Summer is in full swing and I’ve been watching baseball and reading several books about the quintessential summer game. Two recent books ponder the relevance of our oldest national pastime to 21st Century America and a third dives into the mysterious art and skill of pitching. Pitchers, by the way, don’t worry about relevance because they know pitching is the “DNA of baseball,” according to one of these authors.
Susan Jacoby’s Why Baseball Matters is part of a Yale University Press series on why various things matter in the modern world and Jacoby makes the case for baseball. She’s a former foreign correspondent and a well-known writer and debunker of conspiracy theories.
While Jacoby points out that professional baseball is as prosperous as ever in its long history, her book is replete with accounts of baseball’s troubles. In today’s short attention span world, she sees baseball’s arcane skills, deliberate pace, and even its fan demographics as problems.
Jacoby claims that today’s fanbase is too old, too male, and too white. My own observations at recent Major League games at Fenway Park in Boston and at Nationals Park in Washington would belie that. I’ve seen plenty of young men and women, children of all ages, and minorities in the seats and many more than I recall from the 1950s and 60s of my youth. Jacoby submits the not exactly original idea that baseball fans are made early in life and as proof relates her own childhood stories of Saturday afternoons in her grandfather’s south side Chicago bar watching baseball with the “regulars” and listening to baseball stories.
While applauding Major League Baseball’s support for youth programs and rehab of inner-city public ballparks to entice kids to play, Jacoby throws cold water on suggestions for rule changes to speed up the game. She has a number of suggestions to get youngsters out to the ballparks but rejects any move to make baseball less like baseball. Jacoby would also remind mothers that baseball is a relatively safe game, without the frequent violent contact of football.
So why does baseball matter? Jacoby makes the case that baseball is uniquely intertwined with American culture and history— first popularized in Civil War army bivouacs and prison camps and now played in minor league parks, amateur leagues, and school grounds everywhere. And she recalls George Bush taking the mound at Yankee Stadium in a bulletproof vest as the perfect signal of American resolve and continuity after 9/11. That’s all true, but I would add baseball’s appeal in Japan and more recently in South Korea and Taiwan, and its deep roots in Mexico, Canada, and around the Caribbean.
Mark Kingwell’s Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters takes a very different tack and also speaks for Canada. Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, so naturally, his is a more academic discussion, though no less enthusiastic. Aside from sheer enjoyment, Kingwell maintains that baseball matters because of what it teaches us—memory, argument, history, statistics, and “pretty much every depravity and blemish of human character.” Ouch.
In a series of essays, some philosophical, some experiential, Kingwell describes the game he loves with references to his Ontario childhood, Susan Sarandon’s “Church of Baseball” speech in the movie Bull Durham, quotes from William Blake’s poetry, and the thoughts of philosophers from Aristotle to Kant. This is not your run-of-the-mill baseball book.
Kingwell discusses baseball as a game of great difficulty and constant failure, where errors are written down for posterity and you cannot win unless you “navigate the target-rich environment of striving against immense odds.” Kingwell compares the bounded territorial games of football, hockey, and soccer to baseball’s linear nature with the theoretical infinity of its foul lines and home runs and the need to return home to score rather than control and reach a distant, foreign objective.
As a sometime wordsmith, I particularly enjoyed his essay on baseball slang and even learned a new one. I had never heard an un-hittable fastball called a “Ronstadt.” It’s clear, though, when you connect the singer’s famous hit “Blue Bayou” with a pitch that “blew by you.” That alone makes baseball matter as a cultural touchstone.
Near the end, the Canadian Kingwell goes off on how this American game plays north of the border and how his Blue Jays serve as a sometime rallying point for all Canadians countrywide. He even drags out the old myth that the first baseball game was actually played in Ontario in 1838. For the record, the first modern rules game recognized by Major League Baseball took place in 1845 in Hoboken, N.J.
Kingwell’s writing is a little heavy at times and he tends to go off on philosophical tangents, but I liked the book. Jacoby’s book is more journalistic and is repetitious in spots. Her whole book would probably have worked just as well as a more tightly edited long-form magazine piece. Both insist baseball matters and both are good if not great summer reads.
Finally, whether or not you care if baseball “matters” or just want to gain an appreciation for the infinite variables and intricacies of the game, try Tyler Kepner’s K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches. Kepner is the national baseball writer for the New York Times and, from sliders to changeups to spitballs, he explains not just the history of various pitches, but in great detail how the best practitioners gripped, altered, and deployed them. A lot of this is down-in-the-weeds, inside baseball stuff, but devoted fans should love it.
K, which for the uninitiated is a scorekeeper’s symbol for a strikeout, is based on Kepner’s years of interviews with some of the greatest pitchers in the modern game. It is a fascinating look inside an esoteric skill and is full of wonderful first-person baseball stories told with verve and humor.
Ed Guest lives and reads in East Burke.