the world to come. Though dispatched in the instant to a portrait at home plate, he would eventually go on to hit some homers, steal some bases and make an immortal catch, but at the time he was just the Say Hey Kid.

Time and gravity. Einstein made note of their teamwork, and he was right: Together they’ve snatched the once and future Willie Mays and brought him back down to Earth, in the form of a figure aged 81 years and change, and yet the man is still the breathing embodiment of what he once was and what he will always be: that almost godlike figure in a picture we don’t even need to see, a picture we can simply conjure from its place in the everlasting.

With it in perpetuity are other snapshots, both in color and black-and-white, of young men elevated into semidivine status not only by the outcomes of those moments but, just as often, of the body of work those moments represent. And here today is Gehrig, long before his everlasting speech, fixed in a follow-through so powerful that it hints at invincibility, an attribute that couldn’t possibly be real. And here tomorrow will be Clemente, in the time before his flight, lifting the left knee high and cocking those powerful hands, the whole of his body coiled for that one pitch, that one fastball or slider or otherwise trivial curve, whose outcome might add its testimony to an inerasable number: 3,000, as it turned out, forever 3,000.

Gehrig and Clemente, like Bergen and Thake, were among the dozens of major leaguers cut down during their careers, each man’s legacy arrested in mid-stride, it seems, and evermore illustrated by pictures that would never let the man go gray and by numbers that would never get past a premature finale.

Some were casualties of illness: Bill Blair died of influenza in 1890, Addie Joss of meningitis in 1911, King Cole of tuberculosis in 1916, Urban Shocker of pneumonia in 1928, Walt Bond of leukemia in 1967 and Danny Thompson of the same disease in 1976. (The list literally goes on.) Some players succumbed to other maladies – Austin McHenry to a brain tumor in 1922, Tiny Bonham to appendicitis in 1949, Harry Agganis to a pulmonary embolism in 1955, Darryl Kile to a heart defect in 2002. Still others, like Tony Boeckel, in 1924, and Nick Adenhart, in 2009, were victims of car accidents, and five players—Charlie Peete, Ken Hubbs, Thurman Munson, Cory Lidle and of course Clemente—sadly went down with the planes.

A boat accident claimed Tim Crews and Steven Olin. A dune buggy accident felled Danny Frisella. Homicide took Gus Polidor, Miguel Fuentes, Lyman Bostock and Greg Halman, and suicide claimed Dan McGann and Willard Hershberger, McGann following two of his siblings and Hershberger ending a slump in the most drastic of fashions. Killed in World Wars I and II, respectively, were Eddie Grant and Elmer Gedeon, and even if Grant’s extraordinary story had already registered his retirement from the game, Gedeon’s had not.

Other players suffered fates considerably less noble: In 1903, drunk and disorderly on a night near Buffalo, future Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty went to his mysterious death in a plunge over Niagara Falls, and in 1935, Len Koenecke, also drunk and disorderly on a night near Buffalo, had his time ended in an almost unfathomably bizarre skirmish.

Denied retirement, each player (except for the suiciders) left the game at a time not of his choosing, but it was Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman who on Aug. 17, 1920, earned immortality the hard way by suffering a fatal injury on the field, succumbing some 12 hours after taking a Carl Mays fastball to the head. Chapman left behind a lifetime WAR of 27.0, proof that while all men are irreplaceable, some are more irreplaceable than others. Each creates a void that other physiques will never precisely fill, thus consigning to nothingness the customized shape of hustle doubles and off-balance throws, but some bequeath to poor replacements—hey, Babe Dahlgren was good, but he wasn’t Lou Gehrig good—truly unfillable shoes.

Replacement for Chapman arrived first in the form of Harry Lunte, who, after stepping in as a pinch runner, went on to amass a lifetime WAR of -0.7, and then in the person of Joe Sewell, who unlike Lunte and Chapman would earn a place in the Hall of Fame. Still, you could argue that Chapman left a mark more enduring than lifetime stats or even Hall enshrinement. His legacy, in defiance of mere mourning and in a departure from simple synopsis, would become more forward-looking than backward-looking when the ghosts of his fatal beaning inspired the chiefs of Major League Baseball to ban the dangerous spitball and to mandate the use of batting helmets.

