Jackie Mitchell, The Girl Who Struck Out Ruth And Gehrig: A Legend And Ethics Conundrum

jackie-mitchell

The Jackie Mitchell saga is a great, feel-good story ruined by ethics rot. On one level, it is exactly the kind of tale that compels the treatment recommended by the old newspaper editor in John Ford’s “the Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” On another, it is an ethics mess, which might explain why I had never heard of Jackie Mitchell, once a proto-feminist icon, until I cracked open my new issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

Mitchell was a Depression era Chattanooga teenager who had been taught how to pitch by her friend and neighbor, Major League ace Dazzy Vance. A star on local women’s baseball teams, the tomboy southpaw was signed to a pro contract by the promotion-minded owner of a local AA level minor league team, the Lookouts, in 1931. Her big moment came when the New York Yankees came through Chattanooga from Spring Training on the way to opening the season up North. Lookouts owner Joe Engel arranged for two exhibition games against the Bronx Bombers, who, you baseball fans should know, included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Engel promoted the game as a David and Goliath showdown with Jackie playing David, and he was rewarded with a full stadium. Then this happened: Continue reading

William Aramony and the Fallen Hero Dilemma

As he usually did, the extraterrestrial, mutant, collective or whatever he was William Shakespeare (no human could be that wise) had it exactly right, and a long time ago: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” In a dispirited column on the CNN website, obviously inspired by the Paterno debacle, ESPN writer L.Z. Granderson writes that he has become afraid to watch the news, fearing that another of his heroes will be shown to be a fraud:

“And when we find out our gods are not perfect, we’re confused. We don’t know what to do with a storyline where the perceived protagonist is complex. Heroes aren’t supposed to do bad things. That’s what villains are for. So either the good supersedes the bad, or the bad makes it impossible to remember the good. We don’t like it when such duality exists in one person. We don’t want to know our heroes are human.” Continue reading

Major League Baseball, Forgivability, and List Ethics

Unforgivable?*

Bleacher Reports is an enjoyable sports website, and it gives opportunities to aspiring writers and bloggers, some of whom are quite talented.  In addition to typical opinion pieces and reporting, the site has a fondness for lists, often trivial to the extreme, like “The 50 Ugliest Athletes of All Time.” The titles are all misnomers, because there is almost never any criteria given for the choices or their relative ranking. An accurate title would be, “The Fifty Athletes I Think Are The Ugliest.”  And of course, who cares? (Don Mossi, by the way, was the ugliest athlete ever, no matter what anybody says.)

A recent list, however did bother me. It is called “The Fifty Most Unforgivable Acts in Baseball History,“ and much of the problem with it lies in the title itself. If you are going to write about history, there is a duty perform diligent research, even for a silly online list. Misrepresentations online have a large probability of misleading people.  The title is a misrepresentation, like “The 50 Ugliest Athletes,” but unlike that list, there is some harm done. The list isn’t close to complete; it isn’t consistent; it isn’t well-researched. I’d bet that the author, Robert Knapel, wrote it off the top of his head.  Anyone who looked at the list and assumed, as the author represents, that these are truly the low points—“the dark side,” as the author puts it—of major league baseball would be seriously misinformed.

There are unequivocally, probably universally recognized incidents and events that are infinitely worse that most of the items on the list.  Just a  few samples: Continue reading

An Ethics Lesson From the All-Star Game

It really is one of the most enduring sports deja vus—every year, sportswriters and fans engage in thousands upon thousands of words of complaint regarding baseball’s annual All-Star Game, the 2011 edition of which will occur tomorrow night in Phoenix. This year was no exception, and as is always the case, no consensus or conclusions were reached, except that everyone agrees that the game is mishandled, mismanaged, unfair and illogical in every possible way.

I have been thinking of the game’s plight as an ethics case study that proves a core truth: you can’t do the right thing if you don’t know your objectives, stakeholders, and how to prioritize them. In the All-Star Game as it has evolved, there are competing interests and stakeholders with no clear agreement regarding which takes priority over the other. It is literally impossible to do be fair: somebody always will be disadvantaged, and because there is no single objective either, utilitarian balancing doesn’t work.

It was not always this way. When the All-Star game was first conceived in 1935, it was intended to raise money for the players’ pension fund, the players then being generally paid little more than grocery clerks.  Since the game had to draw as much of a paying crowd as possible to make money, the rosters and starting line-ups were constructed to include the biggest stars and most popular players. It didn’t matter whether Babe Ruth was off to a great start or not: it wouldn’t be an All-Star Game without him in the starting line-up, so he was the right-fielder. Managers picked the team that they thought would both be the “starriest” and that would give them the best chance to win the game. Continue reading

Unethical Questions, Anti-Semitism, and Greenberg’s Chase

I first encountered the device of the unfounded accusatory rhetorical when, as a teenager, I became fascinated by the Lincoln assassination conspiracy. A best-seller at the time was Web of Conspiracy, an over-heated brief for the theory that Lincoln’s War Secretary, Edwin Stanton, and others were in league with John Wilkes Booth. The author, a mystery writer named Theodore Roscoe, was constantly suggesting sinister motives by asking questions like “The sealed records of the official assassination investigation were destroyed in a mysterious fire. Was the War Department afraid of what the documents would prove? Would they have implicated Stanton? We will never know.”  This tactic is on view regularly today, used generously by the purveyors of modern conspiracies, but it is also a regrettably common tool of journalists and historians. Now the eclectic sports journalist Howard Megdal (who also edits a terrific website, The Perpetual Posthas found a new use for it. His question: “When Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers made a run at Babe Ruth’s season home run record, falling two short with 58 in 1938, was he pitched around because he was Jewish?” Continue reading