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).
In Lefcourt’s novel, Randy Dreyfus is the star Hall-of-Fame-bound short-stop for the Los Angeles Valley Vikings in the late 1990s. He seems as straight as they come—a wife, children, fancy house, proper investments, a good agent, and millions of bucks; his only problem is a neurotic dog. But he falls in love with the second baseman, D.J. Pickett, an exclusively gay man living half in the closet (as convention demands in this sport, which serves as a symbol for the Quayle misdefinition of “family values”). When a store surveillance camera catches them in a passionate embrace (in Nieman-Marcus, where else?), all hell breaks loose. They try to plead drunkenness (for alcoholism is now an acceptable disease that breeds sympathy), and the ruse works for a while; but their cover is finally blown. The commissioner of baseball (less principled than poor Mr. Vincent, and named Esterhazy for the probable true villain of the original Dreyfus affair) bans them from the game, but a popular groundswell forces reinstatement, with predictably happy results.
This bare outline doesn’t do justice to a well-written book, filled with keen social commentary; the (no-doubt) forthcoming movie should be a hit. But The Dreyfus Affair also suffers in two ways: first, by overdoing its device of paralleling Alfred Dreyfus’s original story. Complex politics become cardboard caricature when an orgy of nationwide bigotry initially approves Esterhazy’s banning, and a single sports column, written by Milt Zola and called “I accuse,” then reverses the tide all by itself. And Lefcourt hardly needs to reinforce the point by having Zola’s editor state, upon reading the florid prose: “What the hell do you think this is—the French Revolution?” For if readers haven’t gotten it by then, they never will. Emile Zola did a world of service for Alfred’s case with J’accuse, but the forces leading to the original Dreyfus’s exoneration were incomparably more complex. (Still, perhaps such a violent shift of sentiment could occur in our volatile society, where most people will not say which candidate won a presidential debate until the commentators tell us—and where, to cite the good side, impulses of decency and fairness lie beneath much of our jingoism.)
A second failing underscores my central theme that baseball has become one of our most potent symbols for nearly anything we wish to reflect about American life. It is easy to grasp the rationale for a baseball novel when the author clearly knows and loves the game, and therefore indulges for personal pleasure. Now I must confess to an unfair advantage in judging Peter Lefcourt as an author who must be using the game primarily to write about other things. I went to grade school with Peter (though I haven’t seen him for forty years), in the days when New York sported three great baseball teams, and I know to this day who was and who wasn’t in the coterie of passionate fans—and Peter wasn’t. And, as Wordsworth says, if you don’t infuse it into your blood early, you don’t really ever get it.
But the internal evidence is abundant and decisive—for the book contains enough not-so-subtle errors about baseball’s norms to show that Lefcourt is a summer soldier and sunshine patriot. No baseball stadium can seat close to 125,000 people (and none of such capacity will be built in this century); no umpire would allow a seven-man strategy session on the mound. And Peter, my dear old friend, you do not lay down a sacrifice bunt with a man on first (especially with one out), when your team is behind 4–0 in a late inning.
By contrast, we know that W.P. Kinsella is a passionate fan, for his are among the best of recent baseball novels—Shoeless Joe (the basis for the fine film Field of Dreams) and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. So when he teases baseball, using it as a wonderfully subtle excuse to write about something else, then we really appreciate the potency of the symbol. The scene is a Canadian Lake Wobegon, one or two levels lower in social class and geographic obscurity—six grindingly poor towns at the most inaccessible edge of rural Alberta, inhabited by a variety of ethnic groups, largely Norwegian, but with substantial numbers of Ukrainians and Irish.
I can’t remember when a book of this genre made me laugh so much, but Box Socials contains little about baseball, except as a device linking Kinsella’s accounts of life, love, and gossip in hamlets literally off the map. Truck-box Al McClintock is the best amateur ballplayer in the region (he once hit five homers in a game, or so most people seem to remember). Now someone knows someone whose cousin (or uncle) is rumored to be a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals—so maybe Al can get a tryout, make the big leagues, and put the nontown of Fark on the map. This, of course, never happens, but Al gets to play in an exhibition game (either in 1945 or 1946, for no one can quite remember) as an Alberta all-star facing a US Army team featuring some major league greats—Bob Feller, Hal Newhouser, and Joe DiMaggio himself.
