"Richard," my great Uncle Ralph used to say, just about every chance he got, "they dont make baseball players like they used to." And if anybody knew how they made baseball players, especially in his day, the first couple of decades of the 20th century, Ralph Cratty knew. Uncle Ralph, my grandmothers youngest brother, had seen all the old greats play the game. In fact, as a pre-teen back in about 1909, he used to play catch with one of them; Grover Cleveland Alexander "The Great," Hall of Fame hurler who got his pro ball start in Galesburg of the old Central Association.
"Alex," as Uncle Ralph would always insist, "was the greatest of all time." And despite the fact that Im sure the old mans memory was clouded by his personal friendship with the 1926 World Series hero, there is more than enough objective literature on the subject to support most of his claims. But then Uncle Ralph was never too embarrassed by his sweeping generalities to go back and add as an after thought one or two or three other names taking up space in that baseball encyclopedia atop his broad Irish shoulders.
"Of course you got your Walter Big Train Johnson," hed usually always toss in almost as an after thought. "He had some good stuff." "But cher Christy Mathewson was no slouch either." The greatest hitter, without exception save in certain situations which hed always manage to bring up himself, "was Shoeless Joe Jackson," of the notorious 1919 Black Sox.
"However, you cant exactly leave out the likes of a Ty Cobb, even though he was a man of evil temper and even eviler mouth," as Uncle Ralph could be counted on to add in the same breath.
Greatest home run hitter?
"Without a doubt, the Sultan of Swat, King of Klout, the Bambino himself, George Herman Babe Ruth," hed pronounce. I always stood up for the heroes of my own youth the likes of Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Roger Maris. I can still remember all the fuss and hoopla that accompanied the 1961 chase of baseballs greatest prize; Ruths single-season home run mark of 60. As a 14-year-old, avid New York Yankee fan I followed the Maris march throughout that long hot summer.
And the entire country was looking on, with the help of live broadcasts of the final few at bats, as he closed in on the magic mark. When he finally did turn the trick, hitting his 61st on the final day (Sunday, Oct. 1) of the campaign, the controversy settled on the extra eight games in the 61 season.
There was also a complaint about a "juiced ball," one wound a little tighter and prone to supposedly traveling a little farther, as Maris closed in on the one record nobody, least of all the powers that be in baseball, wanted broken.
Thats why, when Maris finally did crack the mark, it was tainted with an back-handed asterisk.
Well, today all the talk about "juice" has nothing to do with the manufacture of the baseball but with the enhancement of the men who hit that ball.
In fact, there have been significant questions raised about each and every one of the three men who have eclipsed the Maris mark in the intervening years.
Now it seems evident that Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds all had more than just a little chemical help.
So, looking back on it, far too late to give my Uncle Ralph the satisfaction he so richly deserved, no, they dont make baseball players like they used to.
Unfortunately, now theyre making them in the chemistry lab. You know, it would serve baseball right to have to reinstate Roger Mariss home run mark as the last man not to need a hypodermic needle and a bottle of pills to turn the feat.
That way there might be some justice in all of this for both my uncle and me.