Baseball

Tagged: Theme

Baseball is global in its impact and enjoys great popularity in countries as disparate as Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Japan; but the sport remains most deeply rooted in the United States, where it is still referred to commonly as the National Pastime (though, in fact, American football draws a much larger television audience). The sport has a rich history in American literature beginning in the late nineteenth century, from nonfiction game coverage by daily newspapers to Dime Novels by Zane Grey and others. Later work as include more modern, and influential, books as Roger Kahn's study of father-son relationships, The Boys of Summer (1972); Jim Bouton's controversially honest Ball Four (1970); Dan Barry's impressive Bottom of the 33rd (2011); Eric Rolfe Greenberg's The Celebrant (1983,) which follows a devoted fan of Christy Mathewson; Philip Roth's sharply satiric The Great American Novel (1973); and Bernard Malamud's great classic, The Natural (1952), which is arguably the sport's most famous novel, and one that might also head any consideration of sf and baseball.

Steven H Silver's noteworthy website for baseball in sf includes a total of seventy-seven short baseball-themed sf short stories in all, and another forty-six baseball-influenced novels or collections. Tim Morris at the University of Texas at Arlington has arguably the most complete list (and understanding) of baseball-fiction on a website that lists more than 290 short stories, ninety-seven of them recognizably sf, many of these stories also findable on Silver's website. Morris also lists 156 baseball novels, forty-eight of them recognizably sf in one way or another. Juvenile fiction is such a popular venue for baseball-themed stories, many of them with sf motifs, that Morris makes no attempt to list or count them.

Other significant annotated bibliographies of baseball books include James Mote's Everything Baseball (1990) and Noel Schraufnagel's very ambitious The Baseball Novel (2009), which lists some 400 baseball novels, organized by sub-genres, including sf and fantasy. Sf writers have embraced the metaphoric and cultural uses of baseball since at least "The Einstein Inshoot" (November 1938 Astounding) by Nelson S Bond. During baseball's golden age of popularity (roughly 1927 to 1960), and with sf increasingly popular in both the pulp and the mainstream literary circles, there were a number of notable short stories and novels that incorporated elements of science fiction in those decades, including Ray Bradbury's "The Big Black and White Game" (August 1945 American Mercury); Valentine Davies's It Happens Every Spring (1949), which novelized the successful film and radio drama of the same name; Malamud's The Natural (1952), which became the successful 1984 film of the same name; Douglass Wallop's The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant (1954), which became the successful 1955 stage play Damn Yankees and the subsequent 1958 movie of the same name; Gordon R Dickson and Poul Anderson's Hoka tale "Joy in Mudville" (November 1955 F&SF); and Frederik Pohl's "The Celebrated No-Hit Inning" (1956 September Fantastic Universe) – among others.

In the 1960s and 1970s there were fewer baseball-centred sf stories, novels and films; but among them were some notable critical successes, including Philip Roth's already-cited The Great American Novel, Theodore Sturgeon's "How to Forget About Baseball" in the very mainstream magazine Sports Illustrated (21 December 1964), Jack Williamson's Trapped in Space (1968), several stories by Jack C Haldeman in Asimov's in 1977-1978 and, most significantly, Robert Coover's much-praised The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968).

There was a major revival of interest in baseball themes and characters in science fiction during the 1980s, sparked in good part by the success of W P {KINSELLA}'s Shoeless Joe (as "Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa" in Aurora: New Canadian Writing 1979, anth 1979, ed Wolfe Morris; exp 1982), about J D Salinger, ghostly voices, and the 1919 Chicago White Sox and their player, "Shoeless Joe" Jackson; it was filmed as Field of Dreams (1989). Kinsella has had a number of other science-fictional baseball books and stories published since, including "The Baseball Wolf" (in The Dixon Cornbelt League and Other Baseball Stories, coll 1993) (> Shapeshifters); "The Fadeaway" (also in The Dixon Cornbelt League), with its ghostly Christy Mathewson at the end of the bullpen phone line; "Eggs" (also in The Dixon Cornbelt League), where a strange power keeps a player in Alberta; "Frank Pierce, Iowa" (in The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt, coll 1988; vt Go the Distance 1995), with a disappearing town in 1901; "Fred Noonan Flying Services" (in Baseball Fantastic, anth 2000, ed Kinsella), with a town that only appears to certain people; "The Last Pennant Before Armageddon" (in The Thrill of the Grass, coll 1984), about the much-belaboured Cubs; "Lumpy Drobot, Designated Hitter" (in Baseball and the Game of Life, anth 1990, ed Peter C Bjarkman), about a player with a strange skill and an even stranger illness; "The Night Manny Mota Tied the Record" (in The Thrill of the Grass, coll 1984), about a deal with an angel (rather than the Devil; > Supernatural Creatures); and "Searching for January" (also in The Dixon Cornbelt League), about a ghostly Roberto Clemente.

