October and the Church of Baseball

By John Kass

October 5, 2022

The Major League Baseball playoffs begin this weekend. And even you’ve grown up and away from the game and turned your back on it as I did–for me it was the Performance Enhanced Juicers and their dribbly legacy corporate media apologists and wormtongues  protecting the juicers–I just can’t turn my eyes completely away.

I suppose I’ll take some notice of the playoffs. I really don’t have much of a choice. I’m trapped with two bad shoulders sleeping upright in this ridiculous torture device: the Man Chair, as the MLB playoffs begin.

I suppose that there are more important issues than pampered millionaires playing a game for kids. Crime keeps rising. Inflation eats our savings. And President Joe Biden walks the world closer to the dance of the mushroom clouds. Biden isn’t  alone, but joined in this by the Ukrainians, the bi-partisan Washington War Party Combine that feeds upon defense contracts, and Putin himself.

Let’s hope they get the Series in first, is only to save us from more public safety announcements about surviving nuclear fallout.  My reality doesn’t change. I’m stuck in that idiotic recliner dealing with Tylenol, pain killers and baseball. I should say “It’s all beyond my control.” But that would be a lie. I never had control.

And now Biden is bragging that he’s something of a Puerto Rican, and they love baseball.

I did mention baseball in a recent column, and several readers sent in touching reminiscences of the game with  great ballplayers including Tony Conigliero tossing a ball back to a boy in Chicago in the stands, and of baseball fiction they’d read as children back when baseball fiction was still an appreciated  art form.

That column must also have triggered writer Michael Ledwith, because he sent me his baseball column, appropriately titled “Baseball: A Love Story.” It should run on Sunday.

Ach, Ach baseball, Ach we say, and that belief once commonly held  in an American meritocracy where even immigrant peasant boys could rise if they played hard, and smart and by the rules. And because of this, immigrants in America loved baseball so much it hurt us. Until the Church of Baseball was broken by the sins of man.

There is the understanding of meritocracy throughout those stories in that book “Fielder’s Choice” edited by Chicago sports writing icon Jerome Holtzman. The collection of baseball fiction was compiled in 1979 for a publisher (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) that is no longer in business. The dust jacket was certainly iconic of a group of boys in a sandlot, picking up sides.  Because then,  baseball was part of the American cultural foundation, like the Bible.

Years ago the French American historian and cultural critic Jacques Barzun wrote something that was put on a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown:

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules, and reality of the game.”

You couldn’t understand America if you didn’t know the Bible and baseball. And Barzun’s was a rallying cry for the high priests of the Church of Baseball. Barzun was an historian of ideas, and his words carried weight. Yet before he died in 2012, Barzun took it all back according to a story I read in Bleacher Report.

“I’ve gotten so disgusted with baseball,” the then 85-year-old Barzun was quoted as saying. “I don’t follow it anymore. I just see the headlines and turn my head in shame from what we have done with our most interesting, best, and healthiest pastime.”

His biggest gripe was the greed of the game.

“The commercialization is beyond anything that was ever thought of, the overvaluing, really, of the game itself. It’s out of proportion to the place an entertainment ought to have,” Barzun was quoted as saying. “Other things are similarly commercialized and out of proportion, but for baseball, which is so intimately connected with the nation’s spirit and tradition, it’s a disaster.”

Yes. But today, you’ll see that nostalgia is still for sale in the Church of Baseball  It is sold via those yearly games at the edge of that Iowa cornfield. Just wind up Bob Kostas and set him to talking about Mickey Mantle baseball cards. But try to discuss baseball fiction in a nation that no longer reads is aggravating. Roy Hobb’s magical bat Wonderboy, hewn from a tree struck by lightening, is Excalibur by another name. But who knows this? Who cares to know?

America is the nation where kids no longer read books at ballfields waiting for friends to arrive. American kids no longer play pick-up games some sand lot except in some movie. Organized sports are for rich kids which limits the growth of baseball and soccer for the poor. The idea of a meritocracy, which bound immigrant sons to the game–Jews from Russia and Greeks like me and my brothers, Latinos, Japanese, Germans, Africans, all of us.

To find a place in this country, to prove our worth to the Americans that we belonged here too, was to to play by the rules and drive the runner in from second.

But the American meritocracy is gone now, too, courtesy of left wing politics and the same corporate media lickspittles who told us not to worry all about performance enhancing drugs. Merit? That’s sinful now. To rise by merit and force of will–rather than immutable characteristics like skin color or gender–is to admit you’re infected with the sin of racism. The meritocracy is racist, according to Jacobin  masters of culture who’ll tell you how to vote in November.

If American kids play baseball, it’s organized by adults. The kids are rich white kids mostly, driven to games and practices by mommy. And daddy works the team manager, hoping to get his son on the pitcher’s mound, even if he can’t throw strikes, even if he’d be terrified out there. Meritocracy? Forget it. We’re talking clout.

On any other Sunday in October, I wouldn’t be remotely interested in baseball, tainted as the entire enterprise has become. I’d rather wade alone in that river up north. There are big salmon turning black holding in that water. You can see them fanning out like old warplanes behind silvery females. When you hook the males in the lips, they pull you like some stubborn tow truck, about the same torque. The problem is that you raise a hooked fish with your left arm, but I can’t do that now.  Some of you may know that a few months ago, on our wedding anniversary, I took a bad fall in the shower and tore two rotator cuffs in my left shoulder and recently had surgery.

Then, a few days ago, I topped myself in the department of ridiculous stupidity. I tripped walking up, (yeah, that’s right) up the stairs and landed on my right shoulder the same way I’d landed on my left,  with all my weight on the forearm. I didn’t hear a pop exactly but I felt something.

And so–cue some ridiculously sad piano music–with my stupid face on the gleaming wooden floor, alone in the house, with Zeus the Wonder Dog taking advantage and sniffing me for treats, I thought of my stupidity in wearing sliders. And there, irredeemably stupid, with my face flattened on the wood and now the right shoulder gone, Zeus floating over, whining for treats I didn’t have as I moaned in pain, I thought of an appropriate poem.

James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” and the last two lines which fit my situation:

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

That last line gets me.

I don’t want to overreact as usual, but I find myself being pulled back to baseball and I don’t want to go, like desperately trying to avoid some crazy old girlfriend you never want to see again. And still, baseball thinks it can get its hooks back into me.

As I write this, the sun is out on a glorious early October afternoon.  Across the street some kids are playing catch in the park. I’m reminded of helping coach my twin sons’ Little League team.  They were on the Phillies, in a competitive house league in Western Springs.  My friend, the great ESPN 1000 radio host David Kaplan, had just called me to talk on his air about a column I’d written condemning a suspected juicer from San Francisco.

The Kap Man wanted to poll the boys.  In the dugout, as they passed the phone among them, they said one word about the slugger:

“Juicer.”

Afterward, I turned away from baseball. And I realized  the truth of American professional sports:

They sell anything.  After the kneeling and concussion dramas, the NFL decided to save itself by marketing to young women who would be moms and decide if their sons would scramble their brains in football.

The NFL sold violence to American women, as if they were Roman women pursuing the gladiators. Oh, and the kneeling during the National Anthem? Such players were called patriots.

And Major League Baseball?  I realized that just like football, the MLB  baseball and TV execs would do anything for money.

To borrow from Kurt Vonnegut, they’d sell rat anuses of rats to blind men for wedding rings.

I was done with both professional “sports.” There are those shoulders to rehab so I can fish and handle a shotgun. And  I need to walk brisky now too, and not trip.

Maybe I’ll get a German Shepherd pup–if I could find one right one with good health and good hips and cold steel  nerves–to engage in what the German originators of the great breed used to call Schutzhund, a protection sport for the German working dog.

I need to walk briskly, and concentrate part of the day on something that isn’t about metaphor or ideas. Training a pup wouldn’t hurt.

But for now my world is, pain pills, therapy, columns to write and that horrid Man Chair that I now hate. I might even pick a ballclub in the Wild Card round and follow the progress by the day, the best way for a casual fan to watch. That should get me through until the World Cup begins.

Readers had their own ideas.

“I am re-reading Jerome Holtzman’s 1997 book “Fielder’s Choice” an anthology of baseball fiction that includes but not limited to authors Ring Lardner, James Thurber, Philip Roth and others,” writes reader Matthew Jennings.

“This book lies in my nightstand drawer and comes out occasionally to refresh my love of the game long destroyed by greed. I watch my grandson Logan live and breath “fall” ball down in the south suburbs where dads, moms, and grandparents religiously follow their future stars. There may be no tomorrow, but there is hope and joy in the eyes and hearts of these kids. There is no ‘juice’ or ungodly salaries from Mammon, but there is pure bliss when a home run is swatted or a fastball strikeout is delivered. To all the kids of spring ,summer, and fall ball, their “Field of Dreams” still exists though the grown up game has withered away from the relentless assaults of cheats. I relive my baseball youth with my grandson when I showed him how to wrap, with a rawhide string ,a baseball curled inside the pocket of a mitt, greased with linseed oil. As I say, “Is this heaven?”, no “it’s Manhattan,” in Will County.

I’ve got a copy, too, Matthew.

“Kass, like you, I’ve turned my back to Major League Baseball,” writes reader Mark Stevens. “The game has become something else and the magic is gone. Also like you, I was a White Sox fan and I hope you enjoy this tale from when I was a kid.
“I was twelve years old and the White Sox were hosting the Red Sox at Comiskey Park on a sweltering Chicago summer evening. My dad and I had great seats in the first row down the right field line. The players were warming up and a ball got away from one of them, rolling to the wall right in front of us. The Red Sox star right fielder, Tony Conigliaro trotted over to retrieve the ball and leaned over to pick it up. He straightened up and I yelled ‘Hey, Tony!’ and snapped his picture with my Kodak Brownie camera. Conigliaro paused for a moment, grinned and tossed me the ball. He turned on his heel and trotted away. I was speechless with delight and my dad said ‘How about that Tony, what a great guy he is!’

“Not long afterward, Conigliaro was beaned by a Jack Hamilton fastball, disabling him for the remainder of the season. The Red Sox went on to the World Series, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. I’ve often wondered if Conigliaro would have made the difference if he had been able to play.
“I miss him, miss what he stood for. The spontaneous generosity demonstrated to a kid who looked up to his baseball heroes, the stuff dreams are made of. Come to think of it, I never thanked him for the ball. Until now.”

Great story Mark Stevens. Now, a question for those of us who take great pains to let others know we’ve turned our backs on the game:

Why is that all we need to hear are the two little words “Play Ball,” to begin aching, as we remember all we once loved, and all we still miss?

Is it our youth that we miss, our so-called idyllic childhoods that were anything but idyllic, of those days so very long ago when 61 was our magic baseball number, when we knew for certain we’d live forever and boys who were playing with us on those fields live forever too?

Or is it something else, something simple, that we were able to see the immortals chase excellence on a cool October night?

The old man in blue barks out his two little words:

Play ball.

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(Copyright 2022 John Kass)