THE THEATER OF THE IMPOSSIBLE
Daniel F. McNeill
NATIVE AMERICANS, AMERICAN PROTESTANTS AND AMERICAN BUSINESSMEN PLAY THE SAME GAME
The rules of baseball tell us how to play and how to regulate what may happen without saying anything about why what happens happens. To understand why the phenomenon, baseball, appeared in America in the nineteenth century and evolved to the ingeniously complex entity that we know today requires a different understanding than that needed to understand the rules. You must start looking at baseball from a completely different angle. You must begin to see not just the game, but also the slices of life to which the game is similar.
Books on the history of baseball pay very little attention to the problem of how baseball originated and how and why it evolved to its present form. Ball games, with rubber balls or balls covered with rawhide, sometimes with bats three or four feet long, were universal among native Americans, going back many hundreds of years. The games often had a ceremonial character. Before the year 1000, in northern Mexico and Arizona, there were ball courts, similar to those of the Mayas of Central America, as large as 180 by 61 feet. The issue of some ancient American ball games was life or death. More recently some of the pilgrims building the Plymouth Plantation used to escape from the tedium of work by playing ball. Forms of baseball similar to the one we know were played by white Americans well before 1870, which is the generally accepted date for the finalization of baseball in its present form. The history of baseball since that time is, of course, well documented. Yet we know little more now about its early history and evolution than was known in 1907 when the Special Baseball Commission, made up of prominent baseball executives and two United States senators, announced, with insufficient evidence, that Abner Doubleday is the father of baseball.
The crucial number in baseball is four. Three is everywhere a condition to be escaped or overcome. Four—or anything beyond three—is the condition to be achieved. Three strikes and a batter is out, but he can overcome this condition by hitting or he can escape it by getting four balls. The first three batters in a lineup are chosen by a manager with the hope of getting beyond the three to the fourth batter, the cleanup man. The three bases are guarded by four infielders. In the World Series each team can win three games, but it is the team that goes on to win four games that takes the series. The team in the field is attempting to impose on the team at bat a condition of three outs. And the fundamental rule is that a base runner may reach all three bases, but that it is only by reaching home plate, the fourth point in the cycle, that he scores.
Four is the sacred number in native American mythology. Every native people, in North and South America, use four— four persons, four points, four stages of development, etc.—as the universal form of the creations of their natural religions. The examples of the universality of four in their beliefs are numerous. Here are three from Myths of the Americas by Dr. Daniel G. Brinton, published in 1868:
“An excellent authority relates that the Aztecs of Micla,
in Guatemala, celebrated their chief festival four times
a year, and that four priests solemnized its rites. They
commenced by invoking and offering incense to the sky
and the four cardinal points; they conducted the human
victim four times around the temple, then tore out his
heart, and catching the blood in four vases scattered it
in the same directions. So also the Peruvians had four
principal festivals annually, and at every new moon one
of four days’ duration. In fact, the repetition of the number
in all their religious ceremonies is so prominent that it
has been a subject of comment by historians.”
“It is well known that the calendar common to the Aztecs
and Mayas divides the month into four weeks, each
containing a like number of secular days; that their indiction
is divided into four periods; and that they believed
the world had passed through four cycles. It has
not been sufficiently emphasized that in many of the
picture writings these days of the week are placed respectively
north, south, east, and west, and that in the
Maya language the quarters of the indiction still bear
the names of the cardinal points, hinting the reason of
the adoptions. This cannot be fortuitous. Again, the division
of the year into four seasons—a division as devoid
of foundation in nature as that of the ancient Aryans
into three, and unknown among many tribes, yet
obtained in very early times among Algonkins, Cherokees,
Choctaws, Creeks, Aztecs, Muyscas, Peruvians, and
Araucanians. They were supposed to be produced by
the unending struggles and varying fortunes of the four
aerial giants who rule the winds.”
“In an ancient manuscript found by Mr. Stephens during
his travels, it appears the Mayas of Yucatan looked
back to four parents or leaders called the Tutul Xiu. But,
indeed, this was a trait of all the civilized nations of
Central America and Mexico. An author who was very
unwilling to admit any mythical interpretation of the
coincidence, has adverted to it in tones of astonishment:
‘In all the Aztec and Toltec histories there are four characters
who constantly reappear; either as priests or envoys
of the gods, or of hidden and disguised majesty; or
as guides and chieftains of tribes during their migrations;
or as king and rulers of monarchies after their
foundation; and even to the time of the conquest, there
are always four princes who compose the supreme government,
whether in Guatemala, or in Mexico.’ This fourfold
division points not to a common history but to a
common nature. The ancient heroes and demigods, who,
four in number, figure in all these antique traditions,
were not men of flesh and blood, but the invisible currents
of air who brought the fertilizing showers.”
The explanation that Dr. Brinton gives for the universality of four is its correspondence to the four cardinal points of any territory, East, West, North, and South. The four points are crucial to the native American, whose main occupation is hunting, because they locate him both practically as a hunter and in the profound sense of giving him a definite identity with himself in relation to the heavens. The four points are also the places of the four sacred winds, the winds being symbols of the breath of the spirit. The cross is also a common symbol of native Americans; it was an object of worship. According to Dr. Brinton, the cross is no more than an expansion of the basic symbol of the four cardinal points since “The arms of the cross were designed to point to the cardinal points and represent the four winds, the rain bringers.” The Creeks’ manner of conducting the ceremony of making the new fire, for example, was “to place four logs in the center of the square, end to end, forming a cross, the outer ends pointing to
the cardinal points; in the center of the cross the new fire is made.” If the four cardinal points are marked on any field and connected to one another, or the four ends of the cross are connected, the result is a baseball diamond.
The four points “locate” an ancient American man on a segment of land that otherwise has no sure dimension. Can we not simply say that to mark out the four sacred points is a traditional American fashion of possessing land both geographically and mystically? In this respect, it is amusing and yet profoundly interesting to read even the little we have published about early baseball during the period between 1830 and 1860. There are often no set ball fields. The teams must first meet on some field and mark out the base paths. Preston Orem in his book Baseball 1845-1881 writes that one day in 1845 a group of white American ballplayers, realizing that they would soon be driven from their grounds on the north slope of Murray Hill in New York, decided to look for a permanent, suitable place in New Jersey. “So a squad sufficient to make up a game assembled, crossed over on the ferry and marched up the road, prospecting for suitable grounds. They ‘settled’ upon Elysian Fields, Hoboken.” “In New York when the group started to play the game, the town ball and New England game square field was used. Later an early member Wadsworth brought in a diagram of the diamond-shaped field, which the players decided to try out. Preferring it, they used the idea.” Here we see a group of modern, white Americans appropriating land for playing baseball. This means that they redefine both their natural environment and natural behavior because they regulate their behavior according to new laws appropriate only to a new, unconventional geography. And the revolution is accomplished by learning to adapt their radical behavior to fit the dimensions of a sacred native American design!
The natives who lived in the ancient cities of Mexico and Central America tried to connect their lives to the planets in the heavens above. Teotihuacan near Mexico City, the greatest of their cities, has within it great pyramids of the moon and sun. The pyramids, built around 400 A.D., are ancient skyscrapers, mountains constructed in the city itself that elevated men who climbed their steps to the level of the heavenly planets and the Gods. The pyramid of the sun at Teotihuacan is built in the four-sided, quadrangular shape extremely common in native American sculpture and architecture. It is oriented towards the four cardinal points and has four stepped platforms at different levels with walkways along the edges. The walkway at the very top has four straight stone paths along the edges of the pyramid about 20 feet wide and about 90 feet long. The paths meet each other at right angles and in the center there is a raised area that was probably the site of an ancient temple. The great pyramid of the sun at Teotihuacan has thus at its summit, immemorially preserved in stone, the same diamond design and the same dimensions that were used more than 1400 years later for the ball game in Hoboken, New Jersey
The ball was universal among native Americans as well as sun worship. Of the four sacred points, east is the most important because, since the sun, a ball in the sky, appears there first in the morning, it is the primary point that locates the other three. According to Dr. Brinton, “When the day begins, man wakes from his slumber, faces the rising sun and prays. The east is before him; by it he learns all other directions; it is to him what the north is to the needle; with reference to it he assigns in his mind the position of the three other cardinal points. There is the starting place of the celestial fires, the home of the sun, the womb of the morning. It represents in space the beginnings of things in time.” The flaming ball crosses the sky beginning at this primary place and sinks down again to earth—earth is also sacred to the native American—at the secondary point of importance, the west. Is there any connection between the ball, which can fly across the sky like the sun, ball games, sun worship, the sacred nature of the earth, and the four cardinal points? It seems likely that there is. The sun not only appears first at its home in the east, but it returns there; it reappears there after the cycle of the day and night. The sun makes a journey over sacred land in the form of a ball touching two bases. Every day is a celestial ball game for a native American. The sun locates him at its home, the east, each morning, and returns home after a night’s absence to give him at least one secure base each day in an insecure world.
Yet man does not make the same voyage as the sun during his day; he must wander along the difficult paths of an all-too human practical existence, alienated from whatever he was at the dawn of his life. A home run ball belted from home plate to straight-away center field, descending out of view in line with home behind second base, would parallel a day’s voyage of the sun over the earth from a primary point in the morning in the east to a final point at sunset in the west, and it bestows on the hitter a grace that is certainly a representation of man’s deepest dream of paradise, the dream of making Apollo’s golden voyage across the sky; but home plate under all other circumstances is more like the place of the beginning and end of man’s life itself, the Alpha and the Omega, the place from which man enters existence and equally the place to which he goes after struggling to exist.
Batting can be understood as analogous to the struggle to be born. To exist as a base runner a batter must transform himself into a base runner by hitting the ball. As a batter he is in a state of pre-existence: he is at the stage like that of the fetus. His confrontation with the pitcher, supported by his seven teammates in the field, is like a struggle against all the hostile conditions that can abort his birth. Better still: when a batter steps up to the plate, he has not yet even reached a condition analogous to the state of a fetus. His conflict with the pitcher, his struggle to connect with the ball the pitcher throws, is like the drama that precedes birth and existence, the real beginning—the drama of conception. Batting mirrors the struggle of the sperm to connect with the ovum, the struggle to begin life. A batter is born as a base runner when he has succeeded in transforming himself into a base runner by reaching base. But he cannot even attempt the transformation unless he makes some contact with the ball. Of the many bats that swing fruitlessly through the air missing the ball, his must be the one that contacts the ball, just as one sperm of the many makes contact with the ovum to form a fetus before attempting the transformation to birth and an individual existence. But even when the connection is made, nothing is certain. A fetus has a chance to be born—but only a chance. When a batter hits the ball, strikes it solidly, he has a chance to get on base—but only a chance. His birth can be aborted; he is not automatically safe on base. Someone or something can intervene. The ball he connects with can go foul. If it goes fair, it can be caught before it touches the ground. It can be hit solidly and bounce along freely but suddenly someone can grab it and throw it to first base: it is a vivid representation of something like an aborted birth because the ball reaches first base just before the batter does and a baseball life is ended near the moment when it was about to begin. Hitting the ball is a fatal moment, like conception, that will either project the batter further to something like birth, life, and destiny—or else end as an out, an annihilation, that will return him to nothingness. The fundamental goal in baseball is to time the swing of the bat. The batter must swing neither too early nor too late, but at just the right moment. The flight of the ball from the pitcher to the batter can be understood as a parallel to the cycle of the ovum. In life, conception can take place only when the ovum is fertile and in position; in baseball it can take place only when the ball reaches the area of the plate.
When a man comes alive as a base runner, he is like an American seeking economic
success. He has a problem similar to that of any capitalistic entrepreneur. He is alone in hostile circumstances, surrounded by individuals seeking to block his advancement. He has something like a certain capital to begin with, depending on his position at birth: he reaches initially either first, second, or third base. (The game of Monopoly—so popular in America—is a variation of baseball which carries out to the limit the logic of acquiring, increasing, or decreasing capital according to the position a player reaches or proceeds to by chance on the paths of a diamond-shaped area.) But any position is untenable because it is to remain within the midst of the struggle: to achieve success he must strive to get beyond the struggle, to go beyond his existence by scoring. Every American wants to score. No one wants to remain as a static element within the hard vicissitudes of the day-to-day economic struggle. The base runner, like the entrepreneur, waits, appraising his situation and the hostile forces around him, for an imbalance to develop. The following batter or batters usually cause some imbalance, either favorable or unfavorable. He must be ready to seize the moment when the imbalance develops and use the sudden alteration in the conditions and the strategy of the individuals threatening him to his own advantage. He must profit from the imbalance by advancing along the bases. Nothing is sure. He can fail. Everything is a chance, a gamble. At all costs he must be constantly alert for something to happen, ready to suddenly invest himself in an enterprise if what happens seems favorable to the enterprise. If he is on first and a batter triples, he can, so to speak, get rich
overnight. But if he is on first and a batter singles, he must be shrewd enough to know in an instant if he should try to get to third because his success or failure depends on his ability to make a quick and adventurous, but realistic calculation. More fail than succeed. It is a hard thing to be alone on base on a hot afternoon in the American sun. The infielders sneak over to try to trap the base runner off base. The enemy basemen threaten to eliminate him at second or third and the catcher at home. The outfielders are poised tensely, calculating where the ball will probably be hit, ready to throw the base runner out if he tries to advance. It’s hard. The only gratuitous help he can legitimately expect is what may develop by chance within the given circumstances themselves. The manager may order the following batter to sacrifice by bunting but this is still hazardous because the exact imbalance that will develop is unknown. In fact, the sacrifice expresses the bitterness of each player’s individual isolation because, as the word “sacrifice” implies, the batter does not work with the base runner towards a common goal, but towards the base runner’s goal: he must enrich the base runner’s existence by sacrificing his own. The hit-and-run play is the closest thing in baseball to a cooperative enterprise, but it is really no more than a quid pro quo: the base runner runs to second, displacing the second baseman who runs to cover second, on the condition that the batter will attempt to hit the pitch toward the area vacated. They cooperate to achieve separate goals. And it is still dangerous because its result is unpredictable. No outside help in the sense of an external interference can be expected: nothing in the base runner’s behavior would make us think that his existence is even slightly like the existence of a man in a welfare state. The economy of the three bases is hard, but like the American economy, it must not be manipulated benevolently by an outside agency so that it can remain natural and hostile and allow only the fittest and the luckiest to survive. The world doesn’t owe the base runner a living. He must pay his own way or be eliminated. It’s hard. But then, if there is everywhere the stink of failure, there is also everywhere the smell of success. The base runner is a modern American hunter alive in something similar to the economic jungle, but it is a jungle of both defeat and opportunity. If he is shrewd enough, and constantly ready, constantly calculating, he will seize an opportunity sooner or later and succeed. Even if he’s eliminated, it’s not fatal. He’s not dead; he’s only bankrupt. He will pick himself up off the floor. He will get another chance to bat, if not today, then tomorrow. Someday he will score and then there will be success and the applause from the crowd that goes with it. The bankruptcy laws governing the American economy make it perfectly legal for corporations to take legal action in order not to pay their debts completely. Baseball does not deign to conform itself to some tedious legal procedure. It kicks aside the possibility of being analogous with any such state of things and goes further: it allows its entrepreneurs to steal. If a favorable imbalance does not develop, a base runner can always create an imbalance by his own initiative. If he’s shrewd enough and quick enough, he can gamble on being eliminated from the game by trying to steal. It’s legal. Maury Wills, the first great base-stealer in baseball since Ty Cobb, wrote a book with a title that expresses it exactly: It Pays To Steal. In both baseball and capitalism it sometimes pays to steal—as long as you don’t get caught because then you’re out. Baseball is thus, from this point of view, a reflection of the ethos of nineteenth-century American capitalism: it is a direct reflection of the world that produced it. And it is a thorough reflection because it is also an image, in one of its aspects, of something similar to class power. Not everyone in nineteenth-century America was thrown by the condition of his birth into the economic struggle. There were classes of society and the power that went with birth in an upper class. Baseball expresses a clear analogy to class power in the home run hitter. The batter who hits a home run is not merely born into something like the economic jungle as lesser batters, he is well born: with one swing of the bat he knocks the ball out of the park and receives all the advantages of class power. He is the exception, the fittest of the fittest. He succeeds before he’s born. He does not have to engage the contingencies of something like a free and harsh economic existence. He does not have to steal or cunningly dance off a base waiting shrewdly to seize some opportunity. He knocks the ball out of the park and then, with contempt and disdain, his power
unopposed and unopposable, he runs at his leisure around the bases.
Man in a baseball game, in the role of a batter or a base runner, is an individualist fighting against a mean world. He is, like Robinson Crusoe, on his own, and if he is to survive and get home, he must rely primarily on his own boldness, luck, and ingenuity. Robinson Crusoe finds himself in isolated, hostile circumstances. But he is shrewd. He takes advantage of every opportunity. He even finds a friend and help. He overcomes his immediate environment, and he finally overcomes it completely by going home. A batter happens to hit a ball that projects him into difficult circumstances: there are two outs and he finds himself on first base, alone. But he steals second base because he is shrewd and daring enough to get a big lead off first base. Everywhere there is danger. Anxiously, he takes as big a lead off second as possible. Suddenly he finds a friend: the batter hits a line drive to center. He is off immediately (with two outs), and he reaches home. He overcame difficult circumstances by boldness,luck, and ingenuity and returned home. Baseball mirrors the Robinson Crusoe story because his character and adventure express the traits of Anglo-Saxon, middle-class character which are themselves basic to success in baseball and America: individualistic self-reliance, courage, and shrewdness in the face of hostile circumstances.
Baseball as we know it was created in the cultural atmosphere of the last half of the nineteenth century in America, and its logic is the logic of the people who produced it. One expression of their way of thinking was the survival of the fittest philosophy. There were problems in late nineteenth-century America; annoying contradictions kept cropping up. Democracy existed with slavery, opulence with squalor, optimism with despair, patriotism with civil war, sailing ships with steamships, freedom with rank oppression, government swindling with religious fervor, and private swindling with moral rectitude. A condition of constant competition, constant struggle, constant opposition of one interest to another appeared natural and inevitable as history progressed. There had been no poverty in early nineteenth-century America. Life was rude but there was land, at least to the west, for most men willing to work. In a pioneer culture everyone was free to pursue his economic interests to the best of his ability. The problem of failure developed later in the century, after the Civil War. When the continent had been settled, when economic interests had been advanced and stabilized, it became evident that, despite progress, a condition of general economic scarcity still existed and that in the economic struggle many people had lost. A need arose to justify success. Respectable people, concerned that the day-to-day drama of the survival of the fittest in the industrial jungle was getting too rough for their moral comfort, imported Herbert Spencer, the English philosopher. They venerated Herbert Spencer. People collected money for him and gave him a gold watch. He explained that success was as natural and unavoidable as failure. He adapted Charles Darwin’s theory of the biological survival of the fittest to the social arena. Progress is generated only by conflict. Spencer told his American audiences that everyone in society was free to struggle economically. It was every man for himself in the economic jungle. But in a condition of economic scarcity only those predisposed to the struggle, only those who were bigger, shrewder, healthier, luckier, and bolder would survive and succeed. The poor, even though they somehow survived, were not worthy of survival: it was wrong to help them because to do so would be to interfere with the natural evolution of humanity.
