Books postsFriday January 02, 2009
The Baseball Essays of Stephen Jay Gould
“Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville,” Stephen Jay Gould’s posthumous book of baseball essays, is a good hot-stove-league diversion, even if, as suits his career, Gould can be pedantic, and even though he is, or was, a lifelong Yankees fan.
In case you don’t know where I stand. During Ken Burns’ 1994 “Baseball” documentary, Gould, one of the doc’s many talking heads, pissed me off for all eternity by declaring that no one could ever mention in his presence Bill Mazeroski’s homerun that won the 1960 World Series for the Pirates (their third, and first since 1925), instead of handing the Yankees yet another title (their 19th, and first since 1958), because the memory was still too painful for him. To top it off, Burns didn’t even interview a Pirates fan, or even an anti-Yankees fan, about what was, after all, one of the greatest homeruns ever hit — the dream homerun of any baseball-loving kid across the country: Game 7, bottom of the ninth, one swing, season over. Instead we got glum Yankees fans like Gould and Billy Crystal kicking the dirt. Gould then one-ups himself by talking about a kind of cosmic balance being restored to the universe with the Yankees’ 1962 World Series victory over the Giants. As payback for 1960. As redemption for Ralph Terry. Cosmic balance? Tell it to a Royals or Rangers or Mariners fan. Tell it to a Pirates fan.
Anyway, that’s where I stand.
Gould, here, is at his best when he combines his profession with his avocation. Three essays are must-reads.
In “Why No One Hits .400 Anymore,” Gould argues that while .260 may be the mean batting average throughout most of baseball history, overall improvement in play — as a diversion became a profession — has shrunk highest and lowest batting averages against that mean. I.e., everyone’s better now so it’s that much harder to be exceptional.
In “The Streak of Streaks,” ostensibly a review of Michael Seidel’s book, “Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of ‘41,” Gould writes that his colleague, Ed Purcell, a Nobel laureate in physics, studied streaks and slumps in sports, particularly baseball, and concluded that, adjusting for talent, all streaks fall within the realm of coin-tossing probability except one: DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Other academics have disputed this, but at the least you have to admire the gap between first place (DiMaggio, 56) and second (Keeler and Rose, 44). Gould finishes the piece beautifully by writing about the odds, and about the gambler whose goal is to stick around as long as possible before going bust. Then he uses this gambler as a metaphor for all of us:
DiMaggio’s hitting streak is the finest of legitimate legends because it embodies the essence of the battle that truly defines our lives. DiMaggio activated the greatest and most unattainable dream of all of humanity, the hope and chimera of all sages and shamans: he cheated death, at least for a while.
Finally, the paleontologist in Gould is excellent in “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown,” which isn’t just about the humbug of Abner Doubleday but the purpose creation myths serve.
A few of the other essays are worthwhile, too, particularly for what they evoke. “Streetball from a New York City Boyhood,” with its talk of recess and stoopball and baseball cards in bicycle spokes, helped me recall a part of my childhood. Thirty years after Gould, and half a country away, I too played a version of stoopball, throwing and catching a usually soggy tennis ball against the front steps of our home on Emerson Avenue in Minneapolis. It was, in my mind, an early version of fantasy baseball, Twins vs. the Orioles probably, with the game rigged for the Twins. That is, I’d soft-toss for the O’s and hard-toss for the Twins. Frank Robinson up...and he lines out to Carew! Here’s Big Boog Powell — ground out! Bases loaded for Killebrew —grand slam! Hwwwaaaahhhwww!
That’s the crowd cheering.
A few of the essays made me long for movies about their subjects. In “The Amazing Dummy,” Gould writes about Dummy Hoy, an above-average ballplayer from the19th century who lived long enough to throw out the first pitch in the 1961 World Series. He was also, as his name indicates, both deaf and dumb, yet still played centerfield, the most vocal of all positions, and played it well. How can that not be a movie? And, sure, Jim Thorpe’s life has already been made into a movie, starring Burt Lancaster, but you know they didn’t do it justice back in 1951. Hell, they might even be able to cast a Native American in the lead now.
But here’s the movie I’d really like to see. Earlier this decade, Billy Crystal made one of the best baseball movies ever, “61*,” about Maris, Mantle and the ’61 season, for HBO, and in that spirit, and without even deviating from numerical titles about the New York Yankees, I would love to see what he could do with: “56.”
Gould died in 2002, so didn’t live long enough to see the ignominy of many of the players he celebrated in his shorter newspaper pieces: Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds. Would’ve loved to hear his take on the steroids scandal. Would’ve loved to hear his reaction to his adopted team, the Red Sox, suddenly winning everything, while his favorite team, the Yankees, shot blanks.
There’s also this postcard I have of Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 World Series homerun just burning a hole in my pocket. Would’ve loved to send it to him. Just to say hi. Just to restore some balance, cosmic or not, to the universe.
Authors: Joe the Plumber, Sarah Palin, Barbara Bush's Dog
What impresses me about Timothy Egan's Op-Ed today, "Typing without a Clue," about the likes of Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin getting multimillion-dollar book contracts while real writers languish in obscurity and poverty, isnt' the logic of his argument, which is unassailable, but the fact that he can still be pissed off about it. I've taken it as a given for so long it doesn't even register as an affront anymore.
This isn't a criticism. Or, if it is a criticism, it's a criticism of me. Because Egan's right. He's so right:
Next up may be Sarah Palin, who is said to be worth nearly $7 million if she can place her thoughts between covers. Publishers: with all the grim news of layoffs and staff cuts at the venerable houses of American letters, can we set some ground rules for these hard times? Anyone who abuses the English language on such a regular basis should not be paid to put words in print.
Most of the writers I know work every day, in obscurity and close to poverty, trying to say one thing well and true. Day in, day out, they labor to find their voice, to learn their trade, to understand nuance and pace. And then, facing a sea of rejections, they hear about something like Barbara Bush’s dog getting a book deal.
Two-Minute Review: E.L. Doctorow's “Creationists”
E. L. Doctorow's Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006, is ordered chronologically — from an essay on Genesis to one on the bomb, or from the beginning of the world to its possible end — and these essays tend to get more interesting the closer Doctorow gets to his own time.
I’ve found this to be true for his novels as well. I love The Book of Daniel (1940s to 1960s) and Ragtime (early 1900s), and like well enough, but have read only once, the trio from the 1930s: Loon Lake, World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate. But once E.L. went into the 19th century he lost me. I barely made it through Waterworks (post-Civil War) and couldn’t get into The March (Civil War). It's as if the 19th century stilts his prose.
Most of the essays here weren’t written as essays anyway. Some were written as lectures and some were written as introductions to classic texts (Tom Sawyer) or afterwords to less-than-class texts (Arrowsmith), and I often felt something was missing. What’s missing is their context, or the primary text to which they’re supposed to relate, and to which Doctorow is silently alluding. They’re less essays than addenda; they don’t have legs to stand on.
Still, as I said, the closer Doctorow gets to our own time the more interesting he becomes. The stuff on Poe and Stowe? Drags. Melville, too, though I was amused that he writes about Moby Dick (“The surpise to me, at my age now, is how familiar the voice of that book is...”) in the sane way that I wrote about The Book of Daniel (“What a surprise that some of the forgotten lines of my life are in here...”).
Yet Doctorow did make me want to read Dos Passos and re-read Kafka. He made me want to see more Arthur Miller plays:
...among the protagonists of these plays, there are those incapable of self-reflection who choose rather to destroy themselves...and those who undergo the crisis of self-revelation and find some means of stumbling on. ... But there are no easy answers. ... Lyman Felt says “A man can be faithful to himself or to other people—but not to both.” That is one tough line and it could not be uttered in a facile moralistic tale.
He’s particularly good on Kafka’s Amerika, in which Kafka learned, according to Doctorow, that his characters needn’t travel anywhere to be trapped. But he’s best outside of literature: on Einstein and his genius — which prefigures Malcolm Gladwell’s discussions on the communal context of creativity — and on the bomb: the why and the how and the oops of it, and the difference, in layman’s terms, between the A- and H-bomb. The A-bomb exhausts its own chain reaction, which limits its destructive power. “The H-bomb has no known limits,” he writes.
I don't get Doctorow's fascination with the 19th century but he keeps drifting further and further back into it. Note from the 21st century: Come back, E.L. You're needed.
Literary Quote of the Day
“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”
— James Baldwin, from the essay “Stranger in the Village” in Notes of a Native Son. He wrote it about America in the 1950s, and I first read it in the 1980s when it seemed truer than in the 1950s. Today it seems truer still.
Is Ron Suskind a Coen Brothers Fan?
Continuing to read Ron Suskind's book, now on part II (The Armageddon Test), and I've come across a few references to the word “abide” — such as how Pres. Ford's funeral in January 2007, according to Suskind, “prompts reflection about what abides and what is lost with the passage of time.” It's a common Biblical word but pop-culturally I couldn't help but think of Jeff Bridges' character in the Coen brothers' film The Big Lebowski: “The Dude abides,” etc.
A few minutes later I came across this line: “But that thought is like a seed that can find no purchase...” Again, Biblical, but, again, Coen brothers, this time Raising Arizona: “Edwina's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.”
So have both Suskind and the Coens studied their Bibles (likely) or is Suskind simply a huge Coens' fan? Either way: kind of funny in a book that is anything but.