S EACH passing season advances the threshold of living baseball memory, men whose legends were once the staple of sports talk A fade inexorably into obscurity. Even the “immortality” ostensibly conferred by membership in the inaugural class of Hall of Fame inductees is not proof against the spread of collective amnesia. I can testify firsthand—for I have probed the waters—that such names as Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson do not register at all with many of today's younger followers of the game. As a professional historian, I don't find that fact surprising. Why should fans today bother with Eddie Collins, Ed Delahanty, Rogers Hornsby, Larry Lajoie, or Tris Speaker when they have the careers of Jeff Bagwell, Albert Belle, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., and Mark McGwire to track, and the achievements of Hank Aaron, Joe Dimaggio, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Ted Williams to measure the current stars against? Sports fans live in the present and the remembered past; except for the occasional history-minded journalist, no one associated with the publicizing of the game has any strong interest in perpetuating tales that antedate living memory.
Three players, however, have defied the rule that consigns distant heroes to the realm of the forgotten. The first is Babe Ruth, who has been dead for over fifty years but whose reputation as a batter of unparalleled power still hovers over the game. The second is Ty Cobb, whose name almost forty years after his death still evokes the image of a player driven by a compulsive need to win. The third is Cy Young. This great pitcher died in 1955, and his case is the oddest of the three, for the average fan today is scarcely able to conjure up any mental picture of this ancient worthy's career, or even to say what skills made him dominant. Yet that same fan certainly knows that Cy Young's name graces the award given annually to baseball's two best hurlers and is apt to conclude that Young must have been a helluva pitcher.