Baseball tickles belletrists' fancy Literature: From 'Casey at the Bat' to 'Eight Men Out,' America's pastime has earned a spot in the writings of a nation.

Sun Journal

September 21, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

It could be the best-known poem in America, which would be odd since it is about defeat, disappointment, despair: It collides with the national impulse toward optimism.

It was published in the San Francisco Examiner on June 3, 1888, and written by a young man named Ernest Lawrence Thayer. It has been reprinted countless times and is as familiar to people in the United States as, say, "The Night Before Christmas." And as with that poem, there is a time of year when it is most appropriate.

That time is now. The World Series looms. A band is playing somewhere, somewhere hearts are light. And somewhere somebody's reciting "Casey at the Bat" -- otherwise known as "A Ballad of the Republic."

The latter is the poem's original subtitle. It infers a singularness, not to the poem, which no one ever touted as high literature, but to baseball's inalienable connection to the land where it was born.

Why has this game been celebrated by so many writers, writers of much higher amperage than Ernest Thayer? Because it is the national pastime? No, there are many of those.

Because baseball is as American as the turkey.

Who could doubt it? Didn't Walt Whitman, who sang of the idea of America more feverishly than any other writer we have, sing of baseball: "I see great things in baseball, it's our game the American game."

It -- the game and the poem -- touches that chord which holds the American mind and heart in place. What else could explain the enduring popularity of such a vaudevillian bit of verse?

Donald Hall, the poet and essayist who wrote a book called "Fathers Playing Catch With Sons," and lots of other stuff about baseball, including a celebratory essay on the centennial of Thayer's poem, says he has about 10 useful responses to the trite question of why writers, good and bad, turn so often to baseball as their subject matter.

The most important of these is history. "Americans move about and live in 20 houses in their lifetimes," Hall says. "What connects us to the American past is baseball. It goes back to fathers playing catch with grandfathers, grandfathers playing catch with great-grandfathers, and on and on."

Baseball is one of the few continuities for a people enamored of change. It is embedded in our moments of deep crisis as well. They played baseball in the Confederate prison at Andersonville, reports Hall, the inmates against the guards, North against South.

Baseball is not only quintessentially American, it is an enabler of Americanism, a ceremony of passage. Foreigners and other outsiders have long recognized this quality of the game. An essayist for The Economist, an English magazine, noted a few years back that so many serious Jewish writers (people who have long chronicled life on the outside) have been preoccupied with the game they could field their own team. Here, from pitcher to right fielder, is the lineup: Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Chaim Potok, Mordecai Richler, Roger Kahn, Eliot Asinof, Eric R. Greenberg, Mark Harris, Joseph Heller. Potok's novel, "The Chosen," begins with a baseball game among Yeshiva students. Heller's "Good as Gold" ends with one. The assimilationist metaphor wears thin after a while, but it, along with the game, lives on.

Millions of words have been written about baseball, by pundits such as George Will, intellectuals such as George Plimpton and, more importantly, by serious writers of fiction. (Plimpton formulated a "Small Ball Theory" of sport and literature: the smaller the ball, the higher the literary quality; only golf exceeds baseball owing to its international reach.)

The fashion for baseball among intellectuals, many of whom are moved to write books and articles about its "deeper" meanings, is not regarded generously by some, especially sports writers possibly jealous of their turf. Dan Jenkins, sportswriter-turned-novelist ("Semi-Tough"), wrote scathingly about "literary people" fixed upon the metaphorical richness of baseball.

They're slumming, he says.

(Pity the poor eggheads. The fact is, however, that now and again they do have something to offer when they turn their hands in these directions. Joyce Carol Oates' book "On Boxing" had some useful stuff in it about that sport not likely to be found in A. J. Leibling, nor on a newspaper sports page.)

What are some of the other charms of baseball for the belletrists?

Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post's book reviewer, who watches over such types, suggests the "symmetry of the game" as one clue to its allure for the writing crowd. He refers to one author who perceived a "constant of threes" in the game: three outs, three strikes, three bases, keeping his mind teased.

"It has a very strong identity with rural America," says Yardley, "small-town America, that area of America many of us see as nostalgia."

And what is nostalgia but history for hoi polloi, history with tears.

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