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Original Essays | September 9, 2013 5 comments
Editor's note: Chris Bolton is not only a former Powell's employee, he was also once the primary writer for this blog. So we are particularly proud... Continue »
Remembrance of Ball Games Pastby Michael Mandelbaum
The germ of my latest book, The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football and Basketball and What They See When They Do, first appeared in Berkeley, California, where I grew up, one sunny afternoon in the summer of 1966, when I was 20.
My younger brother and I were filled with excitement: we were going to drive across the San Francisco Bay Bridge to Candlestick Park to see our favorite team, the San Francisco Giants play the Los Angeles Dodgers. