Friday 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.