As a young Beatles fan, it was explained to me that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were a songwriting partnership along the lines of Rodgers & Hammerstein (up to and including the ampersand). Great were my feelings of disillusionment when, not long after, I learned that not only did it not work that way, they didn't really like each other very much. I experienced a similar feeling of dislocation when I first understood that Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig didn't speak. In both cases, there seemed a basic wrongness in the results. Two people could combine to generate so much joy in others but couldn't provoke anything but negativity in each other.
Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't like each other very much either. "The Sound of Music" was actually the noise of a great, pained gnashing of teeth.
Ruth and Gehrig were friends for a long time, of course, and no one is quite sure what broke them up. Ruth got on quite well with Gehrig's parents-everyone spoke German-and the Babe often brought his children around. Supposedly Mom Gehrig said something negative about the way Mrs. Ruth dressed one of Ruth's daughters, Ruth told Gehrig to tell his mother to mind her own damned business, and that was the end of that.
Ruth embraced Gehrig on the "Appreciation Day" that was held on July 4, 1939, an event which occasioned a reunion of the 1927 Yankees. "For the final fadeout," the New York Times reported, "there stood the still burly and hearty Babe Ruth alongside of Gehrig, their arms about each other's shoulders, facing a battery of camera men. All through the long exercises, Gehrig had tried in vain to smile, but with the irrepressible Bambino beside him he finally made it. The Babe whispered something to him and Lou chuckled. Then they both chuckled and the crowd roared and roared."
When I look at the picture of the moment described above, Gehrig's smile still looks a little forced to me, and no wonder. No momentary reconciliation could possibly erase the years of antipathy, especially since Gehrig (and it's not clear quite what he knew about his prognosis at this point) would have had so little time left in which to resume a friendship. It's also not clear how much the gesture of appearing would have really meant-Wally Pipp showed that day too.
There was a cost to this. I note that Ruth did not attend Gehrig's funeral. At the same time, the Times reported that Ruth did come to see Gehrig's body when the first baseman lay in state and that the big man "broke down." Was he mourning time lost time, or something else? If you want to be really small about things, the years that Ruth and Gehrig weren't speaking were also the years that they mostly took a backseat to the Philadelphia A's.
Why is this a sad thing? Why do we care? Even that last point, which contains the implication that a feuding Ruth and Gehrig hurt their team's results, is clearly false: the Yankees hardly collapsed during the three years they were eclipsed by Connie Mack's boys, won 94 games as a second-place team in 1931, and picked up a final championship against the Cubs in 1932. The second-place 1933 and 1934 teams both won over 90 games. So why is this a matter for regret instead of something that was simply their business? Ruth wasn't friends with Ty Cobb. Gehrig hated John McGraw. We don't care about that, but we care about the two together.
It might be as simple as this: Cobb was not beloved. McGraw was popular and had many friends, but he was just a manager (albeit a great one). We don't have the same feelings about them as we do the wholly benign Yankees titans. We like both individually. In the same way that it gives us a frisson of pleasure when we introduce our friends and they like each other, we want Ruth and Gehrig to like each other as well. Somehow, it validates our feelings about each, or perhaps it speaks to the human need for family or tribal identification. Having a friend is good, having a team is better.
The Ruth-Gehrig split echoes in today's Derek Jeter-Alex Rodriguez divide. The two were apparently pals when they weren't teammates, at least until 2001, when Rodriguez told Esquire, "Jeter's been blessed with great talent around him. He's never has to lead. He can just go play and have fun. He hits second -- that's totally different than third or fourth in the lineup. You go into New York, you want to stop Bernie [Williams] and Paul [O'Neill]. You never say, ‘Don't let Derek bet us.' He's never your concern."
In the same interview, Rodriguez took sportswriter Mike Lupica to task for his ranking of the two players. "He makes me look like the biggest dickhead in the world, and then he takes a guy like Jeter and just puts him way up there." A guy like Jeter. And what is Jeter like? Well, a few years later, during Rodriguez's first spring training with the Yankees, Jeter took the entire roster out for ice cream, but didn't invite A-Rod. Take that, Mr. Big Shot -- no rocky road for you!
The Yankees haven't won very much with Jeter and A-Rod as non-loving teammates, but only in the sense of championships. In their years together they have averaged 96 wins a season, have gone to the postseason eight times, and won a World Series.
This is pretty much all you can ask for if you're not the Yankees, and maybe that's the point: as Gehrig and Ruth did just fine despite not speaking, as the Beatles made some great albums after Lennon and McCartney were on the outs, so too with Jeter and A-Rod. Maybe friendship just doesn't matter in a team context. In the 1987 film "The Untouchables," Robert De Niro, as Al Capone, had a monologue on baseball (Warning: NSFW, I guess) that was notorious for awhile, though perhaps more for the graphic bloodiness of the season than the words, written by David Mamet, themselves:
A man becomes preeminent, he's expected to have enthusiasms. Enthusiasms, enthusiasms... What are mine? What draws my admiration? What is that which gives me joy? Baseball! A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part of a team. Teamwork... Looks, throws, catches, hustles. Part of one big team. Bats himself the live-long day, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and so on. If his team don't field... what is he? You follow me? No one. Sunny day, the stands are full of fans. What does he have to say? I'm goin' out there for myself. But... I get nowhere unless the team wins.
Mamet was wrong. The team can do without it. The old cliché, "25 men, 25 cabs," that's probably all right. This is a sad thing to admit.
We have all lost friends. When I was 13 or so, my two best friends decided, for reasons they could never quite explain, that their world would be a better place if I weren't in it, and ostracized me. One day I had devoted pals I saw every day, the next I was an orphan. We would reconnect years later, close to adulthood, but as much as I care for them to this day, as much as I know they care for me, I have never gotten over the feeling of abandonment, not only from them, but from everyone. You only need something like that to happen to you once for it to permanently alter the way you view people. A nagging suspicion takes up residence, coloring your every interaction from then on.
You may have a similar story, or one about a breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend you never anticipated, or maybe you were the one who decided to cut someone out of your life with a ruthless abruptness. Looking back now, maybe you still feel justified, or perhaps you feel guilty at the way you treated that person. But you also know that you went on. Relationships scab, then scar, but new tissue grows in other places. Like a person with a missing limb you may sometimes feel the echo of that person's presence and long for them, but you do not let it destroy you. You have made other connections in the interim, and though they are not the same, for all purposes they are nearly equivalent, and you channel that emotion through those nerves instead of fruitlessly into the old ones. You learn that no one is irreplaceable, and you survive.
Why should baseball be any different?