The cultural roots of race and baseball

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m posting links about sports history, books, culture and the arts that I haven’t mentioned here before. If you have any suggestions on great sports reads you’d like to bring to my attention, contact me at Enjoy!

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On the surface, I’ve got absolutely nothing in common with Michael Tillery: He’s an African-American from the urban Northeast, heavily seeped in hip-hop and rap and the New York Yankees.

I’m white and hopelessly suburban in the Sun Belt, raised on a racially-mixed Top 40 playlist that in more recent years has morphed into a blend of Sinatra and Mozart. Dead. White. Males. I loathe pinstripes and while I’ve been a big fan of jazz and rhythm and blues, I’ve only tuned into rap accidentally.

But through the magical serendipity of social media, we’ve struck up a cordial association online that I value strongly. He’s had me on his podcast on Rapstation Radio a couple of times, and I do appreciate that.

During All-Star Game festivities last week, he Tweeted out a link to a 2012 post from his blog, The Starting Five, that boosted my admiration for his work even more. In “There is no joy in Blackville: Baseball and Blues,” Tillery high in his post wrote this paragraph:

“The writer and essayist Gerald Early during Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary ‘Baseball’ said that ‘when they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They’re the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created.’ “

Negro League BaseballBingo, not just to Early for his keen observation, but to Tillery for employing it as a prelude to his riff on baseball and race. The occasion of his post was the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s arrival in Major League Baseball and the dearth of African-Americans currently in the game.

And it is an exemplary examination of the topic, laced with insight from two other noted African-American writers, Amiri Baraka and Ralph Wiley. Like the blues, Tillery writes, baseball developed separately for black Americans. When Robinson crossed the color line, the cultural gap was enormous, and in baseball it has never fully closed. The sport has suffered as a result:

“But perhaps more importantly what was being devalued was the black attitude or approach to the game. Where has the improvisational allure of the Willie Mays basket catch or base running of Rickey Henderson gone? As is the case often with things that reach its peak the downfall is already underway. Black baseball reached its peak of popularity with participation in MLB in the late 1970s. That run lasted 30 years but the change was already afoot a decade or so earlier.

“You see, playing the blues, jazz or rapping is not a rebellious act of black people. It is within the context of white America but it’s squarely within the tradition of making sense of this culture that historically devalues its existence.

“The most transformative moment for re-contextualizing this dilemma for black music may have been the 1940s black jazz musicians. This was years after Zora Neale Hurston, the famed writer and lone voice among the Harlem Renaissance crowd that tried to remind blacks of its rich heritage. But these jazz bluesmen who witnessed black music degenerate into soulless imitation by black and white artists alike and drift toward a composer medium rather than a musician where individuality and improvisational mattered. They returned it back to its roots with bebop. This music much like blues was not for dancing but for thinking.”

(Here’s more on how the cultural institution — and business — of black baseball struggled post-Robinson in a 2004 Q and A with Neil Lanctot, author of “Negro League Baseball.”)

While the majors quickly claimed the cream of the crop of the Negro Leagues, those in charge of the big leagues, according to Tillery:

” . . . never adopted the stance or attitude of the players. In fact, the pathos and joy of the player and fan were expected to be forsaken for ‘dignity’ for the purpose of not disturbing white folk. The decision was made to sacrifice the national business interests of the black community for cultural assimilation.

Baseball’s integration took place before the height of the Civil Rights movement. During the 1960s, with race consciousness high, African-American athletes found new outlets like the American Football League and the American Basketball Association more amenable for cultural expression.

Blacks remain the solid majority of players in the NFL and NBA, which prevailed over the upstarts but, as Tillery notes, also “inherited the black aesthetic those other leagues cultivated.”


Robert Ruck, author of the 2012 book “Raceball,” echoes some of these observations and is hopeful that “the Caribbean will avoid the fate endured by baseball in the black community, which lost control of its own sporting life.”

But unlike so many of the media hand-wringers about baseball, Tillery reaches a different conclusion:

“Black people still do play baseball and maybe it’s not the game that is too slow — it’s just that America has sped up.”

This is the kind of cultural writing about sports — regardless of whether it involves race — that’s so badly missing in our mainstream media. While not dismissing some of the concerns about black youths and baseball, Tillery essentially blows away the arguments of sportswriters who don’t plumb what he calls “deeper root explanations.”

Sometimes it’s clear-eyed, unsentimental writers with the proper reverence for history and authentic culture who are best able to understand what committees and Cassandras scratching the surface simply cannot.

Sports History Files: Germany’s stylish soccer renaissance

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m posting recent links about sports history, books, culture and the arts that I haven’t mentioned here before. If you have any suggestions on great sports reads you’d like to bring to my attention, contact me at Enjoy!

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German soccer is cool. No, really.

While Die Mannschaft is no stranger to World Cup success — spacing out four titles every other decade since 1954 — the stylish Germans who hoisted the Jules Rimet Trophy in Rio last week have replaced Spain as the “it” boys of the game.

Tor!How long that status lasts may depend on more than the continued success of a fluid, fast-paced style, the result of an overhaul of the country’s youth development structure that’s been written about amply over the last few years.

Germany’s regard also figures to ride on how star players handle their success.

German journalist Raphael Honigstein is among the many chroniclers, having penned this piece for Sports Illustrated during the 2010 World Cup. The young stars that coach Joachim Löw has brought together over the last four years are the products of that revamped system, shepherded along the way by 1990 World Cup winner Jürgen Klinsmann, the current U.S. coach.

Just before Germany met Argentina in the final at the Maracanã, another article by Honigstein on previous German soccer dynasties was published in EightByEight, one of the new American soccer glossies that’s tapping into greater domestic spectator interest in the sport.

In recalling the legacy of Germany’s 1974 World Cup champions who triumphed over Johan Cruyff and The Netherlands in Munich, Honigstein, in “How Germany Got Its Game On” offers a reminder that winners aren’t always well-loved.

This German team — technically, it was West Germany — truly didn’t endear itself to its own citizenry. Despite having the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller, the West Germans didn’t play an appealing style of soccer. Losing to East Germany in the group stage in the only international match ever between the divided nations also didn’t help.

The letdown was permanent, as Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger wrote in “Tor!: The Story of German Football:”

“There already was a sour taste to the 1974 triumph. These men weren’t like the players of 1954, 1966, 1970 or even 1972. They were men who had got the business done after first severely disappointing both the country and their benign coach. As Cruyff and his teammates walked dejectedly off the pitch, it was suddenly no longer clear who the good guys were. Fittingly, all laughter and merriment died out that same evening. It was the beginning of the decline.”

Honigstein picks up the story there, through the perspective of gritty defender Paul Breitner, who both personally and politically was a revolutionary character in his country’s sporting history. Honigstein chronicles Breitner’s troubled relationship with the national team through the 1982 World Cup that ended for West Germany with keeper Toni Schumacher’s borderline criminal challenge on French striker Patrick Battison.

While Breitner’s persona captured the rebelliousness of the first post-war German generation, “football and its image were changing. Professionalism and tactical realpolitik became more important, and so did money.”

Breitner was among those cashing in, and eventually his “cynicism infected the whole side” as the national team prepared for Spain ‘82:

“The horrors of Breitner’s rabble of a team, the shame of 1982, became entrenched in a stereotype, the prism through which all subsequent West German and German teams were seen abroad. They became the Panzers, arrogant, methodical, and functional soldiers—even when they weren’t. Afro Breitner, the free-spirited attacking fullback, was forgotten; clean- shaven Breitner, torn between advocating a lack of discipline off the pitch and maximum discipline on it, took his place in the collective memory. The best you could say about his Germans was that they never gave up. Breitner’s ‘Kohl football,’ or at least the perception of it, outlived Kohl’s reign, effectively lasting until 2006. Then Jürgen Klinsmann changed everything.”

Honigstein continues through a unified Germany’s hosting of the World Cup in 2006, which unleashed an unusual expression of national pride among young people that carries on today.

With gestures from current players like Mesut Özil — who’s donating his World Cup check so Brazilian children can get operations — Die Mannschaft of the present time have pulled off the novel feat winning over fans around the world both on and off the field.

Midweek Books: Cycling and fiction

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m posting links this week about sports history, books, culture and the arts that I haven’t mentioned here before. If you have any suggestions on great sports reads you’d like to bring to my attention, contact me at Enjoy!

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If you haven’t heard of the magnificent book blog The Millions, do yourself a favor and have a look around. Sports books are occasionally featured, and I can’t think of a better summertime topic than the Tour de France that’s currently underway and cycling in general.

The RiderEarlier this month, literary critic Matt Seidel wrote about Dutch writer Tim Krabbé’s 1978 book “The Rider,” which has been lauded as one of the best novels about cycling.

