Writers – academic, commercial, and intellectual – have for generations indulged themselves writing about baseball. (This post, of course, becomes a further meta-indulgence.) There is nothing close in either American fiction or literary nonfiction about football or basketball, however much those other sports dominate the TV screen these days.Much of the baseball genre now tends to be nostalgic, elegies to a past of country pastures, sandlots, and pickup games. I was reminded of this trope when reading a recent essay in The (new) New Republic by Kent Russell about Amish boys playing ball. Russell’s essay combines two forms of nostalgia in the same space, wistful for a life and a sport that both seemed simpler and purer. (Will anyone ever write nostalgia about suburban kids’ traveling teams and their minivans? Maybe when they start to disappear.) An intriguing historical aspect of this literature, at least my impression of it, is that there are actually two strands of writing, one backward-looking and one forward-looking, although both are about childhood.
The Look Back
Baseball appears in some modern literature as a journey back to a sepia-colored America of the author’s youth, when he was a player of sorts. John Updike wrote a poem about “the mothers on the sidelines / your own among them, hold their breaths / and you whiff on a terrible pitch . . . Baseball was invented in America /where beneath the good cheer and sly jazz the chance of failure is everybody’s right / beginning with baseball.” And Exeter-educated poet Donald Hall wrote about Fathers Playing Catch with Sons: Essays on Sport (Mostly Baseball).
There’s also the baseball nostalgia for the early days of the professional game, like Updike, again, in “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”: “ My personal memories of [Ted] Williams begin when I was a boy in Pennsylvania, with two last-place teams in Philadelphia to keep me company.” The standard trope about the professionals of an earlier time was that their paychecks were smaller, they lived in the neighborhood – usually near Ebbetts Field, or playing stickball with the local kids – and their hearts were presumably purer. Irish-Canadian author W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe became the film Field of Dreams, a classic of that genre.
The glow around early baseball is, of course, historically wrong in many ways. Men who played before the modern era were no less mercenary and no more scrupulous than today’s players; they were exploited more by owners and were less skilled.
Much of this writerly baseball is authors musing on the loss of personal innocence as they became adults, mixed with, perhaps confused with, their sense that the nation, too, lost its supposed innocence. (“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?/ A nation turns its lonely eyes to you /(Woo woo woo).”) This is, in some senses, an anti-modern genre.
A Look Ahead
Yet, there is another baseball literature in which the game is not a stand-in for pastoral days, but a near-sinful joyride into an exciting, enticing modern America. I am thinking here of baseball in the writings of early-to-mid 20th-century immigrants’ kids and grandkids. Learning to play and learning to watch the pros play was how to become an American, a Yankee-Doodle-Dandy – sometimes in spite of, or perhaps because of, parents’ disapproval. And instead of baseball being the 19th century game, it is 20th century go-go-go. Here’s a small list of examples that comes to mind (no doubt, with some errors.)
There’s Philip Roth, whose Portnoy’s second greatest desire was “to be a ball player: ‘Oh, to be a center fielder, a center fielder-and nothing more!’” (quoted here). There’s Bernard Malamud’s classic, The Natural, and Mark Harris’s set of novels, including Bang the Drum Slowly. Touching a baseball is like grabbing an American identity in Mario Puzo’s Fortunate Pilgrim, in Cahan’s David Levinsky. There’s biologist Steven Jay Gould’s baseball obsession, a known ailment among the professoriate. And there’s many a second- or third-generation sportswriter like Roger Kahn (Boys of Summer).
Baseball biographer Jonathan Eig once explained, “Baseball is an urban game” – somehow forgetting all those cornstalks and players with names like Country Enos Slaughter – “a game that was played by immigrants,” Eig said. “A lot of the novels of the early 20th century were immigrant novels, and baseball fit in really well . . . .”
The professional game was a route (along with, to be sure, boxing) for immigrants’ sons and grandsons to make it in America – Hank Greenberg, the DiMaggio brothers, Joe Garigiola, and many Irish and German kids before them. Today, for all the attention to those newly-arrived, made-for-tv sports, baseball is still an important route to American success.
It’s not just the Latin and Caribbean players who are making it into the pros (see last year’s Opening Day post), but also the American children of immigrants from such nations. U.S.-born of Mexican parents Sergio Romo, for example, is notable not only for closing out the 2012 World Series for the San Francisco Giants, but also for wearing a tee-shirt during the championship celebration that declared “I just look illegal” and playing for Mexico in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Again, baseball as the ticket forward, rather than as a nostalgic look back.
Speaking of Romo: It’s a new season! Go Giants!
 The Library of Congress lists about 1380 books of baseball and fiction, compared to about 880 for football and 630 for basketball.
(This column was cross posted on the Berkeley Blog on March 26, 2013.)