Monday, April 14, 2014


[We have not mentioned it for awhile, so let's do so quickly here. This series of entries celebrates the landmark exhibition of a very special symbiosis that exists between Japanese-American artist Ben Sakoguchi and "anti-institution for all seasons" The Baseball Reliquary. It's entitled (as our headline says...) "Purpose Pitch" and it's showing at the Arcadia Public Library through April 29.]

With the next two "orange crate art" paintings taken from Ben's Unauthorized History of Baseball series, we enter into one of the game's oddest paradoxes. While baseball has become increasingly fascinated with home runs (actually, besotted would be the more accurate word...), there has been a problem with any one individual hitting too many of them in a single season.

This first manifested itself in 1961, when Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle made the first serious run at Babe Ruth's single-season home run record.

It was a two-part problem. First, there was the fact that Babe's record was a round number (60). People go ga-ga over round numbers, and the idea that a round number would no longer represent the pinnacle of power in baseball was more than distressing--it was downright un-American.

Second, 1961 was an expansion year in the American League, and eight additional games were placed on the schedule to accommodate the new ten-team league. Commissioner Ford Frick, fully in thrall of Problem #1, created Problem #2 by issuing an edict that Ruth's record could be official broken only if HR #61 came within the old 154-game schedule.

Otherwise, there would need to be an asterisk (*) placed by anyone who exceeded 60 homers.

And, of course, Roger Maris managed to hit 61 homers that year, but it took him until game 162; and, as Ben so forcefully notes, he was given a bushel's worth of asterisks from the Lords of Baseball (and many of the serfs as well).

After that, the Lords really decided that they just didn't want anyone to get too close to that particular record again. They adjusted the strike zone in 1963; they pressed for uniform ballpark dimensions that eliminated most of the short porches; they quite probably fiddled with the baseball.

The result was that only three batters managed to hit 50+ homers in a season for the next thirty-three years (Willie Mays, 1965; George Foster, 1977; Cecil Fielder, 1990).

That changed in 1995, when Albert Belle hit 50 in a season shortened by the belated strike settlement. Offense had taken an sudden swing upward in 1993-94, and Belle's season started a cacophony of dingers.

In the next twelve years, there were twenty-two (22) player-seasons in which 50+ homers were hit, including six instances where both Ruth and Maris' totals were exceeded.

While this was exhilarating at the time (the 1998 race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa was a deliriously souped-up "do-over" of the 1961 Maris-Mantle assault on Ruth), the bloom seemed to wither on the vine when Barry Bonds came along in 2001 and shattered McGwire's new "round number" record (70) with a figure that was not only not round, it wasn't even divisible (!).

There are times when we figure that it was the irretrievable loss of a "round number" home run record that launched the steroids backlash. Round numbers are just not something to mess with, and the last ten years have seen a campaign of moralizing that makes the Ladies' Temperance Society look like just what it was--a goddam tea party. (And let's not tread further down that analogy, OK??)

Hence the three reviled "amigos" in Ben's cleverly named Asteroid Brand. (And the cleverness extends to the carefully symmetrical logo design between this painting and its companion, where Maris, the other maudit masher, is given his dollop of sympathy.) All of these guys have had some form of cosmic slop visited upon them because they did something just a bit too well--and the glow of the stars has become tainted and unnatural as a result.

But what Ben is telling us is that when we look to the sky in search of our demons, we're not going to find these guys depicted up there, in those pointy, asterisk-like stars. Once we figure that out, we will forgive these guys our trespasses--and new shapes will grace the sky as a result. Roger Maris is in the Shrine of the Eternals, and rightfully so; if the guardians at baseball's barbarous gate dawdle too long in the case of his other "amigos," it might just come to pass that Barry, Sammy and Mac will be twinkling in the Reliquary's night sky.

And there would be absolutely nothing wrong with that.