Some Thoughts on the Bitcoin Currency and Analogies With Baseball Memorabilia

For those who haven’t heard of it, Bitcoin is a private, digital currency generated by a software program and obtained (although “mined” is the preferred term) by solving complex mathematical problems. There are currently about 11 million bitcoins in circulation, and the limit on the total number of bitcoins that will ever be circulated is apparently 21 million. Bitcoins began to be issued at the start of 2009. They exist as a public database: as the New Yorker explains, in the database, “The chain of ownership of every bitcoin in circulation is verified and registered with a timestamp on all twenty thousand network nodes. This prevents double spending, since no coin can be exchanged without the authentication of some twenty thousand independent cyber-witnesses.”

The value of a bitcoin has soared in recent weeks, to more than $1,000, and people are increasingly speculating on whether Bitcoin or some other form(s) of private currency will emerge as a widely used alternative to government-issued currency. One problem with that possibility is that the value assigned to bitcoins has swung wildly in the five years of Bitcoin’s existence. On the whole, it has been very lucrative to simply hold onto the bitcoins you have rather than spend them, but there have also been periods of the value of a bitcoin dropping 50 percent or more. This doesn’t sound like a reliable currency: it sounds more like, for example, the market for a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle baseball card during the 1980s, in that there is no consistent, long-term standard for what either the card or a bitcoin is worth. Just as it was extremely lucrative to buy that Mantle card in 1980 and sell it in 1990, it was extremely lucrative to buy a bitcoin in 2010 and sell it in fall 2013.

Until you feel secure in spending bitcoins on something like a ticket to a baseball game that will be played five months from now: that is, using it as a currency that you can trust will maintain a fairly steady value in coming months and years, Bitcoin will not really function as a currency. Instead, the Bitcoin market will be a vehicle for speculation and idiosyncratic personal interest, similar to the market in sports memorabilia, or fantasy sports.

At the same time, some people have attacked the Bitcoin currency because of the difficulty of determining what a bitcoin is worth, the idea that bitcoins are given an arbitrary value, that they represent nothing of evident value, have no utility, and you can’t use them for anything. I think they miss the point. There are all sorts of objects that meet this definition, including, in the realm of sports, baseball cards, autographs, ticket stubs, and broadcasts of games, none of which have real utility, and lack any obvious tangible value or use. You cannot do anything with a Joe DiMaggio autograph but look at it and handle the object that holds the autograph. In fact, throwing around a DiMaggio-signed baseball will only decrease its value, by smearing the signature, getting dirt or water on the ball, or losing the ball by throwing it into the street.

The value of a bitcoin, like the value of sports memorabilia, is based on the fact that people assign values to things that they can’t do anything with. This is also true of government-issued currencies: the only thing you can do with a normal $100 bill is buy something: the bill’s merit comes from the ability to use it as a means of exchange and an indication of value. If the United States ceased to exist, the $100 bill would probably become worthless. That’s what happened to Confederate bills after the Civil War.

We’re already very accustomed to using purely digital forms of private money, like gift cards, coupons, credits used within games like Farmville, and credit cards and other forms of loans. As far as I can tell, Bitcoin is really just an attempt to establish a privately-issued digital currency that has universal application, instead of the limited application of these other private forms of money.

The question “Is a bitcoin worth $1,000?” is like the question “Is a year of Justin Verlander’s services to the Detroit Tigers worth $20 million?” in that there is no objective correct and permanent answer. There are all sorts of reasons to say no to both questions. Clearly, you can use the $1,000 or $20 million to do more vital things, like feed, clothe, and house people. But right now, enough people are giving a yes answer to both questions to say that yes, right now we can assign those values to a bitcoin and to Justin Verlander’s 2014 services.

Published in: Uncategorized on November 29, 2013 at 2:17 pm  Comments (1)  
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The New York Review of Books on Major League Baseball

This publication has been one of the most intellectual magazines aimed at a relatively general interest audience ever since it began in 1963. I decided on a whim to see how many times it has addressed pro baseball. A few articles turned up, and I decided to reprint excerpts from two of them here: they show a very different perspective on MLB than probably anything else on this blog. There is an essay-review of Richard Ben Cramer’s book, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, by Russell Baker in November 2000. Baker wrote:

Joe DiMaggio played baseball for the New York Yankees for thirteen years, then spent the rest of his life playing Joe DiMaggio. It is doubtful that he enjoyed either career very much, or that he enjoyed anything at all very deeply, although Richard Ben Cramer suggests that he took a miser’s delight in accumulating money. Even this pleasure was often spoiled by suspicions that friends and relatives were raking in money that should have been his. Joylessness seems to have been his natural habitat, distrust his natural instinct, and loneliness his inevitable destiny. He had no enduring friendships, but he had a hundred “pals,” each of whom, like a typical specimen described by Cramer, “had blisters on his lips from kissing the ground Joe walked on.” He was married twice, both times to blond actresses, both of whom divorced him. By the first he had a son to whom he was an indifferent, mostly absent father. The son outlived him by only six months, then died of an overdose of heroin and crack cocaine.

