Baseball’s loyalties and passions, explains the sport’s former US Commissioner Bartlett Giamatti, reflect the very soul of America, even extending “into the life of the Oval Office … the game still matters because, through baseball, we gain insight into our own national issues. Baseball helps us understand ourselves.” True, it’s a blather of ‘motherhood’ boilerplate. Switch a noun or two and it could be Gillon McLachlan talking about his AFL or a VRC president extolling the Melbourne Cup. But just now, with an election three days hence, Giamatti’s 2012 remarks represent the most worthwhile insight of the political season.
You see, in baseball and American elections both, cheating is as much accepted as condemned, as thoroughly anticipated as always denied.
The fact that the Houston Astros are once again in the seven-game World Series, now ahead 3-2, is a timely reminder. Five years ago, when they won the series penant for the first time in the club’s 54-year history, it involved one of the most magnificently devious ploys ever perpetrated in a baseball stadium, which is saying something. Not to mince words, but they had no right whatsoever to that year’s stolen crown, yet were allowed to keep it despite being exposed as the most brazen of cheats.
As a quick, cultural primer on what will be going on next Tuesday night in vote-counting stations across the US (and much after, as the President curiously and perhaps ominously has warned) Houston’s cheating is a good way to get a handle on the American tradition of stretching competitiveness to connivance and beyond.
First, though, to appreciate what the Astros pulled off in 2017 it is key to know that much of any team’s success hangs on the working relationship between pitcher and catcher, the bloke with the extra padding crouched behind the batter, one of whose jobs is to signal the pitch to be thrown next: a breaking ball, curve, slider, change-up or, perhaps if the batter is cheeky, an intimidating brushback to scorch past his nose. Sometimes the pitcher will disagree and battles of wills can ensue, all done in mime, pitcher shaking his head as the catcher jabs increasingly emphatic fingers before his crotch like a man in the grip of terminal jock itch. The glove shields the catcher’s signalling hand from the batter so only the pitcher can see what he is requesting.
Confidentiality preserved beneath a big leather glove, that’s the way it was until some genius at the Astros’ home ground decided to install a little camera in the distant seats beyond second base, providing a line-of-sight view of those gesturing fingers. Now every signal the visiting team’s catcher sent to his pitcher could be read and relayed immediately into the Astros’ dugout, where the scam reached its inspired apogee. Knowing what pitch is coming is a huge boon for the batter, who need not squander a vital few hundredths of a second to identify where the ball is heading. For instance, if he knows it’s a fastball bound straight for the strike zone, rather than a slider meant to tempt, dive and see him miss, his chances of connecting are greatly improved, likewise of making it to first base or, properly crunched, right over the fence for a homer.
But how to let the batter know what’s coming? Here’s the genius of it all.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Someone in the dugout would take a bat and smash a metal trash can, the number of whacks signifying what pitch was on the way. You can see it all in the video embedded below.
The great irony, as the season’s statistics attest, is that the elaborate scam made absolutely no difference. The Astros’ performance on the road, in other teams’ stadiums with no helpful spy camera, was marginally better than their home record. The Astros cheated because they could, it’s that simple. In this they were honouring a tradition that goes back all the way to the baseball’s rise as a professional sport in the 1880s, when the very first umpire is known to have been bribed. There have been many others over the years, some staggering in their daring, like the Chicago White Sox, ever after known as the Black Sox, throwing the 1919 World Series. On a lower plain of miscreance there are the garden variety cribs, from bored-out bats stuffed with cork or superballs to pitchers greasing the ball with Brylcreme or compounds of their concoction intended to change its flight. The sandpaper scandal that shamed Australian cricket would have been nothing unusual on a baseball diamond, the idea of tearful confessions and year-long suspensions laughably unthinkable.
Cheating and its acceptance is woven into the very fabric of baseball. This is also the case with every election day.
