Baseball's reputation hasn't been under such a cloud since the "Black Sox" scandal of 1919. Just as Sen. George Mitchell's report identified 104 steroid users among today's big leaguers, nine decades ago a number of players, including some of the game's biggest stars, were widely reputed to be substance abusers.
Back then, as now, team owners put so much emphasis on short-term gains that they threatened to undercut the game's viability. Players, absorbing this "every man for himself" attitude, even conspired to fix a World Series.
While we haven't quite reached that level of venality today, one of the greatest hitters of our era has been accused of helping opponents at the cost of his own team in return for their assistance in boosting his personal stats. To some observers the game currently has reached such a crisis point that baseball historian Bill James's portrayal of the players of the 1910s as "shysters, con men, drunks, and outright thieves," could also apply to many of this era's all stars.
But just as a new generation of baseball heroes emerged in the 1930s and '40s to save the game's reputation, baseball is already witnessing the emergence of a new generation of Millennial ballplayers who will lead the sport to its next golden era.
Most of the major leaguers of the 1910s and early '20s and again in the '90s and first decade of the 21st century came from a generational archetype labeled "reactive" by theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe. In the first instance it was the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900) and in the second, Generation X (born 1965-1981). In both cases, these generations were raised by relatively self-absorbed parents who left their children to fend for themselves, producing alienated, individualistic, risk-taking adults
Lost Generation players included some of the greatest names – and flawed personalities – in the history of baseball. Babe Ruth's appetites were almost as prodigious as his ability to swat home runs. Ty Cobb was one of the most combative players of his time, and also the most disliked. Rogers Hornsby was the best right-handed hitter of his era, but also a compulsive gambler and member of the Ku Klux Klan. And Shoeless Joe Jackson who, along with seven of his White Sox teammates conspired to throw the 1919 World Series, earned infamy as the object of the plaintive plea that captured fans' disappointment with the behavior of this Lost Generation star: "Say it ain't so, Joe."
Today, virtually all of those who are accused of steroid usage, including Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, and Alex Rodriquez were born within or right on the cusp of the birth years of Generation X.
While there are notable exceptions, like the nondrinking, noncursing Lost Generation pitching great, Walter Johnson, and the clean-cut Gen-Xer, Derek Jeter, it is the ill-performing members of reactive generations who have most distinctly colored the big league baseball of their eras.
But, in baseball, as in every aspect of life, one generation passes from the scene and another arrives to take its place. Reactive generations are followed by another archetype – civic generations – that are almost their polar opposite. Civic generations are raised in a revered and protected manner by their parents, which produces positive, self-confident, high achieving, team-oriented adults.
Starting in the mid-1920s, the youngest members of a rising civic generation, the GI Generation (born 1901-1924), came into baseball. James describes the ball players of the 1930s and '40s as hard-working, team players who were completely schooled in the intricacies of their craft.
Among the earliest GI Generation arrivals was the beloved Yankee first baseman, Lou Gehrig who had a quiet personal style that completely differed from that of his flamboyant Lost Generation teammate, Babe Ruth. Gehrig was followed by other iconic members of his generation including Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio.
Today the members of a new civic generation, Millennials (born 1982-2003), are just starting to populate big league rosters. Already talented, positive, team-oriented Millennials like Dustin Pedroia, Evan Longoria, Zack Greinke, Hanley Ramirez, Chad Billingsley, and David Wright are among baseball's biggest and most promising stars.
At this early point, we haven't seen the full impact on baseball of this generation, the youngest member of which is only 6 years old. But an anecdote about one of them suggests where baseball is headed:
While at Arizona State University, Pedroia voluntarily forfeited his scholarship to permit the recruitment of additional pitchers, thereby allowing his team to win the College World Series. It's hard to imagine many members of the individualistic Lost and X generations doing the same thing.
Nearly nine decades ago, the GI Generation came on the scene to rescue Major League Baseball. If history is any guide, a new civic generation, the Millennials, is arriving right on time to save the grand old game again. Stay tuned for baseball's next golden era.