The Literary Sport | Essay | Chicago Reader

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The Literary Sport

Is baseball about something other than baseball?

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Intellectuals love to write about baseball. It's the most literary of games. No other team sport casts its players into such stark relief, forcing them to suffer for their errors. Let a ground ball roll through your legs during the World Series and suddenly you're a character out of Thomas Hardy or Joseph Conrad. Bill Buckner of the Boston Red Sox did it, and he eventually had to skulk out of New England, like Lord Jim fleeing his shame.

Baseball is kind of fusty and nostalgic. It was first played on the village greens of New York and New Jersey, before the Civil War, and it peaked in the 1950s, the golden age when the baby boomers were children. Football, basketball, and the "WWF Smackdown" are now the choice of the idiot masses, which makes baseball even more appealing to intellectuals who love the marginal and the archaic.

It's not surprising, then, that this season has brought us two baseball books by reporters for National Public Radio, whose programs appeal so perfectly to the sensibilities of modern urbanites with master's degrees. Scott Simon, who hosts the network's Weekend Edition, gives us Home and Away, a memoir that tells of his father's death and Simon's own emergence as a progressive journalist--passages that are paralleled, and sometimes overshadowed, by the (mis)fortunes of his beloved Cubs. Sandy Tolan's Me and Hank is a look at Hank Aaron's conquest of Babe Ruth's home run record and what the pursuit revealed about race relations in America.

Simon and Tolan aren't the first public news reporters to take on baseball. A few years ago, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who discusses politics on the PBS NewsHour, came out with Wait Till Next Year, which was about the Brooklyn Dodgers and everyone they shared the 50s with: Senator Joe McCarthy, Elvis, James Dean, the Rosenbergs, and Goodwin herself.

Goodwin was one of the talking heads in Ken Burns's PBS documentary Baseball, which featured far more professors, writers, and TV announcers than actual athletes. The few ballplayers Burns interviewed were rebels from way out in left field: Curt Flood, the game's first free agent; Bill "Spaceman" Lee, who was known to sprinkle marijuana on his pancakes. PBS viewers could relate to a labor activist and a freak.

NPR isn't known for sports--I've never heard the baseball scores on Morning Edition--but when a baseball story gets too big for the network to ignore, the coverage has an odd, pedantic tone, as though the reporters are describing foreign folk rituals. ("The 'pitcher' throws a ball--sometimes called a horsehide--at the 'batter,' who attempts to hit it with a long stick carved of Kentucky ash wood.") A sports story on NPR or PBS has got to be about more than the game itself. It has to show why the game has broader social significance. At Oxford University in the 19th century, there were two factions of students, the "aesthetes" (pale, sensitive, and physically passive) and the "hearties" (muscular, beer chugging, and sporty). NPR's listeners are aesthetes, so they're naturally reluctant to allow the hearties into their world. Here's the NewsHour's Elizabeth Farnsworth talking to a sportswriter about Tiger Woods winning the British Open.

Farnsworth: How important was what happened yesterday?

Sportswriter: It was very important. We moved from the golf course to the history books.

Likewise, Simon and Tolan also try to move us from the baseball diamond to the history books.

Baseball was the bedrock of Simon's experience with the world. Before he read the news, he read the box scores. He insisted that his mother call him "Billy Pierce," after the White Sox pitcher. His father, a ne'er-do-well comedian and broadcaster, gave him entree into the sports world that few boys had. In the late 1950s, Ernie Simon was the stadium announcer for the Cleveland Indians, which gave his son a chance to meet, and worship, Rocky Colavito. And Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse was such a close family friend that Simon called him "Uncle Jack."

Simon sees the baseball season as an alternate world that exists for half of every year. In 1959 Simon's parents split up, and his father's drinking became so severe he landed in the hospital. But the eight-year-old boy had a White Sox pennant to brighten his life. Ten years later Simon was a senior at Senn High School, where he edited the underground newspaper. Nineteen sixty-nine was an eventful year, but Simon was mainly concerned with the Cubs.

"On the afternoon of July 20, while the Cubs were winning both ends of a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies, the first human beings landed on the moon," he remembers.

Six weeks later, "as the Cubs lead was slipping to just three games," Ho Chi Minh died.

It turned out to be a melancholy autumn. Every afternoon, when Simon rode the el home from school, he buried his nose in the Daily News so he wouldn't have to peek out the window at the Addison stop and see the "L" banner flapping above Wrigley Field. And as the Cubs faded, so did Simon's grandfather. One day, as Simon and his mother rode home from a vigil at the old man's bedside, she asked, "Is it really over for the Cubs?" "Yes, mother," Simon replied. "I guess it is." You get the feeling the conversation wasn't just about baseball.

Rooting for the Cubs is a mug's game, and Simon knows it. That 1969 season broke the spirit of Cubs fans--it "made a fable of incompetence seem an unalterable fate." The faithful kept showing up at their church on the corner of Clark and Addison, but they no longer believed in salvation.

"Being a Chicago Cubs fan defies metaphor," Simon writes. "Nevertheless, over the years, I have tried a few. It's like rooting for the Italian army. It's like campaigning for Harold Stassen. It's like raving about your Edsel....No metaphor improves on, it's like rooting for the Cubs."

Simon has the same baseball memories as a lot of middle-aged guys sitting in north-side taverns. Yet he's not a neighborhood barfly--he's a famous globe-trotting journalist. It's nice to know that his love for sports binds him to his hometown, even when he's forced to cover a war in Sarajevo or Kuwait. But Simon isn't a typical fan. The last half of his book is devoted to the Bulls--Simon was covering the gulf war when they won their first title. For a hundred pages, he rehashes Michael Jordan's career--we've already read it in the Sun-Times, Scott--and then...he gets a phone call from Luc Longley.