INNOCENT souls that we are, Australians are inclined to assume America conducts its elections much as we do — that some US counterpart to the AEC’s disinterested bureaucrats tally ballots, announce results and retire to their offices until the next summons to oversee democracy at the ballot box. This is a gross misconception and perhaps explains why so many US-based correspondents blithely parrot the line that complaints about the 2020 presidential election are ‘unfounded’, that allegations of massive vote fraud were no more that Donald Trump’s sour grapes, and that raising even an eyebrow, let alone a pointed question, makes one a seditious “election denier.” Not to pick on the poor girl for she has plenty of company, but the Nine rags’ Farrah Tomazin captured the instilled ignorance of the scribbling class in a November 3 dispatch (emphasis added):
…only last week, we saw the brutal attack on Paul Pelosi, the 82-year-old husband of US Speaker Nancy Pelosi, by a conspiracy-driven perpetrator who had also embraced false claims that the election was stolen.
The ABC, as might be expected, brings a little variety to the blanket rejection of the notion there were problems with the 2020 vote, most recently describing such claims as “the former president’s false narrative”. Associated Press never, ever moves an election wire story to subscribing news organisations without what one guesses is the editorial style book‘s mandatory reference to “unfounded allegations’. That Australian media’s US-based hacks dutifully toe the line is no surprise, given that much of their job, explaining America and Americans to Australians, involves propping a Washington Post or New York Times by the keyboard and re-writing the substance of other reporters’ work. (As a one-time Fairfax rep in the US, mea culpa, I did it too.) The other factor tainting and tilting US coverage is an ignorance of history, that being the charitable explanation for the failure to notice the sheer volume of electoral-fraud cases brought before the courts.
So far this year, nationwide from California to Connecticut, 39 people have been convicted of election interference involving ‘fraudulent use of absentee ballots’, ‘filing false voter registrations’, ‘buying votes’ and — talk about chutzpah! — bribing Philadelphia’s Judge of Elections over the course of eight years and five elections (city council, state legislature, federal and presidential) to add hundreds of notional votes to Democratic candidates’ tallies. The architect of that scam, a sleazebag former congressman called Ozzie Meyers, is currently serving a three-year sentence.
Since 1991, some 1043 defendant have been convicted and sentenced, all but a mere handful accused of sufficiently serious abuses to warrant criminal charges. Do the sums and that amounts to one fresh conviction every 11 days. Yet mainstream media reports insist cheating at the polls is all but nonexistent. The most recent denial of widespread fraud, courtesy of Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post , asks readers to believe ‘The truth about election fraud: It’s rare‘.
PERSONALLY, I’m not persuaded, my scepticism based on lived experience. Back in the mid-1980s I had a loft a few doors up 23rd Street from the Chelsea Hotel, where Sid Vicious first killed his girlfriend then himself, and New York tourist Dylan Thomas sallied forth to drink himself into a fatal coma at the White Horse Tavern. I wasn’t a US citizen, nor have I ever been, and had no entitlement nor inclination to vote. Yet there was my name on the electoral roll, correct address and everything. Someone, a Democrat insider, most likely working in City Hall’s tax department, must have copied my payroll details into a voter enrollment form. Bingo! Another phantom vote for whichever bent candidate was aiming to gain a seat on the local school board, council or whatever. I informed the authorities and as far as I know my name was removed.
Later, working for Time, I was doing legwork for a story on Harlem, one aspect of which was its politics and the glad-handing, long-time boss of the uptown Democratic machine, Congressman Charlie Rangel. The electoral roll contained a curiosity: some 130+ voters registered at a single address on a section of 125th Street near the on-ramp to the West Side Highway and in a neighbourhood largely devoid of habitations. The Cotton Club, not the original but a pale imitation, was nearby and not much else. So I grabbed a cab, went uptown to have a look. Suspicions confirmed: the address belonged to an abandoned petrol station and the ‘votes’ it supplied, along with those from other locations, were vital every primary season.
