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Dreams That Money Can Buy

The Dreyfus Affair: A Love Story

by Peter Lefcourt
Random House, 290 pp., $20.00

Box Socials

by W.P. Kinsella
Ballantine Books, 225 pp., $20.00

The Diamond Revolution: The Prospects for Baseball After the Collapse of Its Ruling Class

by Neil J. Sullivan
St. Martin’s, 232 pp., $19.95

Baseball: The Perfect Game

Photographs by Danielle Weil, Introduction by David Halberstam, text by Peter Richmond
Rizzoli, 128 pp., $29.95

1.

Why is baseball so different from other sports in its symbolic status and impact upon America? Why does only baseball claim the undisputed status of a “national pastime”? Further questions can be posed to the game’s different constituencies. For writers and intellectuals: Why is baseball alone among sports (with some challenge, perhaps, from boxing) the subject of a distinguished literature, both fiction and nonfiction? For lawyers and politicians: How can the anomaly of baseball’s exemption from the anti-trust laws, accorded to no other sport yet affirmed three times by the Supreme Court (in 1922, 1953, and 1972), possibly be justified? (In declaring baseball a sport and not a business subject to regulation, the Court challenged Congress to pass legislation to deal with this anomoly, and Congress has dodged the issue ever since. Apparently, neither branch of government dares to infuse this form of reality into our chief icon and pastime.)

In trying to grasp why baseball alone enjoys this exalted and symbolic status, I would invoke the two categories used in my own field of evolutionary biology: advantages conferred by historical and structural factors. The game evolved in America from a variety of English stick-and-ball games popular here even in colonial times. Although the early “official” leagues of the mid-nineteenth century had elitist foundations as gentlemen’s clubs, baseball always maintained popularity across a full spectrum of geography and social class—for farm and industrial leagues (school and prison leagues as well) also sprung up in those formative days. Football, by contrast and until recent years, largely flourished within an institution that catered to a tiny minority of the population: colleges and universities. (To this day, professional football recruits from colleges, and baseball from its minor leagues.) The phrase is not political rhetoric: baseball has truly been the people’s sport in America.

But a variety of structural reasons has maintained baseball’s position and reputation (for history alone could not sustain such a symbol in the face of fierce competition). I will mention just three of many categories:

The appeal of games not ruled by clock time. Most team sports (football, soccer, hockey, basketball) follow a similar theme: a team in possession of something (a ball, a puck) tries to score by moving the object somewhere (a net, or goal line), against an opposition and under pressure of a ticking clock. In baseball, the other team manipulates the key object (pitching and fielding), while you try to score runs (hitting) under no penalty of time, but for a duration that depends on your own skills. The result is a game with internal pacing, not subject to the almost frenzied and regimented actions (for crowds and players alike) that rigid time limits engender. Since we live in a harrowed world, increasingly regulated by our watches, this interval of interior time appeals to many people as a blessing and an oasis. During most moments of baseball, both nothing and everything is happening all at once. You can drink a beer, chat with your neighbor, and focus together on the game during a few moments of climax in the rhythm of play (a tempo with advantages over the relentless flow of adrenaline inspired by the back-and-forth pounding of most other major spectator sports).

Clock-time games are also subject to the inherent, and probably insoluble, problem that so many contests become tedious long before the end because one side gains an insurmountable lead. A few baseball games become boring blowouts, but most can reasonably be won by the team in arrears during the ninth inning—for, as the saying goes, it really ain’t over till it’s over: you have to get the last man out in the ninth, whatever the time of day. (The quote is usually attributed to Yogi Berra, who never said even one percent of the aphorisms attributed to him. An army of aficionados seems to subsist by inventing Berraisms. But then the good Reverend Spooner originated few of the classic Spoonerisms accorded to him, and the largely mythical personas assumed by a real character like Yogi form part of the lore and charm of baseball as well.)

The uncanny precision and rightness of baseball’s rules. Some of baseball’s rules are arbitrary but interesting. The catcher, for example, technically makes the putout on a strikeout. Hence the batter is out not when he swings and misses but when the catcher catches the ball. If the catcher drops the ball, the batter may run. Strikeouts would work just as well if the pitcher made the putout, and the rule seems quirky and arbitrary. Yet all major, original mid-nineteenth-century formulations of baseball rules included this provision among their twenty or so regulations, and no one knows why. The rule has engendered a few of the most interesting moments in baseball’s history—notably the Yankees’ key victory in the 1941 World Series when Tommy Henrich struck out, ostensibly to end the game, but catcher Mickey Owens dropped the ball, Henrich safely reached first base, and the Yanks eventually won.

