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The Baseball Chronicle

Essays

Shakespeare and the Park

By Eric Nusbaum

Baseball has a bizarre effect on writers: it turns them romantic. When it comes to the national pastime, sentimentality is permissible. Nostalgia, previously cast aside, is dusted off the way an umpire might brush home plate clean after a close play. The author yearns to discuss baseball. It is often called the most literary of sports. Whether the game has an inherent literary appeal, or it is only literary because so many people write about it is impossible to determine.

But write they do. Walt Whitman said baseball is “our game; and that’s the connection with it; America’s game.” Mark Twain, a diehard fan, wrote about the hazards of umpiring in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and called baseball the very symbol of the 19th century. Robert Frost couldn’t help but compare himself to a ballplayer: “Poets are like baseball pitchers. Both have their moments. The intervals are the tough things.”

“Casey at the Bat” has become one of America’s most famous poems, strikeout and all. Bernard Malamud’s The Natural was called by the New York Times a “brilliant and unusual book” upon its release. It has held up well enough to warrant a guide on sparknotes.com, that arbiter of all literary and canonical values. It even got made into a movie starring Robert Redford, the most earnest and American of actors. The film, of course, has a happier ending than the book. But baseball films as a genre lean towards redemption (see: Kevin Costner).

While baseball has benefited greatly from its representation in literature, the game has given little back. Maybe it would be excessive to expect players to offer book suggestions at post-game press conferences, but as an institution the sport has little patience or understanding for the concept of reading. As intellectual as baseball may appear, it has very little use for words on a page. One needs them to fill out line up cards, and to keep score. Otherwise, it is a game of vocal and physical communication. Consider the third base coach touching his chest, hat, legs, arms, belt, and face to conceal signs.

At the professional level, there are often adversarial relationships between clubs and the media, which is logical. Such relationships occur anywhere journalists and their subjects remain in frequent and close contact; the White House press corps, for example, is not always on friendly terms with the sitting president. But at all levels, much of the game’s mistrust of literature is the result of ignorance. When big league pitcher Jim Bouton released the book Ball Four, a diary of his 1969 season, he was ostracized not just for revealing secrets that soiled the game’s image, but for pursuing something intellectual. According to the institution of baseball, it was just not the way a ballplayer ought to behave.

And when I read books on the bus rides to and from my own high school baseball games, I was told the same thing. That’s just not the way a ballplayer ought to behave. He ought to focus on the upcoming game; if his team wins he ought to celebrate on the way home, and if his team loses, he ought to sit and ponder his shortcomings. The fact that anybody wanted to read on the bus was an oddity, a curiosity. I’m convinced that it was only because my coaches had never come across such a thing that they quietly, begrudgingly, allowed it. Let Nusbaum read, was the attitude. But get a load of him. What I read was never relevant to them, just the fact that I was reading at all. It could have been The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams, or The Great Gatsby for English class, but no matter. The very presence of books was incongruous.

Maybe it was not so strange that I was interested in both baseball and literature, but strange that I sought to combine them. For me the intersection seemed obvious and in this case was incidental. I had spare time on the bus. And I used it. The fact is, when I read and write I do so as a baseball fan. When I watch or play baseball I do so as a literature fan. And often, I read and write about baseball. So when I reflect on my reading history, it comes as no surprise that baseball is stubbornly present, whether in a central or auxiliary role.

The Kid Who Only Hit Homers

I am not the kid who only hit homers. In fact, despite my respectable baseball career, which lasted from the ages of five to eighteen, I never hit a real homerun over a fence in a real game. There were some inside the park homers in Little League and many with my friends, but I never jogged around the bases in glory. Failure, however, didn’t cause me to live out those home run fantasies in books. I began to read baseball books long before I knew my playing career would not work out. Even when I thought I still might play third base for the Dodgers one day, I collected the cards, watched the movies, and read the books.