IN BASEBALL the art of cheating is mastered as players come up through the minor leagues, so it is with politics. When doubts were first raised about the 2020 presidential election, the prime focus of suspicion was directed at electronic voting machines and results that were allegedly hacked or adjusted on a grand scale. This might or might not be true — Augusto Zimmermann has raised similar concerns about the recent voting-machine election in Brazil — but it is impossible to prove and rather misses the point that all electoral fraud, like all US politics, is local. US elections are overseen by municipal and state authorities, not the feds, so the primary goal is to get council seats, judgeships, other public offices and the like. In Brooklyn for years and a day, the dream gig was a bench seat on the Probate Court, which allowed the elected judges to appoint their mates as executors of the estates of those died intestate — and, this being New York, rob them blind. It required as few as 125 votes to win such a position, since the majority of right-thinking Brooklynites couldn’t give a toss about such an obscure office. Unimportant, that is, until grandpa passes away and his home is sold for a fraction of its real worth to a real estate outfit kicking-back to the judge who approved the sale.
Now expand the focus to 2020’s presidential vote. Across America, local fraud machines were in place and ready to roll, as they always are. With four years of Trump loathing, tall tales of Russian collusion and other faux crimes against democracy and humanity leading countless news bulletins, would Team Biden have felt the need to order ‘stack those ballot boxes now’? Of course not, because the will, means and tradition of electoral fraud were there already. Consider the miracle turnout in Milwaukee’s Democrat-dominated black districts, for instance, in one of which Biden beat Obama’s numbers by more than 30 points. The ‘hood turned out en masse for an old, insipid white guy? Pull the other one, Joe.
Or consider the arrow to the very heart of the fraud deniers’ case: While Trump ended up a total of some 11 million votes behind Biden, the Republic candidates who shared his ticket gained seats, getting to within five seats of controlling the House. Is it credible that millions of Americans ‘split the ticket’ by taking the extra step of voting against Trump while supporting his GOP colleagues? Again, pull the other one, just harder this time.
WHEN the White Sox threw the 1919 World Series, legend has it that a tearful little kid implored noted slugger Shoeless Joe Jackson to ‘say it ain’t so, Joe.’ Like so much about baseball and US politics, it’s an invention originating with a reporter looking for an angle and happy to play fast and loose with the truth. Another Joe, the one in the White House, has greater gifts; he can deny fraud of any kind with a straight face, his handlers variously insisting ballot-stuffing is a nonsense accusation that besmirches the dignity of the Oval Office. Presidents just don’t do that, goes the case for the defence, but once again history says otherwise. John F Kennedy is widely seen as owing his 1960 triumph over Richard Nixon to the Electoral College votes fraudulently garnered in Illinois, chiefly Chicago, and several other states where his father, yet another Joe, was intimately connected with the local Democratic machines.
And there’s one case in particular, not of a current president but a future one, that speaks volumes. It was 1948 in Texas and a young Lyndon Johnson had just lost the primary, meaning his political career was over. But then — Thank you, Lord! — an ‘overlooked’ box of 202 uncounted ballots turned up in the tiny town of Alice and Johnson went to Washington on the strength of an 87-vote margin out of 988,295 cast. The fact that the ballots were inscribed in alphabetic order, in the same handwriting, and with some of those alleged signatories insisting they had not voted at all, well it made no difference. Johnson had cheated fair and square and his party’s state arbiters were happy to let him carry the day.
A highly regarded baseball player in his youth and, later, a regular visitor to the major leagues’ spring training camps, Johnson went on to make a lousy president, what with his failed War on Poverty and Great Society, which together did so much to wreck black families by replacing fathers with Washington’s welfare cheques. And then, of course, there was Vietnam’s quagmire.
Perhaps, given his aptitude for cheating, careerwise he would have been better off focusing on the diamond rather than the Oval Office. If only Biden had done likewise, America might be in a better state.
AFTERTHOUGHT: Quadrant readers following the midterm election returns might want to keep an eye on Michigan, where rural areas report early but the Detroit count is always hours late. According to past performance and popular suspicion, this is because the Democrat machine in that wrecked and ruined shambles of a city need extra time to manufacture the votes that always get their candidate over the top.