Kinsella's impact on baseball and sf and fantasy has been remarkable. At least in part as a result of his success combining sf, fantasy and baseball, a boomlet of interest in that Equipoisal combination took hold in the mid-1980s and has yet to abate. Among the significant novels of the twenty-five or more years since Kinsella's successes are Nancy Willard's impressive debut novel, Things Invisible to See (1984), which uses many of the same technique's as Kinsella's Shoeless Joe; Brock's critically praised time-traveling If I Never Get Back (1990), the title of which is a play on the sport's famous seventh-inning anthem, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (1908), which contains the line "I don't care if I never get back", and its sequel, Two in the Field (2002). Also Michael Bishop's brilliant homage to Mary Shelley, Brittle Innings (1994) (see also Frankenstein Monster); John Kessel's darkly comic time-travel story, Corrupting Dr. Nice (1997); David Prill's equally dark and comic The Unnatural (1995), which offers an undertaker's view of the Malamud classic; Michael Chabon's quite brilliant Summerland (2002); John A Miller's touching Coyote Moon (2003); Alexander Irvine's One King, One Soldier (2004); Harper Scott's broad comedy, How I Helped the Chicago Cubs (Finally!) Win the World Series (2005); and the exquisite novella used to preface Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997), "Pafko at the Wall", which sends a young hero on a quest to fight for and secure the ball hit for a home run by Bobby Thomson in the famous "Shot Heard Round the World". This preface was so popular in its appeal that it was soon reprinted separately as "Pafko at the Wall: A Novella" (October 1992 Harper's; 2001 chap).

Short stories enjoyed a good deal of success following the Kinsella-sparked reawakening of interest in baseball fiction, with numerous sf writers publishing baseball-themed short fiction in the major magazines and anthologies in the field, as well in more mainstream literary reviews and journals. In addition to those already mentioned, writers to publish baseball-themed short stories since the late 1980s include Harry Turtledove, Katharine Kerr and Rick Wilber, probably the most prolific writer of short fiction in this narrow specialty during this period, with more than a dozen such stories. Several of these are reprinted in his collection of baseball-themed fiction and essays, Where Garagiola Waits: And Other Baseball Stories (coll 1999). Turtledove's manuscripts for a pair of baseball-themed short stories, the Alternate-History Babe Ruth story, "The House that George Built" (23 June 2009 {TOR.COM}), and the Alien visitation story, "The Stars and the Rockets" (17 November 2009 {TOR.COM}), were both collected by The National Baseball Hall of Fame's library. Sf writers seem to find many of the same virtues in baseball as do more mainstream writers. Just as writers from Brock and Malamud to Roth find ample use for baseball in their fiction, and frequently contribute to the large and growing canon of baseball nonfiction, science fiction writers from Lloyd Biggle Jr to John Kessel to Jack Williamson find that baseball affords them a deep, shared cultural history that resonates with readers who are even the most casual of fans. Babe Ruth, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, the Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard Round the World", terms such as "ball park estimate", "big leagues", "threw me a curve", "into extra innings", "get to first", "play hardball", "comes out of left field", "hit that one out of the park", "touch base with . . ." "screwball", "bush-league", "step up to the plate", "no hitter", "safe at home", "the national pastime", "long ball", and many more emerge from baseball and carry meaning for both writer and readers, even those who are not fans of the sport.

In addition, baseball has, since it became organized in the modern fashion in 1876, kept accurate statistics for both offensive and defensive players. The comparison of those statistics with modern players not only offers a far greater magnitude of comparison for record achievement than for other sports with shorter histories, it also affords time travellers, and the writers who invent them (as in Brock's If I Never Get Back and its sequel, Two In the Field), ample opportunity to manipulate these often well-known statistics for good use in storytelling. Morris finds that Time Travel is often used in Young Adult baseball books, including most notably the Dan Gutman Baseball Card Adventure series, where baseball cards serve as time-travel devices.

