"It's unfair to pull players out of society in general and hold them up to more scrutiny than anyone else," protests Milwaukee Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn, an erstwhile school teacher. "Our society in general is weak on history."
Still, most players have accepted intense public scrutiny as the quid pro quo for a life of privilege. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one shows up at Comiskey Park to hear the tree-turned-Louisville-Slugger crack over Bo Jackson's knee, does baseball exist? It does not. Nor does Bo's $8 million contract. Which goes a long way toward explaining why Bo Jackson may not care about Joe Jackson.
"I think today's players just don't think that what Shoeless Joe Jackson or Joe DiMaggio did is relevant to their careers," says Pittsburgh centerfielder Andy Van Slyke. "Pride and arrogance and greed are so abundant at the big league level now. If it could directly benefit them somehow to know what Joe DiMaggio did, they'd know."
Would they? Curt Flood challenged baseball's reserve clause. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Both directly benefited today's players. "Let's face it," says Trebelhorn, who wears number 42 in part to pay homage to Robinson, "our game is far superior with the black athlete and Latin American athlete in it."
Baseball history and American history are parallel streets. What are the Roaring '20s if not Babe Ruth? But the parallel streets somehow intersect, for Robinson, like Ruth, belongs to both. Their entries are formidable not only in The Baseball Encyclopedia but also in the Encyclopedia Americana. These men are not trivia answers, and their contributions are not trifles. And yet to hear some tell it, more players are exposed to ESPN analyst Bill Robinson in a week than are exposed to Jackie Robinson in a career.
"When the Jackie Robinson exhibit was in New York in 1987, I went over to see it when I came into town with the Reds," says Dave Parker, formerly of Cincinnati and now with the California Angels. "Only two or three players went over. That was sad to see. A lot more could have gone and learned something."
"A lot of people don't appreciate [Robinson]," says Kansas City Royals right-fielder Danny Tartabull. "There are a few who do. He stepped in and changed the game of baseball. The way he did it, he had to go through hell. But hey, people don't even know who Curt Flood is, either. They do know who Marvin Miller is. They know that."
Marvin Miller is the former head of the players' union.
How bad is it?
"Once you go back past 1960," says charitable Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Mark Knudson, "I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of guys didn't know much, except for the big stars like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle."