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Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville

by Stephen J. 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 Gould’s career, he can be pedantic, and even though he is, or was, a lifelong Yankees fan.

In case you don’t know where I stand on the Yankees issue...

During Ken Burns’ 1994 “Baseball” documentary, Burns, besides virtually ignoring a baseball great like Stan Musial, who played in a podunk like St. Louis, and besides completely ignoring the likes of Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew who played in my podunk, takes one of the greatest homeruns ever hit and presents it only from the perspective of the losing team.

I’m talking Bill Mazeroski’s homerun that won the 1960 World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates (their third overall, and first since 1925) over the New York Yankees (who already had 18 titles, including eight of the last 12). It’s basically the dream homerun of every baseball-loving kid: 7th game, bottom of the ninth, one swing and out of the park and season over. No one’s ever done that before or since. The fact that it was a David-and-Goliath affair makes it resonate all the more.

So how did Mazeroski feel? We don’t know. How about his teammates? We’re not sure. A Pirates’ fan? Nuthin.

Instead Burns lets us hear from all of those glum fans of Goliath. Billy Crystal talks about how he still hurts from that Series. (Winning six titles in the 1950s wasn’t enough.) Gould declares that no one can ever mention Mazeroski’s homerun in his presence. (Or...what?) To top it off, he talks about a kind of cosmic balance being restored to the universe with the Yankees’ 1962 World Series victory over the San Francisco Giants. As payback for 1960. As redemption for Ralph Terry. Even though the Yankees won the intervening World Series (their 19th) in four games against the Reds. Even though the ’62 World Series was so heartbreaking for the rest of the nation that Willie McCovey’s line shot, speared by second baseman Bobby Richardson to end the Series with the tying run on second, inspired Charles Schulz to draw several famous “Peanuts” strips in which Charlie Brown and Linus sit glumly on steps until, in the last panel, Charlie Brown rises and cries: “Why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball just three feet (just two feet, just one foot) higher?”

Cosmic balance? Tell it to a Pirates fan, who, in the intervening 50 years, have been to just two World Series (1971, 1979), while the Yankees have had to make do with 12. Tell it to a Rangers or Mariners fan, whose teams have never been. Tell it to a Cubs fan.

Anyway that’s where I stand on the issue.

That said, three of the essays here are must-reads. In each, Gould combines his avocation with his profession.

The paleontologist in Gould is excellent in “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown,” which isn’t just about the humbug of Abner Doubleday but focuses on the purpose creation myths serve.

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 this 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. Why we’re all still waiting (and will keep waiting) for the next Ted Williams.

Finally, 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 any fan of baseball or statistics has to admire the gap between first place (DiMaggio, 56) and second (Keeler and Rose, 44). Gould finishes the piece as gracefully as the Yankee Clipper. He writes 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.

Other essays are worthwhile less for provoking thought than for evoking feeling. “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 grounds out to Carew! Here’s Big Boog Powell — an easy pop fly! Bases loaded for Killebrew —grand slam! Hwaaaahhh!

A few of the essays made me long for movies about their subjects. Dummy Hoy. Jim Thorpe. 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 Crystal could do with “56.”

Gould died relatively young, in 2002, and didn’t see the ignominy of many of the players he celebrated in his shorter newspaper pieces: Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds. What would he have made of these steroids scandals? How would he have taken the sudden success of his adopted team, the Red Sox, at the expense of his favorite team, the Yankees? And what would he have made of the postcard I sent him, too late, of Bill Mazeroski’s celebratory 1960 World Series homerun? Would he know that I was just saying hello? That I was trying to restore some balance, cosmic or not, to my universe?

—January 2, 2009

© 2009 by Erik Lundegaard