Baseball: The People’s Game
Men At Work: The Craft of Baseball
When the Cheering Stops: Former Major Leaguers Talk about Their Game and Their Lives
Consider baseball as Janus, the double-visaged god of our beginnings. One face looks beyond our everyday world into the realm of myth. I went to a game at Fenway Park last month, accompanied by a professional sociologist and budding, but unsophisticated, baseball fan. He delighted in observing the few forms of joint action indulged by fans of this most individualistic sport—the wave and the seventh-inning stretch in particular—referring to these displays, in his jargon, as “social organization.” But in the ninth inning, with Carlton Fisk at the plate for the visiting White Sox, another apparent ritual puzzled him greatly. Several dozen fans, dispersed throughout our vicinity, stood up, raised their arms above their heads, and gyrated in an odd little motion. What could this mean? My friend was utterly stumped.
I explained that this behavior fell outside the generalities of rules for human conduct in crowds, and that he would have to learn the specific mythology of baseball. The gyrating fans were enacting a ritual to be sure—by imitating, in the presence of the Hero himself, a cardinal moment of baseball’s legend. In the bottom of the twelfth inning of the sixth game of the 1975 World Series, probably the greatest baseball game ever played, Carlton Fisk, then a catcher for the Red Sox, hit a long ball toward left field in Fenway Park. It seemed to curve foul, but Fisk gyrated his body, put some English on the air space between home plate and the arching ball, and bent its trajectory right into the left field foul pole—thus winning the game as he jigged around the bases. It was past midnight in the little New Hampshire town of Fisk’s birth, but someone ran to the church and set the bells ringing. (I am also assured that the laws of physics preclude Fisk’s action at a distance, but facts cannot be denied.) The fans were simply recreating a treasured moment of legendary official history.
The other face looks back into our quotidian world of ordinary work and play. When I grew up on the streets of New York City in the late Forties and early Fifties, we found a hundred ways to improvise and vary the game of baseball. I particularly enjoyed the two-man versions—rubber balls bounced against stoops (with different rules for each set of steps) or pitched from one sidewalk square across a second and into the batter’s box of a third in line, where the hitter slapped the ball back toward the pitcher (we called it “boxball-baseball”). The canonical playground version for school recesses was punchball—played with fist against that same ubiquitous pink rubber sphere. After school, we grabbed the old map handle and played stickball. (An uncharted variation among neighborhoods and boroughs should be investigated by scholars. The hegemony of Brooklyn has led to a widespread impression that stickball was invariably played in the street, with sewers as arbiters of distance, and that the ball was called a “spaldeen.” In my part of Queens, we always played stickball against a schoolyard or apartment building wall, with a chalked box for balls and strikes. The ball was a “spalding,” with strong accent on the second syllable—less of a departure from the trademark, A.C. Spalding, stress on the first syllable of course, prominently embossed on each ball.)
Mythology is wondrous, a balm for the soul. But its problems cannot be ignored. At worst, it buys inspiration at the price of physical impossibility (as my initial story of churchbells and action at a distance testifies). At best, it purveys the same myopic view of history that made this most fascinating subject so boring and misleading in grade school as a sequential tale of monarchs and battles.
Most baseball books continue to bask in the mythology—tales of heroics in that tiny pinnacle of activity known as major league baseball. We have tales of unforgettable seasons; sagas of dynasties (the once-proud Yankees, the current Athletics), or disasters (Cubbies, Phillies, and Sox); and, above all, ghost-written autobiographies, now a bit more confessional than the old cardboard, but still basically hagiographical.
But the Janus face of our daily lives peeks through often enough, and even sets the theme of several contemporary baseball books. When The New York Review sent me this year’s crop for the new season—to receive during spring training, read during a lazy summer, and report just in time for the World Series—I decided to select the three items that treated this neglected, ordinary face. These three otherwise disparate books share the common property of their allegiance to Annales history vs. kings and battles. Seymour tells us the explicit story of the largely undocumented mountain supporting the pinnacle (and leaves us wondering whether we should use such a metaphor at all). George Will and Heiman, Weiner, and Gutman adopt the other tactic of demythologizing from within the pinnacle—Will by displaying the workaday quality of manifest excellence in performance, Heiman, et al., by tracing the heroes after they pass from the limelight into the invisibility of later life.
