Baseball woven into nation’s historical fabric

by Phyllis Kahn

Still reeling from the physical and psychological shocks of Sept. 11 and just after finishing what cognoscente might consider the best World Series in recent history, Twins fans were subjected to the possibility of a new traumatic evil: “contraction.”

Many believe, with the new realities of economic downturn and terrorism (from aeroterrorism to bioterrorism), this looming tragedy should not register on our Richter scale of concern.

However, baseball is a part of our old and new patriotism and is synonymous with the term “national pastime.” Many of the most energized Yankee-haters yielded this fall and rooted for the Yankees as a symbol of our newfound patriotic love for New York (sometimes muttering through clenched teeth, “only this time”).

Former baseball commissioner, Bart Giamatti, stated: ” … to care about baseball …was simply part of being an American, for no one else had a game anything like it, any more than they had a country as raw, promising or strong as America.”

Giamatti further argued: “Baseball fits America. Above all, it fits so well because it embodies … that interplay of individual and group that we so love and because baseball conserves our longing for the rule of law while licensing our resentment of lawgivers.”

He goes on to describe it as “the game that sanctifies boundaries, rules and law and that appreciates cunning, theft and guile, that exalts energy, opportunism and execution, while playing lip service to management strategy and long-range planning … that game is closer to an embodiment of American life than the mere sporting images of it.”

This year was also the 50th anniversary of one of the tragedies of my youth. In 1951, the New York Giants won the National League playoffs against my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers with Bobby Thomsons’ home run off pitcher Ralph Branca in the bottom of the ninth. This event, like the assassination of President Kennedy, or the attack on Pearl Harbor – or now, Sept. 11 – is so burned in our memories that any New Yorker can tell you where they were, what they were doing and how they felt at that moment.

In one of the 50th anniversary retrospective articles this fall, a writer almost equated it with Sept. 11, saying it was the first time in her life that showed a devastating event could happen to good people in an instant.

As we face “contraction,” I am brought back to another catastrophic historic event – the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles, choreographed by the much-reviled owner, Walter O’Malley.

Growing up in Brooklyn, baseball was a central part of my neighborhood’s existence. We played all the city variants (stickball, punchball and stoopball) and learned mathematics by computing batting averages and ERA’s. The Dodgers were more than a ball team – they were a symbol of borough identity and a democratic alternative to the Yankees (the mirror of the mega-success of corporate America). Rooting for the Yankees, we sneered, was akin to rooting for General Motors. We called the Dodgers “Dem Bums” and were resigned to a perpetuity of losing teams (invariably to the hated Yankees), but we loved them with indescribable passion, always ready to “wait until next year.”

This passion, while it reached never-to-be-attained-again heights in the Brooklyn of my childhood, is common throughout the country. Despite sellout football crowds and local hockey interest, baseball is still the elemental American sport. Fan loyalties define regional boundaries throughout the country. Geography books tell us New England ends where the elegant suburbs in southern Connecticut yield to the identical suburbs in northern New York, but we know the real boundary lies somewhere in the middle of Connecticut where the Red Sox loyalists are overcome by Yankee fans.

Even now many believe our latest icon of evil, baseball commissioner Bud Selig, has designs on an expanded fan base west of Milwaukee. If we believe history is a way to avoid repeating its mistakes, we could remind Carl Pohlad of an old Brooklyn riddle:

Q: You are in a room with Hitler, Stalin and Walter O’Malley and you have a gun with two bullets. What do you do?

A: Shoot O’Malley twice to be sure he’s dead.

Besides the patriotic aura of baseball at this time of increased faith and consciousness, we also can see its moralistic and theocratic elements. The repeated failure of the Red Sox is a part of the tragic destiny of New England, heir to the gloomy philosophy of Cotton Mather and the puritanical ethic of perpetual chastisement. Not to mention the “Curse of the Bambino” – the continued punishment of the greedy owners who sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees.

The numerology and geometry of baseball are pleasing above all other sports in adherence to the triad. There are three strikes to an out, three outs in an inning, three times three equals nine innings to a game, and the three steps to the top (the division championship, the league’s playoffs and the World Series). Geometrically there are three bases and three
sections of the outfield; and, finally, the ball, the bat, and the glove are the three essential implements of the game.

A trinity is important in most religions, including Christianity’s Father, Son and the Holy Ghost; Judaism’s Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva (Creator, Preserver and Changer) and the Egyptian’s Osiris, Isis and Horus (Father, Mother and Son.)

We also have the Three Fates and the Three Furies, the trident of Neptune and Pluto’s three-headed dog, Cerebus, as well as the new three-headed dog, Fluffy, at the Hogwart’s School in Harry Potter books. The power of three often sets a rhythm in political speeches; for example, Roosevelt in 1937 states: “I see one-third of a nation ill housed, ill clad, and ill-nourishedÖ.”

Again, to quote Bart Giamatti (looking back to the days when baseball’s leader was a former professor and revered bard), “There is a congruence between America’s deepest dreams and baseball. Other sports do not reach back to our origins the way baseball does. Where football – with its grid and gear, its tyrannous time clock and disregard of nature – comes from an industrial and organizational ethic, baseball belongs to a pastoral, nostalgia-nurturing world with roots in a seemingly timeless American tradition: a world of baseball parks in the midst of urban wilderness, projecting the image of a lost past.”

Now more than ever, as even with the contradiction of using multimillions to recreate the homey ballparks of the past, we recall Giamatti’s equating both baseball and the American psyche as a search for home, writing, “The hunger for home makes the green geometry of the baseball field more than simply a metaphor for the American experience and character.”

What destiny awaits Minnesota in these days? Will we need to agree with one of the Brooklyn philosophers in this dirge on the loss of the Dodgers? “The heart has gone out of Brooklyn. The soul had fled. It’s a place to live now, that’s all … Brooklyn lives only in loving memory, alongside Jackie, Gil, Campy … Pee Wee, the Duke and every other man who ever wore the Ivory Snow-white uniform with Dodger-blue numbers and the lettering on the front that spelled out Brooklyn.”


Phyllis Kahn is a University-area state representative, DFL-Minneapolis. Send comments to [email protected]