It’s about Krabbé’s participation in an amateur cycling race in France. Here’s the first paragraph from Seidel’s piece:

“The ongoing Tour de France is the most novelistic of sporting events: There is ample character development with riders responding to three weeks of brutal tests; plenty of intrigue with opportunistic alliances and rivalries springing up; masterful set pieces like ascents up the denuded landscape of Mt. Ventoux and group sprints through medieval towns; villains, be they deranged fans sprinkling the road with tire-puncturing tacks or a certain disgraced Texan; some upstairs-downstairs class tensions between aristocratic team leaders and their toiling, water bottle-ferryingdomestiques; and finally, a romance between man and exquisitely engineered, custom-fitted and gorgeous machine.”

Seidel writes the book, finally translated into English and published in 2003, is often overwrought, but that Krabbé ” knows how to let the air out of his inflated rhetoric.”

Read the whole thing: “The Scourge of the Peloton.”

“The Rider” is among the Top 10 cycling novels listed in 2010 by William Fotheringham, cycling columnist for The Guardian.

Before there was Bouton there was Brosnan

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m posting recent links about sports history, books, culture and the arts that I haven’t mentioned here before. If you have any suggestions on great sports reads you’d like to bring to my attention, contact me at Enjoy!

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The contemporary athlete memoir is hardly what it used to be, and has rarely approached the anomaly of ballplayer-as-writer the way Jim Brosnan did when he revolutionized the form 55 years ago with the publication of “The Long Season.”

But Brosnan, who died in June at the age of 84, did more than peel back the veneer of the clubhouse for readers. He had a good deal to do with how sportswriting evolved from endless, purplish hagiography to the litany of blistering psychodrama of our times.

In terms of style and temperament, what Brosnan wrote occupies a more nuanced, moderate ground that’s badly needed today, but that may seem quaint to those who traffick in blunt “reality” and snark.

The Long SeasonSportswriter extraordinaire John Schulian examined Brosnan’s legacy in remarks posted on The Stacks, Deadspin’s tribute to classic sportswriting. While Brosnan’s prose wasn’t as vulgar as what was to come in the 1960s and beyond, Schulian says that the former reliever was provocative in a way that fit his times.

In what was ostensibly a book about the 1959 Cincinnati Reds season, “The Long Season” represented more than a snapshot of a year in the game:

“By lifting the veil of secrecy from his world, Brosnan ventured where no player had ever gone.

“So Brosnan was the first of baseball’s dugout literati. Without him, there might have been noBall Four by Jim Bouton a decade later, which would have been a loss of epic proportions. Then again, Sparky Lyle might not have put his name on the scabrous Bronx Zoo, which would have been a blow for good taste. And what to say of Jose Canseco and Juiced? You take the wretched with the sublime, I guess.

“But never forget this: The Long Season by Jim Brosnan was, and is, the best of its kind.”

Brosnan wrote controversially about the paltry salaries players received, a full 15 years before free agency, a topic that upset the powers that be. In 1964, the Chicago White Sox, which owned his contract, ordered him not to publish any of his baseball writings during the season. Brosnan refused to sign, and went on to a writing career that included children’s books and magazine articles.

His departure from the game was prefigured in a 1961 Saturday Evening Post article stating that Brosnan might have been “the most intellectual creature” ever to play the game. Yogi Berra mused that this might have been the case because he was known to read “books without pictures.”

Here’s much more on Brosnan from Mark Armour on the SABR website.

Why sports fans are the way they are

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m posting recent links about sports history, books, culture and the arts that I haven’t mentioned here before. If you have any suggestions on great sports reads you’d like to bring to my attention, contact me at Enjoy!

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Before the World Cup began, Simon Kuper of The Financial Times summarized some recent research on what drives sports fans to their obsessions. For many of them, what he discovered might as well have come from the d’oh files:

“The key finding that’s emerging: for most fans, fandom isn’t chiefly about winning, or even particularly about football itself. Rather, it’s about community.”

Indeed, the psychology of fandom goes far beyond results:

“Being a fan also connects you to your own past. In life, everything changes: you grow up, and people divorce, move away and die. Only your football team is for ever. The England team in 2014, for instance, is still recognisably the same animal as the England team of 1954. Football allows you to be eight years old again.”

The Secret Lives of Sports FansHere’s the full story, “Fandom — It’s Bigger Than Football,” from Kuper, who is the co-author of “Soccernomics,” which alludes to some of these research insights.

Last year, American writer Eric Simons took a scientific approach to cracking this what makes sports nuts tick in “The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsessions.” He opens with a personal tale: The wrenching agony of watching his beloved Cal Bears lose a football game to Oregon State, and especially the fateful final seconds as he watched the Beavers prevail:

“In those ten seconds my hormone system blew up. My brain blew up. Nuerons fired away like gangbusters in the brain centers for empathy, action, language, pride, identity, self, reward, relationships, love, addiction, perception, pain and happiness. If you’ve seen these images at the end of heartbreaking games, where the fan is standing there with his hands on his head and his mouth yawning — or if you’ve been that fan — you know that it feels like all this stuff is frothing around on the inside trying to beat its way out of your body like an alien chest-burster.”

