The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, July 31, 2009


Baseball, culturally

“Baseball breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops, and leaves you to face the fall alone.” –A. Bartlett Giamatti

What would our summers be without baseball? Mimicking the pace of nature, its long, lazy season allows us all to become expert in its finer points as we grow up playing it in our neighborhoods and watching everything from T-ball to professional games. And with our own Red Sox and Fenway Park right here at home, baseball defines summer for many of us. Bart Giamatti, (father of actors Paul and Marcus) a passionate Red Sox fan rarely seen in the summer without his Red Sox baseball cap even when he was president of the National League, became the commissioner of baseball in 1989. He instituted a number of reforms, but served for only 154 days before he suffered a fatal heart attack. He is perhaps best and most controversially remembered as commissioner for his actions during the Pete Rose betting scandal. But Giamatti had also been a professor at Yale University and also its youngest president.

I knew Bart just before he became Yale’s president. He spent his summers then at the Bread Loaf School of English, Middlebury College’s graduate school of English and home of its renowned Writers’ Conference, sporting his Red Sox cap and teaching Renaissance literature to degree candidates like me. I spent an entire summer reading Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene under his tutelage. He was the most colorful and challenging professor I ever encountered. He demanded close and logical analysis in class and in essays, beautifully written prose, and perhaps most torturously, he demanded “not to be bored.” We were dealing with a subject on which he had written exhaustively and authoritatively. His works on Spenser are still influential today. Think about it.

Giamatti, however, demanded no more of his students than he demanded of himself, in and out of class. He always knew every baseball statistic and team record, manager’s strategy, deal and trade, and he discoursed about baseball the way he did about Spenser: analytically, authoritatively, originally and exhaustively. It was fascinating. And it gave me a new way to look at the sport I had grown up with.

Baseball is an American cultural phenomenon, but what does that really mean? Japan has a growing baseball tradition with a huge fan base, and in many respects, the game seems to reflect the deliberate, defined, ceremonial precision of the culture of Japan more closely than it does our own. How does a relatively slow-moving, almost balletic non-contact sport, played in a small, diamond-shaped area, almost ritualistic in its progression, represent our culture of speed, vastness, power and insistently loose, messy democracy?

For starters, baseball is nothing if not democratic. Anyone of just about any age can and does play it. It requires no expensive equipment or special conditions: you need a ball, something to hit the ball with, and four rocks, sticks, or even hats to mark the bases. You don’t need a wall on which to hang a basket, ice or blades on which to skate, a long field or goal posts. You just need a yard, a street or a patch of park. It is flexible and easy to learn, and because it doesn’t require a great deal of skill at first, it is accessible to everyone. Four-year-olds can hit balls off tees; if you aren’t very good at catching, you can play right field, because most people don’t hit to right field. In fact, the whole outfield is hilariously useless when most children begin playing baseball; most parents can recall outfielders on their children’s T-ball teams picking grass and dandelions, or even snoozing in the sun.

Aside from its democratic appeal, two important characteristics of baseball make it truly American and are apparent even before “good” bats, balls, gloves and other accoutrements are added. First, each position in baseball is manned by a single player, so that every play requires the skill of individual expertise, with results obvious to all spectators. Second, every time a batter comes up to bat, baseball becomes a contest between that batter and everyone else: one person against many, a lone ranger, a noble savage, one rebel against the established government. Professor/Commissioner Giamatti would see Huckleberry Finn, Natty Bumpo and Hester Prynne in the batter’s box. There would stand Sitting Bull, John Adams, Sojourner Truth. And unlike any other sport I know of, every single player gets a chance to step into that batter’s box in the course of a game and be the hero or heroine. Is there any other sport in which we measure every player’s averages and abilities with the same scrutiny as we do those of our professional baseball players, or in which just about every player on a team is a known quantity with his own coterie of fans?

Americans love rebels, and a baseball game gives each player a chance to defy a whole team. Americans love heroes, and a baseball game gives each player a chance to aspire to heroism. Most of all, Americans love the power of the individual, and there is perhaps no other sport that is so democratically supportive of that power.

So baseball really is the quintessential American game. Now, can anybody score me some tickets to Fenway before I have to face the fall alone? ∆

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito