This might not matter to anyone else, but Tuesday night I was watching a little bit of the Kansas City Royals game on television. I still try to catch Royals’ broadcasts at times because of my friend Ryan Lefebvre; I consider him a superb broadcaster. I almost wrote “superb young broadcaster,” but it occurs to me now that this is Ryan’s 16th year broadcasting the Royals. Man, none of us are as young as we used to be.
Anyway, at some point during the game, the Royals broadcast went to one of those trivia questions, and I will admit here that the trivia question is one of my favorite parts of any baseball broadcast. A good trivia question can get the announcers talking about something fun and unrelated to the game, maybe a little bit of history, maybe it leads to a cool story, and I love that. I also will say that the trivia questions chosen for baseball broadcasts are often terrible — boring, inconsequential, silly, sometimes even wrong. I actually think that coming up with television trivia questions is my true life’s calling. In this case, the question was a really good one.
Q: What shortstop since 1900 had the highest batting average for a full season?
A. Honus Wagner
B. Arky Vaughan
C. Nomar Garciaparra
D. Luke Appling
The question might not have been phrased or ordered exactly like that, but that was the general gist of it. And it was a marvelous trivia question in my mind because it offered the three keys to great trivia:
1. The question was not obscure. I remember hearing a trivia question at a minor league ballgame once: Who did the Houston Astros get when they traded first baseman Lee May? I believe the person who came up with the trivia question messed it up; the question should have been: Who did the Houston Astros trade for Lee May? The answer there is Hall of Famer Joe Morgan. That makes sense. But the people involved insisted that, no, they got the question right. The answer — which nobody even came close to getting right — was Rob Andrews and Enos Cabell. That’s not a trivia question. That’s a TRIVIAL question. There’s nothing interesting or educational there. It bothered me way more than it should have (as should be obvious since I still remember it 30 years later).
2. The question was related to the game. The Royals were playing Colorado and, as you know, Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is hitting something close to .400 these days.
3. The answer will probably surprise you. The answer is Luke Appling, who hit .388 in 1936 for the White Sox.
Now, it is possible that the trivia question creator here got a little bit carried away — he probably should have thrown a familiar name into the possible answers, thrown in a a Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez or Cal Ripken. True, none of them is even close to the right answer. Still, when crafting a trivia question like this, it’s nice to throw a big name on there just to grab the casual fan.
But — and I respect this — the trivia creator instead put the four shortstops with the highest batting averages for a season:
1. Luke Appling, .388, 1936
2. Arky Vaughan, .385, 1935
3. Nomar Garciaparra, .372, 2000
4. Honus Wagner, .363, 1905
I was happy to see this question. Good one. Lots of history. Loosely related to the game but not ultra-related (I don’t like trivia question that are ridiculously team-centric like “Who is the Royals all-time record holder in balks?” or questions where the answer is always the other team’s manager). Good question.
And then, the Royals announcers started to talk about it.
Ryan Lefebvre’s color commentator these days is Rex Hudler. I’ve never met Rex. I’ve been told he’s a wonderful guy, and I have every reason to believe that. But I will not lie: He’s the reason I don’t watch the Royals broadcast regularly anymore. His voice hits me the way Mary Hart’s voice used to hit Kramer on Seinfeld. Well it’s not the voice itself — his voice is fine — it’s the stuff he says about baseball. I’m not going to go any deeper than that; he’s not my thing.
But I was listening here and Rex saw the list and said something to the effect of, “Wow Honus Wagner. He goes all the way back to the ’30s.”
The thirties. Yeah. Honus Wagner. who is probably most famous for the T206 baseball card of 1910 (or so) that has sold for about $3 million dollars, who was a childhood hero of Babe Ruth, who may have been the greatest deadball player ever … Rex had him playing in the 1930s. When he was 60. Ugh.*
*I’m told that later in the broadcast, Rex referred to the moon as a planet. I don’t know if this is true or if it was done as a joke. I was watching the Penguins-Rangers.