He wrote the book to understand himself, and his own reaction to sporting events, particularly those with a deep emotional investment. Simons calls this a “species-level design flaw,” as he explains to Megan Gambino of

“The urge is so powerful that even when we know that this leads to a lot of bad consequences, still we stick around.”

This might explain any kind of obsession, but as Simons claims on a New Books in Psychology podcast, “we sports fans are glorious expressions of all the wondrous quirks and oddities of human nature.”

So embrace the quirkiness.

Taking some time off for the summer

I’m going to step away from this blog for a while, and not just because we’re in the dog days of summer.

It’s a good time to take a break because my creative batteries are running low. The schedule I’ve developed for writing this blog needs to be re-evaluated. Somewhere along the way I need to get back on track to cultivating the art of the 500-to-700-word blog post, which seems very elusive at the moment.

How to Write Short

Can I really, really do this on this blog? Now's the time to make it happen.

More than anything I just need to get offline for a while and read, recreate and get away from a routine that has served me well in recent months.

I could bang out the titles of some of the books I’ve got piled up, but there are so many here, and I don’t know which ones I will choose.

What I’m also doing is going back and reading arts-and-culture-and-current-affairs blogs. They seem like a luxury when in fact they’ve fired so much of my inspiration as a writer. Brain Pickings and Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish are models for any bloggers who insist on honoring their voices in individual settings that let their talents flourish. It can be done.

They’ve developed communities of readers who want to rise above the clickbait, easy outrage and celebrity twaddle of what we are too often sold on the Web.

Appreciating the value of side projects, including this blog, is also something I want to assess. I keep meeting more and more people who do this, who say their working and creative lives benefit from this. If you’re struggling to find some passion, or just something to enjoy deeply, ask yourself these questions:

What lights you up? What could you do every day and lose yourself in doing, if money were no problem? What would get you really early out of bed every morning  if you had no other obligations and you, like me, are not a morning person?

Writing this blog has that effect for me, but there are other things, mostly offline, that I need to tend to.

Getting off of social media has been the first step. As University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson wrote recently, we do suffer from a deficiency of connecting with the real. The author of the forthcoming “Why Football Matters,” Edmundson writes:

“Our culture has fewer and fewer opportunities for absorption. Not enough people care about the arts. Not enough of us quest for truth. The doctor’s office is an assembly line. The artist turns matters over to her assistant. The prof is busy fattening his resumé. But we have plenty of opportunities for attention, yes we do. Under the reign of the computer, jobs are more and more about attention: Get it right, pay attention to detail, fill out the chart, and fill it out again. Did I say opportunities to pay attention? No, they are compulsions and requirements. In short, if attention does not lead to absorption, or if there is little possibility of absorption in a given life, then there will be deficits of attention.”

This is necessary for what Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport calls “deep work.” Little else can be more satisfying:

“At some point, we tire of the shallow – necessary as it might be – and foster a desire to retreat into depth, create the best possible thing we’re capable of creating, then step back, point, and remark simply: ‘I did that.’ “

So I need to jump back in the deep end and dog-paddle into some new waters. I’ve got blog posts scheduled Monday-Friday through the next three weeks, with regular posting resuming on Monday, Aug. 11.

And since I’m in that 500-700 sweet spot I will stop here, claim victory, and get on with the vacation already.

Baby boomers and their baseball books

On Wednesday I highlight noteworthy new sports books, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.

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As Grantland contributor Bryan Curtis’ recent sweeping survey of baseball bibliography shows, there’s a baseball book for just about everybody.

But like Abraham Lincoln was to the massive Civil War field of study, volumes and volumes of baseball books have been written to cater to the baby boom generation of readers, and fans.

Born in the 1950s and coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, baby boomers occupy the sweet spot for the baseball genre. As Curtis explains:

“When ideas fail, baseball books drift back to the same place where they’ve been anchored for two decades: the 1950s. Baseball books are instant replay for baby boomers. ‘There has to be a book every year about Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Ted Williams, or some combination thereof,’ said Robert Weintraub, author of The Victory Season, which was published last year. ‘I’m guilty of that myself.’