This survival of the fittest philosophy speaks words that express an intimate agreement with the doctrine of a baseball game. Isn’t it true that in a baseball game everyone gets an equal chance to bat? Isn’t it true that some players survive the ordeal of batting, get on base, and go on and score, whereas other players are either eliminated by the pitcher or eliminated later on the bases? What is a baseball game if not a drama of survival of the fittest? It isn’t just. It’s a bitter fate for one man to be eliminated at second base after singling because the following batter hits an easy ground ball, whereas another man reaches base on an error and scores on a home run. Yet what could be more natural for men living out in their own lives a real drama of survival, and envying the success of the few, than to invent a sport’s drama about the failure or the elimination of the many, and to be passionate about watching and playing it? The roars from a ball park are loud with elemental meaning because the celebration of survival in a baseball game is the voice of a joy that has suddenly conquered a deep American pain.
William Jennings Bryan’s famous statement, during his campaign for the presidency in 1896, caught the unusual logic of the time at a deeper and more discreet level than the brutal and simplistic survival of the fittest philosophy. He let loose his anger against the bankers, who, under the thumb of London, were cowardly maintaining the gold standard which was crippling America’s potential for rapid economic expansion: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!” It had a beautiful thunder because it gave exciting meaning to old religious symbols by a sudden new application of them to the economic reality. And the brilliant synthesis in Bryan’s sentence of the theme of crucifixion in a religion of redemption with the theme of the massive sacrifice of individuals required by an industrial economy of growing abundance that redeemed only the powerful and their sycophants operates too in baseball because it is also a synthesis of the brutal antagonism between Christian Protestantism and industrial capitalism. The work of late nineteenth-century Americans in the dog-eat-dog industrial hell was new to them and hostile to their mind and spirit. Caught between the latter-day Robespierres in Washington playing the role of conservative statesmen and the revolutionaries in banking and finance pretending by their holier-than-thou veneer that the privilege of creating money as they saw fit was somehow a just due that they had earned by some divine merit, the average American, powerless and voiceless, needed a pretense of his own to give reality to the private pain of his work by transforming it into public play. So the impossible had happened: the universe of baseball provided a kind of mirror of reality where Protestant America could play at redemption in the real structure of a survival of the fittest game, which was nonetheless the same game Americans were playing at in real life.
The American Civil War had killed the bodies and seeds of 600,000 men and left a hole near the middle of nineteenth-century American history that nothing could fill. The war left a silence in the soul of America. Afterward it was as though the social body had to get up dazed after a bad and unexpected beating. Words suddenly shaken out of touch with the soul made talk seem hollow, even a waste of time. In the emptiness everyone searched for himself in solitary acts that dug only more holes. After the war, in the period that historians call “Reconstruction”, little was reconstructed, almost everything was changed. In a new industrialized world it was every man for himself in arenas where the only sounds that said anything real were the noises of work and the whispers of politicians in corridors. Huckleberry Finn , floating on his raft out in the middle of the Mississippi River, his companion a rootless black, is the true image of an America that felt the need to go very far away from home to try to find itself. In that blank time of savage industrial development, history rushed up out of a vacuum and drove men along strange new paths all over the continent in a futile race to fill a painful absence.
Baseball echoed the silence and spoke a language that did not need words. A man stood up, picked a bat, set himself at a plate, and faced the naked presence of alienation in the fast, tricky flight of a ball whose unvarnished intent was to put him out. If he could hit the ball solidly, he could run away to face some new type of alienation on the dangerous base paths. He risked an out guided by the desperate belief that the road that led him away could also lead him back. No miracle could restore the soul that America had left behind on the fields at Gettysburg. A new life of the soul seemed far away, at the end of some strange and dangerous journey.
Baseball players were not the only American nomads of the time eager to rush off on strange journeys of self-discovery. Educated Americans in easy circumstances would have made voyages to the other side of the moon to make up for themselves some foreign culture. They fled in droves the barbarity of America whose wealth provided them with the means and the ease to compose religious hymns in quaint English villages, study Greek vases at the Louvre, or to stroll through the countryside near Rome looking for the ancient remains of Horace’s villa in the Sabine hills. Henry James, born in the state of New York, became an English citizen towards the end of his life in time enough not to die an American. At his home in England, Lamb House, he
composed novels with gauzy, Europeanized characters that made him a sitting duck for the judgment of a character in Cakes And Ale by W. Somerset Maugham. “Henry James . . . turned his back on one of the great events of the world’s history, the rise of the United States, in order to report tittle-tattle at tea parties in English country houses.” But many people felt James’ need to seed their thought and feeling in the ground of some culture whose language spoke nuances that silenced the din of utility and the endless talk of money back home; everyone who could turned his back and ran off to some foreign base. They cruised on the Aegean to transport their imagination back to Ancient Greece or they sailed to Martinique to study its language and legends. American nomads haunted hotels in culture-centers all over Europe in a society born of chance meetings that were so only in appearance for the need to study European Metaphysics or Homeric Greek was imposed by a universal disgust. The American novelist Edith Wharton, who spent her life in Europe immersed in foreign languages and cultures, expressed her attitude to Americans on the occasion of a rare visit to her native New York with the following lash of the tongue: “ . . . I despair of the Republic! Such dreariness, such whining callow women, such utter absence of the amenities, such crass food, crass manners, crass landscape! What a horror it is for a whole nation to be developing without a sense of beauty and eating bananas for breakfast.”
