Breaking Fast to High Scores

By Isaacs, Neil D. | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Breaking Fast to High Scores


Isaacs, Neil D., The Virginia Quarterly Review


Passing Of: By Tom LeClair. Permanent Press. $22.00.

Among the criteria by which baseball was judged "America's pastime" for the better part of a century were 1) the fact that almost every American boy played it; 2) that more mature Americans followed it as fans during that century than any other activity except, eventually, the movies; 3) that it had the largest number of spectators (for team sports, second overall only to thoroughbred racing); 4) that its World Series was the premier sporting event on the calendar; 5) that it attracted the bulk of gambling action outside of the ponies; 6) that it was a sport/game that seemed to be invested with a host of characteristics and significances emblematic of the culture at large-not least of which was its affinity for numbers (totals, averages, statistics, geometry), 7) that more attention was paid to it in the media than to all other sports combined; and 8) that it had a continuity from season to season that drew attention to its qualities, features, and personalities far beyond the game itself. I would add a ninth criterion: that it evoked a significant literature, legitimized in academic curricula that might include the fiction of Philip Roth, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Bernard Malamud, Jerome Charyn, Irwin Shaw, Dick Dillard, Jerry Klinkowitz, Eric Rolfe Greenberg, Mark Harris, W.P. Kinsella, Ring Lardner, John Sayles, Lamar Herrin, and David Carkeet, to name some of its all-star lineup.

For those whose sensibilities are still rendered in Thomas Boswell's wonderful titles (Why Time Begins on Opening Day and How Life Imitates the World Series), it is sad to say that baseball is not -has not been for a long time-America's pastime. The first eight of those criteria no longer apply, and we have a new measuring stick-TV ratings/televisability. Far more kids play basketball; far more people follow football and basketball (and TV); audiences-at home and in the stands (measured either by total attendance or percentage of capacity)-rank baseball down the list; the Super Bowl is clearly the premier event (at least in the years between the Olympiad), virtually a national holiday; football gets the lion's share of the illegal betting handle, with basketball second-and the NCAA tournament is closing the gap as the premier (pooled, handicapped, bettable) event; only a fast-fading Reaganesque nostalgia for a pastoral past survives of baseball's cultural icons, its oft-praised quality of timelessness having become a drag on contemporary fans' patience; the media's attention span is limited, diffuse, and splintered; and even the cherished continuity has been obliterated by the evolving events and behaviors of baseball's workplace realities.

If America has a sporting pastime now, it has been argued that it is football or stock-car racing (both arguments deriving some strength from the influence of geographical factors on the criteria listed above). But as Peter C. Bjarkman has pointed out, in Hoopla: A Century of College Basketball (1996), basketball dwarfs all others in both participation and attendance, when every level of play is included; moreover, two other criteria may be applied: the proliferation of this genuinely American game throughout the world and the value attached to the image of basketball players in commercial endorsements and public service messages. And yet, in one respect, baseball continues to hold sway for those who would understand the hearts and minds of America (to paraphrase Jacques Barzun's famous assertion): there is no literature associated with any other sport to rival that of baseball.

If basketball is the heir to the title of America's pastime, where is its literature? Is it simply late in coming, like Dickens lamenting social ills that had already been remedied? Is literature so insignificant a part of the culture now that a literature of basketball is not essential to establish its claim? Does the nature of the game itself preclude serious literary rendering? …

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