“The ’50s is farmland already tilled by literary HOFers like David Halberstam and Roger Kahn, by Jane Leavy and Richard Ben Cramer. Each go-round leaves fewer available plots. Leavy did Mantle in 2010. James S. Hirsch did Mays the same year. So it was inevitable that in 2013, Allen Barra would do them both, in the dual biography Mickey and Willie. If an author finds his mandate getting too small, he compensates by going big. Last year, Ben Bradlee Jr.’s biography of Ted Williams came in at a whopping 784 pages.

“There’s a funny thing about the boomers trudging to the shelves. The overfamiliarity of the old ballplayers isn’t a turnoff; it’s the sell. ‘What you want if you’re a reader is to pull back a curtain on a time you remember well,’ explained literary agent David Black.”

The most current offerings continue to reflect this range of chronology, from the so-called “Golden Age” of baseball that climaxed in the 1950s to the mid-1970s. The appeal of this time frame for boomers is obvious: The inheritance of memories from their fathers to their own fan experiences as young adults, right before baseball free agency shattered much of the nostalgia of their youth.

Madden_1954_CoverBill Madden, a sportswriter for the New York Daily News, taps into the former with “1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever.”

(Here’s an excerpt focused on racially-oriented sparring between Jackie Robinson and Dick Young, the incorrigible Daily News sportswriter.)

As the 1954 season dawned, Willie Mays and Larry Doby were becoming the first black superstars in baseball for purely baseball reasons, as opposed to the groundbreaking role played by Robinson. That year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that outlawed segregation in public schools. In the fall, Mays made the breathtaking catch in deep, deep center in the Polo Grounds during the World Series, as his Giants defeated Doby’s Cleveland Indians.

It was the first World Series, in fact, in which black players were in uniform for both teams.

Madden tries to show how baseball was ahead of the social curve as more integration fights loomed. In this Q and A with the Indiana Sports Journalism Center, Madden — who spoke to many of his surviving subjects, admittedly childhood heroes — said he also wanted to write the book because he was hoping to break new ground:

“Nobody’s ever written about this season, which was another impetus for me to push my agent to get somebody to buy this book, because it needed to be written, in my opinion.”

A review on makes a common complaint about books like this, and that Curtis alludes to — it lacked “a better sense of how life was in the 1950s by touching on more non-baseball events.” More reviews from, and Pop Matters, which also concludes that Madden’s book “stands as a missed opportunity to tell a larger, more instructive story.”

Fast forward a couple of decades to the focal point of journalist Dan Epstein’s “Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Summer of ‘76.” Stars and Strikes

The author of the 2012 book “Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s,” Epstein continues the story as America celebrated its bicentennial. These were my high school days, and the stories here have brought back very powerful memories for me.

Against the backdrop of the button-down dynasty of the Cincinnati Reds’ Big Red Machine, the just-ended dynasty of the hairy, brawling Oakland A’s, and the towering figures of Thurman Munson, Mike Schmidt and Mark Fidrych, Epstein tries to evoke the spirit of the sport across the larger American society, especially pop culture.

Some of the reviews are mixed, but always include the large dollops of zaniness that Epstein heaps out, on page after anecdote-filled page. As Chris Vognar notes in The Dallas Morning News, Epstein expertly fleshes out the rollicking promotions of Bill Veeck, Charlie Finley, Ted Turner and other owners unafraid — or perhaps just totally shameless — about finding new ways to lure fans to the ballpark:

“My favorite: Headlock and Wedlock Day, for which Turner’s Atlanta Braves hosted a group wedding ceremony and a wrestling exhibition. What a bargain.”

(Has it really been 35 years since Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park? The cultural scourge of my youth blown all to hell. I was ecstatic. How time flies.)

The business of baseball was about to change big-time, with big salaries and contentious labor disputes marring the next two decades. Epstein, who’s in his late 40s, wants readers of his generation to remember that time fondly. The age of big money has brought with it more recent battles over performance-enhancing drugs, which also seems to be pitting baby boom writers against bloggers, especially over Hall of Fame induction.

In an interview with The Sporting News, Epstein is being more than nostalgiac talking about the wacky owners of the ’70s. He’s rueful that baseball may have shed the last vestiges of its soul:

“All of those men were, for better or worse, as much or more a part of their team’s identity as the players themselves, and I can’t think of any owner in today’s game who has anywhere near the same kind of charisma, or who has the same ability to grab headlines or turn the game on its head. Sadly, the economics and the increasing corporatization of major league baseball in the 21st century make it extremely unlikely that we’ll ever see those kind of maverick owners in the game again.”

Saying farewell to the baseball game story

On Tuesday I write about developments in sports media, and occasionally step back in time to a different era in sports journalism.