Longley has seen Simon on TV, knows he's a Quaker, and wants to talk about religion. From then on, the two celebrities pal around whenever "Luc" comes to Washington, where Simon is working for NPR. After the Bulls win their last title, against the Jazz, Simon is invited into the locker room, where Luc calls him "mate" and pours champagne over his head. Now that he's tight with the Bulls, Simon patronizes a real fan, a colostomy bag salesman from Libertyville who crashes the celebration and poses for pictures with the team.

Simon is grateful to the Bulls for revising Chicago's image abroad--from Capone to Jordan--but you never believe he loves them as much as he loved the Cubs. Early in life, men become the peers, and then the elders, of the athletes they watch. You can cheer for a point guard your own age, but you can't worship him. Only boys can do that.

Sandy Tolan never stopped worshiping Hank Aaron. Tolan grew up in Milwaukee in the 1950s and '60s, when the stoic Aaron was hitting 40 home runs a year for the hometown Braves. The Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, but Tolan never dropped his torch. In 1973, as Aaron was approaching Ruth's record of 714 home runs, Tolan cut out the box score every time his hero homered. Aware that Aaron was getting hate mail from bigots who resented his attack on a white man's record, Tolan dropped Hank a supportive line...and got a personal reply.

Twenty-five years later, Tolan brings the letter and the scrapbook to Aaron's office. His mission, he says, is to write a book about the racism Aaron suffered, though you get the feeling he's doing this mainly to meet his idol.

"I am, truly, in Hank Aaron's office," Tolan gushes. "For the moment, this fact is too much to absorb. For the moment, I have forgotten how to be a journalist."

Aaron, who's now a vice president with the Braves, is cordial and patiently allows Tolan to show off his scrapbook. They even pose for a photograph together. The picture, which is on the back cover, shows Aaron thought the hero worship was a bit much. He's smiling, but looking away in bemusement and discomfort. Aaron gave his besotted inquisitor 45 minutes, then refused to meet him again.

Yet despite its solipsistic origins, Me and Hank is a much better book than Home and Away. Simon is an egotist who thinks that because he's been on TV the world wants to hear his sports memories. Tolan is a fanatic bent on proving his hero has been wronged--his love for Aaron is genuine, and it endears the reader to his quest. Simon sees sports as an escape from the "real" world of war and politics. Tolan knows that the passions of society are often imposed on the playing field.

In 1973 and '74, Aaron was getting a hundred pounds of mail a day, more than anyone but President Nixon. The civil rights movement was over, but some whites still couldn't stomach a black man dislodging Ruth as the world's greatest slugger. About half the letters were vein-popping racist diatribes: "Dear Henry Aaron, how about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?" "That's a white man's record. All you niggers are alike. Give you an inch and you take a mile." "You are not going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it. My gun is watching your every black move."

One "fan" promised to shoot Aaron when he played in Montreal. The death threats got so serious the Braves hired a bodyguard for Aaron, and the FBI moved agents onto the campus of Fisk University to protect his daughter, Gaile. When Aaron finally broke the record, cannons went off in Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium. His mother rushed to embrace him, fearing he'd been shot.

After his audience with Aaron, Tolan travels the country, from Milwaukee to Atlanta to Cooperstown, trying to learn why Hank was so much more important to blacks than whites.

At the Hall of Fame he finds an entire room devoted to Babe Ruth, but only a wall for Aaron. Tolan asks Commissioner Bud Selig about the slight. "Babe Ruth is in my judgment the most famous athlete of the twentieth century," Selig tells him. "I think baseball historians would agree that Babe Ruth carried the game on his big broad shoulders and skinny legs."

In Milwaukee he learns that Aaron was one of the first blacks to live in a white neighborhood, and in Atlanta he meets a middle-aged homeless man who considers Aaron's achievement an "inspiration."

"Any time you see one of your own, so to speak, to come from sharecropping background, you know?" the man says. "Not so many generations removed from slavery. To see somebody rise like that, there is an inspiration."

Aaron's career paralleled the civil rights era. After a season in the Negro Leagues, he joined the Braves in 1954, the year of Brown v Board of Education. By the time he retired in 1976, blacks were on the Supreme Court, in the Senate, managing baseball teams. Aaron was no militant, but he was, in the parlance of the day, a "race man." Atlanta was the first southern city to win a major league franchise. To become a big-league town, it had to embrace racial equality. Before the Braves moved, Aaron insisted that the new stadium be integrated. And it was.

Tolan thinks racism explains why Aaron is not the most beloved big leaguer of all time. How else to explain why, at an auction last year, Mark McGwire's record-setting home run ball sold for $3 million, but Aaron's didn't even draw the minimum bid of $850,000? Or why sportswriters now consider Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak the greatest feat in baseball history? (Aaron made a similar complaint in his autobiography, I Had a Hammer.)

It's not that simple. America is certainly open to black sports heroes. Look at Michael Jordan. Aaron, a quiet, private man, hasn't promoted himself since he retired. He speaks at NAACP dinners, he poses with awards, but the last ad I remember him doing was for the Boy Scouts. Tolan is frustrated that white America won't join him in deifying Hank, but who can ever love the man as much as a boy from Milwaukee?

Home and Away: Memoir of a Fan by Scott Simon, Hyperion, $23.95.

Me and Hank: A Boy and His Hero, Twenty-five Years Later by Sandy Tolan, Free Press, $24.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.

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