You can be sure that Chapman would have preferred not to martyr himself to a future of life-saving practices, preferred not to have given his life, Christ-like, so that others might live. Messiahs are cut from different cloths, not from shirts that say “Cleveland,” and mortal life in its earliest phases is a space in which to ignore the prospect of death, to defer to some remind-me-later time the truth of memento mori and the fact of vanitas still life. But Chapman might rest in a sweeter peace were he to know of his posthumous contribution—that men like Ron Cey, Mike Piazza, David Wright and Ian Kinsler are still around to enjoy the game, reaping the spoils of retirement or striving to create lasting proofs of their time on the field of play. History suggests that if not for the helmet, their stories might have ended in the dirt.

But chaos still favors the margins of baseball, patrolling the narrow dividers between victory and ultimate defeat: One player whom Chapman’s ghost could not save, and whom youth could not resurrect, was Tony Conigliaro. On Aug. 18, 1967, at a time when the 22-year-old Red Sox outfielder had already amassed 104 big-league homers, Conigliaro suffered major damage to his left retina when hit by a fastball just below the helmet. Severely impaired, he missed the rest of that season and all of the next before returning in 1969 and posting career-best numbers in 1970, only to fall victim to compromised eyesight in 1971 and leave the sport. He would return, briefly, in 1975, but by then he was a sad ghost of his former self.

At 30—an age when Jamie Moyer had posted just 36 of his eventual 269 big-league wins—Conigliaro would retire, leaving unfinished what might have been a Hall of Fame career. (For his part, Hamilton would quickly develop a fear of pitching inside and, after posting an 0-5 record and 6.49 ERA in 1969, leave the game for good.) Seven years later, at 37, the onetime teenage rookie would suffer a heart attack and a stroke and then spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state before passing away, in 1990, at 45—an age when Moyer would post a 3.71 ERA and a 16-7 record.

Longevity is a contract that no one can claim; epitaphs and stat lines wait with equal urgency in the same class of margins that divide home runs from fly balls, safe calls from outs. In the end, what lasts is what you could never quite foresee. And so the viewer is left to ask himself: What is my lasting impression of Tony Conigliaro? Is it his Topps All-Star Rookie card, a portrait that shows a teenager’s eyes focused one some unformed future beyond the edges of the frame, or is it a later picture, of a 22-year-old man in a hospital bed, his black eye shut to what his right eye must see?

On Jan. 19, 1937, exactly 37 years after Marty Bergen committed a horrifying murder-suicide, Cy Young, Nap Lajoie and Tris Speaker each earned a place among the immortals by gaining election to the Hall of Fame.

On Jan. 19, 1961, exactly 29 years after Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis denied Shoeless Joe Jackson’s appeal for reinstatement, and exactly 11 years before former Dodger southpaw Sandy Koufax, at age 36, became the youngest player ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, former Rookie of the Year Don Newcombe announced his retirement, thus ending a once-flourishing career that had already stalled in a whiskey bottle.

Promising starts and premature endings, like first pitches and final outs, are inseparable from the sport of baseball, each anointing this date or that date as a happy or sad anniversary. No doubt, the two-faced god of transitions—of debuts and finales, of springtime hope and lifelong despair—presides as much over baseball as over other earthly endeavors. The facts of life are one with the game and guarantee its persistence through time.

New players will always replace old players before turning old themselves, and old players will always try to prolong their youth, through whatever means possible, before yielding to age and mortality. Koufax, like his successors Conigliaro, A-Rod, Trout and Harper, made his big-league debut at 19, signaling to the realm of possibility that a 300-win career had just begun, but after an age-30 season in which he posted a 27-9 record and a 1.73 ERA while earning his third Cy Young Award, the lefty succumbed to that most old-mannish of maladies, arthritis, and announced his retirement.

