The beginning of the baseball season is a natural time to reflect on the singular mystique of the game known as “America’s pastime.” Budweiser Beer recently garnered more than 100,000 signatures on a petition asking the White House to make Major League Baseball’s Opening Day a national holiday. The Obama Administration, however, in a rare display of adhering to the actual words of the United States Constitution, demurred, pointing out that the creation of national holidays falls under the purview of Congress. Though unsuccessful, the petition drive shows that baseball retains a hallowed place in the national culture that other sports, even professional football, despite its apparent greater popularity, will never attain.
Baseball, unlike football, basketball, hockey, and soccer, is indeed more than just a sport. Its designation as a “pastime” hints at its essential conservatism as an activity borne of a vanished agrarian civilization in which leisure was valued and in which time was to be filled with imaginative human creativity. Baseball was birthed when the concept of time had not yet been warped into an oppressive, artificial control imposed by the clockmaker captains of industry.
When exactly baseball was developed is a mystery. For a long time, it was thought that the game was developed in mid-nineteenth-century America, and many researchers, wishing to crown one person as the game’s founder, pointed to Abner Doubleday or Alexander Cartwright as baseball’s Lycurgus, its lawgiver. Recent research, however, suggests that the game evolved by the mid-eighteenth century in England, with the earliest known American reference to the game occurring in 1791 in a town ordinance of Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Partisans of football have used these discoveries to jeer at the notion of baseball as “America’s pastime.” But in fact, these historical findings only serve to bolster the claim of baseball as the quintessentially American sport, in that its lineage mirrors that of American culture and politics. As David Hackett Fischer has suggested, American folkways are descended from British folkways , and as Russell Kirk has argued, London is one of the five cities that have formed the “roots of American order”. Baseball, like Anglo-American constitutionalism, liberty, and mores, dates from “time immemorial,” as eighteenth-century Englishmen and colonial Americans liked to put it.
The mysterious origins of the game enhance baseball’s mythic quality. Baseball is full of fantastical stories that animate its spirit. Babe Ruth is said to have called a home run in game three of the 1932 World Series by pointing to the center field bleachers before the pitch was thrown; disgraced “Black Sox” great Joe Jackson is reported to have once played the game in his socks when a new pair of cleats did not fit; Negro League catcher Josh Gibson, it is claimed, once hit a 580-foot-long home run at Yankee Stadium.
Myth begets legend. Baseball devotees recount the tales of Bobby Thompson’s 1951 game-winning home run that propelled his Giants to the playoffs (“the Shot Heard Round the World), of Willie Mays’ spectacular, over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series (“The Catch”), of a limping Kirk Gibson coming off the bench to hit the game-winning home run in the ninth inning of Game One of the 1988 World Series in the same reverent tones that history buffs recount the details of Paul Revere’s Ride, of Pickett’s Charge, of the June 6, 1944 landing on the beaches of Normandy. Myth also gives rise to controversy: about the George Brett pine-tar incident of 1983; the wide-strike zone of umpire Jerry Meals in the 1998 game in which pitcher Kerry Wood tied the record for most strikeouts in a game; the uncalled fan interference on a fly ball by young fan Jeffrey Maier that turned the 1996 American League Championship Series around in the favor of the Yankees.
The mystery and myth of baseball are reinforced by a sense of magic that ever permeates the game. There is still debate about whether the “rising fastball” is a reality and why left-handed pitchers are more effective against left-handed batters than are right-handed pitchers against right-handed batters. Baseball players largely buy into the magic, being notoriously superstitious: Some pitchers think it bad luck to step on the foul line; hitters believe that individual bats only have so many hits in them; no one talks to a pitcher in the middle innings if he is in the midst of his pitching a no-hitter; hats and helmets are deemed lucky by hitters and worn until worn out during a hot streak.
Hollywood recognizes that the myth and magic of baseball make for great storytelling. In the greatest baseball movies the supernatural plays a leading role: in 1951’s Angels in the Outfield, in 1984’s The Natural, and 1989’s Field of Dreams. In which movies about other sports is this the case? The mythic quality of baseball is also the stuff of popular poetry and song. Ernest Thayer wrote about a mighty slugger failing at the plate in a crucial moment in 1888’s Casey at the Bat; rocker Bruce Springsteen wove together the theme of a man’s longing for his youth and the nostalgia of baseball in the lyrics of his 1984 hit song, Glory Days. Even those athletes who have achieved the pinnacle of success in other sports yearn to find a place among the mythic gods of baseball. Recall, for instance, basketball legend Michael Jordan’s attempt in 1994 to become a Chicago White Sox, as well as the recent participation by Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson in the Texas Rangers’ spring training camp.
Baseball indeed operates in the realm of mystery and myth, even in today’s jaded and skeptical world. Its idyllic fields are traversed by imperfect gods whose triumphs and tragedies fill the mortals who pay homage to them with, alternatively, elation and despair. The ending of Casey at the Bat says it all:
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a still from the film Field of Dreams.