Baseball has also had to endure minimal changes in the structure of play since the essential rules were settled in 1846 and the first professional league began in 1876. With the noteworthy exception of the America League adding a designated hitter in 1973 (relieving the usually inept pitchers from the need to hit, and adding a talented hitting-only player to the lineup) the significant rules of the game remain as they have been for more than one-hundred and twenty-five years. This timelessness carries its own metaphoric appeal, but also provides for plot devices and characterizations that utilize the unchanging nature of the game to good effect in Alternate History storytelling, including Peter Schilling's The End of Baseball (2008) where team owner Bill Veeck breaks the colour barrier by hiring Negro League stars in 1944, and in a number of Harry Turtledove's stories and novels already mentioned, and others.

Deeanne Westbrook, in her useful Ground Rules: Baseball & Myth (1996), does not specifically make the connection between baseball and sf but does, nonetheless, discuss at length several works that are clearly works of sf (W P {KINSELLA}'s The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and Shoeless Joe, in particular) or that include significant sf elements (Malamud's The Natural with its Wonderboy, a lightning-struck baseball bat with special powers). Westbrook's chapter on Dimensions of the Field of Play is also useful in developing an appreciation for what many science-fiction writers have found in baseball when she offers a cogent discussion of "Baseball the Fourth Dimension: Annulling the Work of Time", by pointing out that "The game shares with narrative an ability to display the modes of phenomenological time" and that the game can "create its own time, and exist within its own space" (p. 97). This timelessness also connects to the playing field as an Eden (as in Michael Chabon's Summerland and others).

Westbrook adds that this disconnection from the normal passage of time gives baseball a narrative use as a sacred place, a home, existing in its own Newtonian time and space, where all revolves around the playing field, the sacred place (> Pocket Universe). Amplifying this idea, A Bartlett Giamatti – who served, briefly, as Major League Baseball Commissioner before his untimely death – points out in his A Great and Glorious Game (1998) that home plate on the baseball field is "the center of all the universes, the omphalos, the navel of the world" (p93). For a range of entries relevant to the "deep structure" of baseball in sf terms, see Time, which links to several connected entries. Giamatti further adds that home plate has a peculiar significance for it is the goal of both teams, the single place that in territorially based games – games about conquering – must be symbolized by two goals or goal lines or nets or baskets. In baseball, everyone wants to arrive at the same place, which is where they start. In baseball, even opponents gather at the same curious, unique place called home plate. Catcher and batter, siblings who may see the world separately but share the same sight lines, are backed up and yet ruled by the parent figure, the umpire, whose place is the only one not completely defined. This tense family clusters at home, facing the world together, each with separate responsibilities and tasks and perspectives, each with different obligations and instruments. Some are intent on flight, some on communication, some simply on the good order of it all – the "conduct of the game" – but they are still a family or family-like group in their proximity, their overall perspective, their chatter and squabbling, their common desire, differently expressed, to master the ferocity and duplicity of that spherical, irrational reality-the major league pitch (pp94-95).

Westbrook discusses the notion that the baseball field is not only Edenic, but also a battlefield, and draws comparisons to Valhalla, where the warriors joyously do battle every day, killing each other and revelling in the slaughter, and then rise again the next day to repeat the struggle. Baseball, Westbrook argues, with its almost-daily series of games through the six-month season, combines both Edenic tranquility and Valhallic lust for battle (> Mythology). The metaphoric use of the baseball bat as a Weapon fits nicely into her Norse discussion, and Westbrook adds that Robin Hood's quarterstaff and Paul Bunyan's ax belong in that discussion, as well.

