Issue #34, 2008

What's the Story #34

Baseball: The Universal Connection

Lee Gutkind

What's the Story #34

Last spring, I taught a graduate-level writing workshop in creative nonfiction to a group of students, mostly fiction workshop writers, enrolled in the MFA program at Arizona State University, where I was serving as writer-in-residence. When I teach this type of course, I usually assign at least one immersion essay; I choose a general subject and ask my students to involve themselves in it somehow and write about what they learn and experience.

There are several reasons for this assignment. I want emerging creative nonfiction writers to understand that there are often subjects more important and more interesting than themselves; that there's a rich and colorful world, with an unlimited cast of characters, just waiting to be captured dramatically in prose, wherever you live or visit; and that writers, especially students, need to try to remove themselves from their campus and neighborhoods, and experience new things.

I also want students to see how many different angles there are to any given subject. There are unlimited potential crevices and corners to mine for essay material—enough for each member of a class to choose a different approach. I have used medicine and dogs as subject prompts in Pittsburgh, where I usually teach, and bullfighting in Spain. At Arizona State, I chose baseball because almost half of major league baseball teams conduct spring training nearby; there are at least four ballparks within a half hour drive of Tempe, near Phoenix, where ASU is located, and two in walking distance—depending, of course, on the heat of the day.

I have to admit that immersion is not a universally popular assignment. For one thing, it forces more work on students than writing straight memoir; they must research a subject, something they don't know a lot about, and take the time—day or night, holiday and weekend, on a somewhat regular basis—to meet the right people and find a story worth telling.

Although I cannot say my students were chomping at the bit to go to the ballpark, I did immediately notice the way in which baseball (the subject, if not the assignment) brought them together. There were three men in the class—Jake, Aaron, and Cameron—and although they had grown up in different parts of the country, discussions of baseball made their differences of background seem almost nonexistent. They shared a common language, from discussing ballparks in their hometowns and comparing them with parks they visited in Arizona and abroad, to the ways in which their favorite players held their bats, along with baseball memories and legacies passed on to them by their fathers and mentors.

I would often sit in class and listen to their conversations and hear the familiar echoes of my own past conversations with friends many years ago, and although the names were different, the subject matter, the observations, and in-jokes were pretty much the same. I remember thinking how marvelous it was, this connective tissue between the generations.

As it happens, each of the men in my class actually played baseball in some sort of organized fashion, whether in Little League or high school. And one of the things that sets baseball apart from other popular sports, say, football or basketball, is its accessibility to players—it's still a sport many boys growing up playing. Perhaps this accounts for the deep inside knowledge many of the writers in this issue display for various aspects of the game. Matt Wood, who knows from experience, writes about the challenges and joys of playing first base. J.D. Scrimgeour, whose outfield is more a state of mind than a geographic location, finds the space to think great thoughts.

Other writers chose to focus on equipment. The paraphernalia of baseball represent a significant level of personal connection and intimacy shared by few other sports. In “The Bat,” Philip Deaver recalls a time when “an eleven-year old...could eye the ash or hickory and see promise in the grain of the wood, tell what felt right in the distribution of the weight between the handle and the barrel.” The strongest connection in baseball, however, may be the one between player and glove, which is perhaps why there is more than one essay here focused on the beloved “mitt.” The glove, of course, touches the player, connects him to the game, and protects him from harm.

Interestingly, one of these pieces was written by a woman, Katherine Powers (the other is by Christopher Buckley), whose connection to her glove is as strong as any man's, although she never played baseball in an organized fashion and the story of her glove is in many ways the story of her attempt to find people with whom to play ball. What I found with the assignment I gave my class—which included a half dozen women—was that although the women did not share the same level of personal experience with the game as players, they nevertheless had strong connections, through their fathers, brothers, boyfriends, and teachers, to the sport that they could draw on.