Joe and Marilyn [Monroe, of course] had one big thing in common…. Both were living inside the vast personages that the hero machine had created for them. And inside those personages—those enormous idols for the nation—these two, Marilyn and Joe, were only small and struggling, fearful to be seen. And alone—always. They were like kids, left in a giant house, and they must not be discovered. Or it would all come crashing down. In their loneliness, they might have been brother and sister. . . .

The hero’s buildup for DiMaggio differed from the normal by continuing long after he left baseball. His name began to figure in worlds alien to baseball. Oscar Hammerstein, in a lyric for the Broadway hit South Pacific, wrote of a woman whose skin was “tender as DiMaggio’s glove.” Ernest Hemingway, writing The Old Man and the Sea, had his old Cuban fisherman indulge in some suspiciously Hemingwayesque musings about “the great DiMaggio.” Tin Pan Alley produced a tune about “Joltin Joe DiMaggio.” In 1975, a quarter-century after his retirement, a movie version of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely had Philip Marlowe checking the newspapers day after day to see if DiMaggio had hit.

In 1967 Paul Simon’s memorable song to “Mrs. Robinson,” the corrupt adulterous seducer of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, celebrated a new kind of DiMaggio heroism for a new generation without memory of his baseball triumphs. Simon’s lyric, asking “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?,” became a lament for the fancied loss of an innocent America. . . .

The innocence was part of what made him good copy. He seemed uneasy to the point of terror about social encounters. Cramer suggests this reflected his family’s Sicilian background, which taught the wisdom of keeping your head down. Maybe, but DiMaggio had two other brothers, Dominic and Vince, who played professional baseball, and both were readily accessible to the public. Cramer suggests that Vince was even a joyful figure. Perhaps Joe was simply born uneasy. Whatever the case, his restrained, distant, occasionally surly manner made good material for writers. . . .

The DiMaggio [Cramer's] book portrays was almost always too frail, too pathetic, too human to aspire to divine eminence. He was a lonely, unhappy, empty man who could do one extraordinarily difficult thing better than almost anybody else in the world, and was proud of it, as he was entitled to be.

Secondly, here, in an April 1977 review-essay in the Review of Books by Christopher Lasch, called The Corruption of Sports, are some interesting thoughts on the status of baseball and other sports in the modern world.

Among the activities through which men seek release from everyday life, games offer in many ways the purest form of escape. Like sex, drugs, and drink, they obliterate awareness of everyday reality, not by dimming that awareness but by raising it to a new intensity of concentration. Moreover, games have no side-effects, produce no hangovers or emotional complications. Games satisfy the need for free fantasy and the search for gratuitous difficulty simultaneously; they combine childlike exuberance with deliberately created complications.

By establishing conditions of equality among the players, Roger Caillois says, games attempt to substitute ideal conditions for “the normal confusion of everyday life.” They re-create the freedom, the remembered perfection of childhood and mark it off from ordinary life with artificial boundaries, within which the only constraints are the rules to which the players freely submit. Games enlist skill and intelligence, the utmost concentration of purpose, on behalf of utterly useless activities, which make no contribution to the struggle of man against nature, to the wealth or comfort of the community, or to its physical survival.

In capitalist countries the uselessness of games makes them offensive to social reformers, improvers of public morals, or functionalist critics of society like Veblen, who saw in the futility of upper-class sports anachronistic survivals of militarism and tests of prowess. Yet the “futility” of play, and nothing else, explains its appeal—its artificiality, the arbitrary obstacles it sets up for no other purpose than to challenge the players to surmount them, the absence of any utilitarian or uplifting object. Games quickly lose part of their charm when pressed into the service of education, character development, or social improvement. . . .

Modern sport is dominated not so much by the undue emphasis on winning as on the desperate urge to avoid defeat, Coaches, not quarterbacks, often call the plays, and the managerial apparatus makes every effort to eliminate the risk and the uncertainty that contribute so centrally to the ritual and dramatic success of any contest. When sports can no longer be played with appropriate abandon, they lose the capacity to raise the spirits of players and spectators, to transport them into a higher realm. Prudence and calculation, so prominent in everyday life but so inimical to the spirit of games, come to shape sports as they shape everything else. . . .

