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July 4 a lesson in lore for MLB fans (and 1st-place teams)

Kevin Lyttle
klyttle@statesman.com

When America's heavy hitters signed the Declaration of Independence 235 years ago today, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and company were looking for a different kind of realignment than what King George III had in mind.

They were tired of the colonies being the Triple-A farm club for Great Britain. They wanted the United States to jump to the major leagues and start its own division.

After a hard fight, they won that right. And so we celebrate our nation's birthday on the Fourth of July — the holiday that is synonymous with baseball, America's venerable old sport that traces its roots to club teams of the mid-1800s.

Some of baseball's most memorable moments came on July 4, beginning with the immortal Lou Gehrig's "luckiest man on the face of the earth'' speech in 1939.

Many major leaguers fondly recall childhood tales of backyard wiffle ball doubleheaders on the summer holiday before shooting off fireworks at night.

Every major league team is in action today; in fact, there was a stink raised several years ago when the schedule-maker had several teams off on July 4. Major League Baseball traditionally has its highest weekend attendance of the season wrapped around this holiday, and it was well on its way to setting the 2011 standard with an average crowd of better than 36,000 going into Sunday's games.

Baseball lore has it that teams in first place on the Fourth of July also finish first. We're here to debunk that myth.

Once upon a time, it was a nearly 64 percent proposition, but those numbers have declined. In the last 15 years, 54 of 90 (60 percent) division leaders on July 4 won their titles. In the last 10 years, it dipped to 32 of 60 (53 percent), and that's where it remained the last five seasons (16 of 30).

Last year just two of the six division leaders — Texas and Cincinnati — hung on to win. The Rangers were 48-33 last July 4 and had a 31/2-game lead on the L.A. Angels. They finished 90-72 with a nine-game cushion over second-place Oakland.

So Texas, tied with the Angels for the division lead after Sunday , can't feel comfortable. Neither can the other division leaders: the New York Yankees, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and San Francisco. Recent history says only three of them will finish on top.

There have been some great comebacks from July 4 holes, dating to the 1914 Boston Braves, who went from last to first. The Mets wiped out 101/2- and 121/2-game deficits on the Cubs in 1969 and '73. The Yankees erased a 101/2-game margin to the Red Sox in 1978.

The Fourth of July has had some resplendent moments. In 1939, as Adolf Hitler prepared to plunge Europe into World War II, Gehrig brought Yankee Nation to tears with his emotional farewell address. The Iron Horse, one of the greatest players ever, had his career cut short by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a disease now known by his name.

"What young man wouldn't give anything to mingle with such men as I have for all these years?'' Gehrig told a somber sellout crowd of 61,808 at Yankee Stadium. "You've been reading about my bad break for weeks now. But today I think I'm the luckiest man on the face of the earth.''

Other July 4 highlights:

• In 1947, Larry Doby joined the Cleveland Indians, becoming the American League's first black player. He made his MLB debut the next day. Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier 11 weeks earlier for the NL's Brooklyn Dodgers.

• In 1977, the Red Sox hit an MLB-record-tying eight home runs against the Blue Jays.

• In 1980, Texas legend Nolan Ryan recorded his 3,000th strikeout, pitching for the Astros against the Reds.

• In 1983, Dave Righetti of the Yankees fired a no-hitter against the Red Sox.

Nothing so dramatic has happened for years on this holiday. We're overdue.

So while firing up the grill for the family cookout, you might want to check out a little baseball. Maybe Josh Hamilton will hit four home runs against the Orioles. Or Tim Lincecum will pitch a perfect game against the Padres.

It's a day for history to be made.

klyttle@statesman.com; 445-3615