But Koufax, like Gilgamesh, has graced the Earth as both a historical figure and an epic figure, a man of the people who nonetheless played a central role in a legendary, cautionary tale while leaving for future generations a legacy of masterpieces to which to aspire. Today he is aging gracefully, and when his time is up he’ll have his hereafter in Cooperstown. Ars longa, vita brevis.

Meantime, though preternaturally gifted and precociously introduced, the man we might call Ozymandiarod has tried to redefine biogenesis and stay “forever young,” prolonging his mojo with pharmaceutical alchemy while boosting his Hall of Fame bona fides, which in a remarkably ironic twist appear to have taken a hit.

A-Rod can knock, but he might not get in. Sic transit 600-plus home runs.

In any case, long after A-Rod is gone from the game, talk of “legacy” will remain a part of his legacy. Math will still merge with biography to weigh on the keepers of fame, and myth will have its junction with fact. And so the viewers will continue to ask: How will we remember these players? Will we remember Marty Bergen as a catcher-turned-killer, or as an example that gifted athletes are not immune to the problems of the world? Will we remember Billy Hamilton as a player who stole 100-plus bases in each of his first three full seasons en route to the Hall of Fame, or as a man so reverent of humanity that he attended the funeral of a fatally troubled teammate?

And what of Charlie Peete? Will we remember him as a player we never had a chance to remember, or as a man we shouldn’t forget? Is he a lost prospect in a grainy photo, or a testament to what might happen and to what will?

And how about Miguel Fuentes? Will we remember the right-hander as the answer to a trivia question? Who threw the final pitch for the Seattle Pilots? Or might we recall him with a question much less trivial? Why must promise sometimes be snuffed?

We know for the most part how we’ll remember, say, the Say Hey Kid and The Luckiest Man On The Face Of The Earth, but no one knows for certain how we’ll look back on the likes of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. Their images have taken shape, no doubt, but have yet to finish forming.

Once the season begins, we can wonder if the moments they produce, rather than the proofs of that production, are enough to sustain their passion for the game, or if the prospects of immortal images and everlasting plaques are the engines that drive them upward and onward, the motors that make their young cells go. Meanwhile, the players might realize that the most rabid of fans are kind of right: Baseball is just a game, sure, but it’s still life and death. Every instant, after all, is the beginning of the end, and every end begins always.

Take Al Thake. On Aug. 9, 1872, at Hartford Trotting Park, the 22-year-old left fielder went 2 for 5 at the plate, with one RBI and one run scored, against eventual loser Cy Bentley. Twenty-six days later, Thake was dead.

As for the 21-year-old Bentley, he would end the season—and his career—with a record of 2-15 and an ERA of 6.06. Some seven months after delivering a final pitch to Thake, the pitcher would die of tuberculosis.

To his credit, he did complete 14 of the 17 games he started.

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John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
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Tom Dockery
Tom Dockery

Living in Texas as you do,I’m surprised that you made no mention of Jay Dahl,the only one time big leaguer to die while still a teenager.I can still recall listening to the game in which he pitched against the Mets for the Colts,who that night played the only rookie lineup ever.

Robert Haymond
Robert Haymond
A beautifully composed essay, Azure Texan, or rather, “meditation”, on aging and memory.  I really appreciate it.  Just a few reminders, incidentally.  Sandy Koufax is still around.  He was the unlucky victim of Bernie Madoff.  How is he responding to this failure not exactly of his own making.  And you also brought to mind the tragedy of Harry Agannis, the “Golden Greek”, an athlete dying young.  And Tony Conigliaro, the wondrous Red Sox phenomenon cut down by injury.  And one more, Azure Texan, whom you did not mention (probably by oversight):  Cleveland pitcher Herb Score, hit by a line drive… Read more »
Hank G.
Hank G.

Of course Roger Maris couldn’t see his likeness on a stamp. At the time his stamp was issued, the Post Office had a rule that no one could be pictured on a stamp until he or she had been deceased for 10 years (except for Presidents of the United States, who traditionally have been commemorated the year after they die).