Among those baseball books were the works of Matt Christopher. And among his works was The Kid Who Only Hit Homers. It is the story of Sylvester, a below average ballplayer until he meets a mysterious old man who mentors him and turns him into the book’s spectacular title character. Sylvester is later forced to face the “troubling questions” that come with his mysterious homerun hitting power. In the sequels, Return of the Home Run Kid and Comeback of the Home Run Kid, Sylvester deals with similar strangers and troubling questions.

In retrospect, the books appealed to me on multiple levels. First, the subject matter was instantly engaging. Even the covers featured action-packed baseball artwork. Then there were the protagonists: always average to below average kids who loved the game and worked hard to improve, or found themselves doing something extraordinary in an important situation. The books had fast-moving plots that I could easily insert myself into. I wanted to be the kid who only hit homers, and the books let me.

Those dynamics: an appealing subject matter, relatable protagonist, and fast-moving plot, are universally desirable for pleasure readers. As I grew out of Matt Christopher and towards subjects besides baseball, they continued to work for me. I still characterize myself as a pleasure reader, hedonistic even, but the nature of my pleasures has changed since the Matt Christopher days. Whereas before I found satisfaction in the story, now I find it in the dialogue, description, and character development too. The Matt Christopher books helped lay the groundwork for those more complex joys as well as more elemental things. My reading style for example, is more fastball than change-up. And after I’ve finished them, the books look like they’ve been struck repeatedly by a bat.

The Man in the Ceiling

Baseball has never been in any exclusive territory whereas my reading is concerned. I always spent as much time outside lines as inside. In elementary school, for example, I read every Goosebumps book and had the first of many biography phases. My mother cites a series on the young lives of American heroes including, improbably, Helen Keller, as a favorite from that period. My favorite novel, however, was a book by Jules Feiffer called The Man in the Ceiling. Nothing about my liking The Man in the Ceiling made sense. I knew that at the time, but I loved it, and read it again and again.

It is the story of Jimmy Jibbett, a meek boy who loves to draw comics and constantly disappoints his father with his inability to successfully navigate left field or sit through ballgames on television. Jimmy is a talented artist and awful baseball player—my polar opposite. I still remember having mixed feelings about the role of baseball in the book; glad of its inclusion, but frustrated that the protagonist stunk and hated it. I remember being annoyed that the father, who loved baseball, was such a jerk. Regardless, I liked Jimmy because we both kept to ourselves emotionally and I liked the book because it was hilarious. Some sections were in comic book form and I even enjoyed those, despite having never bought a comic book.

The important thing about The Man in the Ceiling was how much of it I should not have liked, but still did. A book, I came to learn, was more than just some characters and what they do. How else could I have picked a book that abused baseball as my favorite? Was it that I didn’t love the game as much as I had thought? Or that I loved books more than I realized? I thought about these things at the time and came to no conclusion. I still don’t have one except to say it seems obvious that my favorite novel of childhood would have baseball in it.

The Los Angeles Times Sports Page

When I was seven we moved to a new house. It was superior in many ways: I had my own room, the backyard was bigger, and the kitchen had an island. Mornings, the island was occupied by breakfast and the Los Angeles Times. I would wake up and enter the kitchen to the site of my parents reading the newspaper as it sat sprawled across the island’s marble countertop. Quickly, I staked a claim on the sports section.

Nearly every morning for ten years I read the sports page on that island. Early on it was a struggle managing both the paper and my bowl of cereal. I would often spill or find rings on the paper from the bowl. I stuck mostly to the standings, box scores, and statistics. As I grew better at eating and reading simultaneously I began to take on the more challenging articles. My father loves to point out that I could barely go five minutes without sharing some random fact I found fascinating. He would tell me, “Okay Eric, you read your paper, and I will read mine.”

I began to read the paper in April, during the opening weeks of the 1994 baseball season. I see in retrospect how formative that year may have been. In 1994, Dodger right fielder Raul Mondesi was the National League Rookie of the Year. I still have his banner hanging in my room. Only now have I made the connection that his baseball career and my career of obsessive baseball tracking began simultaneously. Mondesi batted a solid but unspectacular .306 and hit 16 home runs that season. It turns out he was on pace to do much more. The 1994 season was shortened in August by a player’s strike. I remember the strike vividly because it occurred days before my eighth birthday, the party for which was to be held at a Dodgers game.