Although the clear majority of essays in this collection were written by men, the three pieces written by women tell stories about the significance of baseball in the writers' lives and reflect on the authors' connections to the sport as women and as individuals. Elizabeth Bobrick remembers several years when being an avid fan of the Baltimore Orioles helped her realize her own strength, and Caitlin Horrocks writes about how playing a Finnish variation of baseball—and being good at it—helped her finally become “the grateful citizen of a baseball nation.”

Of course, as Frank Deford points out in his whimsical “Ode to Baseball Caps,” we are all—players and non-players, fans and non-fans—citizens of a baseball nation, one in which “baseball caps are now bigger than baseball...[and] may well even be the most familiar American artifact, passing Coca-Cola and blue jeans and bad movies.”

Baseball, or course, is commonly held to reflect some essential part of the American spirit. In his story of the early ballparks, Kevin Baker argues that baseball—contrary to the myth about it being first played in Abner Doubleday's meadow in Cooperstown—has always been a city game, and uniquely American. “Just as the country seemed to stretch away forever before the first immigrants, so the ballfield is theoretically infinite,” he writes. What's more, “it was in the new ballparks...that a true assimilation of American men of all classes would actually take place, and usually on a much closer and more intimate basis than ever occurred in other public parks.”

Although baseball is no longer the only game in town and arguably occupies a somewhat diminished role in American culture, still it holds the promise of bringing families and communities together. In “The Southworths,” set against the backdrop of World War II, Micheal Shapiro tells the story of a manager father and pilot son whose correspondence centered around the wins and losses of the father's team. Jeff Greenfield discusses the ways in which trips to Yankee Stadium have created memories across three generations of his family.

And as fans, we often find an extended family in the stands among strangers. In “You Gotta Believe,” John Thorn traces the etymology of fandom and provides a psychological assessment of the typical fan (“Baseball in America is a sort of faith for the faithless,” he writes), and in “Freddy the Fan,” Sean Wilentz introduces readers to one vociferous and memorable Yankee fan, and imagines possible exhibits for a Baseball Fan's Hall of Fame.

No doubt, the sport attracts passionate followers. In “Spring Training Lights,” Jake Young tells the story of how the light poles from the Polo Grounds, home to the New York Giants, ended up in the Arizona Desert, watching over spring training games played by the Oakland Athletics. During his research, Young spends time in online communities devoted to debating the finer points of ballpark history—for example, whether during the 1962 renovation at the Polo Grounds the grandstands were painted green, blue, or a “color which is a more bluish-green, but still more green than blue.”

Young, incidentally, was a student in my Arizona workshop, as was Caitlin Horrocks. It is rare that I publish my students' work (while they are my students), but Caitlin and Jake are exceptional writers, and their essays are fine examples of immersion reporting as well as fascinating stories about unexpected and specific aspects of baseball.

Ultimately, the common allure of baseball helped the members of my class come together—and it's what brings this collection together. There is something irresistible about the sport that reaches across generations and through time, regardless of nationality or geography.

 

***

I should note that Anatomy of Baseball is also being published as a hardcover book as part of Southern Methodist University Press's Sport in American Life series. The book, co-edited by my friend and literary agent (and longtime baseball fan) Andrew Blauner, contains all the essays from this issue, plus five more. Anatomy of Baseball is available in bookstores and CNF's online store. 

And, if baseball isn't your thing—although I hope the quality of the writing collected here will make you overcome any prejudice you might have—this issue ends with “Keeping It Real,” a section of resources for writers. This time around, we have an interview with editor Michelle Wildgen of Tin House, a profile of writer Elizabeth Bobrick, and Dinty W. Moore's ruminations on the lyric essay. 

This summer's issue, #35, will be volume 2 of The Best Creative Nonfiction, with a glorious mix of long and short pieces about topics from rubber ducks floating in the Pacific to the burial of the “N-word” to the untold story of Alex Comfort, the eccentric genius behind The Joy of Sex—plus many others. The Best Creative Nonfiction will be available in bookstores around the country, but subscribers will receive it automatically as part of their subscription. Look for it in your mailbox this summer!

Author Bio

Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind, recognized by Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is the founder and editor of Creative... read more

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