Baseball as metaphor for America

September 18, 1994|By Tim Warren

Perhaps no other sport has been written about as much as baseball. You can struggle to come up with a good basketball novel (would Updike's "Rabbit, Run" qualify?), but there's any number of excellent baseball novels, ranging from Ring Lardner's "You Know Me Al" to Bernard Malamud's "The Natural" to Mark Harris' "Bang the Drum Slowly."

Baseball has also attracted an increasing number of nonfiction writers. Some, such as Roger Kahn and Roger Angell, have helped us understand and appreciate a complex, subtle sport. Others have blown baseball up to be far more than it is: a metaphor for America, for life itself. They have taken a child's game and transformed it into something transcendent, something mystical (George Will, take a bow -- and then shut up).

Actually, it's getting increasingly difficult to be a baseball fan and just watch the games. The amount of fringe activity surrounding baseball is frightening.

For a few hundred dollars, you can get replicas of old Negro League jackets, or perhaps a copy of the jersey worn by Stan Musial for the 1942 world champion St. Louis Cardinals. Go to any card store and you're likely to find grown men muscling aside kids to put down big dollars for Ken Griffey Jr.'s rookie card. We won't even get into Rotisserie Leagues, which, more than anything, document how many empty lives are being conducted in America.

That's why the much-anticipated "Baseball: An Illustrated History" can be as off-putting as it is informative. It's the text to accompany the nine-part, 18-hour, PBS series that begins tonight and is exhaustively researched, full of anecdotes, photos and features. Written by the team of Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, which gave us the excellent "Civil War" book and PBS series, "Baseball" could be the best general-interest history of the sport around. At $60, it should be.

Still, if you don't feel baseball is the center of the universe, "Baseball: An Illustrated History" may seem precious at times, given to overblown prose and statements that are real stretchers. Though Mr. Burns and Mr. Ward have obviously done their homework, the navel-gazing in the narrative and in several accompanying essays detracts from their exemplary scholarship.

The authors have taken up their butterfly nets and are determined to bag a few metaphors. They see baseball as America, as Life. Mr. Burns writes in his preface:

"What encodes and stores the genetic material of our civilization -- passing down to the next generation the best of us, what we hope will mutate into betterness for our children and our posterity? Baseball provides one answer. Nothing in our daily life offers more of the comfort of continuity, the generational connection of belonging to a vast and complicated American family, the powerful sense of home, the freedom from time's constraints, and the great gift of accumulated memory than does our National Pastime."

If that passage doesn't convince you of baseball's magnitude, here's one from a preposterous and pretentious little essay on the next page:

"It is an American odyssey that links sons and daughters to fathers and grandfathers. And it reflects a host of age-old American tensions: between workers and owners, scandal and reform, the individual and the collective. It is a haunted game in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope -- and coming home."

You may have thought "coming home" in baseball meant trying to score from third. Now we are told that when we go to the ball yard, we are really embracing our ancestors and returning to the womb. Some readers may take to this mysticism between the foul poles, but I think it complicates a pretty good game.

Thankfully, "Baseball" contains only a few egregious instances of forced intellectualizations. For the most part, the authors stick to telling the story of baseball -- from its origins in New York state in the 1840s to its blossoming by the turn of the century, to its rise with Babe Ruth in the 1920s, to the advent of black players in the major leagues in the 1940s.

The book is strongest in the sections on black baseball and the origins of the business of the sport. Several baseball historians, such as Robert Peterson and John Holway, had written about the Negro Leagues and black baseball, but their inclusion in general histories has been slow in coming. Mr. Ward and Mr. Burns give considerable space, intext and pictures, to such black stars as Oscar Charleston, Rube Foster and, of course, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige.

As for the business part, the authors point out that from the beginning, the owners were ruthless and profit-driven and resisted any attempt to treat players fairly for as long as they could. Indeed, this book only confirms the suspicion that baseball seems to have attracted more stupid millionaires than any other business.

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