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The Unnatural

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One of the afflictions that beset deeply engaged sports fans is that we retain an enormous mental garbage dump of largely pointless information in our heads.  For example, if somebody were to ask me what I know about Willie McCovey, I could mention several things.  I know, without particularly trying or wanting to know, that his nickname was “Stretch,” that at one time he held the National League record for intentional walks in a single season, and that he was born in Mobile, Alabama.  I can recall the scene in Jim Bouton’s Ball Four in which a bunch of pitchers gather around the batting cage and make little whimpering sounds, as McCovey smashes pitch after pitch into the right field stands.  Bouton asks McCovey if he can do that whenever he wants.  “Just about,” McCovey replies.  More whimpering sounds. 

I know McCovey hit 521 home runs in his major league career (The exact same total as Ted Williams. It is, as I say, an affliction).  I know he nearly knocked New York Yankees’ second baseman Bobby Richardson down with a screaming line drive that would have won the 1962 World Series for the San Francisco Giants, if Richardson hadn’t caught the ball in sheer self-defense

And I know he was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1959, even though he only played in – I really am not looking this up, sadly enough – 52 games, because he wasn’t called up until the end of July.  Yet McCovey did so much damage to the league’s pitchers in just one third of a season that he won the award anyway.

I had occasion to recall that last bit of arcana this very morning, when I read a story in Slate, authored by Leander Schaerlaeckens, entitled “Was Donald Trump Good at Baseball?”  For many years, Trump has claimed he was a great high school baseball player.  For example, he tells the tale of hitting a game winning home run, and reading the headline “TRUMP HOMERS TO WIN THE GAME,” in the local paper’s story about the contest  (Trump’s capitalization). “I just loved it and will never forget it,” he wrote in 2004.  “It was better than actually hitting the home run.” (You will be shocked to learn that, per Schaerlaeckens’s exhaustive research, this newspaper story seems to be totally imaginary).

Trump’s boasts about his baseball prowess have grown ever-more elaborate. In 2010, he claimed that he “was supposed to be a professional baseball player,” but that “fortunately, I decided to go into real estate instead.”  In 2013 he tweeted that he had been the best high school baseball player in the state of New York, and indeed the best player his coach had ever had the good fortune to work with.  Two years later, his claims became even more florid, claiming to biographer Michael D’Antonio that he had been the best athlete in every sport played at his high school.  He chose not to pursue a professional baseball career, he said, because “in those days you couldn’t even make any money being a great baseball player.”  (In 1964, when Trump graduated from high school, the highest-paid player in baseball – Willie Mays – made $750,000 in 2020 dollars, which is admittedly a pittance by the standards of today’s stars, but which some people would still consider real money).

But what jumped out at me immediately among all the claims collected by Schaerlaeckens was something Trump wrote – or “wrote” in his 2004 essay (published in The Games Do Count: America’s Best and Brightest on the Power of Sports, edited – or “edited” – by Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade.)  According to Trump, becoming a professional baseball player “was in the equation,” until he took part in a tryout with “another young kid named Willie McCovey.”  Trump claimed that, in Schaerlaeckens words, “the sight of the future Hall of Famer in action convinced him to give up baseball for good.”

This brings me back to my ever-growing mental garbage dump.  Schaerlaeckens undertook heroic feats of research, plowing through microfilm versions of long-defunct Hudson Valley local newspapers, in order to ascertain that Trump hit an abysmal .138 in the roughly one third of Trump’s high school’s team games for which Schaerlaeckens could find any record.  As impressive as that detective work was, it was also essentially superfluous. 

Trump, of course, lies about everything — but what is most striking about him in this regard is what an absolutely terrible liar he is.  Any serious baseball fan would recognize immediately that the anecdote about McCovey could not possibly be true.  In the late summer of 1959, when McCovey was tearing up the National League, Trump was a thirteen-year-old hellion, who had just been shipped off to military school by his exasperated father.  (As for that “tryout,” McCovey was signed by the Giants in March of 1955, when Trump was eight years old).

It’s quite true that, in the context of Trump’s endless lies about far more important topics, making up a story about how he and McCovey were competing with each other for baseball glory seems trivial indeed.  Yet somehow something about this particular lie seems particularly egregious.  Again, any serious baseball fan will instantly recognize that the story about the tryout is false – and outrageously so, because it’s so easy to debunk (Merely glancing at a calendar is sufficient “research” for this purpose. I suspect Trump chose McCovey because McCovey’s spectacular major league debut stuck in Trump’s mind, especially since it coincided with Trump’s arrival at the military school to which he had been exiled. As a Yankee fan, Trump probably also had a keen memory of McCovey’s line shot that provided a cliffhanger ending to the 1962 World Series. It’s a tribute to Trump’s almost unfathomable laziness that he didn’t bother to concoct a slightly more plausible lie).

And it’s telling that this preposterous tale made its way into a book issued by a major New York publisher (ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins run by publishing mogul Judith Regan), without anyone apparently noticing – or, if they did notice, caring enough not to publish Trump’s lies in a book that is supposedly about how playing competitive sports has taught various famous people all sorts of invaluable “life lessons.”

Ultimately, the reason why this kind of lie matters is because the kind of person who will tell such an obvious and easily detectable lie about his imaginary athletic achievements is the kind of person who will lie about absolutely anything.

One of the beauties of sports is that athletic performance is, more or less, objectively measurable.  Donald Trump was a bad high school baseball player who, decades later, would insist over and over to the world that he was a great baseball player.  But Trump hit (approximately) .138 in high school. He’s hitting even less than .138 in the game of being a minimally competent president, or a minimally decent human being.  Yet neither the presidency nor life itself feature official box scores, so here we are.

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