Baseball and the Meaning of Life Baseball in Literature and Culture 17th Annual Conference Middle Tennessee State University March 30, 2012
James Phil Oliver Department of PhilosophyMiddle Tennessee State University P.O. Box 73Murfreesboro, Tennessee 37132 == 307B James Union Building 615-898-2050 firstname.lastname@example.org "Delight Springs" -http://delightsprings.blogspot.com/ "Up@dawn" – http://osopher.wordpress.com/
Follow me, @osopher, on Twitter -(http://twitter.com/OSOPHER) But of course, "You dont have to follow me. You dont have to follow anybody." -Brian Cohen
―The Curious Case of SiddFinch‖ – April 1, 2011
Two years ago I presented “From Gibson toMcGwire” here. I was worried about howthe presence in the dugout of their newsteroidally-enhanced hitting coach mightinterfere with the purity of my ancestraldevotion to the Cards. How would it playwith my own innocent openness to baseballexperience and meaning?I’m pleased (but should I be?) to report that Big Mac’s greybearded visage did not inany memorable way dilute my pleasure at the team’s improbable late-season run totheir 11th World Series championship in 2011.
And now find I have no problem contemplating the post-Albert era in St. Louis either.So, the game really is much larger than any "star" performer.But still I worry: Is my team loyalty admirable, or is this precisely the knee-jerk “mycountry right or wrong” attitude I routinely condemn in politics? Maybe we’ll havetime to discuss that.But for whatever reason, healthy or not, I don’t feel as alienated or jilted as some …
Look, as it turns out Albert Pujols was just an intelligent, attractive but ultimatelysour girlfriend. Let me explain. Your entire world revolves solely around her, andeveryone can see it except for her. You give her fancy gifts, tell her what she needsto hear, go to one fast food restaurant to get her chicken strips then another because"they have better fries," and join a gym to be the man she wants you to be ratherthan the one who you are simply to make her feel the kind of special love you thinkshe deserves. But the secret is that she doesnt want the love. She wants the proof.She doesnt want to hear that you love her; she wants to hear how much.Even worse, she wants to remind you how lucky you are to have her. When thatturns dangerous is when you then struggle to maintain your relationship --stepping up your game, buying fancier gifts, working extra hard just to not losepace, and losing yourself to make her happy and to keep her from looking at otherdudes. When that turns tragic is not when she leaves, but rather when youconvince her to stay. A relationship which requires you to prove your love is not arelationship worth preserving.The worst part of yesterday is that Albert Pujols tacitly told us that we are not inhis league. The best part of yesterday is that Albert Pujols tacitly proved to us thatwe arent.Anaheim, you can have her. Just tell her to please not text us.
“The best thing to do if you’re going to lose a legend or three…”(Pujols, LaRussa, Duncan)“StL, a city that loves its Cards no matter who fills the uniforms…”Freese: “That’s never going to happen again. But you have to turnthe page. People have short memories. And so do we.”CBS Sports “Card Tricks” 3.9.12
Team Loyalty , childhood indoctrination, neuroscienceIt‘s probably more accurate to say that team loyalty of this sort begins withyouthful enchantment. You got thrown together by circumstance with a magicalteam — maybe one that happened to be doing well when you were a kid or onethat featured the sort of heroes children are wise to revere. You lunged uponthe team with the unreserved love that children are capable of.The team became crystallized in your mind, coated with shimmering emotionalcrystals that give it a sparkling beauty and vividness. And forever after you feelits attraction. Whether it‘s off the menu or in the sports world, you can choosewhat you‘ll purchase but you don‘t get to choose what you like.The neuroscientists might say that, in 1969, I formed certain internal neuralstructures associated with the Mets, which are forever after pleasant toreactivate. We have a bias toward things that are familiar and especially tothose things that were familiar when life was new: the old house, the oldhometown, the people, smells and sounds we knew when we were young. David Brooks
That sounds about right. For Brooks it was the ‗69 Mets, for me the ‗67 Cards. I left Missouri more than three decades ago, and have even occasionally experimented with temporary shifts of allegiance.But the team with the birdsperched on bats is stillmagical for me, whennothing else is.
Before I say another word, let me hasten to remind us all that it’s only a game.Richard Ford wrote a very nice foreword to Roger Angell’s 2003 collection Game Time , inwhich he noted that Many people take it too seriously and need to be told to lighten up… life’s lessons can’t be taught very well by overpaid twenty-two year olds…
That said, Angell has been dispensing meaningful baseballwisdom for decades.For instance:Baseball always remains afraction beyond our reach.Despite the sabermetric leap ,it is irreducible and crazilydifficult to predict.New Yorker blog,Oct. 30.2011, “That Series”
And that‘s true of our elusive quest for life‘slargest meanings, too.―I didn‘t hardly think about life at all ‗til I was65 or 70,‖ says one old spectator in NewGerontium (aka Sarasota) to another, inAngell‘s hearing.Plato said we shouldn‘t encourage anyoneto philosophize before their fifth or sixthdecade. I don‘t agree, but the game‘s paceand rhythm definitely reward the grandstandreflections of those who‘ve lived.
Like this guy. In 1989, Donald Hall was diagnosed with Colon cancer, but he eventually went into remission. His wife Jane Kenyon was diagnosed with Leukemia in 1994 and she passed away in 1995. In 2006 he became U.S. poet laureate. President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 2010.
His poem, "Baseball,― includedin The Museum of Clear Ideas(1993), is the poet‘s ode to thegreat American pastime and isstructured around the sequenceof a baseball game, with ninestanzas of nine lines each.Hall is passionate for the Sox. Hall on the Red Sox, 2004 Hall‘s poem ―The Coffee Cup‖ New Yorker podcast: Hall looks out his window
“The meaning of life”…The topicsounds pretentious and vague and evena little comical, and although I’veactually taught a course called “TheMeaning of Life” I probably wouldn’thave proposed it for this year’sconference if I hadn’t happened to bereading Donald Hall at the verymoment when I received Ron Kates’semail.
Hall now lives alone in the ancestral New Hampshire farmhouse he shared withKenyon for many years. He wrote about that experience recently.
Generation aftergeneration, his family‘sold people sat at thiswindow to watch theyear. There are beds inthis house where babieswere born, where thesame babies died eightyyears later. After a life ofloving the old, by naturallaw the writer turned oldhimself.Read more
The Baseball PlayersBY DONALD HALLAgainst the brightgrass the white-knickeredplayers tense, seize,and attend. A momentago, outfieldersand infielders adjusted the catcher twitchedtheir clothing, glanced a forefinger; the batterat the sun and settled rotated his batforward, hands on knees; in a slow circle. But nowthe pitcher walked back they pause: wary,of the hill, established exact, suspended whilehis cap and returned;. abiding moonrise lightens the angel of the overgrown garden, and Walter Blake Adams, who died at fourteen, waits under the footbridge
Ah, the game! The game!But what of the meaning of life… Baseball connects American males with each other, not only through bleacher friendships and neighbor loyalties, not only through barroom fights, but most importantly through generations. D. Hall, “Baseball and the Meaning of Life,” in The Complete Armchair Book of Baseball
Right… but if you’ve seen “Field ofDreams”…or read Doris Kearns Goodwin ongrowing up in Brooklyn… or hung out at my house, you’d strike “males” from that statement.
The little girl in Field of Dreams, you’ll recall, can see the ghostly “baseball men” herfather sees. Both see with innocent eyes. The absence of cynicism, the openness toexperience and meaning, couldn’t be clearer.But, that film’s reach far exceeded its grasp, meaning-wise. James Earl Jones’s famousspeech (“This field, this game, reminds us of all that was once good and that could beagain” etc.) earned one of Roger Angell’s shorter bursts of eloquence. “Get a grip.”
Dewey’s “continuous human community” John Dewey Philosopher Educator Class of 79 ―The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received, that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.‖ A Common Faith
Deweys antipathy for spectator theories ofknowledge did not block his acute perceptionof "the sources of art in human experience[that] will be learned by him who sees how thetense grace of the ball-player infects theonlooking crowd. . . ."
Deweys critics charge him with an obsessive instrumentalism, but heunderstood well enough what William Carlos Williams called the "spirit ofuselessness― which for some of us can drench an afternoon or evening at theballpark, or a morning in the garden, in delight.The crowd at the ballgameis moved uniformlyby a spirit ofuselessnesswhich delights them —all the exciting detailof the chaseand the escape, theerrorthe flash of genius —all to no end savebeautythe eternal – (continues)
"When my revered friend andteacher William James wrotean essay on A MoralEquivalent for War (sic), Isuggested to him thatbaseball already embodied allthe moral value of war, so faras war had any moral value. He listened sympathetically and was amused, but he did not take me seriously enough. All great men have their limitations.― Morris Raphael Cohen
OUR judgmentsconcerning the worth ofthings, big or little,depend on the feelingsthe things arouse in us.The spectators judgment is sure to miss the root of thematter, and to possess no truth.―On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings‖
The solid meaning of life isalways the same eternalthing,—the marriage,namely, of some unhabitualideal, however special, withsome fidelity, courage, andendurance; with somemans or womans pains. —And, whatever or wherever life may be, there will always be the chance for that marriage to take place. ―What Makes a Life Significant‖
Keeping score:This year I read the bestexample of literarybaseball fiction I’ve seenin ears, The Art ofFielding. It’s aboutbaseball the sameway Moby Dick‘s about afish.Actually it is about that, too. But also about “Aparicio Rodriguez”and the Tao of playing shortstop, of working to achieve mastery,of learning the meaning of humility, of pursuing a dream withcourage and persistence and pain. It’s about the value and joy ofpractice practice practice.Art of Fielding
Every baseball fanatic of years who contracted this blessed affliction inchildhood understands "the thrill of the grass," the ripple of pleasure andanticipation and the promise of happy absorption that comes with that firstglimpse of outfield through the grandstand tunnel.
“Go Cubs Go”JUNE 16 2011. Chicago, my kind of town. Why do I only goevery thirty-nine years? I actually think I appreciated itmore this time, through the extended perceptions of myyounger traveling companions. Wrigley in 72 was not nearly the "religious experience" of Monday night, when a capacity crowd rose yet again in the 7th inning to give spirited, full-throated, un- ironic voice to our real national anthem. Harrys been gone for several years, but only in body.
Then, the improbable 1-0 win against the 1st-placeBrewers sealed, there was this victory anthem. YoungerDaughter, a Cubs fan by choice, was in heaven. We allwere.
Cubs Win! “So real it’s unreal.” Not good enough?
Good EnoughFEB.24 2012. My oldteacher John Lachs deliveredthis year‘s inaugural BerryLecture at Vanderbilt last night.‖Why is Good Enough not GoodEnough for Us?‖ It was just asI‘ve come to expect of his talksthrough the years, thoughtfuland elegant and crisplyperformed. It spurned Platonism, the impossible and stultifying ―pursuit of perfection‖ which he said…
is not the search for something definite and well-known. The limits of humancapacity and the vagueness of the ideal make attainment of perfectionimpossible, yet its lure ruins our satisfaction with what is clearly excellent andtherefore good enough.This isn‘t the ―good enough‖ of Lake Wobegon, where things could always beworse, but the genuine good of ἀρετή [aretê] that ought to be enough to fill ourhearts and entice our eagerness for the morrow. But most of us fall prey toperfectionism at one time or another, and cheat ourselves of the lifesatisfactions we‘ve earned.
After the talk I asked Lachs if he‘d seen Moneyball. He hasn‘t. But consider the case of poor Billy Beane, Oakland Athletics General Manager.Incapable of relishing his small-market team‘s record-setting win streak or his own unorthodox contributions tothat achievement, he‘s a ―perfect‖ illustration of Lachs‘sthesis.The A‘s didn‘t win the Big One at season‘s end, so theperfectionist GM considered himself and his team a failure.He couldn‘t give himself a moment‘s pause to mark andremember their remarkable success.
Final Score: 0-0JAN. 14 2012. I find myself thinking this morning about Lawrence Krauss and BillyBeane, an unlikely pairing unless you spend as much time as I pondering themysteries of the universe and the diamond.Krauss was on SciFri talkingabout his new book, spun outof his viral video, making the casethat there‘s enough something in―nothing‖ to make a universe. Ormultiverses.And Beane was in Moneyball, themovie based on Michael Lewis‘sbook…
Beane, I think, at least as depicted in the film, is ultimately a sadfigure who can‘t celebrate his victories because he expects never tosuffer big defeats. His daughter‘s serenade is painfully accurate:―You‘re a loser, Dad,‖ not because he loses but because he can‘t fullyaccept his passing victories, can‘t ―enjoy the show.‖Still waiting to win the last game? None of us wins the last game, it allends in a draw. Nothing-nothing.So maybe what a fan needs most , to find meaning in baseball, is theconsolation of quasi-religion?
Annie Savoys "Church of BaseballI believe in the Church ofBaseball. Ive tried all themajor religions, and most ofthe minor ones. Iveworshipped Buddha, Allah,Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees,mushrooms, and IsadoraDuncan. I know things. Forinstance, there are 108beads in a Catholic rosaryand there are 108 stitches ina baseball.When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didntwork out between us…
The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see,theres no guilt in baseball, and its never boring... which makes it like sex.Theres never been a ballplayer slept with me who didnt have the best year ofhis career. Making love is like hitting a baseball: you just gotta relax andconcentrate.Besides, Id never sleep with a player hitting under .250... not unless he had alot of RBIs and was a great glove man up the middle. You see, theres acertain amount of life wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds.Sometimes when Ive got a ballplayer alone, Ill just read Emily Dickinson orWalt Whitman to him, and the guys are so sweet, they always stay and listen.Course, a guyll listen to anything if he thinks its foreplay.I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe, and pretty. Course,what I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games.Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball - nowwho can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for Gods sake? Its a longseason and you gotta trust it. Ive tried em all, I really have, and the only churchthat truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.
To each her own. But I think what a fan needs most, for meaning in baseball, isnot religion but patience. Time changes everything. It‘s worth waiting for.
"The game is a repository of age-old American verities . . .and yet at the same time a mirror of the present moment."Ken BurnsBaseball has always had an uncanny appeal to intellectualsand poets, from Whitman ("I see great things in baseball")on,…Morris R. Cohen, Robert Frost, Bartlett Giamatti, DorisKearns GoodwinStephen Jay Gould, David Halberstam, Donald Hall,Christopher Lehmann-HauptBernard Malamud,, John Updike, William Carlos Williams…
Those creatively images in which aswatting Ruth melds with an Aaron, Mantle,Maris, Mays, orMcGwire demonstrate at some level howthis mere game canencourage its devotees to slip the bonds oftime, in transientgreen reveries.
The late Renaissance scholar and baseballcommissioner Bart Giamatti wrote withunscholastic passion of theinner fields of play where we mortals mayvisit paradise
Transcendence may be unexpected andsurprising, or it may bethe object of methodical cultivation. Mydelight in the game ofbaseball, for instance, or in a particulargame, sometimescatches me by surprise but on otheroccasions has to be trackeddown like a shot lined deep into the gap.
The "national pastime" is public, andfrequently baffling,but—with a respectful bow to documentaryartist Ken Burns5 --itis a stretch to call it "large." It is only agame; but then,there are times when life is best played at,too
F. Scott Fitzgerald wasjust wrong when he called it "a boys game,with no morepossibilities in it than a boy could master, agame" without"novelty or danger, change or adventure."
Closer to the mark isthe observation that it "has been atouchstone to worldselsewhere."6 But for me the transcendentdimension of this gameis not "elsewhere," it is (as in Field ofDreams) in my own backyard.
trans-end-dance: the ability to movebeyond the end,otherwise called the dance of death. -PeterAckroyd, The Plato Papers: A Prophecy