The 1916 New York Giants, for over 100 years recognized as Major League Baseball’s record-holders for consecutive games won (26), were, by our standards, dwarfs. Those Giants played in the midst of the First World War. If you look at ancient films of the soldiers of the day going off to France, you will be forced to note that they look less like strapping specimens of manhood (as we measure such things), and more like extras from “The Wizard of Oz.”
Baseball teams were even more discerning than mass-conscription armies, selecting only the finest of athletes. Yet, a society lacking high-protein diets is what it is: The 1916 Giants utilized 21 players whose official heights ranged from 5-foot-7 to 5-foot-11.
Today’s Cleveland Indians, winners of 22 consecutive games, have no player as short as 5-foot-7 and have used only a handful of players less than six feet tall, although key regulars Carlos Santana, Jose Ramirez, and Francisco Lindor are among them. Still, the general point remains that just as the baseball the Giants played — with vastly more bunts than home runs, contact hitting, constant stolen base attempts (a great many unsuccessful), and the majority of starts being complete games — was not our game, its players were not our players.
The fact that many of these old-time ballplayers never encountered a human being of Aaron Judge’s dimensions in their lifetimes is just one reason that their records are to be cherished as museum pieces, but nothing more than that. They are not our records for all the reasons outlined above, plus one more, the most important of all: They contain a multitude of ghosts not otherwise represented.
Those players were not only unlike today’s players in terms of their size, but also in terms of color. As parties to baseball’s “gentlemen’s agreement,” the Giants and all their contemporaries held no African Americans on their rosters. The records of the 1916 New York Giants and all baseball records prior to a point well after 1947 are gerrymandered achievements compiled against intentionally weakened talent.
There were players on that Giant team—Christy Mathewson most of all, though he was about done by 1916—who would have been Hall of Fame-level talents against all competition. Many more would not have made the major leagues in a fairer environment. Even with Mathewson, we will never know how he would have performed in leagues where weaker white players were not tenured by rule.
In the 1905 World Series, when Mathewson pitched three complete-game shutouts against the Philadelphia Athletics, the A’s shortstop was Monte Cross, a 35-year-old career .234/.316/.313 hitter. In another reality, that shortstop might have been Pop Lloyd, a future Hall of Famer then favorably compared to Honus Wagner but nonetheless restricted to “colored” leagues. Mathewson (and Lloyd as well) played with a handicap that today’s Cleveland team does not have.
To put a finer point on it, until baseball fully embraced integration, a process that still wasn’t fully completed 20 years after Jackie Robinson (even after the color line was abandoned, informal prohibitions of “too many” minority players on the field lingered), the 1916 Giants winning streak, Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs, Hack Wilson’s RBIs, Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak, Ted Williams’ .406, Bob Feller’s strikeouts, and every other damned thing that happened on the field are akin to a statue of Robert E. Lee in a public park.
They are baseball records of another society, one a good deal less enlightened than ours, and we no more owe them respect because someone back then said they meant something than we do the statue of Lee. That statue represents the special pleading of a long-dead people. Baseball records of the segregation years should be thought of in the same way. They were tarnished from the get-go, fake from the beginning, and they are not binding upon us.
To be clear: These things happened. They are history. I am not suggesting you ignore or erase them. Rather, I am arguing we need to encounter them in a mature and sophisticated way. No human being is uncompromised, and just as you can commit yourself to the complicated process of loving Thomas Jefferson for the ideals of the Declaration of Independence while abhorring the racist opinions expressed in his “Notes on the State of Virginia” or his lifetime as an owner and sexual abuser of slaves, you can appreciate all of those players, managers, and owners for what they did while simultaneously recognizing the limited system in which they did it.
Some of them were more directly implicated in the system than others. Some spoke out, in a mild way, against it. Regardless, they didn’t play our meritocratic baseball and their achievements are therefore subject to a severe, though unspecifiable, discount.
Holding the 2017 Cleveland Indians to that record is an insult to the organization and to us in general.
Yes, there is some irony in arguing that a business called “The Indians” which festoons itself with a leering racial caricature, is being insulted by being asked to compete with the myth of an apartheid baseball team. That’s the problem with history, with heroes, with villains, with statues: Nothing is as clear-cut as we’d like it to be.
The 1916 Giants, though, don’t really fall into the complicated category. If you want to put yourself through a truly nauseating exercise, pull up pictures of the current Cleveland roster and ask yourself which of them would have been allowed to play with the Giants had they showed up at John McGraw’s door 100 years ago. Some of them you can cross out right away. Others, maybe they’re light-skinned enough to have passed.
This is the diseased thinking teams actually went through back then.
McGraw sometimes considered passing off an African American as a Native American or a Cuban who just happened to be more café au lait than Caucasian. Sometimes he and his contemporaries even got away with it. The 1916 Giants weren’t getting away with anything in that regard. They were a less-talented team than they could have been, period, in a league of the same.
There have been many arguments in recent days as to whether the 2017 Clevelanders are now the record-holders or not. These arguments have been focused on the 1-1 “tie” with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the second game of the Giants’ September 18, 1916 doubleheader. These arguments are beside the point. The tie is nothing; the stats were counted, the game replayed, and that was that. The only difference between a tie and a rainout is that the individual player numbers weren’t deleted from the record books.
The real argument, the meaningful argument, is whether any records from that era of baseball should have any validity at all.
If, for a record to have meaning, it must be achieved against true competition, then the answer is no. Cleveland already holds the record.