The attempt to create a separate realm of pure play, totally isolated from work, gives rise to its opposite—the insistence, in Cosell’s words, that “sports are not separate and apart from life, a special ‘Wonderland’ where everything is pure and sacred and above criticism,” but a business, subject to the same standards and open to the same scrutiny as any other. The positions represented by Novak and Cosell are symbiotically related and arise out of the same historical development: the emergence of the spectacle as the dominant form of cultural expression. What began as an attempt not only to invest sport with religious significance but to make it into a surrogate religion in its own right ends with the demystification of sport, the assimilation of sport to show business.

Published in: Uncategorized on September 14, 2011 at 7:02 pm  Comments (1)  
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Luke Appling and the 1982 Cracker Jack Game

This game, in particular 75-year-old Luke Appling’s homer off Warren Spahn, was one of the warmest memories baseball produced in a decade that featured a long strike in 1981 and Pete Rose getting banned from baseball in 1989. And it came not under the auspices of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the rest of organized pro baseball, but because the people at Cracker Jack wanted to put on an exhibition game featuring stacks of retired greats in a city that hadn’t seen mlb action for a decade. Here’s how the Washington Post described the proceedings:

Warren Spahn kicked as high as he could, Hank Aaron dived after balls and 75-year-old Luke Appling hit a first-inning home run as the American League went all out to defeat the National League, 7-2, in a very respectable Cracker Jack Old Timers Classic last night before 29,196 at RFK Stadium.

A sudden thunder shower nearly forced postponement of the five-inning exhibition, the first baseball game in RFK since 1972. But once the players had filed onto the field one at a time for more than 30 minutes of introductions, they went at it with relish.

The American League, which had a lot of players not used to losing All-Star games, took a quick lead in the first when Appling hit Spahn ‘s second pitch 12 rows deep into the short left field bleachers.

The American League got four more runs in the third on Jim Fregosi’s home run and RBI singles by former Senators Mickey Vernon and Roy Sievers.

In the locker room afterward, Appling flexed his biceps between puffs on a huge stogie. “I haven’t felt better in my life than I did tonight,” said Appling, who has been playing in old-timers games longer than he played in the majors.

“I didn’t even look at it (the home run). I just didn’t want to run around the bases. I never feel old.”

Spahn was largely responsible for setting the game’s serious tone. On his first pitch, he rared back, kicked his right leg high in a reasonable facsimile of his famous form and threw Appling a high curve ball.

“I didn’t know we were allowed to throw curve balls,” said Whitey Ford of the American League.

“I told Luke last night my strategy was to pitch around the young guys and get the old fogeys out,” said Spahn, the winningest left-hander ever. “But he didn’t give me a chance.”

Before the game, Spahn estimated that in today’s salary structure he would be worth about half a franchise. Which makes Appling worth how much? “The Chicago White Sox,” he said, “And the Cubs, too.”

American League pitchers, most noticeably ex-Senator Camilo Pascual, Ford and Bob Feller, held the National League to six hits, including a home run by Bill Mazeroski. And the National League hitters got the benefit of some very lenient scoring.

“I threw tough for 11 years. Why would I stop now?” said Pascual, who threw harder than any of the pitchers, but had one lapse–Mazeroski’s home run.

While some of the oldsters, like Ewell Blackwell and Johnny Mize, had some trouble maneuvering, many players wouldn’t have let up if ordered to.

In the second inning, Aaron made a remarkable catch of a sinking liner hit by Bill Freehan. Al Dark was his usual competitive self, decoying runners into sliding. Richie Ashburn even attempted a drag bunt.

“It was a major league catch,” Aaron said of his second-inning acrobatics. “We’re not playing to embarrass ourselves. We wanted to win. People are paying their money to see us.”

“Some of those pitchers were throwing pretty hard,” said Willie McCovey, who hit one off the mezzanine during batting practice, but couldn’t get a ball out in three at bats. “You always have your pride, which makes you play as hard as you can.”

But there were moments when the players acted their age. Al Rosen staggered around third base trying to catch Ernie Banks’ foul pop-up and eventually watched it fall behind him. And in the second, moments before his running one-handed catch, Aaron let an easy fly ball hit him in the chin. It was ruled a hit.

When they were through, the players swarmed onto the field and doffed their caps to the fans.