Even though she could not understand Americans’ manners and appetites, she understood their soul. She caught the tragedy of the time in a novel of genius, Ethan Frome. The hero, Ethan, a powerless and proud American, is crushed by the solitude and poverty of his rural plight. He does not have the courage to go off and create a new life for himself in some large industrialized city swarming with immigrants fighting for a living. “The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison wardens handcuffing a convict . . . He was a prisoner for life.” His tragedy did not touch at all the shrewd captains of the roaring industrial revolution who were emptying peasants from villages in Italy to work in American factories and who spent enough time in a depopulated Italy to absorb Italian culture cheap.
A Boston lady, Mrs. Jack Gardner, hit the greatest home run of the time: she came back to Boston from the other side of the moon with a Venetian palace. Others had duplicated her miraculous journey but not her audacity for they had erected the triumphs of their voyages, crenellated castles, baronial chateaux, etc. far from the hovels of the polloi, on islands like Newport or Isleboro or way out of town in hidden, affluent boondocks. Madame Gardner erected hers in the middle of Boston, a few hundred yards from workers’ tenements. She imported the Italy of her dreams, an elegant renaissance palace filled with fine art, and installed it next to Italians imported for hard labor. Even the Boston Brahmin crowd, who were tough-minded friends of culture, was shocked. What a blow struck against the whispered prohibitions of the rich it was to plant an apotheosis of their ends right next to the people who were their means! Edith Wharton made an appearance opening night at the dinner table set in the Dutch Room surrounded by Rembrandts. She expressed something of the tension of upper crust Boston when she quipped to a neighbor “that the meal reminded her of the kind one was offered at a provincial French railroad station.” She said this in French which added just the right odd nervous touch to an atmosphere of expatriation which already seemed absurd enough since nearly everyone was at home in their native country.
The need to discover oases of culture also affected those who had to stay home. It was beautiful to walk the fifteen or so miles out from Athens to the site of ancient Megara, where Scylla had betrayed her father for love of King Minos, but beautiful too to walk out from town on a late afternoon or a day-off to baseball fields that the abundance of American land sprouted all over the continent. Baseball parks were the only Champs-Elysées that millions of humble Americans ever saw: they were hungry for culture like the rich and the culture of baseball was not only nearby but also their own. How beautiful to watch young men contest a game on a summer afternoon! No doubt but that some ladies, when their favorites gripped the bat, felt as did Scylla looking down from her father’s fortified towers at King Minos gripping a javelin,
“Vix sua, vix sanae virgo Niseia compos
Mentis erat: felix iaculum, quod tangeret ille.”
They had never heard of Ovid, but they had no need of Latin poetry beside the beauty of youth besporting on a carefully cultivated grass field with its solitary pitching mound and its bare base paths. It was a paradise where the destiny of men played itself out in an incorruptible form, a shelter from the industrial and sod-busting hell. The baseball rules reflected the outside world, but they had nothing to do with the insanity of the rule of universal utility that debased all who could not escape its command. A game was a civilized war wherein a player had to cut a path for himself against the odds; the players may have only fought with a bat and a ball but they fought. In fact, the players wore uniforms—caps, flannelled shirts, and zouave pants—much like those the soldiers had worn during the Civil War. Baseball was an expression of a world where the new industrial wisdom of mathematical, rational production threatened to make human individuality disappear altogether in a crushing synthesis of men and machines, where a man knew he counted for nothing unless he dared to fight to escape a deadly organization that paid him little to make himself a human tool. Played on a beautiful field, baseball was nature recreated with logic and imagination that imitated a real world in order to show one possibility for transforming life. It was neither the barbarous new industrialization nor nature in the raw, but the deadly logic of the one combined with the wildness and unpredictability of the other. It was both worlds and therefore something more. In the silence of a game without language, laws justified the necessity of inhuman conditions against the heroic boldness of men ready to risk an out to prove their worth beyond the power of law.
A batter is unable to remain at home plate; he hits a ball which results in his projection into a completely different situation, that of a base runner on first base. The act that causes him to reach first base can be understood as a parallel with original sin. He is a survivor like Robinson Crusoe but he is also an Adam, a biblical hero. Adam, expelled from the Garden of Eden, is awestruck at the extent of his forsakenness. Similarly, the base runner on first base, although he knows it is possible to return home, is not optimistic: it’s a long way to home plate. His mood changes when he reaches second base: now he is halfway home— more than halfway with his lead off the base—and he is cautious but optimistic. So the beginning of Christianity in history when the good news of grace, salvation, and immortality changed religious experience from the fear and trembling of the Old Testament to the faith and hope of the New Testament corresponds
to the base runner’s mood when he reaches second. To reach third base corresponds to the stage of the revelation that has not yet manifested itself in history, the kingdom of the holy spirit: the base runner now sees home plate, his ultimate salvation, as close at hand, as attainable, and his anxious sense of victory and fulfillment corresponds on the religious level to that time in the history of the future when we will perhaps all reveal ourselves as sons of God.