Reading the newspaper might have gotten me a favorite player, but baseball got me reading the newspaper. It could have been something else, like an early interest in comics or movies, or it could have been nothing at all. But it was baseball and by the time I reached high school, I had spread to the Calendar section and the front page. Now I am a news junkie, avid magazine and blog reader, and absolute fiend for any information that seems at all interesting in any way. In fact, I have even become something of a journalist. Writing at the University of Washington paper, I covered, among other things, the baseball team.

At first I read the paper because my parents read the paper and I thought it was the mature thing to do. I wanted, as every kid does, to be an adult. But also, I wanted to know things. Not for any particular purpose, just to know them. I felt good about myself when nobody else knew who was third in the league in steals but I did. It was a matter of ego. Knowledge of such things, even trivial things, was confidence. And the very act of reading was pleasurable. I was drawn in by the scorn and humor of columns and the narrative energy of features.

My Favorite Summer 1956

The extent to which I had retained the things I read was a mystery to me until the end of high school when I unexpectedly dominated a group of friends in a game of Trivial Pursuit. In retrospect, the victory was not so surprising. My friends and I had led nearly parallel lives, attending the same schools from kindergarten through the end of high school. The only difference between them and me was that I read for pleasure.

The signs were there even earlier. My parents love to repeat a story about an argument I had with my uncle at ten years old. It was over some trifling baseball fact connected to the New York Yankees 1956 World Series season. We parted ways after dinner still in disagreement—each of us absolutely confident. He knew because he grew up with that team. I knew because of a book: My Favorite Summer 1956, a Mickey Mantle autobiography that I had read and reread. In fact, I wasted chunks of my own (not favorite) summers 1995, 1996, and beyond reliving Mantle’s Triple Crown season. When the fact in question was researched, the ten-year-old boy was proven correct.

Despite my mother’s suggestion that I had an early affinity for Helen Keller, the Mickey Mantle book was my first favorite autobiography. I remember it vividly: hardback with a sky blue jacket, heavy but not too thick. At the top of the cover was Mickey Mantle, written in bold, white type, and below that in red was the title. In the middle was a close up of Mantle peering over his shoulder, bat in hands, and clouds behind him as if he were some god of hitting and centerfield. I remember browsing through the local .99 cent store years later and seeing that sky blue jacket stacked amongst other sports memoirs. It was a startling sight. My Favorite Summer 1956 had been my first “adult” book. And here it was on sale for a buck. It saddened me to see a book so personally important on sale in such an undistinguished store and excited to me to see how casually a favorite book could come into one’s possession. My mom just ran across it while shopping one day and what the hell, it was only a buck.

But the book was not written by Mickey Mantle at all. Rather it was authored by a sportswriter named Phil Pepe from notes and interviews and stories Mantle had spoken into a tape recorder. Such was the practice with that type of sports book; they were designed to enhance the player’s reputation. It was all humility, camaraderie, milk and cookies. Note the inside flap:

Mickey Mantle, the hayseed kid from Spavinaw, Oklahoma, was in his sixth year with the Yankees. He was already America’s homerun king. He was about to become a national hero. 1956 would be a record-breaking season: the golden summer fans would remember forever. Now Mickey Mantle brings it all back just the way it happened—spectacular playing on field, crazy hijinks with Whitey Ford and Billy Martin off. There never was a time like it before in baseball. There never will be again. It was magic.

Magic indeed, especially to a ten-year-old. The book never made me love Mickey Mantle, but it certainly made me love baseball more. The big leagues depicted in the book were better than even the big leagues of my dreams. My imagination went wild. I took many of the same pleasures from the Mantle book as I did from Matt Christopher a couple years prior. Only now there was something else. There were real lives at stake. I was reading not about a kid who only hit home runs, but a real man who struck out sometimes too. And suddenly, I wanted to know more about real people.