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For those who read about last night’s game in this morning’s paper, the following sentence from the Associated Press explaining its new baseball game story format must be an absolutely cold jolt of soulless jargon:

“The format allows consumers to more easily see interesting content, and it can be read faster across platforms.”

Braves Game Story 2006

AJC Braves game story and sidebar, 2006, when Andruw Jones could hit.

Consumers? Content? Platforms?

You’re a baseball fan. You crave a story about a game. It might be the newspaper, it might be online, but just tell me what happened. That’s all.

You want to do more than see interesting content. You want to know why the game played out as it did, in real sentences and full paragraphs, one seamlessly connected to another.

Maybe you don’t have, or want, all the latest cool apps to “see” highlights in the moment. You don’t “follow” a game on social media. You’re not going to stay up to watch SportsCenter. But you’ve got a few minutes before going off to work, or to do other things, and faster doesn’t always mean better.

You are in a distinct minority that’s growing smaller.

When AP revealed its new plans last month, the story attracted a few shrugs of the shoulder and an occasional yawn. Shorter stories, with more bullet points, aimed online readers and those using mobile devices, will become the rule for AP-produced stories starting July 28.

At The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where I worked for nearly two decades, editors liked to call these people “time-starved readers.”

To AP powers-that-be, they’re “consumers,” to be peddled a journalism product as if a game story is like soap, cereal and light bulbs.

I know. I’m sorry. Get off my lawn and give me some old-fashioned narrative, damnit. You can take your “content” and . . . well, go elsewhere.

The truth is, for a number of years traditional newspaper-style stories — even staff-written reports about local teams — haven’t been what we knew growing up. Notebooks in copy-block style are nothing new. In my ink-stained wretch days, I wrote so frequently this way I didn’t realize it had become so commonplace. Inverted pyramid, it was nice knowing you. But we haven’t danced since 1996.

As papers have downsized their staffs, they’ve slimmed down their space. Some, like my former employer, have gotten a bit grayer while retaining the narrative form, at least for print.

Who keeps score like this any more -- or at all?

Who keeps score like this any more -- or at all?

Online, it’s a different matter, and that’s what prompted the AP changes.

Gone will be the standard 600-page game story, replaced by a 300-word summary followed by bullet-point highlights about the game, including key plays, injuries and what’s coming up next for the teams in question. Later on, a 600-page “writethru,” which contains quotes and stands as the final version, will be offered, along with a hometown lead.

The changes are designed not only for easier reading, but also for easier editing.

Given the number of games in a season, and how sports fans are consuming so much more than a game story, it’s not hard to understand why this is happening. There will be another game tonight, and tomorrow after that, and the day after tomorrow after that, and . . .

But AP’s new format comes as other standard fare for baseball lovers has been fading away.

In 2010, ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian penned a sentimental piece about giving up the daily habit of clipping Major League box scores from the newspaper. That’s because papers have been scaling back on printing them, and Kurkjian used to clip every single one. Every single day.

While the clutter of nearly two decades was cleared away from his house, so was the tactile experience of finding a baseball narrative in a two-column set of numbers:

“The box scores start every day for me because there’s always a chance you’ll see a pitching or batting line that you’ve never seen before, and might never see again, such as Ben Petrick’s 3-0-0-4 a few years ago. Four RBIs without a hit! ‘I thought I had a bad day,” Petrick said, ‘until I looked at the box score.’ The box score is where we once saw the battery for the Tigers of Glenn Abbott and Marty Castillo — Abbott and Castillo — and the Giants’ famed Bud Black-Steve Decker battery — Black and Decker, of which great writer Steve Rushin wrote: Decker wore ‘the power tools of ignorance.” ‘

Box scores ain't what they used to be.

Box scores ain't what they used to be.

Now, any fan can easily call up a standard box score and tight, traditional game story on the marvelous MLB At-Bat app, along with video highlights that are posted moments after a homerun, great play in the field or controversial call. Why follow the game at all with this? You’ve got all you need about a game, in a flash.

I have descended into this glorious new habit, and can’t remember the last time I kept a scorecard.

There are still diehards who do, however, and they also realize they’re part of a dying breed, as NPR profiled them recently:

“What I find remarkable is that there are still a few people who bring the spiral-bound scorecards. And it’s not the scorecard you buy at the game. It’s a spiral-bound thing that you can buy at, I guess, certain stores where they just keep track on each page of that particular game. Those are the really serious scorers. There are a few of those.”

For these hardy few, this will never, ever be about mere “content.”

