“So appalling as to be almost beyond belief:” The 1897 letter that everyone really needs to read

NEW YORK — I was sitting against the wall in a booth at City Diner on 90th Street and Broadway. My friend Weinstein was sitting across from me. I was trying to convince him to come to a baseball trivia event that I’d just heard about, hosted by Ted Berg, the nation’s foremost expert. Weinstein, characteristically, was underselling himself.

“I suck at baseball trivia,” he said. “The only thing I know is that in 1897, the commissioner sent out a letter yelling at players for saying ‘go fuck yourself.'”

I paused.

“What?” I said.

It was true. Weinstein pulled out his phone and googled it. Seconds later, he began a dramatic reading. And my life hasn’t been the same since.

I am passing the contents of this letter along, because I really do believe that they deserve to be known far and wide. Here is how the letter, which was really sent out by the commissioner of organized baseball in 1897, begins:


In a contest between two leading clubs during the championship season of 1897, the stands being crowded with patrons of the game, a gentleman occupying a seat in the front row near the players’ bench, asked one of the visiting players who was going to pitch for them. The player made no reply. He then asked a second time. The gentleman, his wife who sat with him, and others of both sexes, within hearing distance, were outraged upon hearing the player reply in a loud, brutal tone, “Oh, go fuck yourself.”

On being remonstrated with by his fellow-players, who told him there were ladies present, he retorted he didn’t give a damn, that they had no business there anyhow.

This shocking indecency was brought to the attention of the League at the Philadelphia meeting in November, 1897, and a committee was appointed to report upon this baseball crime, define and suggest for it a remedy.

Weinstein was in the midst of a dramatic reading, but when he reached the line about a committee investigating the baseball crime, he broke character and burst out laughing. Then he pulled himself together and continued.

In response to nearly one hundred communications addressed to umpires, managers and club officials, soliciting definite, positive and personal knowledge of obscene and indecent language upon the ball field, the committee received a deluge of information that was so appalling as to be almost beyond belief, showing conclusively and beyond contradiction that there was urgent need for legislative action on the part of the League.

He took another pause to comport himself. Then he read the last paragraph.

That such brutal language as “You cock-sucking son of a bitch!” “You prick-eating bastard!” “You cunt-lapping dog!” “Kiss my ass, you son of a bitch!” “A dog must have fucked your mother when she made you!” “I fucked your mother, you sister, your wife!” “I’ll make you suck my ass!” “You cock-sucker!” and many other revolting terms are used by a limited number of players to intimidate umpires and opposing players, and are promiscuously used upon the ball field, is vouched for by the almost unanimous assertion of those invited to speak, and who are competent to speak from personal knowledge. Whether it be the language quoted above, or some other indecent and infamous invention of depravity, the League is pledged to remove it from the ball field, whether it necessitates the removal of the offender for a day or for all time. Any indecent or obscene word, sentence, or expression, unfit for print or the human ear, whether mentioned in these instructions or not, is contemplated under the law and within its intent and meaning, and will be dealt with without fear or favor when the fact is established by conclusive proof.

I don’t remember what I said when he finished reading, but the commissioner would have hated it. And then my mind drifted to Juan Soto, and I had a laugh thinking of how angry he would make an 1897 baseball commissioner, and how funny it would be to watch.


A Double in August

NEW YORK — The Mets have hired Carlos Beltrán as their manager, which seems to have aroused in Mets fans all sorts of pro and anti-Beltrán stances. We all remember Beltrán, and the moment that divides fans so strongly. It was an unhittable pitch. He had a great series. We didn’t have to wait until the ninth inning to put together a scoring opportunity. But the facts remain.

Personally, I’m a Beltrán fan. You don’t judge a career by an at-bat, and Beltrán, with his 400 home runs and 300 stolen bases as a switch hitter, had a helluva career. Now, he’s all the more likely to enter Cooperstown with a Mets cap on his head. But forget 2006 and his Mets career for a moment: judge Beltrán as a manager. He knows baseball and can handle New York, and as such, he will do just fine.

I’m not too concerned with who the manager is, if we’re honest. I could have learned to love Joe Girardi — although I don’t understand where Mets’ fans’ sudden fervent zeal (Zeile?) for him came from — just as I’m sure Beltrán will do the job admirably. I cared far more about last offseason’s GM search than this year’s parade of interviews, and since the Wilpons passed on Chaim Bloom and let him turn some other team into a powerhouse instead, Beltrán, or anyone else who got the job, was going to manage Brodie Van Wagenen’s team. Managers are temporary. Ripple effects of GM moves — Jarred Kelenic has left the building — can be forever.

In fact, Beltrán wasn’t the only Mets outfielder in the news. The Mets officially declined Juan Lagares’ $9.5 million option, making Lagares a free agent. Besides 2014 and other occasional flashes, Lagares never managed to turn himself into a complete hitter at the plate. The field, of course, was a different story. Lagares won a Gold Glove in 2014, and if he’d stayed healthy and hit well enough to play every day, surely would have won several more. His defense was so good that it earned him a $23 million contract extension in 2015.

The offense, just good enough (.281/.321/.382) to keep his glove on the field in 2014, faded. But Lagares’ glove was always there, lurking just out of sight. A line drive to deep center evoked familiar worry, but also excitement: what’s Juan going to do this time? He became an offensive liability, but never seemed disgruntled or angry. He worked quietly and hard, always hoping to return to where he’d once been, but never quite getting there.

Now, though, we have one of those good problems. Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo each hold down outfield spots; Robinson Cano is anchored, all too literally, at second base, which means that if Beltrán wants both Jeff McNeil and J.D. Davis and their formidable bats in the lineup every day, one will have to play left field while the other plays third base. Lagares, then, does not have a starting spot, and to Wilpon and company, a reserve outfielder is not worth $9.5 million.

I remember the last time I thought very specifically about Juan Lagares. It was August 4th. The Mets were below .500 but rising fast, beating up on the Pirates. I was in a boat whizzing around a lake in southern Maine, making sure campers didn’t moon houses as we passed, or whatever campers might find funny these days. I was also tracking the Mets game on my phone.

Top of the sixth. Lagares is taking his first at-bat of the game; he came in earlier to replace Michael Conforto in center. Conforto moved to right to replace Jeff McNeil. McNeil moved to second to replace Robinson Cano, because Cano came up limping as he tried for second on a line drive off the fence, because he is 36 and too fragile to dive or run fast.

So Lagares hits. He’s batting .186. But he gets a pitch down the heart of the plate, and he doesn’t miss it. A double down the left field line, a run coming home, Lagares trotting into second.

It was baseball justice. Vindication. A lollipop down the heart of the plate, and Lagares smacked it. Saw his pitch and hit it. It’s a lesson, indeed, that our new manager would do well to impart to his players, and also to fans who may dislike him: there is justice in baseball. No matter how many called third strikes you’ve taken, how many plays you haven’t made, how many hanging curves you’ve fouled off…eventually you’ll see a meatball and mash it for extra bases, and things will fall right back into place.

I don’t know where Juan Lagares will end up, or indeed, whether there’s a chance he stays in Queens. But I hope he comes back to Citi Field eventually. I’ll wear the snow-white LAGARES 12 jersey I bought in early 2014, and cheer on a kid who worked his heart out. Maybe he’ll smack another one of those doubles down the left field line, and I’ll think of August, when the sun was hot and the water was cool, when Juan Lagares was a hero and the playoffs were on the horizon and there was always another chance to make things happen, whether Carlos Beltrán struck out or not.