The Magazine

The Old Ball Game

The mystic chords of the National Pastime.

Aug 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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 “Okay. Come forward.”

Not knowing who Ted Williams was might have got one shot.

Sports generally, but baseball most of all, was the lingua franca of American men in a democratic country. Baseball could nicely slice through social class and educational lines. Through their common interest in baseball, a philologist could sustain a good conversation with a garage mechanic, a butcher with a biochemist. 

Baseball and Memory begins with Bobby Thomson’s home run in the old Polo Grounds, hyperbolically known in the press as “the shot heard ’round the world,” in the final playoff game that won the pennant for the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 3, 1951. For decades afterward men marked the event, as others marked Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination, by remembering where they were when Thomson hit his homer. The home run was hit at 3:58 Eastern Standard Time, Congdon notes, a fact that reminded me that I had just come out of my last class for the day at Nicholas Senn High School in Chicago, headed for the smoke-filled purlieus of Harry’s School Store, where it was of course topic number one.

Along with Thomson’s home run, Congdon recalls Don Larsen’s perfect game against the still-in-Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series of 1956. (I watched the game on a blurry television set while sitting on a couch with the stuffing coming out of it in a broken-down fraternity house at the University of Chicago.) He retells Pittsburgh Pirate Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off homer against Ralph Terry to defeat the Yankees in the 1960 World Series. He sifts the evidence about Babe Ruth’s supposedly calling and aiming a home run at Wrigley Field in 1932 (accuracy on the question has yet to be solidly established).

Lee Congdon has spent—I hesitate to say wasted—his youth and much of his manhood as a Chicago Cubs fan. (So, too, did I, until a few years ago, when I proclaimed myself the baseball equivalent of a bisexual and began also rooting for the White Sox which is, to put it very gently, not de rigueur in Chicago, where ardent fans of either team loathe fans of the other.) As is well known, the Cubs have had an uncanny knack for letting their fans down—hard. The team has not appeared in a World Series since 1945 and not won a World Series since 1908. But then, any team, as a sad local quip has it, can have a bad century.

The pages of Baseball and Memory are replete with Cubs pitchers with high earned-run averages and poor career won-lost records, sluggers who could be counted upon not to come through in the clutch, egregious trades of brilliant ballplayers—Lou Brock, Rafael Palmeiro, most notable among them—for now properly forgotten ones. In 1969, with, for once, a solid roster of players (five of them on that year’s National League All-Star team), the Cubs, though 9 1/2 games ahead of the Mets in August, went 8-17 in September and blew what looked like a sure trip to the World Series, proving that even when they were good they weren’t good enough.

The Cubs got to the playoffs in 1984 and looked to be going on to the World Series when, in the late innings of the deciding playoff game against the San Diego Padres, the team’s first baseman, a man named Leon Durham, let a fairly easy grounder go through his legs. The next day, at my neighborhood grocery market, the manager asked me if I had heard about Durham’s attempted suicide: “He deliberately stepped out in front of a speeding bus,” he reported, “but it went through his legs.”

“Long-suffering” is as natural an adjective for Cubs fans as “wily” was for the late Ho Chi Minh. I have a cousin named Stuart Rudy who, as a young man, had incipient ulcers and was implored by his physician not to subject himself to the anguish of listening to Cubs games on the radio. A man named Jerry Pritikin, now in his seventies, sits in cut-off jeans in the bleachers during games at Wrigley Field, sometimes bringing along encouraging handmade signs, behaving generally in a way that reminds one that the word “fan” derives from fanatic. I once heard him, in an interview, remark that next to his father, his own zeal is as naught: “My father’s deathbed words,” he said, “were ‘trade Kingman.’ ”

Congdon shows no signs of regret for his long years as a Cubs fan, however little punctuated by glory or triumph they have been. He does, though, have deep regrets about what has happened to the game of baseball that he was brought up on and still loves. Sports have politics: Fans line up along a liberal to conservative spectrum, and not infrequently people who are liberal in their politics are archconservative in their views on sports, and vice versa.