PRINT October 1989



WHOSE FIELD? WHAT DREAMS? That professional Baseball is in large part a mental construct is suggested by its affinity for abstract representation in box scores, statistics, and Strat-o-matic games—not to mention plummy journalism, popular memory, and the simulated radiocasts that made “Dutch" Reagan a legend among Iowa’s Chicago Cubs fans during the late 1930s.

Baseball records are such that the least action in a major league game will be preserved—forever. Thus the experience of following Baseball, season after season, decade after decade, is as different from watching any one game as it is from actually playing it. Seen in the mind’s eye, the Land of Baseball is unpredictable but reassuring. The poet Donald Hall called it “a wrong-end-of-the-telescope country, like the landscapes people build for model trains.” Pleasing in its own right, this miniaturized backdrop makes its inhabitants seem all the more colossal—particularly from the privileged perspective of a ten-year-old lad.

For the fan, Baseball offers a parallel universe—repetitive, dream-like, impenetrable. The unique balance of offense and defense, the endless series of one-on-one confrontations, ensure a rich cast of shifting heroes and villains, just like the afternoon soap operas. (And no less than the soaps, baseball inspires irrational devotion.) The sport is a tangle of arcane rules and even more convoluted conventions. Baseball is not just a longing for order, it’s the American order incarnate—unknown in Europe but adored by individualistic island states in the Caribbean and East Asia. Still, the yearly global championship is an exclusively North American affair (and who knows what will happen if either of the two Canadian teams ever wins the World Series).

Baseball’s historical necessity stems from the post-Civil War need far a new national mythology. No game has contributed so much to the American vernacular, nor provided so many symbols. The integration of major league Baseball is more vivid to most people than the integration of the public school system (and has proved to be more lasting). It’s crucial to the American self-image that the sport was played by boys, dwarfs, and the disabled during World War II, while Ted Williams and the other real men went of to destroy the Axis. There was nothing comparable during Vietnam, of course. Back then, but particularly under Richard Nixon, quaint Baseball was supplanted in the national consciousness by the modern, martial sport of football (particularly football as it was amplified by Howard Cosell and the tele-pyrotechnics of The ABC Game of the Week).

Now Vietnam is in syndication, “America” is back, and Baseball is more fashionable than ever—suggesting those products like Oreos or Ritz crackers that have learned how to exploit their longevity with a supermarket shelf full of new, improved variations. Baseball has become a self-conscious mythology. (Even as I write, the radio offers a congressman from Illinois proposing legislation to protect the wooden baseball bat against the aluminum interloper.) The game’s first commissioner was a stern federal judge; the game’s current commissioner is a former Yale lit prof. Network telecasts merchandise themselves as the stuff of future memories. Where once the players were heroes of arrested development, perceived to play for love of the game, now they’re titans of the marketplace-independent entrepreneurs (with a union yet).

At first fans were outraged, as well as fascinated, by the huge salaries commanded by even mediocre major leaguers. But that was before the fantastic growth in speculative memorabilia—a business that last year surpassed a billion dollars. Trading in old Baseball cords, autographs, and various sacred relics (many simply manufactured by the players to order) is a chance for everyone to get in on the action—not unlike the “waves” that course through stadium crowds, celebrating nothing more than everyone’s presence in the stands. (Indeed, mast players now refuse to grant autographs except under controlled conditions, figuring that every worshipful kid is a prospective profiteer.)

Not just a TV mainstay, Baseball is also specularized in the movies. Once these Baseball films were notorious snore-fodder. From Pride of tile Yankees, 1942, to The Bad News Bears, 1976, their quintessential mode was the dreary inspirational or the staid fan dance. The new films of the ’80s present Baseball as Baseball but also something more: an American masculine rite of passage (Major League), the unregulated capitalism of America (Eight Men Out), the essence of American boyhood innocence (Stealing Home), the reaffirmation of an eternal America (Field of Dreams), the promise of adult redemption here in America (all of the above). Bull Durham, the most ostentatiously "authentic’’ and self-consciously literary of the current cycle, presents Baseball as an American pagan cult. Bernard Malamud did the same thing in The Natural (a 1952 novel and a 1984 film); Philip Roth lovingly satirized the idea in The Great American Novel, 1973, whose characters include a slugger named Gil Gamesh.

Although all sports have specific spatial coordinates, Baseball is one of the few that, like a religion, creates its own time—not to mention its own oracles and sibyls. And, as befits a sacred rite, Baseball is widely held to be the biggest betting sport in America. This is why the “Black Sox scandal”—in which two pitchers, five regulars (including the game’s “greatest natural hitter,” Shoeless Joe Jackson), and a utility infielder on the 1919 Chicago White Sox colluded with a pack of gamblers to fix the World Series—has a cosmological resonance that the rigged presidential election of 1876 could never have. (Just consult The Great Gatsby.) Democracy is a way of life, but Baseball is an article of faith.

It might seem that compulsive gambler Pete Rose, the game’s “greatest contact hitter,” defiled Baseball’s purity by betting on games that involved his own Cincinnati Reds. But what the Rose affair really demonstrates is Baseball’s resistance to unpleasant reality. The true desecration is not Rose’s gambling, but his prosecution under the law. Rose’s rehabilitation, already predicted by Field of Dreams (where Shoeless Joe appears os an American angel, if nat JC Himself), is inevitable. A rose is a rose after all. “Baseball tradition is to be traditional,” Commissioner Giamatti told the New York Times. In other words, the land of Baseball is now so sacrosanct that the rules con never be allowed to interfere with the game.

J. Hoberman writes on film for The Village Voice. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.