DiMag doesn’t show; Newhouser was never really scheduled; but Feller (he of the one-hundred-mile-per-hour fastball) pitches—and poor Al never sees the ball, never even gets the bat off his shoulders, as he goes down on three pitches in his one appearance. We are told about Al’s hopes in the beginning; the game gets a short chapter at the end. But two hundred intervening pages present an affectionate, but never sentimentalized, portrait of life in a rough hinterland. Kinsella reminds us about Al every once in a while, but Al’s big moment is mainly a device, and an effective one, to knit together the vignettes. For the game to have such power while remaining nearly invisible is a true sign of baseball’s hold on our imagination.
Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot from Maine, played a brilliant half season, hitting .338 for the Cleveland Spiders in 1897—until alcoholism and injury brought him down. He then played in twenty-one games in 1898 (hitting only .224) and made only seven appearances at the plate in 1899 before being released. He kicked around the New England minor leagues for a few more years, eventually returning to anonymity in Maine, where he died at age forty-two in 1913 while working as a woodcutter. One more potentially brilliant career destroyed by booze. Cleveland entered a team in the new American League when it began in 1901. Its name shifted several times during early years, but became the Indians in 1915, when a local reader won a newspaper contest by suggesting that the team honor Sockalexis’s brief brilliance.
Sockalexis provides the classic stuff of legend—so little is known about his life that he remains mysterious, but enough is understood about the exoticism (and contumely) imposed upon truly indigenous Americans that he evokes a legitimate theme of national guilt. Luke Salisbury may have taken too much licence in reinventing Sockalexis as a nearly invulnerable desperado who, Zelig-like, turns up at nearly every historical event of note (from Cuba during the Spanish-American War to Leadville, Colorado, at the time of the silver boom).
Unlike Lefcourt and Kinsella, who use baseball to write about social issues, Salisbury has chosen the opposite tactic of recreating a historical setting so he could write about baseball as played a century ago. What a pleasure for a passionate fan (as Salisbury is) to discover a way to write fiction about one’s personal and ancient gods. I strongly suspect that Salisbury created his fictional version of Sockalexis largely so that he could recreate games of the 1890s and write about his real heroes—Cy Young, Kid Nichols, Nap Lajoie, John McGraw, and the young Honus Wagner. I would only criticize the jarring anachronisms that seem to result from Salisbury’s love of the game and his consequent need to instruct. His narrator is supposedly writing early in this century, but Salisbury lets him step into the present whenever he needs to explain a change in baseball terminology or practice. (Fans, for example, were then called “kranks”—and Salisbury is too committed to baseball accuracy, ironically amid his willingness to so fictionalize the character of Sockalexis, simply to call them “fans” and let the issue drop. He insists on using the terminology of the past, but his character then has to step into the present in order to explain.)
Financial exposés may seem the antithesis of novels, but for my purpose in this review they are an expression of the way baseball holds us by reflecting life as we actually experience it. (Such books, in this sense, follow the same line as Lefcourt’s or Kinsella’s novels, borrowing a baseball theme to discourse on a chosen social reality.) I both enjoyed and felt instructed by the treatises on baseball economics by Andrew Zimbalist and Neil Sullivan. Zimbalist’s book is particularly well organized and clearly presented, a boon to economic innocents like me who accept Carlyle’s definition of this enterprise as “the Dismal Science.” Sullivan is more idiosyncratic and does not always present facts to back his assertions.
From their titles and jackets, one might think that both books are muckraking exposés with sweeping reformist suggestions. In fact, and for honorable reasons of accuracy, they both end up explaining rather than judging (thereby helping us to understand the near inevitability of the commercializing trends that all true fans deplore). “The Diamond Revolution” of Sullivan’s title is the one that has already occurred; while Zimbalist speaks of “Baseball and Billions” mainly in a descriptive rather than prescriptive sense.
In fact, I strongly disagree with the one suggestion for change that both writers offer as their major practical reform: a substantial addition of teams to expand major-league baseball. Much of the rationale for expansion is based on a false premise. Both authors note that, throughout the century, the number of players has increased far more slowly than the pool of potential recruits (which has soared both by general population growth and the inclusion of black and Latin communities). If you assume that the ratio of players to population should remain constant—as both authors do—then many more teams of adequate quality could be fielded. But, in fact, the quality of play has increased greatly, and the ratio should therefore decline through time to record this improvement. If an addition of new teams brought the ratio back to its 1900 value, and if play equal to 1900 levels then ensued, we would witness a vast decline in quality relative to 1990 standards.
But I would strongly oppose such substantial expansion even if adequate players could be found (for I would rather see average quality rise still higher)—and for reasons that should appeal to those who want to protect baseball traditionalism from destructive commercialization. Television moguls and team owners love championship series—and they long to add successive tiers of postseason play, spiraling to a final matchup. Such a strategy devalues the long regular season and can even engender the absurdity (as professional basketball now experiences) of nearly every team making the first level of playoffs, leading us to wonder why we have a regular season at all. During baseball’s long period of stability with two eight-team leagues, each club played 154 games, and the winners in each league then met for the best-of-seven World Series. The regular season was paramount, as it should be, for this extended drama occupies the long stretch of our daily interest, our solace in slow summers, our quotidian pleasure. The World Series was a lovely fillip, but we longed most of all for the “pennant,” or league championship.
Baseball’s first expansion was absolutely necessary when air travel opened the world beyond St. Louis and Chicago. The leagues split, quite reasonably, into two divisions each, and I think that virtually all fans accept the second tier of playoffs that resulted (between divisions for the league championship and then between leagues for the World Series). But another tier would tip the balance toward debasement of everyday baseball in the regular season, now 162 games. Substantial expansion will force another tier; the press and television might impose yet another—and our daily joy will become an irrelevancy. We love baseball as a subtle balance of batter and pitcher, runner and fielder; but the balance between regular and postseason is just as-important.
So why do fans invest passion in such arcane issues when the game’s basic economics have changed so radically and in such potentially destructive ways: Are we just a bunch of escapists? I think that Zimbalist and Sullivan answer this question by their silences—by their inability to write the muckraking books they apparently had planned. Zimbalist sums up the situation well:
[Major League Baseball] has been the beneficiary of public subsidies worth tens of millions of dollars annually, a blanket antitrust exemption, contracts with cable companies enjoying monopoly control over local markets, and no restraints from public regulations. Fan support has been enduring despite the game’s commercial shenanigans, ethical miscues, and labor-management turmoil.
Sullivan captures the meaning of the transition in a single sentence: “The essence of the diamond revolution has been to turn a feudal industry into a modern market.”
We are driven to inaction, to an inability even to formulate solutions that would preserve our traditions, for a fundamental reason rooted in the theme that baseball encapsulates life. The moguls of baseball have not betrayed us; they have not changed (except for the better, as a powerful players’ union and a set of legal victories have reined them in); they were always a selfish bunch, out primarily for profit and insensitive to the needs and wishes of fans. Their recent excesses only record a set of general social changes, primarily in the entertainment industry—and baseball has just plugged into this new world. These trends are not a malignancy within baseball, but rather baseball’s reflection of what we have all become. Baseball does imitate life, or at least profit from its economic organization.
Zimbalist and Sullivan show how vast sums have become available to major league teams as new sources of media fees have emerged—first from radio, then TV, then cable and other pecuniary schemes that will culminate in pay-for-view. Broadcast fees made up 16.8 percent of major league baseball’s revenue in 1950; the figure surpassed 50 percent in 1990. Add to this a growing number of other monetary sources that simply didn’t exist before, most notably the licensing of logos and players’ faces for a range of mostly superfluous and often ridiculous products from coffee mugs to memo pads (worth, in all, $3.7 million to each team in 1991—and rising fast). Old fans like me often argue that the hoopla and commercialism—with rock music between innings at the park, organized cheering and chanting, hyped selling of all conceivable paraphernalia—have greatly compromised the gentler game we loved (which can still be so beautiful in its execution between the between-innings hype). But who is buying the T-shirts, fawning (and pawing) over every utility infielder for autographs, acquiescing in each successive move to eliminate the free broadcasts we once enjoyed and substitute some new scheme of selective payment? Us, of course; nobody but us, or at least most of us. We have no right to complain that the Grand Canyon is too crowded to enjoy when we want to be among the tourists as well. How can we moan that baseball has fallen to mammon when we have willingly rushed into each new purchase?