Baseball: The People’s Game is the third volume of a distinguished series by the doyen of baseball historians, former Dodger batboy and history professor, Dr. Harold Seymour (the first two entries, The Early Years and The Golden Age, treat official history, but this magisterial compendium makes up for any previous neglect of Janus’ other face). Aristotle invoked the house in a venerable and celebrated metaphor for his theory of causality (bricks and mortar as material causes, masons as efficient causes, blueprints as formal causes, and inhabitants as final causes). Seymour uses the same structure for ordering his chapters on the history of baseball up to the Second World War, as played by nonprofessionals, from kiddie toss-up games on the street, to well-organized industrial and semipro leagues. In “the house of baseball,” Seymour treats, sequentially, the foundation (boys’ baseball), the ground floor (organized men’s leagues from colleges, to towns, to industries, to the armed forces), the basement (baseball in prisons, reformatories, and Indian schools and reservations), the annex (women’s baseball), and the outbuilding (black baseball).
Seymour’s book, all six hundred-plus pages of it, revels in intimate detail, often reading more like a list, filled out in prose style, than a narrative. Seymour is the leading professional in a small, but growing field of sports history, yet he writes with the most admirable zeal of a hobbyist and amateur in the fine (not the pejorative) sense of a word that means “to love.” I can well imagine Seymour’s mode of composition. He must have hundreds of thousands of index cards (for this project began years before our modern electronic shortcuts), each with the history of baseball in a particular state prison, prairie town, or military outpost. He then ordered them by time or concept and disgorged this great labor of love. Any fan must rejoice and greatly admire the results; the less committed may be forgiven for occasionally feeling that some details might be less important than others, and perhaps justifiably excludable (must we know, for example, that everyone became seasick during a return steamer ride from California to the Chemawa Indian School in Oregon following a pre-World War I trip by the school baseball team and band?)
Still, as the saying goes, baseball is a game of inches and an enterprise awash in particulars, statistical and otherwise; and Seymour’s densely detailed account will rivet any enthusiast’s attention. Since baseball is truly our “national pastime” (however trite the phrase), the various arms of the establishment that have sponsored the game have invoked utility or defense against subversion for a plethora of purposes: the promotion of “American” values in wayward boys, the suppression of unionism through fostering paternalism in factories, the spread of imperialism, and the undermining of Indian culture.
Yet just as one can’t blame science, as an institution, for misuse in the service of racism, baseball was valued and enjoyed, whatever misappropriation took place. Moreover, means are not causes; and instruments remain available to both sides. The ILGWU and other major unions formed their own leagues, and the Daily Worker had a crackerjack sports section; Albert “Chief” Bender began his march to the Hall of Fame from an Indian boarding school, and Babe Ruth learned his baseball in a Catholic charity home for orphans and wayward children in Baltimore. Some beneficiaries admitted that the real influence flowed from baseball to the sponsoring institution, and not vice versa. An Illinois pastor gloated in 1912 about the success of his church team: “There is many a one who comes to play and remains to pray.”
As for Seymour’s stories, thousands upon thousands of them, I was most intrigued by two features. First, the comprehensiveness in detail (I doubt that I could even envisage many of the topics Seymour discusses, much less ferret out the information). In a dizzying few pages on small-town baseball before World War I, we learn about the purchasing of uniforms (Sears needed longer notice for delivery by July 4 than at other times); the practice of lining basepaths with buggies and then with automobiles (windshields often removed); the playing of bands; hiring of “ringers” as fraudulent substitutes in the lineup; the influence of betting; and endless arguments about the propriety of Sunday ball. Among the taller tales, we learn that during a game in Utah, with two on and none out, the batter hit a ball high into a tree (located in fair territory). The runners all circled the bases, but the opposing fielder shook the tree, dislodged the ball, caught it before it hit the ground, and turned a three-run homer into a triple play! (The innocent and bucolic wraps around the urban and commercial. A few years ago, Dave Kingman hit a high pop fly into the ceiling meshwork of the indoor stadium in Minneapolis. It never came down and was proclaimed a ground-rule double.)
Second, consider the sheer delight of a good tale (combined with instruction in broader aspects of American culture): Did you know that a baseball game once had to be interrupted at Fort Apache so that soldiers could saddle up to chase the escaped Geronimo? That several leagues operated in Panama during the building of the Canal, and that a Marine squad lost to a group of civilian players in a game staged at the bottom of the Culebra Cut, perhaps our greatest engineering triumph before the Apollo program? That a factory owner in a western city sent a note to a rival in 1883, with a gentle protest against baseball played by industrial squad on the rooftops?
It is creditably reported to us that some of our employees frequently use the roofs of buildings extending from yours to ours to play base ball thereon. We are ever desirous to help elevate the national game, and this altitude seems to be about as high as it ever will get, yet there are also a few objections to this special location.