by James Scott Bell
On this day in history, in 1936, the Baseball Hall of Fame selected its first group of inductees. They were inarguably the five best players of their time: Ty Cobb, the greatest hitter. Babe Ruth, the greatest slugger. Honus Wagner, the best all-around player; Christy Mathewson, the most skilled pitcher; and Walter Johnson, the man with the greatest (and most feared) fastball. No one seriously questioned this inaugural class.
But during the first two decades of the 20th century, the question of who was the best player of all boiled down to a choice between Cobb and Wagner.
Thy Cobb, the ultimate (and many considered dirtiest) competitor.
Honus Wagner, quietly dominant as both hitter and fielder.
Cobb, an outfielder, trim and fast as an antelope.
Wagner, a shortstop, bow-legged and built like a beer truck.
The one time they faced each other was in the 1909 World Series. Wagner’s Pittsburgh Pirates beat Cobb’s Detroit Tigers in seven games.
In one game, Cobb got to first base and yelled at Wagner. “I’m gonna steal second, krauthead!” The mild-mannered Wagner said nothing.
On the next pitch Cobb took off. The catcher threw the ball to Wagner, who knew Cobb’s penchant for sliding into bases spikes high, often ripping flesh from an opponent’s leg. Wagner gracefully avoided Cobb’s dreadful skewers and slapped his glove across Cobb’s face. Cobb was out and with a bloody lip for his troubles. (This account comes to us through oral history. If it isn’t true, well, it should have been.)
In the series, Wagner outhit Cobb, .333 to .241.
I bring this up because I am a baseball history buff, and recently ran across a YouTube video of Honus Wagner, age 59, talking about how he still loves being around the game of baseball. It was during spring training for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1933, and Wagner, now a coach, was out there taking batting practice and fielding with the young players.
It’s wonderful to see! Here he is, smacking fastballs and scooping up grounders. And not like some old man. His swing still had power, and his fielding was beautiful.
Then we see him coaching a runner at third, clapping his hands, chattering, “Come on now, here we go now, let’s go now, come on, baby!”
He is having so much fun. He played the game because he loved it, not because of the peanuts players were paid in those early days. He did eventually get paid the princely sum of $10,000 a year. (In 1930, Babe Ruth managed to squeeze $80,000 a year from the Yankees. When a reporter asked how Ruth could accept a larger salary than President Herbert Hoover, and during the Depression yet, Ruth said, “I had a better year than he did.”)
So…have fun when you write! When I’m typing, I try to stay loose and let the words flow. I tell myself, “Come on now, here we go now, let’s go now, come on, baby!”
You know who was the Honus Wagner of writing? Ray Bradbury. You can sense the joy he had when writing his stories. He talked about the need for this mindset, especially in Zen in the Art of Writing. His prime output was the 1950s, but he never stopped, all the way until his death in 2012. “Every morning,” he wrote in Zen, “I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.”
That’s the sense of play we need to nurture.
Yes, there’s work involved with this craft. Of course. But treat it like practice. You can still have fun knowing the effort it making you better.
Another thing about Wagner (which was the opposite of Cobb) is that both fans and fellow players loved him. On the field, he played fair. Off the field, he was humble and thoughtful of others. He famously demanded that the American Tobacco Company stop distributing his baseball card with their product because he didn’t want his likeness to entice kids to smoke. As a result, the few of those 1909 cards that remain are the holy grail for collectors. Last year one of them sold for $7.25 million.
Remember that, writer, when you put yourself out there on social media, which pretends to “reward” rudeness, confrontation, and ranting with “likes.” That becomes a drug from which you will inevitably crash.
Keep it fun, keep it clean, keep writing.
So what about you? Do you do have a sense of fun when you write? Is there anything you purposely do to keep it that way?
And here is that two-minute clip of the great Honus Wagner, talking about the game he loved: