The New York Review of Books on Major League Baseball

This publication has been one of the most intellectual magazines aimed at a relatively general interest audience ever since it began in 1963. I decided on a whim to see how many times it has addressed pro baseball. A few articles turned up, and I decided to reprint excerpts from two of them here: they show a very different perspective on MLB than probably anything else on this blog. There is an essay-review of Richard Ben Cramer’s book, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, by Russell Baker in November 2000. Baker wrote:

Joe DiMaggio played baseball for the New York Yankees for thirteen years, then spent the rest of his life playing Joe DiMaggio. It is doubtful that he enjoyed either career very much, or that he enjoyed anything at all very deeply, although Richard Ben Cramer suggests that he took a miser’s delight in accumulating money. Even this pleasure was often spoiled by suspicions that friends and relatives were raking in money that should have been his. Joylessness seems to have been his natural habitat, distrust his natural instinct, and loneliness his inevitable destiny. He had no enduring friendships, but he had a hundred “pals,” each of whom, like a typical specimen described by Cramer, “had blisters on his lips from kissing the ground Joe walked on.” He was married twice, both times to blond actresses, both of whom divorced him. By the first he had a son to whom he was an indifferent, mostly absent father. The son outlived him by only six months, then died of an overdose of heroin and crack cocaine.

Joe and Marilyn [Monroe, of course] had one big thing in common…. Both were living inside the vast personages that the hero machine had created for them. And inside those personages—those enormous idols for the nation—these two, Marilyn and Joe, were only small and struggling, fearful to be seen. And alone—always. They were like kids, left in a giant house, and they must not be discovered. Or it would all come crashing down. In their loneliness, they might have been brother and sister. . . .

The hero’s buildup for DiMaggio differed from the normal by continuing long after he left baseball. His name began to figure in worlds alien to baseball. Oscar Hammerstein, in a lyric for the Broadway hit South Pacific, wrote of a woman whose skin was “tender as DiMaggio’s glove.” Ernest Hemingway, writing The Old Man and the Sea, had his old Cuban fisherman indulge in some suspiciously Hemingwayesque musings about “the great DiMaggio.” Tin Pan Alley produced a tune about “Joltin Joe DiMaggio.” In 1975, a quarter-century after his retirement, a movie version of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely had Philip Marlowe checking the newspapers day after day to see if DiMaggio had hit.

In 1967 Paul Simon’s memorable song to “Mrs. Robinson,” the corrupt adulterous seducer of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, celebrated a new kind of DiMaggio heroism for a new generation without memory of his baseball triumphs. Simon’s lyric, asking “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?,” became a lament for the fancied loss of an innocent America. . . .

The innocence was part of what made him good copy. He seemed uneasy to the point of terror about social encounters. Cramer suggests this reflected his family’s Sicilian background, which taught the wisdom of keeping your head down. Maybe, but DiMaggio had two other brothers, Dominic and Vince, who played professional baseball, and both were readily accessible to the public. Cramer suggests that Vince was even a joyful figure. Perhaps Joe was simply born uneasy. Whatever the case, his restrained, distant, occasionally surly manner made good material for writers. . . .

The DiMaggio [Cramer’s] book portrays was almost always too frail, too pathetic, too human to aspire to divine eminence. He was a lonely, unhappy, empty man who could do one extraordinarily difficult thing better than almost anybody else in the world, and was proud of it, as he was entitled to be.

Secondly, here, in an April 1977 review-essay in the Review of Books by Christopher Lasch, called The Corruption of Sports, are some interesting thoughts on the status of baseball and other sports in the modern world.

Among the activities through which men seek release from everyday life, games offer in many ways the purest form of escape. Like sex, drugs, and drink, they obliterate awareness of everyday reality, not by dimming that awareness but by raising it to a new intensity of concentration. Moreover, games have no side-effects, produce no hangovers or emotional complications. Games satisfy the need for free fantasy and the search for gratuitous difficulty simultaneously; they combine childlike exuberance with deliberately created complications.

By establishing conditions of equality among the players, Roger Caillois says, games attempt to substitute ideal conditions for “the normal confusion of everyday life.” They re-create the freedom, the remembered perfection of childhood and mark it off from ordinary life with artificial boundaries, within which the only constraints are the rules to which the players freely submit. Games enlist skill and intelligence, the utmost concentration of purpose, on behalf of utterly useless activities, which make no contribution to the struggle of man against nature, to the wealth or comfort of the community, or to its physical survival.

In capitalist countries the uselessness of games makes them offensive to social reformers, improvers of public morals, or functionalist critics of society like Veblen, who saw in the futility of upper-class sports anachronistic survivals of militarism and tests of prowess. Yet the “futility” of play, and nothing else, explains its appeal—its artificiality, the arbitrary obstacles it sets up for no other purpose than to challenge the players to surmount them, the absence of any utilitarian or uplifting object. Games quickly lose part of their charm when pressed into the service of education, character development, or social improvement. . . .

Modern sport is dominated not so much by the undue emphasis on winning as on the desperate urge to avoid defeat, Coaches, not quarterbacks, often call the plays, and the managerial apparatus makes every effort to eliminate the risk and the uncertainty that contribute so centrally to the ritual and dramatic success of any contest. When sports can no longer be played with appropriate abandon, they lose the capacity to raise the spirits of players and spectators, to transport them into a higher realm. Prudence and calculation, so prominent in everyday life but so inimical to the spirit of games, come to shape sports as they shape everything else. . . .

The attempt to create a separate realm of pure play, totally isolated from work, gives rise to its opposite—the insistence, in Cosell’s words, that “sports are not separate and apart from life, a special ‘Wonderland’ where everything is pure and sacred and above criticism,” but a business, subject to the same standards and open to the same scrutiny as any other. The positions represented by Novak and Cosell are symbiotically related and arise out of the same historical development: the emergence of the spectacle as the dominant form of cultural expression. What began as an attempt not only to invest sport with religious significance but to make it into a surrogate religion in its own right ends with the demystification of sport, the assimilation of sport to show business.

Published in: Uncategorized on September 14, 2011 at 7:02 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. This is some damn fine material you found here. I posted it on Twitter.
    Cheers, Bill


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