Call me a dinosaur, a romantic, a kid at heart or an inveterate dreamer, but I can’t help getting excited when the winter sports finally give way to (or at least make room for) talk of pitching matchups and pennant races. Baseball has changed over the years, but it is still the single game that Americans can claim, without fear of contradiction, as their own. The game is to sports what jazz is to music. Both were born here. Both have spread generously to other lands and have been embraced by other cultures. Both contain in their histories the dynamic story of America’s development as a nation.
I began collecting baseball cards at the age of four (thereby learning to read at a rudimentary level so I could correctly associate the players with their teams). Almost immediately, I developed an affinity for Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers, who for those early years of my youth, broke my heart every fall by failing, usually by inches (figuratively speaking), to win the big prize. These were baseball’s true glory years.
And, with all three New York teams possessed of the most exciting and talented players (apart from Ted Williams and Stan Musial, who were in a class of their own in Boston and St. Louis, respectively), the World Series always featured one, and usually two, of the three teams. The big argument in those days among my young friends was who the best center fielder in the game was. Strong cases could be made for all three: the Yanks’ Mickey Mantle, the Dodgers’ Duke Snider and the Giants’ Willie Mays. (All three were subsequently elected to the Hall of Fame.)
As a youngster, I quickly came to realize (after only two years of little league ball) that I could not hit, catch or throw well enough to avoid tremendous humiliation whenever I took the field, which for a young teen is not a pleasant prospect, especially if you are also beset with a severe case of acne and an inability to speak intelligibly to members of the opposite sex. Undeterred, I took my love for the game inside, learning as much as I could about the many facets of the sport that escape the casual fan.
Why, for instance, can certain pitchers handle certain hitters, while others can’t? In what situations will a good batter punch the ball to the opposite field instead of swinging for the fences? What is a manager likely to be planning with a two-run lead in the bottom of the seventh? All these and countless other stratagems and nuances became my homework, and I studied it all by listening to the likes of Vin Scully, Red Barber, Mel Allen and Lindsey Nelson.
I also studied the box scores and learned how to compute batting averages and ERAs and “magic numbers” (number of wins needed to clinch a pennant), quickly developing thereby a facility with numbers (these being the days before computers, or even hand held calculators).
My love for reading started with baseball, because I soon learned that it was fun to read what the sports writers wrote about the games I’d listened to on the radio the night before. And so, by reading newspaper reports by Dick Young, Leonard Koppett, Jimmy Cannon and Roger Kahn, I came to appreciate the ways in which writing could capture and even enhance the memory of a game, a single play, a fleeting moment.
And, as I studied the game and its history, I became more aware of the history of my country, thereby gaining a more mature sense of patriotism, one that reveres the potential for the country’s greatness that its Constitution provides, while also recognizing the realities of the less noble pursuits and accomplishments that its politics often promote.
My love of reading soon led me to experiment with my own writing skills, at first merely describing the things I observed, later adding the emotions I felt, and, ultimately, crafting essays that sought to express an idea I formed. Viewed in hindsight, I can easily see the child who was the father of the man I’ve become – lawyer, teacher, writer – and it all began with baseball.
And now, as yet another spring arrives and another season begins, I am in touch with those joyful days of youth. The start of a new baseball season and the advent of spring seem to be almost one and the same experience, so joined are they at the hip.
Both herald a sense of hope. For the teams, a new race for a pennant begins, with optimistic visions of improved performance from returning players and boosts of enthusiasm from newly acquired teammates. For the rest of us, spring creates a sense of renewal and a hope that the future will be better than the past.
But the baseball season is long (six month and 162 games), and over the course of that span of time, the realities of life all too often take hold. Injuries occur to key players; slumps derail expectations; mid-season trades don’t lead to improvement; players lose the confidence of their managers; managers lose the respect of their players.
In the end, many hopes are dashed, and only one team remains standing when the chill of autumn takes hold and the headlines and lead stories turn to the game played with an oval-shaped ball by over-sized men wearing all manner of padding and helmets.
Such is life. It dawns with hope and expectations of great joy and eternal happiness, only to be buffeted by cruel fates and human imperfections. And each opportunity for renewal or rediscovery (the new diet, the commitment to exercise, the promise to be faithful, the resolution to break a bad habit) soon gets lost in the dog days of summer and the frosty mornings of fall.
But spring is when hopes revive and when everything is once again possible. The Dodgers have a great team this year. Mannymania will surely bring a World Series title.
But just to feel that feeling again is enough to recall that it’s good to be alive.
Viking Daughter says
Such passion in this story!
While I am in no way a sports fan, baseball does conjure up emotions recalling days watching my little brother bravely step up to the plate as a little league player.
Truly an American game, one that reminds me of the aroma of hot dogs, and cheering the teams.
Matt Perry says
Wonderfully written piece, Ed, akin to the best in baseball writing.
There is no other sport that provides the modern fan with as much romance, temptation and confusion as baseball. As someone who grew up with the game while Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek talked about it on TV, and Ernie Harwell would simplify the game to its essential Zen romance for the Tigers on radio in the 60s and 70s, I fell in love with it just as you did.
