They called it “scientific baseball” and the chief practitioner was John J. McGraw, legendary manager of the New York Giants. In 1922, his Giants had embarrassed the American League champion New York Yankees in their first World Series appearance. The Yankees fell in four straight games (and one tie — don’t ask).
McGraw won the Series by shutting down Babe Ruth. The Yankee star was the embodiment of everything that McGraw hated — irrational brute force over the thinking strategy of scientific baseball.
Fitting the spirit of the age, scientific baseball meant a managed game where the individual player was nothing. It was a game controlled by stealth and brains, a rational science McGraw could win because it was said that he could outthink everybody else. The game was a machine and the players interchangeable parts.
And then came Ruth with his braggadocio and towering blasts that scored runs in unholy bunches without an ounce of strategy. The rational, controlled engine disappeared. See the ball and wallop it. McGraw hated him for it.
It seems odd now to think of baseball in terms of science. But it was all part of an era when scientism — making religion out of science and science as the only barometer of truth — dominated intellectual and pseudo-intellectual thought in America.
Even in an age of scientism, people have to believe. So they’ll glom on to any kind of idiocy when faith is abandoned. The era of scientific baseball was also an era of mind over matter spiritualism, séances, Ouija boards, auto-writing and spirit photography. Foolishness rushed in to fill the void in the human soul.
One of my favorites of the era was the Omnipotent Oom, a self-help guru from Middle America who presented himself as a mystic master of the science of yoga while he seduced women left and right, made a bundle and eventually settled into a successful business career in Nyack, N.Y.
And then there was Ida Craddock, a Unitarian sexologist, who descended into a world of madness with an invented spirit-lover named Soph. Before she gassed herself to death in a dingy apartment she wondered if she had been deluded by her scientism, writing in a final diary entry: “Truth, Truth, Truth is what I want!” But she had walked away from Truth a long time before.
It’s a hoot to look back on the scientism of the Omnipotent Oom until we realize that just about the time the newspapers were telling his story, another Omnipotent Oom was beginning his political career in Germany. Adolf Hitler’s tragic racial theories were the product of the same scientism that nurtured both the Oom and Ida.
Maybe we were saved in America because Babe Ruth and the Yankees knocked McGraw’s Giants off their scientific pedestal in 1923. Scientific baseball died when Ruth hit a monster home run in the first inning of the last game of the World Series, dooming McGraw and the Giants.
The Yankees would go on to win ... forever. And scientism bit the dust ... for a while.
A story the other day in The New York Times profiled an atheism club at a high school. It was the usual Times hero worship of a brave atheist teacher with his small band of progressive teen-atheist followers.
The Times has become the cheerleader of the new atheism, and goes out of its way to make a star out of the every Omnipotent Oom that comes down the pike preaching its brand of secularism. Until they gas themselves on their own foolishness.
In the slightly edited words of Paul Simon: “Where have you gone Babe Ruth? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.