No other sport has lent itself to great language and memorable stories like America’s pastime. No other game is as literary.. It is the game of poets.
I am here in the shed on opening day of the 2019 baseball season and I am a young man again. Baseball is on the radio. The best way to consume it. The language of great voices, capturing the game’s purest essence. I’m not thinking about what the sport has become in recent years — an unsavory big business of billionaires and egos and Trump-supporting owners. No. I am instead caught up in green grass and heroes. I am dreaming of baseball’s magic and its essence. I’m remembering growing up in Pittsburgh and going to Forbes Field with my father, smelling cigar smoke, and beer, and yellow mustard on the charred meat of a hotdog. I can see Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski in my little-boy memory. And I hear the radio call of the Cubs World Series win, and remember how I cried that night. Not because I was a life-long Cubs fan who had finally witnessed a miracle, but rather because of what this game evokes in a literary soul.
Literature and baseball were born for each other. Is there great literature, truly great works, written about the game of basketball? Football? Golf is close, maybe. I’m thinking of John Updike’s wonderful short stories on the game. But nothing feeds artistic passion like baseball. So what is it about this game? Why is this so?
It is in the game’s timeless pacing, the Shakespearean plot lines, the Keatsian romanticism. There is Tolstoyan tragedy and Dickensian pathos. Every genre is entwined in its nine innings—suspense, mystery, humor, even the essence of the great American Western is found in the profound reality of three strikes and you’re out—epic and heroic and courageous.
The best stories on the game, for me, tend not to be in the statistical analyses or the biographies of the game’s greats. But rather in the chronicles of an era or pure works of fiction—books like David Halberstam’s The Teammates, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, and Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris. These are stories of the heart, stories that caress something deep and visceral. It is not the game of baseball that these books celebrate, but rather what the game gives us—timeless portraits of humanity wrapped up in summer sun and the crack of the bat.
And so, the season is here. Go watch a game. Go read a great story.