Back then, the game wasn’t necessarily slower but the treatment of the game was. I can barely tune in on TV to watch the game that I once revered because of the incessant talk, constant analysis, and maddening hair-splitting. Can’t those broadcasters just shut up for once! The worst offender is the Giants Mike Krukow, who is like a jabbering nat or the guy who sits next to you at the bar who just won’t shut up and let you enjoy your drink. Every pitch analyzed, scrutinized, dissected, twisted, torn and trashed. It’s maddening.
Don’t get me wrong. I love baseball. More precisely, I LOVED baseball. Today, the hype surrounding the game has gotten altogether too large. The commercials. The highlights. The hero worship. It’s all gotten too much to take. But, of course, baseball has simply fallen prey to the demons that have overtaken everything else in our culture: money, excess, and deception.
Ah, now we have it.
Ed’s writing is evocative and romantic, and taps into that part of us men who are still little boys at heart. Unfortunately, the game has changed, so that lovable cheaters like Gaylord Perry who would game the system with his spitball and usually get away with it have been replaced by high-stakes fakers who break the laws not just of baseball, but of America by lying before Congressional committees and ruining the record book. Balls hardened to increase the home run total after the baseball strike. Steroids juicing up men into Supermen who routinely hit line drive singles that go over the fence for home runs. They are backed by sports agents who angle for the most cash, and attorneys (sorry Ed) who tell them never to admit guilt.
Baseball used to represent America in all of its promise, sweetness, and romance. Today it reflects our characteristics in a very different way.
I love baseball and hate to say it, but baseball is no longer the baseball from “The Boys of Summer,” “The Natural,” or W.P. Kinsella’s “The Thrill of the Grass.” It’s just not the same game.
Jan Conroy says
When I read such sweetly written paeans to that quintessential American game I always feel mixed emotions: I sigh a nostalgic sigh for spring and the holy game, the mingled smells of new-mown lawn and neatsfoot oil in the pocket of my Wilson glove, but I can’t entirely buy into it. Also like you I never really got comfortable playing the game. Fact is, I wasn’t any good.
Writers I admire and respect (Roger Angell and you, for example) write very convincingly of the superiority of baseball to football or basketball or hocky, and so I feel I should feel that way too, if I’m to pass myself off as a person of truly refined sensibilities. But the truth is I don’t get really worked up about baseball until August or even September, when playoff pressure puts some real excitement into the game.
Basketball or, better yet, football are my favorites, and I know that puts me in pretty common company. At least I have the cultural refiinement to recognize my failing and feel obscurely guilty about it. Baseball and jazz are things I should love more than I actually do, I’m afraid.
Nevertheless, thanks for the very well written essay!
Dick Lemon says
Great story Ed, and a reminder to some of us that the history one’s personal history of baseball is like the words of the old songs. I don’t know the new ones but i can still sing alon with Bobby Rydell, Dion and the Belmonts and Little Richard. I became a real fan when my cousin Don was signed by the Cleveland Indians, Joe Gordon right out of Grant Union Hign School. I got to follow Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Mike Garcia and Bob Feller on the mound and feel the pain of the ’54 series when Willie mays and Dusty Rhodes helped the Giants take it in four. Imagine the thrill of a Sacramento Solons fan when it was announced that the Giants were coming to San Francisco. I didn’t go to the first season in the old Seals Stadium but my Dad took me the next year to Candlestick tosee my first game. Joe Nuxhall for the Reds and Sam Jones for the Giants. The Giants won 6-2. Thanks for the reminder Ed, life is good!
Ashley Hamidi says
Your piece is a nice vacation from the usual dreck out there.
Not only is the content substantial, but it’s also well written. Just another reason I read your column.
While I’m not a baseball fan (I’m a tennis player, so I’m a huge tennis fan), I am a fan of baseball. I think it’s because it’s so unmistakably American. Like Apple Pie. And I can recognize romance and drama when I see it.
Baseball has plenty of both, as you beautifully illustrate in your article. I think because it a big part of our national history, I’m a huge supporter of the game–despite the fact that I don’t follow it closely or enjoy playing the actual game. Probably due to my raring ADHD (yes, really).
I had to comment here because most articles and books on baseball are just utter abortions. You have to wonder whether anyone even bothers editing the first draft. I’m no scholar, but even I notice the major gaffes. Even worse, most writing is lazy and just painful to read.
But my favorite part of your essay is how you share a little of your journey with us, your readers. I’m always interested in the journey.
Sounds like baseball was a huge gift. It ignited your passion for reading and writing–the prerequisites for a fulfilling and successful legal career.
I wish I could remember what finally got me into reading and writing. Whatever it was, it probably hit me too late. I’m sure I would be much better off had the bug hit me in early childhood.
In fact, I don’t think I truly appreciated the importance of writing clearly until I was almost done with University. Potent, well-crafted prose can be powerful and persuasive, indeed.
You almost convinced me here! Somehow, you capture the essence of baseball. You write in a way that makes me share in your excitement for the game. Not an easy task.