So, I grimaced there but was ready to move on. Then Ryan — my pal Ryan who I greatly admire and enjoy — started going on about how he had never heard of Arky Vaughan. Never heard of him. Well, more than that, Ryan did something that bugs me: He made it seem like NO ONE has ever heard of Arky Vaughan, like it was incredibly nerdy for his name to even be on this list. I realize Ryan was just trying to get a little comedy out of the moment, but I have to say I really don’t like that. I have a lifelong aversion to people who don’t know things acting like not knowing is the default position. In high school, I once had someone make me feel really dumb because I had read Moby Dick (it was a fluke, I admit; I had not read any other classics as a kid) … and it affected me. It really did. It made me think it was uncool to know things. It made me embarrassed to raise my hand and say something because not knowing was cooler. That sort of downward pressure drives me nuts.
It is bad enough that Ryan has not heard of one of the five greatest shortstops in baseball history (Bill James ranks him second) and the 73rd greatest baseball player ever on my list (Ryan, aren’t you reading me here?). He didn’t need to keep harping on it as if Arky Vaughan was the most obscure player in the history of mankind.
Here’s my question, though: Is knowing Arky Vaughan important at all for a Kansas City Royals announcer in 2014? Every so often, we will read a story about how ballplayers today don’t know their baseball history. You know those semi-outraged stories — there will be someone who didn’t realize that Frank Robinson played or thought that Al Kaline was a pitcher or confused Lefty Grove and Steve Carlton. And then there will be a mini-uproar by a few of us sportswriters — these ballplayers should know their history!
But does it matter? Ryan and Rex know the team they cover. They know the league. They know baseball — Ryan from broadcasting experience (calling, interviewing, listening) and Rex from playing the game. They are, I presume, experts of the day-to-day life of the ballclub they narrate. And they are certainly not ignorant of baseball history; they know most of the great players and their stories. Ryan’s father Jim played with Koufax and Drysdale, played against Aaron and Mays, Ryan knows baseball history. Hey, I’m aware: Lots of people have not heard of Arky Vaughan. He has long been an overlooked great (despite his excellence the Baseball Writers never came close to voting him into the Hall of Fame). Ryan has been around Major League Baseball stadiums all his life and the name never made any impact on him; that’s pretty telling.
Does it matter that he did not know Arky Vaughan?
I don’t know the answer to that. I suppose it’s all about your personal views. I guess I think of it this way: Ryan and I both idolize the same broadcaster, Vin Scully, and there is no doubt in my mind that Vin Scully could and would talk for a few minutes about the greatness of Arky Vaughan — and not just because he saw Vaughan play. It’s just inside him.
I remember that another of the broadcasting giants, Marv Albert, told me that he can tell a good broadcast based on all the things he never had time to say. I like that. It’s a life philosophy. It’s like Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing — the real story is not in what you see, the tip of the iceberg. The real story is inside the giant mass of ice underneath. The story, the secret, the truth, the significance, the magic is in what is unwritten and what is unspoken and what you know but never have to say.
That’s very Zen, I suppose, but I buy it. There is no direct connection I can see between knowing Frank Robinson’s story and being a great hitter. There is no direct connection I can see between being a great golfer and knowing the remarkable story of Old Tom Morris. There’s no direct connection I can see between being a successful lawyer and knowing all about Clarence Darrow. But I believe there’s an indirect one. I believe players can help themselves by knowing the history of the sport they play … not to satisfy old guys like me but because it just might change them in slight and good ways they could never articulate.
And as for announcing — it just would have made me so much happier if Ryan had known Vaughan, if he had said something like this: “Hey, there’s Arky Vaughan, you know, he’s one of the most underrated players in baseball history. How about this for a season — I don’t remember the exact details but he had year for Pittsburgh where he almost hit .400, he hit with power, a lot of people have never heard of him but he was a great one.”
Would that have made it a better broadcast? In the grand scheme of things, no, probably not. I’m sure most people watching just moved right on or maybe even got a laugh out of the thing. I mean it IS Arky Vaughan, who died more than 70 years ago. I do think again about “A Few Good Men” and Colonel Jessep’s response when asked why Marine William Santiago, who was supposedly going to be shipped off the base, had not packed and had not called anyone. “I’m an educated man,” he said, “but I’m afraid I can’t speak intelligently about the travel habits of William Santiago.”
Maybe that’s Arky Vaughan too. Maybe speaking intelligently about him is utterly unimportant. Vaughan obviously had not come up for 20 years in Ryan’s career. And he might never come up again in Ryan’s long career as a broadcaster. Does it matter if a broadcaster can speak intelligently about Arky Vaughn? In a big way, no, it just doesn’t matter.
In a small way? I just can’t help but think that it does.