These soaring revenues have provided the money for exalted salaries. Decent salaries, rather than the peanuts that players once received, could always have been paid, but the owners, aided by baseball’s mythology in gaining their illogical antitrust exemption, had long stymied effective joint action by their employees. But the players finally, I suppose inevitably, broke through—spurred by Marvin Miller, the brilliantly effective labor professional they so wisely hired to lead their movement. And this basic and necessary decency was then inflated, again inevitably in our world of agents, to the absurdity of the $8 million (per season) star who may care little for the ultimate source of his prosperity—a nation of fans who continue to adore a wonderful game while many of those who play it and egregiously profit from it kick us in the teeth. If this be capitalism in Reagan’s America, then I yearn for collectivity.
So salaries rise faster than any source of income and now make up more than 40 percent of an average team’s expenditures, while the owners once rejected a proposed 20 percent as destructive of their potential for profit. By 1990 prices, the average major league player earned $34,672 in 1898 and $851,492 in 1991. But since owners are getting richer too, the money is obviously out there, and it comes from us. The old picture of labor strife, with fat-cat owners and players as workers, has evaporated. As Gene Orza, chief lawyer for the players’ union, said to me: “We must now speak of owning capitalists vs. playing capitalists.”
These two sides are locked in the most dangerous kind of spiral—a positive feedback loop, where each side’s gain only inspires a demand for more income from the other. It is a law of nature: negative feedback loops stabilize; positive feedback loops explode. The current cycle cannot continue, for, at the current rate of growth, the top salaries, purely extrapolated, will soon reach the GNP. Will the system crash to oblivion, or will wisdom reform this process before the fall? Can fans do anything, or must we be passive observers in an economic process that goes far beyond baseball to the core of our social lives. How about a season-long, nationwide moratorium on all baseball-related purchases except regular tickets (no luxury boxes), hot dogs, peanuts, and one beer per game? The absurdity of such a reverie underscores the problem.
When we wish to run from this economic reality, we can always turn to an equally potent reality played out on the field of dreams—baseball imitating what we would like to be rather than what we are. This theme has a genre that has gained immensely in power thanks to enormous improvements in sports photography and reproduction—the picture book (usually with text, and often by the best writers on this sport). I have never understood why intellectuals tend to denigrate picture collections as “coffee table books.” I do not despise my coffee table as a low form of furniture (except literally), and I do know that primates are primarily visual animals. Is the art of photography or printmaking less worthy than writing? I like picture books, and baseball has a long history of inspired images. (Think of that Norman Rockwell print of umpires judging a rain delay; or the famous photo of Ty Cobb sliding into third, spikes high; or the wrenching shot of Babe Ruth from behind, using a bat to steady himself, as he makes his last public appearance at Yankee Stadium while near death from cancer.)
Picture books form the main genre for serious studies of baseball’s other reality—its ability to capture an image of what we think we would like to be, if only we could shelter our world as we can confine baseball within a beautiful green diamond. (In an earlier article on baseball, I referred to this dual and tension-laden reality as H-mode and Q-mode, for hagiographical and quotidian reality—Ruth hitting a homer vs. Ruth whoring and belching his way through the season.1 Remember, this contrast does not pit true against false, but captures two facets of reality—the home runs are as genuine as the carousing, and better known.) Nostalgia is the stock in trade of H-mode reality, and nothing supports the genuine side of nostalgia better than a picture book that can affirm technical aspects of the grander image.
Consider two fine books on the most potent subjects of nostalgia: lost teams and demolished ball parks. Peter C. Bjarkman’s The Brooklyn Dodgers is a loving portrait, filled with superb images, of a team I hated with a purity that can only be called hidden love. (Can God exist without the devil, or my once-beloved Yankees without their noble rivals?) Lost Ballparks, with a text by Lawrence S. Ritter and an introduction by Robert W. Creamer (two of the best writers in baseball’s literary establishment), documents twenty of those older, smaller, odd-shaped, and more intimate ballparks that form part of our image of the gentler past game but fell to the wrecker’s ball. How I loved Ebbetts Field (even more than Fenway Park, the great relic that I now attend), while I hated the Dodgers who played there. Who can forget the sounds of the Sym-Phony or Hilda and her cowbell; the Schaeffer Beer sign borrowed by the official scorer to light its “h” for a hit and one of its “e’s” for an error; that clever but basically spurious ad located just below the scoreboard: “Abe Stark. Hit Sign Win Suit” (in days of low salaries when such things mattered, but placed entirely within reach of the right fielder and therefore virtually unhittable)?
But picture books can also nip the dangerous side of nostalgia—bleary-eyed subversion of factual truthfulness. The Negro Baseball Leagues by Phil Dixon and Patrick J. Hannigan presents the clearest and most copious documentation I know of the incisive reality that must forever debar any reading of the past as innocent. I was most powerfully struck—and here we grasp the irreducible value of picture piled upon picture—by numerous photographs of integrated teams during the late nineteenth century, reminding us that segregated baseball was not an original state of evil, but the result of a decision taken and fostered against opposition from people of all races.
The inspirational side of a palpably brutal system—the pride and joy of the men who played, the support offered to a major African American business within its own community, the relative prosperity enjoyed by successful participants—shines forth in these photographs. We must never forget the distinction between something desirable in itself and the strength of human spirit that wrests dignity from imposed injustice; and we must not (as too many people have done) falsely romanticize the Negro Leagues as preferable to integrated baseball because they engendered such pride and produced so many role models—for who can extol (or, worse, actually hope to recreate) the only social system, apartheid, that can lead to such a separation of institutions playing exactly the same game? But we must not forget the great strengths and comforts of the Negro Leagues even while we suffer shame for having permitted the system that made them necessary.
The most elegant, and most unusual, of all recent baseball picture books has been produced by the photographer Danielle Weil, with text by David Halberstam and Peter Richmond. Weil has done something new (also something truly beautiful) in inverting the art of nostalgia: she has taken photographs of modern players in modern ball parks, but has used aspects of baseball’s palpable mythology to remake the present in the image of the past—thereby to show (and what a welcome lesson) that our mental H-mode images are not myth in the false and negative sense of something that only resides on clouds of false memory, but myth in the strong and true sense of something timeless and universal that persists amid the momentary overlays of any particular era, including the hypercommercialized present. Our hopes are not lies.
Weil takes photographs in black and white, usually from a distance of rear grandstand or bleachers. She emphasizes grace of movement in actual play. She has shorn her scenes of all but pure play and its rituals, revealing (I am tempted to say) the Platonic archetype of the game. She emphasizes human motion within the lines and symmetry of a properly contained ballfield—the simple geometry of the Pythagorean archetype of baseball: the foul lines, the basepaths, the batter’s box, and the grandstand. In one astonishing photograph, a batter pops a fly ball toward first, and all eight people in view move precisely as ideal play dictates—batter and pitcher gauge the trajectory, the catcher prepares to flip off his mask, the runner on first draws up to begin his retreat, second baseman and right fielder run into position, the first baseman prepares to catch the ball, and the umpire readies himself for the call. All perfectly executed for a routine and “dull” play. In another photograph, two infielders run out, an outfielder comes in, but the ball will drop between them for a cheap hit. Their bodies writhe, forming complex knots at the vertices of a triangle formed by their positions, all against the rectangular geometry of a framed grass field.
If many fans are seeking to free the reality of baseball as a contained and timeless game, reflecting what we would like to be, from the reality of baseball as modern mammon, we do not pursue this quest by trying to recreate past play in its equally dubious details—an age when players were grossly exploited by miserly and paternalistic owners, when alcoholism ran rampant, and when black men couldn’t play in professional leagues of the majority culture. We want, on the contrary, to abstract and extract the timeless pleasure of this most exquisitely constructed game—and in this Weil has given us the best icons that I have ever seen.
Call us hopeless romantics, but I am not so sure that we traditionalists will lose. At least we will wrest significant compromises from the corporation men who seek only to maximize profits and don’t understand the game’s beauties and traditions. We number millions, young and old, Ph.D.s and grade-school graduates—and we have economic muscle. We have also won some victories by proving that beauty and pecuniary success need not be opposed—for in this democratic world, no tiny cultured elite has preferred access to a grail of understanding, and any knowledgeable fan can walk the straight and narrow. New ballparks are actually being scaled down in size and built to resemble their older prototypes (as in Baltimore’s much-acclaimed Camden Yards); artificial turf is in retreat, and those hideous concrete rings, all-purpose and soulless stadia for the incommensurate sports of baseball and football, will soon be relics of former folly. Fenway Park will survive the millennium (and I guess I’ll still be sitting in my grandstand seat in section 12). We wish to maintain our game in the most modern way—by abstracting and containing its optimal (and minimal) frame, so that our maximally skilled players can be free to work their idiosyncratic wonders. G.K. Chesterton told us that “art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.”
November 5, 1992