The Magazine

The Old Ball Game

The mystic chords of the National Pastime.

Aug 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

When Marilyn Monroe divorced Joe DiMaggio, Oscar Levant remarked that it only went to show that no man can be expected to excel at two national pastimes. Time can do terrible things, even to wit, and this superior mot now has a slight flaw, which is that it is no longer clear that baseball is America’s other pastime. In the 1940s and early ’50s, the national pastime it indubitably was, a game that captured the country’s attention and enraptured the imagination of young boys and most men, who had earlier played it as boys. Just how it did and why it did and with what consequences is the subject of the intellectual historian Lee Congdon’s Baseball and Memory, a book about the game but also about much more.

Sammy Sosa Photo

Sammy Sosa, 2007

Getty Images

The 1940s and ’50s, the years at the center of Congdon’s book, are those of his boyhood, and, as it happens, also of mine. The sports menu during those years was much shorter than it is now. Professional basketball hadn’t yet arrived in a serious way; professional football had a short season, and not many teams had franchises west of the Mississippi; hockey was still felt to be essentially a Canadian sport; golf and tennis were thought, for the most part correctly, to be country-club or rich people’s games. Baseball was the main, the primo, the supreme American sport.

If baseball had a serious rival as a spectator sport, it was boxing, for a heavyweight title fight riveted American attention like no other sporting event. But such fights were intermittent, and baseball was played daily for six months, eight if one includes spring training. Besides, one had to be a brute to box, while baseball was a game available to every boy of normal size and decent coordination.

A Little League World Series was staged as early as 1947, but baseball for young boys remained largely unorganized through Lee Congdon’s and my boyhoods, a playground game unimpeded by otiose intervention from adults. Summer days one ambled over to the schoolyard, and got into a pickup game with other kids who had the same end in mind. If there weren’t 18 boys up for a game, the positions of right field, second base, and first base were eliminated, and one played something called pitcher’s hands out.

As a boy, one styled one’s play on one or another of the major league ballplayers one had heard about on the radio, or read about in the sports pages or in Sport magazine, or had seen at the local ballpark, if one lived in a city with a major league team. I played shortstop on the gravel field of Daniel Boone School with a trapper’s mitt bought from Montgomery Ward, doing my best impression of the St. Louis Cardinals’ great shortstop Marty Marion.

The ranks of boyhood baseball players thinned out in high school, where baseball wasn’t one of the glory sports. Large crowds didn’t attend high school baseball games the way they did football and basketball games; and there weren’t any girls watching from the stands before whom—hope against hope—one might look heroic. I left playing baseball in high school for a perfectly mediocre career in tennis and basketball. High school baseball was a game for the true hard cases: boys who loved the game in and for itself.

In those days high school baseball could be a dangerous sport. Batting helmets were not yet devised, and 16- and 17-year-old opposing pitchers threw heat, as fastballs were even then called, with uncertain control, leaving open the real possibility of being smashed in the head or face. Getting spiked while tagging a runner out was another hazard. Then there were line drives—“screaming liners,” “frozen ropes,” in the standard clichés—smashed back at the pitcher or third or first baseman. However pastoral some writers make baseball seem, the possibility of serious injury was part of the game.

Even if one stopped playing it once out of grammar school, baseball remained in the bones of most American males. Boys grew up knowing the rosters of the then-16 major league teams, traded baseball cards—now, some of them, worth obscene sums of money—passionately argued the merits of various players. I probably learned more arithmetic attempting to understand batting averages and other key statistical categories in baseball than I did in the classroom. Sidney Hook once told me that, during his days as a high school teacher in Brooklyn, he used the location of major league baseball teams to teach otherwise bored and unruly boys geography. The last two words of the National Anthem, an old joke had it, were “play ball.”

Baseball was American, a part of the culture. During World War II a way of identifying oneself to fellow American troops when returning from behind enemy lines was through one’s baseball knowledge.

“Who goes there?”

“Staff Sergeant, Bob Mahoney, Fifth Armored Division, Headquarters Company.”

 “Who is Ted Williams?”

 “Boston Red Sox, leftfielder.”