Ball Four

Real people, it turns out, can be disappointing. I learned early from reading the newspaper that baseball players are not as noble as some books depict them. Raul Mondesi, for example, was traded by the Dodgers in 1999 after a profanity-laced tirade against his manager and club executives. That was okay for me. First and foremost, I loved the game (and history proved Mondesi right regarding the then-management of the Dodgers). Plus, I was a ballplayer myself, so I felt obligated hold the group in high regard. But then I read Ball Four. And with that, my notions of the baseball player as a superior being were shattered. Starting with Mickey Mantle.

Ball Four is pitcher Jim Bouton’s diary of the 1969 season, and via flashback, an autobiography of his baseball life. He discusses his liberal political views and intellectual tendencies, and how despite his best efforts, they leave him an outsider in the baseball establishment. He lays out the pastimes of the major leaguer honestly: the drinking, the swearing, the extramarital affairs, and the rhythm of baseball life. Perhaps I loved the book so much because of its author. I too felt outcast within the baseball establishment, and I too had observed its inanity with some bitterness—like not making the twelve-year-old All-Star team in Little League because the other guy’s dad was a coach. More importantly, I too loved the game hopelessly despite all that.

When Ball Four was released, it was to an uproar from the baseball community. Bouton breaks the cardinal rule of silence outside the baseball clubhouse and spoils the legacy of Mickey Mantle by shedding light on the alcoholism that will later kill him. He points out that although a good teammate and good-natured man, Mantle often slighted his fans. The Mantle presented in Ball Four is not the Mantle I knew so well from reading My Favorite Summer 1956. I was forced to ask myself: Who’s the real Mick? Which guy do I believe? I had to give each text a value and take into account that neither was perfect. The analysis was hardly literary, but I was certainly thinking about literature.

Indeed, Ball Four was one of the first provocative books I ever read. It sparked me to consider baseball as not just a game but a cultural institution. I had to take its flaws into account alongside its beauty. There was no more escaping the rigidity, racism, and anti-intellectualism; no way to ignore the tensions that existed between ownership, players, and fans. I had to face the fact that baseball was more than bats and balls. I was shown the game’s underbelly and it was alluring. The blemishes, the apparently inevitable chain of human follies, made me even more curious. My desire for information was now complicated. Not only did I want to know things, I wanted to know about things. I wanted to see all 360 degrees of the metaphorical ball. I wanted to see the rips in its seams and the rough spots scraped by pitchers trying to cheat a little more bite on that curveball. Baseball, after all, was a game of failure. For it to have batted 1.000 would have been suspicious to me.

Unlike the Mantle book or the Matt Christopher novels or even The Man in the Ceiling, there is no redemption for Jim Bouton. In the course of the season he is traded from a bad team to a mediocre one. He ends the year relieved that the season is over, but eager for the next one. “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball,” Bouton writes, “and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” Like Bouton, my passion for baseball seems almost out of my own control. As a child, I went to the game without conscious thought, just as I went to reading and writing. Even now all I can do is list appealing details. The physical grace of a windup, swing, or double play; the intricate rules and strategies it entails; the facts and legends so entrenched in our culture; the unique joys of watching, talking, reading, writing, and mostly playing the game. My love for baseball is best defined in my hopeless inability to explain its appeal. It is as if I have no choice in the matter. As if the ball is gripping me.

The Old Man and the Sea

The Old Man and the Sea is not a baseball novel. But had Ernest Hemingway been compelled to add a third noun to his book’s title, it might well have been called The Old Man and the Sea and the Great DiMaggio. Joe DiMaggio, the star Yankee center fielder who preceded Mickey Mantle, is always at or near the surface of the old man Santiago’s thoughts as he battles the great marlin. Scholar James Plath argues that Santiago finds baseball “a more pragmatic belief system than religion.”