He is an Adam who is also the new Adam, Christ. A particular situation in baseball can even be seen as the drama leading to the crucifixion. A batter reaches first base: man falls. Fallen man was not able, according to Christian belief, to be saved by his own efforts. God himself, through his Son, must take upon himself man’s fall: he must himself become man and experience a moment of total forsakenness to redeem him. This moment in Christian history is the moment during the crucifixion when Christ, because he has reached that point of complete alienation from God at which he is man completely externalized, completely estranged from God, at which his own being is at one (atonement means at-one-ment) with fallen nature—the moment when he cries out from the depths, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” This moment is mirrored in a baseball game when a player doubles with a runner on first base. Of course it is only possible to mirror the crucifixion—it is only a game, the player who doubles
is only playing. Yet the playing does reflect something in the mirror that has a nuance that somehow goes beyond the game. For at the moment when the man who doubles reaches second base, completing the act that gave the runner abandoned on first a chance to score, he has projected himself to a point representative of complete alienation and forsakenness because going to second base is a movement toward home base by going farther away from home plate. On second he is geometrically at a point equidistant from first and third, exactly extended as far as possible from his original position at home plate: before he was directly in front of the pitcher, now he is directly behind him. If being on base is like human existence after the fall of Adam, he
is for a moment like a pure existent, pinned at the heart and center of existence like Christ on the cross.
But the drama that precedes the drama of running the bases, whatever it may represent, is the struggle to give the ball a kiss of life rather than death. The confrontation of two individuals—one at the plate, one on the pitcher’s mound—fiercely expressing the total individuality of their being—one is completely obsessed with throwing a ball, the other fanatically possessed with hitting a ball—is the central, ever-present event of a game. This duel of individuality, focused on the ambiguous and deceptive flight of the ball thrown by the pitcher, is in itself like some primeval antagonism of embryonic forces without a shred of civility or humanity. Yet the drama evolves from this fundamental confrontation to a sudden new manifestation of the hitter’s individuality at one of the bases whenever there is not the immediate negation of a strikeout or a putout, or the transcendence of the situation by a home run. Every manifestation of an individual runner at one of the three bases is a fall to a lesser state compared to the previous manifestation as a hitter. The hitter is an individual who has the potential to run and when he hits he becomes his potential but loses his previous integrity because he can no longer hit. He is no longer a hitter who can also run but only a runner who can no longer hit. He condemns himself by hitting to being only a runner and his sudden loss of a primal completeness is his sin. He cannot regain the fullness he has just lost so the only redemption possible is to negate what he has become. He must redeem the sin of being a runner by struggling on through a completion of the cycle of running to home plate where he negates being a runner by becoming something
completely new, a run scored. The burden of the base runner’s incompleteness is intensified by the ordeal of his journey around the bases. Each base lacks the power to give him substance and real integrity because touching a base gives only the illusion of permanence, not the reality. The doom of three outs forces him to try to redeem himself as quickly as possible. The individuals behind him, batting at the plate, can force him to test the perils of the bases and produce some final judgment regarding his trial. The hitter redeems becoming a runner by the completion of his journey to its end: he negates his sin when he transforms the original defiant act of hitting the ball into a new integrity by the final act of negating his incomplete individuality on the bases by becoming a run scored. Looked at from this angle, baseball is a nineteenth-century phenomenon that expresses as a game the drama of sin and redemption. To reach base and then to struggle through the peril of the bases with wit and courage, always braving the possibility of being nullified, and to at last go out of and beyond deadly circumstances in an ultimate, triumphant affirmation of the reality and value of individual being by scoring a run is a representation of central themes of the Protestant universe.
