Football may get the highest television ratings, but no one should doubt that baseball is America’s most literary sport. The game has a natural affinity to narrative: Each contest unfolds like a measured story, and the gaps in the action leave room for embroidery of all kinds. And embroidery there has been, with the romance of baseball proclaimed—against evidence that baseball is a big business, and often a venal one.
How does popular culture maintain such contradictory views of the national pastime in suspension? Let’s revisit that question, in the game and its literature, as the season opens once again.
In the bravura opening chapter of Underworld (1997), baseball provides the warp and woof upon which Don DeLillo weaves a panorama of American postwar culture, including Jackie Gleason, Schrafft’s, and the specter of Soviet nuclear tests. That atomic intrusion into an urban pastoral setting reflects a shift in baseball literature that dates from 1970, when Jim Bouton’s landmark Ball Four, a candid player’s diary, almost single-handedly bankrupted the remarkably long-lived myth that baseball players live in a state of perpetual boyhood as they play a boy’s game. Bouton lay bare the activities of the players (including sexual escapades and amphetamine abuse) and team management (whose hardball negotiations held down player salaries).
Many authors of baseball books since Bouton have not hesitated to strip their subjects pruriently naked—and baseball literature now chronicles not only the airbrushed good old days but also the reality beneath the sepia tint. Jane Leavy’s recent The Last Boy (2010), for example, provides a more, ahem, balanced look at Mickey Mantle than we’ve yet seen. Michael Lewis’s influential Moneyball (2003), an insider’s look at the workings of baseball’s personnel decisions, continues to inspire adjustments and rebuttals. The latest is Sheldon and Alan Hirsch’s The Beauty of Short Hops (2011), which argues for the limits of statistics in evaluating baseball performance. We may certainly expect many new books about steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in the coming months and years.
Through it all, though, the romance of the game has mostly endured—one need only look to the unending flow of books that celebrate the game’s past and present. According to one online source that catalogs recent entries, a new baseball book appears approximately every two-and-a-half days. There are still old-fashioned hagiographies written for children, like last year’s Joe Mauer: From Hometown Hero to MVP; stories of teams, like The Mets Journal (by John Snyder, 2011); of seasons, like The Cardinals and the Yankees, 1926 (by Paul E. Doutrich, 2010); and even of ballparks (Take Me Out to the Ballpark Revised and Updated, by Josh Leventhal, 2011). A double handful of novels about baseball also appear each year. From romance to business and back again—the inconsistencies of our popular fascination with baseball continue, as my co-editor and I found in The Cambridge Companion to Baseball, our new survey of the game’s history and place in American and global culture. That’s what makes it so difficult to reform the abuses that also persist, some of which extend beyond U.S. borders, like the widespread exploitation of young prospects by predatory agents in the Dominican Republic.
The romance of baseball has lately been enabled by a deepened fascination with the numbers that quantify the sport’s performances and define its records. Fantasy Baseball both reflects and enables this increased focus on statistics. It’s a popular armchair game for fans who form their own “teams” composed of real-life players, whose real-life performances are measured each day. Among the baseball books published each year are numerous guides for fantasy players that offer esoteric statistical analyses of hundreds of players.
Read more over at The Chronicle of Higher Education