As a sacred space, these critics and others note, the baseball park or the playing field constitute a centre, a mandala, an omphalos, a world axle. Around this centre the secular, profane space revolves. A number of writers have taken advantage of the obvious nature of this sacred space, a nature enhanced by night play, when a baseball stadium seems, to Kinsella writing in Shoeless Joe, "more like a church than a church", and when the stadium lights repel the day in the same way that Eden repels winter. John Clute's concept of the Polder [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], an enclave with firm boundaries that holds one reality within and others without, is useful, as well, in discussion of the baseball park, which holds to its own existence, free from outside time, over the course of a potentially infinite game, which might be described as a Time Opera. For Clute, this separate existence is both bound within its own field of play and boundless, in that the foul lines for a baseball field extend outward, ever widening, forever diverging until, as W P Kinsella also notes, the foul lines take in all of the universe. And, in fact, this separate, sacred space, can exist within any outer reality, and so we find sf baseball stories that take place in far distant worlds, as in Mike Resnick's The Outpost (2001,) or on planets closer to home, as in Kim Stanley Robinson's "Arthur Sternbach Brings the Curveball to Mars" (in The Martians, coll 1999).

Giamatti, Clute, Westbrook and others also devote considerable thought to baseball's ritual, and its daily replaying of those rituals over the course of a long season. The consistency brought by ritual and a long history of statistical measurements of various aspects of performance means each player is, in a sense, competing with all the other who have played (Time Loop). For Clute, every player is therefore his own ancestor and, importantly, with rules changes so rare, baseball offers no resistance to, and rather fully embraces, the past. While this is more directly related to fantasy, it offers ample opportunity for sf writers to construct plot-play with time-travel and alternate universe scenarios where the reader comprehends readily the statistical and biographical basis for the plot-play, knowing, for instance, that Chicago White Sox outfielder Joe Jackson's life would have been much different without the Black Sox cheating scandal of 1919 (as in Shoeless Joe), or that an elderly ex-pitcher burdened with guilt as his wife sinks into dementia can seek, and find, forgiveness for the bad decisions of his youth by traveling through time to play a game of catch with Joe Garagiola as in Rick Wilber's "Where Garagiola Waits" (April 1997 F&SF).

Baseball stories often use common sf tropes including the talented Robot, Aliens, Androids, or other simulacra, or high-tech physical or chemical enhancements to ordinary players (> Genetic Engineering), to construct players who have unusual success on the playing field. These successes, of course, bring personal complications for the players and their teams, as in Michael Bishop's Frankenstein Monster character in Brittle Innings and Lloyd Biggle Jr's alien telepaths in his send-up of the famous Abbott and Costello comedy routine, "Who's On First?" (August 1958 If). It is not difficult to see these baseball interlopers as metaphoric commentary on the sport's long refusal to allow black players to participate in the major leagues. Similarly, there are a number of stories where women, either posing as men or playing in their own leagues in fictional realities – as in Karen Joy Fowler's The Sweetheart Season (1996) – succeed as professional players. Most of these novels and stories are not science fiction. A notable baseball-themed episode of the Television series The X-Files (1993-2002) plays doubly on the metaphor by having the viewer come to realize that a famous Negro League ballplayer was really an Alien.

These rituals undertaken in a sacred space sometimes lead to a religiosity in baseball science fiction that is often complete with strict rules of behavior, a priesthood (the umpires) who exercise absolute control over the players and the fans, a cathedral (the ballpark), and a fervent, if often illogical, belief in the righteousness of one's cause. In this context, the ritual of playing a game of baseball can be seen as observing the conventions of the Godgame. For it is the high priest who rules in what Clute calls the "diamond of truth", that playing field marked by white lines within cathedral-like ballparks that hold secret knowledge available only to the cognoscenti who attend the daily ritual. We are not, then, surprised to discover a number of baseball stories where the forces of good battle the forces of evil, or where, even more explicitly, deals with the devil result from temptations to alter the outcome of the ritual or when heavenly, and usually helpful apparitions appear in the form of angels. For Clute, then, baseball represents a metaphysical pathos that the world is ultimately describable.

A relevant anthology is Baseball 3000 (anth 1981) edited by Martin H Greenberg, Frank D McSherry Jr and Charles G Waugh. [RWi]

further reading

  • James Mote. Everything Baseball (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1989) [nonfiction: hb/]
  • Deeanne Westbrook. Ground Rules: Baseball & Myth (Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1996) [nonfiction: pb/]
  • A Barlett Giamatti. A Great and Glorious Game (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books, 1998) [nonfiction: hb/]
  • Noel Schraufnagel. The Baseball Novel (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co, Publishers, 2008) [nonfiction: hb/]

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