Take a second to consider the wonder of firsts.
To do something that no one else has ever done is a distinct honor in Major League Baseball, which cherishes history more than any other sport. And it has history galore, dating to a time when the South’s surrender at Appomattox was a recent memory.
Look at it from this perspective as well: Records come and go, but a first lasts forever. Nobody can erase it.
Some firsts are groundbreaking (Jackie Robinson). Some represent feats that never are achieved again (Johnny Vander Meer), others are just happenstance. Still others are important only in retrospect. Who knew they were seeing the start of something extraordinary when Rickey Henderson stole his first base? Who knew Cal Ripken was on his way to becoming baseball’s iron man when he played the first game in his record-breaking string of consecutive games?
That is the real beauty of baseball’s firsts. You never know when you are going to see one. It could happen any day.
So firsts are baseball’s link between nostalgia and anticipation. They are portals into the soul of the game, which is why they are this year’s subject of our annual Baseball 101 presentation.
At the start of every season, we offer what we like to call a seminar on the sport using 101 prime examples. In the past, Newsday’s Baseball 101 has comprised 101 great nicknames, 101 noteworthy replacements, 101 memorable numbers, 101 pitching gems. Each took one particular avenue to explore the baseball landscape.
On the threshold of the first official games of 2017, we present a look at “firsts.’’
First home runs in various categories, the first World Series, ceremonial first pitches, first to knock down barriers, first basemen, auspicious first impressions. Clearly baseball records and rewards firsts more than other sports, and more than just about any aspect of American life.
When you reflect on the subject, you see that some firsts were carefully chosen. At least one was, in any case. Branch Rickey recognized the special character that would be needed to carry the burden of being the first African-American to play in the modern major leagues. He was quoted as having told Robinson 70 years ago, “We’ll be in a tough position. We can win only if we can convince the world that I’m doing this because you’re a great ballplayer, a fine gentleman.”
On the other hand, a historic first also can evolve out of a player’s limitations, in connection with pure chance. Ron Blomberg of the Yankees in 1973 became the first designated hitter in part because he was a poor fielder and in part because his turn at bat came earlier on Opening Day than any of the other first-day DHs.
“I never thought it would be such a big deal,” he said years later in a Newsday interview. He acknowledged having been a question on Jeopardy, an answer in Trivial Pursuit and the subject of an official major league list of top 50 moments in baseball history. “How in the world do you get to be in the top 50 with one at-bat? It’s really, really amazing when you come to think about it,” he said.
At the time, a sportscaster told him “There won’t be too many ‘firsts’ anymore.” But that projection was off the mark. That is the uncanny thing about firsts, they keep coming, even if they are just individual, even if they have meaning only to someone in the stands.
Joe DiMaggio, when he was asked about his daily motivation, once was quoted as saying, “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best.’’
So that is how all of baseball stays current and hopeful. Every day is a chance for a new first. Legendary sportswriter Red Smith ended his final column, not knowing it would be his last, with these words about what had kept him going: “I told myself not to worry. Some day there would be another Joe DiMaggio.’’
Implicit was the assurance that someday there would be a first “Someone Else.’’