Primal being as a batter separates itself from itself by accepting a real relationship with a dead object, the ball. The pitcher puts his being into a pitch, the batter his into a swing, and in a magical instant of metamorphosis only the ball seems alive. In real life, how or why primal being shatters its worth and integrity, how or why it perceives and becomes fatally connected with and reduced by non-being, is an absolute mystery. Baseball at least represents the problem with an eternal dramatic ferocity and vividness that leaves little doubt, for eyes that can truly see what is going on, of the problem’s existence. Suddenly, mysteriously, being is no longer of any importance at all. Only a baseball flying 60 feet 6 inches at around 85 miles an hour has importance. The pitcher slows his pitching movement after releasing the ball and stops clumsily lower down on the mound. The batter becomes an assemblage of muscles swinging a bat with measured force for the purpose of connecting mightily with a foreign object. Good-bye primal being! Only the deceptive flight of the ball and then the swing of the bat are suddenly really alive. The problem for the batter is now the exact science of making a conscious connection with the plenitude of the ball flying towards him. He forgets who he is in order to attend to a business that has nothing at all to do with him. His being becomes a bat swinging through the air. He makes himself an object in order to connect with an object. He does not know anything, except the quick delight of the bat’s movement, until he has transformed himself by hitting the ball into something else, and then, on the mathematical geography of the base paths, everything can be known because everything has the distinct dimension of safety and danger, of life and death, of good and evil. Yet as soon as he hits the ball the serpent’s lie is apparent. His state of being as a batter is suddenly transformed not to a superior state (provided he doesn’t hit a home run which, however, can be understood as a representation of Calvinistic predestination) but to a drastically inferior state. Just an instant before, as a batter, he stood alertly at home plate, in control of himself, facing the pitcher calmly and with dignity. He connects with the ball. Suddenly he is no longer in the same state of being. He is motionless for a split second—then he throws the bat away. It is useless. His being no longer resides in the state of standing at the plate and swinging the bat. He is now threatened by annihilation by the very object of his desire, by the ball, which he has himself driven away into the hands of his enemies. He is all at once a base runner, threatened everywhere by the possibility of sudden obliteration. He must surge up quickly from the disaster and form some new being that is an adaptation to a totally new situation. He is suddenly alive and in danger. He must run, run, to try to reach the safety of first base. That he was deceived into hitting the ball is clear from the very logic of his actions after reaching first base: whether he is there for only a moment or stops there, he does not want to be there. He immediately wants to return to the place that he has just left. But there is no going back: what he has done is irreversible. He can only go home by struggling at his peril to run further away from home. He must first know the goods and evils of existence and prove himself worthy of returning to home plate by not allowing the poisonous but tempting passivity of merely standing touching a base to anesthetize him. It is a sinful condition to just stand touching first base so he immediately leaves it by running on or taking a lead. He believes. Somehow he believes that it is not his fate to remain on the base, stuck in a half-dead form of being. The three bases prescribe his existence by forcing him to follow a predetermined pattern. But he must accept the pattern and deny it at the same time: he must accept it only in order to deny it. To lead off base is like an act of faith; it is to exist freely and truly. The base runner must safeguard his fundamental individual identity by refusing to conform to the ritualistic pattern of the bases. The bases are arranged in a certain form, but they are only a form: the substance of a base runner is base running. The bases threaten to make the base runner accept the lie of attaching himself to a base rather than to run along the course of the bases and truly exist. Evil is borrowed being: it is non-being posing as being. The base runner must not borrow his being by touching a base. Rather than posing as being by standing on base, he must create his being by leading off base because it is his faith that his true being is not identical with this existence on the bases. He must not let himself be the same as this new existence. He must flee it. Before, as a batter, he concentrated his whole being on batting: everything was a beginning without an end. Now, as a base runner—suddenly existing as a base runner—he knows that his very struggle to escape from the bases is enigmatic because at the moment he touches home plate he will be safe from all peril but he will no longer exist: everything in his existence exists in order to end. The base runner must dare to go on to the end of his base running existence to know the full truth of his uncertain journey.
Scoring is the triumphant escape from the shadows of a false state of being that the base runner reaches by faith in his individual worth and power, but his faith must be usually aided by grace. A sudden, unexpected suspension of the given conditions of a game which are thwarting an individual or individuals by an unexpected yet hoped for act which leads to a base runner’s or base runners’ salvation is the obligatory scene that may complete the drama of batting and base running. There are two outs. The base runner is on second base. The batter hits a high fly ball towards left field. It appears that the left fielder will catch it. But it is hit farther than it at first appeared. The left fielder cannot quite reach it. It drops to the ground. Suddenly, when his situation seemed almost hopeless, the base runner is saved. The possibility of sudden salvation is what makes baseball so exciting, and the possible metamorphosis of any hitter into the role of a home run hitter raises the drama to the thrilling dimension of being literally on any pitch a theater of an impossible salvation.
Thus the logic of a baseball game expresses the enigma of the Christian Fall and Redemption totally: a primary state of innocence, the batter setting himself at the plate; a temptation, the offering of the pitcher; a fall, the self-condemnation by hitting to the diminished role of a base runner; sin, the passive touching of a base; faith, running the bases or taking a daring lead off base; grace, a sudden aid that leads to scoring; and the final redemption of reaching the place where the player was at the beginning. But the logic goes even farther because a baseball game usually has its Calvinists. The batter who hits a home run is ipso facto predestined to be saved. He is the exception. He hits the ball so well that his salvation is assured prior to his birth on the bases. He is like one of the elect: like a true son of God, with his head high, he calmly runs around the bases towards home plate to receive there his reward. Baseball is the ritual drama of individual freedom, a celebration of free enterprise work as a pastime. And a baseball game is also a Protestant miracle play.