Baseball: The People’s Game
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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 …
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