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Baseball a game that, however true, loves its myths and stories

T.R. Sullivan Forth Worth Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH, Texas — Burt Hawkins, who was the Texas Rangers’ first public relations director, was a reporter for “The Washington Star” when he encountered the legendary Cy Young sitting in the stands at the old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland in 1943.

Denton True Young was 76 and living on a farm in Ohio, but he still attended an Indians game on occasion. Hawkins approached Young with notebook and pen in hand.

They talked about Bob Feller, the Indians’ right-hander who was known as “Rapid Robert” because of how hard he threw.

“Bob Feller is the best pitcher I’ve seen among the modern boys,” Young said. “He was crude when he started because he had a hitch in his delivery, but he overcame that.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging about myself,” Young added, “but Feller wasn’t as fast as Walter Johnson or myself.”

People say it isn’t bragging if you can back it up, and Young could point to his nickname as proof of how hard he threw in his day. As the story goes, when one of his pitches sailed past the catcher and shattered a wooden backstop, someone said that the damage looked like a cyclone had hit the grandstands.

And so Denton Young became Cyclone, or Cy for short.

“All us Youngs could throw,” Young once said. “I used to kill squirrels with a stone when I was a kid and my granddad once killed a turkey buzzard on the fly with a rock.”

As Annie Savoy said at the end of the movie “Bull Durham,” “You can look it up.”

Of course, many baseball myths have been accepted as fact down through the years. Perhaps no American institution is more steeped in mythology and legend than the national pastime.

From its disputed origin before the Civil War to Babe Ruth’s “Called Shot” in the 1932 World Series and the belief today that George Steinbrenner wants to win more than anybody simply because he spends more than anybody, baseball has always been rich in mythology.

One of the most endearing was the Curse of the Bambino, which was expunged by the Boston Red Sox when they won the World Series last fall. But the Billy Goat Curse still haunts the Chicago Cubs.

Ruth, “the Bambino,” is a source of numerous myths. You might have heard about his voracious appetite for many things. Ruth never seemed to do anything in moderation.

And while Hank Aaron supplanted Ruth as the major leagues’ career home run leader, Josh Gibson supposedly hit more than 800 in the Negro Leagues.

Ty Cobb was said to sharpen his spikes into razor-deadly points, all the better to steal bases and break up double plays.

Opponents tried to derail two pitching locomotives known as “The Ryan Express” and “The Big Train.”

Literature is filled with fantasies such as “Casey At The Bat,” “The Natural” and “Shoeless Joe.”

Gaylord Perry threw a spitball when it was against the rules, Mark McGwire was a modern-day Paul Bunyan, and Mickey Mantle reportedly hit a baseball 565 feet before anyone had ever heard of steroids.

There are memorable lines from accounts of baseball games. For instance, this one about Willie Mays, the “Say Hey Kid.”

“Harvey Kuenn gave it an honest pursuit, but the only center fielder in baseball who could have caught it, hit it.” Baseball is enriched by the mythology that surrounds the game.

“The whole history of baseball has the quality of mythology,” said Bernard Malamud, the novelist who added to the lore with his classic novel “The Natural,” which led to a movie and Hollywood depicting Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs hitting a game-winning home run with blood seeping from an old stomach wound.

Malamud easily could have been talking about a single event like Ruth’s “Called Shot” or an entire era, such as the post-World War II years that current commissioner Bud Selig and others love to call the Golden Age of Baseball. Those years were 1947 through `57, when New York was the center of the baseball universe.

Roger Kahn immortalized that period with his best seller “The Boys of Summer” about the Brooklyn Dodgers. Joe DiMaggio brought a regal air and grace to center field at Yankee Stadium. In the 1950s, three of the best center fielders in baseball history — Mays, Mantle and Duke Snider — all played in New York.

And who will forget the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” when Bobby Thomson’s dramatic playoff home run capped an improbable late-season comeback that gave the New York Giants the National League pennant against the archrival Dodgers.

Those wonderful events overshadowed the fact that baseball was in crisis during the period, when there were eight teams in each league and no major league baseball west of the Mississippi River.

Attendance was dwindling in many cities, the minor leagues were being contracted, and the Negro Leagues died. By the end of 1960, six teams, including the Dodgers and Giants, had picked up and moved.

Historian Bill James said of that mythical era, “It is a story about fear and urban decay, about a panic-stricken industry scrambling for survival.”

Somehow all that is swept aside when historian Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about “the dawn of a glorious era in baseball, an era that saw one of three New York teams competing in the World Series every year, an era when the lineups on most teams remained intact year after year, allowing fans to extend loyalty and love to their chosen team …”

Through the march of baseball history, the harsh realities were often overlooked to celebrate the mythology and romance.

Those east of the Hudson River were always superb at building the myths that have enveloped baseball for almost two centuries.

But while the Texas Rangers are relative newcomers, they have contributed to baseball lore as well. In Florida spring training in 1986, rookie outfielder Pete Incaviglia hit a vicious line drive that put a hole through the outfield fence at old Pompano Beach ballpark.

Incaviglia did it in his first batting practice off manager Bobby Valentine. “It was a big moment,” former Rangers public relations director John Blake said. “We used to give tours.”

The only problem is the story might have been a little embellished.

“It actually didn’t go through the fence, it took a chunk off the top of the fence,” Blake admitted. “The fence was also fairly well decayed by that time. This was our last year in Pompano. He did put the ball through it, but the outfield fence wasn’t exactly made of steel.”

It makes you wonder whether Cy Young really did shatter a backstop with his fastball.

Nonetheless, former Rangers general manager Tom Grieve said, “You have to love the myths of baseball. Sure, if you could go back in time and watch a historical event as it really happened, I would imagine most baseball myths wouldn’t stand the test of time. Most start out with some basis of fact and get embellished over time.

“But, if you love baseball,” Grieve said, “I say go with the flow.”

As author Ring Lardner once wrote, “Babe Herman did not triple into a triple play, but he did double into a double play, which is the next best thing.”

Herman was a pre-World War II outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers who has a mythical quality about him.

But here is the truth about what happened on Aug. 15, 1926.

Herman came to bat with the bases loaded and nobody out, and hit a ball into the gap in right-center.

One run scored. Dazzy Vance, the slow-footed Brooklyn pitcher, was running from second, but he initially held up, and stopped at third. The runner on first went all the way to third. And Herman, head down and legs churning, raced all the way to third, too, thinking he had a three-run triple. Instead, he met up with his two Dodgers teammates.

Vance, first to reach third base, was safe, but the other two runners were tagged out. In what added to the Dodgers’ reputation as the lovable “Brooklyn Bums,” yet another story for the ages was born.

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