“We played like this for the fans. They didn’t deserve anything less,” said Brooks Robinson, who started two American League double plays.
“They kidded me,” Appling said afterward. “I hit 45 homers my whole career and I had to wait 32 years to hit my 46th. The thing is, I’m no pull hitter.”

The thing is, Luke Appling is 75 years old. He was the oldest guy taking part in the Cracker Jack Old-Timers’ game at RFK Stadium last night.

The game drew 29,196 on a rainy, muggy night, which is remarkable. The American League won, 7-2, which is rare, indeed, in all-star exhibitions. And Luke Appling hit a home run off Warren Spahn in the first inning.

“I talked to Spahn before the game,” Appling said. “I told him not to throw me the ball outside, because I might drill one back at him. So he threw me one inside. Sometimes, you’ve gotta be smart.

“It was a knee-high, helluva curve. Nah, actually, he was kind to me and just laid it in there. I didn’t know it was gone, I just didn’t want to have to run around all the bases.”

The ball soared through the drizzle and into the short porch in left field, about 315 feet away. There would be two other homers hit (Jim Fregosi and Bill Mazeroski off Bob Allison’s creaky leap trying to catch his fly ball), but Appling is almost as old as Fregosi and Maz put together.

“If I’d had a short porch like that in Comiskey Park,” Appling said, “I’d have turned into a pull hitter.

“People kept asking me how I felt, seeing how some of the guys had gotten old. I said, ‘Hell, I’m the oldest guy here.’ But I still travel for the Braves, work with their minor-leaguers. Now, I’ll have something to tell them.”

Spahn: “It’s something neither one of us will ever forget.”

Joe DiMaggio said: “You never saw so many guys having a great time. You know, a lot of us only knew each other as competitors. Now you get to know these guys as people. Everybody was in little groups, and guys would just wander from group to group, telling stories and catching up on old times.

“The players of our eras didn’t make the money that they make today. You wouldn’t believe it, but in recent years, baseball has actually given the association [the Association of Professional Ball Players of America, which supported retired players] less money–down from $50,000 to $30,000. And costs are going way up. This game will bring the association more money–$50,000 guaranteed–than baseball provides in a year.”

Cracker Jack put on three more Old-Timers games at RFK Stadium: read about the final one in 1985, or buy some articles from the Washington Post covering the other games.

Published in: on February 4, 2011 at 12:11 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Oakland A’s First Game

Here, from the San Francisco Chronicle, are a couple images of the A’s playing their first game, on April 10, 1968. It was in Baltimore, against the Orioles: a 3-1 defeat.


This is Joe DiMaggio, new coach and vice president for the A’s, appearing in uniform before the Baltimore crowd:


The Chronicle’s story noted that “the A’s have assigned catcher Dave Duncan, pitcher Gil Blanco and outfield Joe Rudi to Vancouver.” Sal Bando’s centerfield fly ball with the bases loaded ended the game. Catfish Hunter lost the game, pitching six innings, allowing two runs, and striking out three. He was about a month away from throwing a perfect game. Reggie Jackson, technically a rookie, hit a homer to start the eighth inning, but it was his second MLB homer, not his first. Sal Bando and Bert Campaneris are the two other A’s names that stand out in the box score. Dave Johnson, the eventual Mets manager, hit a double to score the Orioles’ second run.

And, to give a sense of the times, some lines from the Chronicle: “Don Buford, given a starting chance after Mark Brlanger was called for National Guard duty, starred at bat and in the field yesterday.. . . Tonight’s scheduled Oriole-A’s game was postponed because of the racial unrest here. (The Chronicle’s referring to rioting after Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis on April 4.)”

And for some local color from the Chronicle: the Giants started their 1968 season at Candlestick by beating Tom Seaver and the Mets, 5-4, with a three-run bottom of the ninth. Willie McCovey hit a homer, and both Seaver and Juan Marichal got no decisions. The picture you see above Joe D. is of Nate Oliver joyously sliding home in the ninth with the winning run for the Giants in their opener.

Also, a sports column by Ron Fimrite talked about S.F. raconteur Sam Cohen closing his Sam’s Lane Club:

It was Sam who . . . first launched the ‘Help Sam Stamp Out Candlestick Park’ campaign. Sam, in fact, began his siege of that beleaguered edifice while it was still under construction . . . . Sam’s objections to our ballpark are not, of course, founded on a solely altruistic base. Naturally, as a humanist, he is concerned about the frequently appalling shortage of creature comforts in the wind-swept stadium.But he equally deplores its location–on the outer edge of the city, far from such business establishments as Sam’s Lane Club.