Other rules are dictated by the logic of the game, but are not otherwise particularly interesting. (We must have an infield fly rule, lest infielders purposely drop popups and convert them to double plays. We must decree that foul bunts after two strikes are outs, lest skillful batters keep on deflecting pitches not to their liking until they draw a walk or their favorite pitch to hit.)

But most other rules produce a most uncanny and truly beautiful balance—a sense of “just rightness” that has required no alteration of major regulations for more than one hundred years. Consider, for example, the pitching distance of 60 feet 6 inches and the 90 feet between basepaths. Players have gotten bigger and stronger, but the balance persists, and, in the old cliché, baseball is “a game of inches.” A good fielder can still throw out baseball’s fastest runner on a ground ball—but only by a step, and this most routine of plays remains exciting.

By contrast, football and basketball are out of control, and rules are either altered or the game fundamentally changed. Baskets were not originally placed low enough to be slam-dunked (though the play is exciting), and football had to outlaw the flying wedge as early as the 1890s. People of ordinary size can still play professional baseball (I adore the Twins’ star Kirby Puckett, for he is as short and stout as I am)—while basketball and football players are outsized behemoths who acquire such nicknames as “Too Tall” and “Refrigerator.”

The stability of play and rules. Nothing nourishes the mythology of baseball more than the stability that allows us to grasp the accomplishments of past legends because they played the same game under the same rules. I don’t know how to read the records of early basketball heroes who played in the age of the two-handed dribble and the center jump after each basket (and no slam-dunks). But when Roger Maris chased and surpassed the greatest of all records in 1961, Babe Ruth’s 1927 mark of sixty home runs in a season, the whole nation watched during a summer of fascination—and understood. Moreover, although baseball is a team sport, all its actions can be dissected into components of personal contest (batter against pitcher, runner against fielder)—and individual performance therefore obtains an irreducible and measurable meaning. By contrast, achievements in other sports have no separable status, and myths about personal heroes cannot take similar root. Wilt Chamberlain once scored one hundred points in a basketball game—but only because his teammates decided to try the peculiar strategy, a grand joke really, of letting him take almost all the shots. (Does this theme of personal contest and achievement also help to explain why such a brutal activity as boxing also enjoys a substantial literature?)

For this annual review of baseball books, I wish to use these features of baseball’s uniquely long-term and accessible status to explore how three very different genres of baseball books—novels, financial exposés, and picture collections—handle the old chestnut of a claim that baseball somehow imitates life, or vice versa! (Don’t belittle the fascination of this statement just because the words form such a pompous and almost ludicrous cliché, for I will try to convince you that the claim has meaning in its treatment of a central tension between what we are and what we think we would like to be.)

In his novel of baseball (and life) in the 1890s, Luke Salisbury lets his narrator exclaim: “I’ve never thought baseball teaches anything about life, except the strong usually beat the weak.” Here the realist speaks. Baseball is us as we are; we like the game because we created it as an accurate mirror of our foibles and propensities. But consider the other aspect of the game embodied in all the mythology discussed above (I use mythology in the noble rather than pejorative meaning)—baseball as a contained, walled-off haven, evoking a gentler past; a refuge of green grass (sometimes) within a dome of steel or concrete, and with measured basepaths and unaltered rules. In other words, baseball as we wish we were (or as we imagine, in our false nostalgia, we once were). Salisbury is equally aware of this theme. He is discussing the beautifully precise and rule-bound play of a team that is nearly sure to win, so he adds, “But if there were a club which met Kant’s dictum that personal actions should be judged as universal principles of conduct, that club was the Beaneaters” (the old name for the Boston team). Even the most grizzled fan has to let that glimmer of a search for universal meaning into his hardboiled view about a particular outcome. We perceive baseball both as the essence of American life, and as what we wish our lives to be (contained and separated from what we have actually become). This odd duality defines the symbolism of baseball in our culture and writing. But if baseball is so flexible that it can serve both as an icon of the most silly romantic nostalgia, and as a mark of the harshest contemporary economic reality, can the institution have a meaningful core at all—or has baseball just become an all-purpose symbol for anything we wish to discuss about America?

Taken together, three novels—by Luke Salisbury, W.P. Kinsella, and Peter Lefcourt—might seem to reinforce the view of baseball as an all-purpose symbol. I have chosen them (among other worthy novels) because their subjects neatly span a century and its changing social issues. Salisbury writes of racism in the Gilded Age by loosely basing his story on the brief and tragic career of Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian from Maine who played for the Cleveland Spiders in 1897. (The current team, the Cleveland Indians, is named in his honor.) Kinsella writes of Depression poverty in rural Alberta fifty years later, during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Lefcourt has used baseball to discuss what may be the only remaining taboo upon healthy behavior in America, for he discusses a gay love affair between two stars (they also happen to be a racially mixed couple, but this doesn’t seem to matter much anymore, thank goodness).

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