The Midsummer Classic and the American pastime

July is the time for Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game and Hall of Fame induction, so I’ll be devoting some posts this week to topics related to baseball’s future — and as always the case with this sport — and exploring how its past is immortalized.

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I’m going through withdrawal. Serious, serious soccer withdrawal.

This has been the case every four years, in mid-July, for the last 20 years now. A red-blooded American whose first love was baseball. I need a syringe and some soccer serum. Stat.

Today is the day after the end of the World Cup, which used to pass virtually unnoticed in the United States. After record TV ratings and unprecedented American mainstream media coverage from Brazil, however, that is no longer the case. Now, I have plenty of company dealing with my Summertime Blues.

When these blues began, following the World Cup in the U.S. in 1994, they were exacerbated by the baseball strike that led to the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years.

There wasn’t much else in the way of soccer to turn to back then, before the creation of Major League Soccer and the airing of games from the English Premier League, Bundesliga, et al, on American television. My local minor league team drew fans in the hundreds and played on a deplorable high school football field, but it was better than nothing.

national pastimeI was ready to turn my back on baseball, even as my hometown Atlanta Braves finally — after years of childhood suffering! — won the World Series the following year. While I was happy, it was a fleeting moment of joy. For me, the American pastime was starting to feel like the past time.

While soccer may have become the shiny new toy for Americans like me, we still had to endure potshots from sportswriters claiming that “hating soccer is more American than apple pie.”

Shortly after France ‘98 (a most miserable World Cup for the U.S.), I took in a Braves game at Turner Field and was surprised how serious my affliction had become. I was ready to leave in the early innings, but was with family and painfully watched Mark Wohlers blow a perfectly good save opportunity.

The sport, and the happiness of going to the ballpark, had lost its luster.

I have been back only a few times since. I have gradually made my peace with baseball, realizing that the zero-sum silliness that infects our politics, culture and society — you must make a choice, and stick with it — was depriving me of the joy of a game that will always resonate for me.

It’s just happening in different ways that I’m savoring in middle age.

The All-Star Game this week isn’t always a circle-your-calendar event for casual fans — I haven’t watched in years — but for baseball diehards it will always be special. Even though an All-Star Futures Game now kicks off the festivities (sorry, Home Run Derby), this event is a throwback to one of baseball’s most enduring traditions.

Like many of those traditions — good and otherwise — it’s about preserving a treasured slice of the game’s past. Tuesday’s game at Target Field will be highlighted by Derek Jeter’s farewell. While the game features players who’ve had great first half-seasons, tributes to retiring legends still strike the deepest chords.

Later this month in Cooperstown, Braves luminaries Bobby Cox, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux will be inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and that too will be emotional. Though they weren’t the idols of my youth, they brought my hometown its only professional sports championship during a time in which I was trying to tune baseball out.

I see some present-day American soccer aficionados making the same ridiculous assertions I once did — baseball’s truly boring, etc. — and firmly stuck in the past. It feeds too much on nostalgia and mythology and a faux-pastoral sentiment that never really existed, etc., etc.

Never mind that a new wave of fans and writers tied in to sabermetrics was revitalizing how we look at baseball, creating a template for advanced stats and fresh narratives that are abounding in other sports.

Finally, the fifty-something and the amateur sports historian in me came around to appreciating a more well-rounded, nuanced view, as expressed by Andrew Zimbalist and Stefan Szymanski in their 2005 book, “National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the World Plays Soccer:”

” . . . our national pastimes did not materialize out of nothing. Rather, they were shaped by the conscious decisions of organizers, albeit decisions made a very long time ago. No doubt some, if not most, of these decisions were made with the intent of promoting and developing the sport over the long term.

“One distinctive feature of professional sports is that the interest of the public accumulates over time. Indeed, one of the most important elements in the attraction of a sport is the the relationship between the stars of today and the history of the game.”

(Book excerpt here.)

But the hand-wringing is ramping up again. As the World Cup got underway, Frank Fitzpatrick of The Philadelphia Inquirer expressed serious worries that baseball is about to take a big hit, thanks to soccer:

“It’s cosmopolitan. It’s colorful. And because we Americans know so little of its history and customs, it is, for the moment at least, a fascinating curiosity.

“Soccer is the barista’s game, baseball the hot dog vendor’s.”

But Fitzpatrick, who also compared baseball to the Republican Party — “too old . . . too white . .. perceived as too square” — makes the mistake of pitting “winners” against “losers,” a familiar, quick and easy device. Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk writes that Fitzpatrick’s argument not only is “wrongheaded and insulting about baseball,” it also:

” . . . manages to insult the World Cup as well by not discussing it on its own terms as opposed to in terms of baseball’s alleged demise.