By the way, in their sole season in an American League not split into divisions, the Oakland A’s went 82-80, good for sixth in the A.L., and drew 837,466 to the Coliseum. Many of the A’s who would take part in the ’71 to ’75 dynasty were on this team, which had no player over 32. Reggie Jackson, with his 29 homers, was the only A with more than 9 dingers. Some other players on the ’68 team: Tony La Russa, Dave Duncan, Rollie Fingers, Blue Moon Odom, Rene Lachemann, Joe Rudi, Rick Monday.

Joe DiMaggio, San Francisco Seal

The Los Angeles Times of May 1, 1934, introduced the season’s San Francisco Seals like this:

Chief interest in the Seals will be centered on the arrival here of “The Great” Mails, who admits being an attraction in himself, and “Dead Pan” DiMaggio, the sensational young slugger. Mails does all the talking for the club while DiMaggio does most of the hitting. They say DiMaggio is bigger and better this year. He grew more than an inch and added fifteen pounds to his frame during the winter and the Seals are getting ready to play a $100,000 price tag on him. In case you have forgotten, Joe is the lad who hit safely in sixty-one consecutive games for a world’s record last season. But hitting isn’t his only virtue. DiMaggio also fields superbly and throws with the best of them.

The above is one example of how DiMaggio’s fame had spread beyond the Bay Area with that 1933 hitting streak: in his late teens he was, it seems to me, a phenom comparable to Bryce Harper and Lebron James.

In March 1935, the Times reported that he had arrived in Los Angeles for an examination of his knee after tearing it in May 1934, as required by the New York Yankees as part of their purchase of him from the Seals. DiMaggio was holding out with the Seals, but the Times said Yankees scout Bill Essick convinced him to get the examination.

DiMaggio stayed with the Seals for 1935, with the Yankees biding their time while they waited to see if his knee would hold up for the duration of a season. On May 5, 1935, the Times said:

When Vince came back the following spring [1933] he asked the Seals if he could bring out his young brother, Joe, for a tryout. Joe, he said, was a shortstop. The Seals said yes, so Joe got his chance. But Joe as a shortstop was one of the wildest throwers ever seen, but he could hit, so the Seals switched him to the outfield also. And then what did Joe do but run his brother right out of a job.

Both Joe and Vince were raised in San Francisco, where their father is a fisherman. As as the two boys were 13 years of ago their dad put them to work on his fishing smack. And pulling in those heavy seines gave each of them the powerful wrists and arms that make it so easy for them to “poosh ‘em oop” out of the park.

I recently read Richard Ben Cramer’s Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life. According to Cramer, the Times was right about Joe being an erratic shortstop and good hitter, wrong about the tryout story, and terribly wrong about the seines story. Vince was only a reluctant fisherman, who preferred selling newspapers and being in the city, and left home before he was 18 to play professional baseball. Joe’s mother, Rosalie, then refused to have husband Giuseppe force Joe into the fishing business after he’d dropped out of school at 14 or 15, and Joe instead sold newspapers, then was playing a kind of semipro ball by the time he was 16. He was good enough to be known as a coming star by the summer of 1932, making it inevitable that the Seals would try to get him on the team.

Col. Jacob Ruppert, Yankees Owner, in 1935

In late October, 1935, Jacob Ruppert, the owner of the Ruppert Brewery (read more about the man and brewery here) and the New York Yankees, went to a brewers’ convention in Los Angeles and talked with that city’s Times about the state of his baseball team after the 1935 season. The comments he issued show that George Steinbrenner wasn’t the first Yankees owner to try to run the team himself, and that apparently major league baseball had pretty lax rules about what could and couldn’t be said by team owners:

“If DiMaggio supplies the needed punch at the plate I don’t see how we can miss next year.”

Babe Ruth is “dead” as far as baseball and the Yankees are concerned.

“Get me a classy second-sacker and the sky’s the limit. [Tony] Lazzeri is all right, for that matter, but he’s getting a bit too old and he’s not as spry as he used to be. I’m contemplating two trades. I would like to get Outfielder Roger Cramer from the Athletics and Buddy Myer from Washington.” (Cramer, better known as Doc, went to the Red Sox instead, and second-sacker Myer stayed with the Senators. Lazzeri had a fine 1936 season, then was released after 1937.)

“We would have won the pennant last year [1935] if it hadn’t been for the trip to Japan that two of my star players, Lefty Gomez and Lou Gehrig, took just before the season opened. Lefty and Lou were tired and were not up to snuff. By the time they got going it was too late.”

Published in: on January 5, 2009 at 1:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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