Baseball as religion is an old notion (consider the vague and powerful “baseball gods”) and scholars often reach too deep into texts. As Hemingway put it, “The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man … All the symbolism that people say is shit.” Santiago loves baseball so much that when he struggles against the great marlin, he wonders whether the great DiMaggio would approve of his performance. That kind of hero worship has never really been a part of my thought process when it comes to baseball and baseball players. I have never stood at the plate and wondered what Mantle or DiMaggio would be thinking in such a situation. But I have often done so with writing. I often sit at my desk, unable to express myself, and wonder, “How would Ernest Hemingway put it?”

My introduction to Hemingway, as close to a literary hero as I have, had nothing to do with baseball. A cousin gave me For Whom the Bell Tolls as a Bar Mitzvah gift. I still have not finished it. But the opening pages, which I have now read a half-dozen times, were captivating enough that I searched out other Hemingway books. In high school, I read A Farewell to Arms and loved the terse vigor of the prose; it was unlike anything I had read to that point. Then, maybe a year later, I rescued The Old Man and the Sea from the discard pile at the school library. And that afternoon, I began to read it on the bus to a road game.

By this point in my reading development I was capable of and interested in reading all kinds of books. They did not have to feature my interests to get my attention, as books were in themselves an interest. But as with The Man in the Ceiling, baseball references drew me into The Old Man and the Sea in a way that other subjects could simply not. I would have still enjoyed the novel thoroughly had it been something else that Santiago fantasized about. But it was baseball. I was immediately charmed by the way characters reversed team names, calling them the Indians of Cleveland, and the Tigers of Detroit.

Like Ball Four, it is not a redemptive story. The old man cannot save his great marlin from being eaten by sharks. But like Ball Four, it ends with optimism. Santiago tells himself, “But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” And he ends the book asleep, dreaming of the same lions he dreamed of before his battle with the marlin. Much the way Ball Four sparked in me a great deal of intellectual curiosity, The Old Man and the Sea sparked in me a great deal of literary curiosity. I remember taking pleasure in even the slightest detail. For instance, Santiago tells himself “I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of a bone spur in his heel. What is a bone spur?” This is a comic, but difficult moment, powerful because of its understatement. Santiago is so tenderly in awe of DiMaggio that even his minor injuries seem vast mysteries. Such details never mattered to me previously. But there, on the way to a ballgame, I began to truly appreciate the delicate hand of the author. The blurred memories and limited knowledge that composed my reading history seemed to align perfectly for a brief and fleeting moment of pleasure and clarity. The pleasure has stuck around. The clarity, like any new piece of knowledge, has become muddled with time by the questions and literary curiosities it provoked.

Shakespeare in the Park

The epiphany was not absolute. For a moment, I “got” literature. Some lessons were learned and some self-constructed walls were broken down. But scattered among the debris were lingering prejudices, many of which remain to this day. The most recently discarded bias is one I held towards William Shakespeare until less than a year ago. Unlike many of my other quirks and opinions, literary and otherwise, I can trace the anti-Shakespearean sentiments to a specific time and place, and of course to baseball. It was every summer of my childhood at Carlson Park, just a few blocks from where I read the sports section mornings. We played wiffle ball there. Many trash cans were realigned to create boundaries, many inconsequential points were argued, and many neighborhood adults were flustered by our presence. But none more so than our local Shakespeare in the Park troupe. It was a small park and the stage directors took poorly to plastic balls flying out of control backstage. We tried to work things out, but this was a territorial issue. The poorly costumed actors and scattered senior citizens took up our playing space and we took up theirs. They disapproved of our recklessness and noisemaking. We disapproved of their funny accents. To arrive at the park and hear monologues from Hamlet or songs from Twelfth Night was utter disappointment. Shakespeare meant no baseball.

