I have the very good fortune of knowing the United States Senate’s biggest baseball fan, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
Among the books he keeps close at hand is an edition of Baseball Almanac so that he can be prepared to settle any argument over America’s pastime and draw inspiration from it.
That’s why he wound up quoting one of the original inductees to the Hall of Fame, Honus Wagner.
I don’t remember the exact context of the story he was telling me, but it did not have to do with baseball. Rather, it was a comment on someone who was dismissive of complaints from one of the many constituencies that Sen. Brown serves.
The indifferent comment was some version of “how hard can it be?” And the senator said it reminded him of Wagner’s famous observation, “There ain’t much to being a ballplayer, if you’re a ballplayer.”
Wagner’s folksy aphorism probably came in response to someone who was scoffing at his prowess on the field.
As a ballplayer, he made the game look effortless. In the process, he likely inspired a gazillion kids to take up the game – especially in Pittsburgh – and imagine themselves to be the Flying Dutchman.
Wagner was surely a natural athlete, but he put in the time necessary to learn to play the game. Actually, he didn’t just learn to play. He learned the game.
Once, when he was called safe when stealing second base, he stepped between the umpire and the objecting shortstop and said to the ump, “Of course I was out. They had me by a foot. You just booted the play, so come on, let’s play ball.”
His status as an all-star was earned, unlike the kids who pretended while they tossed a ball in the air in their sandlot.
And Wagner was something else, too. He was white. Without the privileges that came with being white, his talent would have gone unnoticed outside of his neighborhood.
For some, I guess it’s the definition of lucky.
But for those people for whom such “luck” was forestalled by their race, religion or country of origin, no amount of training or study could have put them in the company of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth in the first class of Hall of Famers. That wouldn’t come for a generation.
Sen. Brown was acknowledging both sides of Wagner’s observation in describing the dullness of his Senate colleague.
Whether the object of derision was a group of working-class people or payday borrowers or any of the other underdogs that the senator from Ohio champions, the rebuke was pretty effective.
Hard work and natural talent go a long way, but they are all for naught if the road to success is closed to traffic from your neighborhood.
If Honus Wagner was anything like his contemporaries, he probably did not consider the matter of privilege when he coined the phrase.
Try substituting any occupation and you will see the inside-baseball wisdom of any group of people – plumbers, attorneys, dancers, farmers. It is a put-down to scoffing outsiders and a caution to lazy insiders.
But be a little cynical and try it with something less voluntary. It changes things significantly.
At my advancing age, I am learning not to be too smug about what I am already. After all, there ain’t much to being me, if you’re me. But I ain’t no ballplayer.
President of Interfaith Alliance and a Conservative rabbi. He is currently serving on Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board.