“Then again, the author refers to a game involving ‘the Florida Marlins’ from just last week, so maybe we’re not dealing with a guy who knows a whole hell of a lot about anything.”

This is hitting it out of the park, and booting it like Messi all at one. The rise of one thing doesn’t have to mean the downfall of another. Midsummer Classic

But it’s hard to deny there’s an ever-crowded soccer bandwagon. The World Cup set numerous social media records but remains a niche sport– albeit a rapidly growing one — in the United States.

As ESPN concluded its stellar World Cup run Sunday night, it smartly segued to a Major League Soccer grudge match between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbersbefore nearly 65,000 fans in an NFL stadium. There’s your post-Cup soccer fix, American footyheads. The addiction never has to end.

David Brooks of The New York Times contemplated the baseball-or-soccer-metaphor for life question over the weekend, and came to this conclusion:

“Most of us spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer. We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize.”

None of this should spell any doom for baseball. As the World Series approached last fall, Jonathan Mahler, also of The New York Times, raised concerns about the future for baseball, which he said “has never been healthier. So why does it feel irrelevant?” Yet post-season baseball is as compelling as anything in sports, including the odd infield fly rule call in a wild card game!

Mahler offers some hopefulness that explains why baseball is likely to endure, in spite of the mawkish sentimentality of the baseball poets:

“Maybe a new generation of fans won’t grow up thinking the game represents something more than it is. Maybe baseball will stop auditioning for another chapter in the Ken Burns saga. Maybe baseball can just be baseball. Yes, it’s quiet and slow, but if you hang in there, through all of the pitching changes and batting-glove adjustments, you might get caught up in the drama. If you don’t, there’s plenty else to watch.”

Sports History Files: Remembering Alfredo Di Stéfano

One of Argentina’s — and the world’s — greatest soccer players ever never played in a World Cup.

Alfredo Di Stéfano, who died on Monday at the age of 88, was one of the central figures of the great Real Madrid teams that won five consecutive European Cup titles in the late 1950s.

After the end of World War II, Di Stéfano, the Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskás and Real Madrid ushered in the rise of top European club competition with their feats that continued into their mid-30s.

marca di stefano tributeKnown now as the glamorous — and ever lucrative — Champions League, the event’s latest champion is its most decorated one, as Real Madrid downed crosstown rivals Atlético Madrid in May for its 10th title.

In 58 European Cup matches, Di Stéfano scored 49 goals. But the European Cup, and the Spanish domestic game, would be his biggest stage.

After starring for the great Buenos Aires side River Plate in the 1940s, Di Stéfano left for Colombia during an Argentine players’ strike in 1948.

He was eligible to play for Argentina in 1950 and 1954, the first two World Cup years after World War II, but the Argentine federation withdrew both times.

Di Stéfano became a Spanish citizen in 1956, but Spain didn’t qualify for the 1958 World Cup. In 1962, Spain did reach the finals in Chile, but he was injured and at the age of 35 didn’t play for the national team again. He later played for Real Madrid’s biggest enemy, Barcelona, whose daily sports paper, Marca (above), paid Di Stéfano tribute in its Tuesday editions.

Later a club coach in Argentina and Spain, Di Stéfano was a constant presence around the Real Madrid camp well into old age. He died after suffering a heart attack while eating out near Real Madrid’s vaunted home ground, Estadio Bernabéu.

Former England star Bobby Charlton said of Di Stéfano:

“I had never seen such a complete footballer. It was as though he had set up his own command center at the heart of the game. He was as strong as he was subtle. You just could not keep your eyes off him.”

Tim Vickery, a British soccer writer who has long reported from South America, puts Di Stéfano in the same company as Pelé and Diego Maradona when asked about the greatest player of all time:

“I think I’m on safe ground arguing arguing there has never been a footballer more influential than Alfredo Di Stéfano.”

Even Pelé concurred:

“For me Di Stéfano is the best. He was much more complete.”

A moment of silence was held in Di Stéfano’s honor before Wednesday’s World Cup semifinal match won by Argentina over The Netherlands.

In an Argentina that has produced Maradona and now Lionel Messi after him, Di Stéfano’s name is being invoked, not just in remembrance, but in anticipation of Sunday’s championship match in Rio de Janeiro against Germany. As Latin American soccer author Andreas Campomar wrote Thursday:

“If [Messi] leads Argentina into the final against Germany, he will take his place alongside Di Stéfano as the greatest the continent has to offer.”