So it came as no surprise when I failed to appreciate “Romeo and Juliet” in high school. The language was over my head at that age and I refused to work at it, partly because of the prejudices from childhood. Shakespeare’s actually not that great, I was fond of saying, as if I had actually studied him. In fact, until the summer before my senior year, I had not read a single piece of his writing in college. But then I was assigned “Julius Caesar” as part of a study abroad program in Rome. Predictably, I loved it. The language, formerly too dense, was now a revelation. And the subject matter drew me in. If baseball and literature are my favorite interests, then politics and history follow close behind. “Julius Caesar” contains no small amount of politics and history, and it contains plenty of the action, deception, and tension I had grown fond of from my reading of detective novels.

The study in Rome made me a convert in other ways; I went from a tentative reader to full-fledged student and writer of poetry. This conversion was not so dramatic. As a child, I had loved Shel Silverstein, and in high school my mother gave me a book of Ogden Nash poems titled “The Old Dog Barks Backwards,” that I did not altogether dislike. But that was pretty much it; in beginning poetry class, I had written an ode to a baseball glove and a poem for Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Upon my return from abroad, when I sought out poems on history and politics, I found myself reading W.H. Auden. When I sought poems about baseball, I found myself reading “Casey at the Bat,” and once again, Ogden Nash. Specifically his tribute to the game as a fan: “A Lineup for Yesterday.” I found myself wondering, if Walt Whitman loved baseball so much, why did he never write a poem about it?

The Chosen Things

The answer, I think, is other things. There were other things Whitman wanted to write about more. He had other things to talk about. Other things. And likewise, it would be unfair for me to deny those other things in my life. Baseball, in the end, is just one interest of many. As dozens coaches reminded me after strikeouts and losses, it’s just a game. Did it shape my reading habits? Absolutely. But who is to say that it was the most crucial influence, or even a substantial one? Perhaps the books would have been alluring enough in themselves. Perhaps it was the constant encouragement from my family that did it.

But those rationalizations are wobbly at best. Baseball has never been an “other thing” for me. Along with literature, it is one of the chosen things; the chosen things in which I take endless pleasure, and about which I am endlessly curious. Maybe that very endlessness is what drives my pleasure and curiosity. A baseball game, after all can go on forever. There is no clock. And a good book is the same way. Despite its finite number of pages, the ink on a good book’s pages does not expire. Neither do the joys and challenges present in those words.

It could be that baseball and literature are a lot alike. Each institution has its endlessness, its pages and innings. Each has its heroes, its Hemingways and DiMaggios. Each has its isolations, its blank pages and batters boxes. Each has its dual pleasures, its writing and reading, its playing and watching. It could be that when Pete Rose told Jim Bouton “Fuck you, Shakespeare” after the publication of Ball Four, he failed to realize that as baseball’s all time hits leader, Rose had more in common with Shakespeare than he realized. It could be that when Philip Roth, via his autobiographical character Alexander Portnoy fantasizes, “Oh to be a center fielder, a center fielder and nothing more,” he too is closer than he realizes to bliss.

And in my case, the pleasures of reading on the way to the ballgame might not have been so different from the pleasures of the ballgame itself. Any discomfort I may have caused by opening books on those buses is long forgotten by everyone but me. And my memories are good ones: the joys of reading and the joys of baseball. The game’s anti-intellectual side no longer affects me because I have moved toward the fringes. I’m a fan now, and from the cheap seats I can investigate scuffs without being struck by the baseballs they’re on. From the cheap seats I see a great deal of intellect; I see it in the depth of the statistical analysis, I see it in the history, and I see it in the literature. From the cheap seats I feel no need to reconcile or marginalize or even fully understand the roles of baseball and literature in my life. Sure, a guy can spend his whole life gripped by a baseball. The same thing can happen with a book.

—April 8, 2009

About the author

Eric Nusbaum is a semi-transient Los Angeles native. His favorite character in “The Godfather” is Tom Hagen and his favorite Rolling Stone is, and always will be, Keith Richards. A graduate of the University of Washington in Seattle, he scrapes by on writing, politics, and the occasional train robbery. You can read his ever-evolving thoughts on the infield fly rule, iambic pentameter, and life at Pitchers & Poets.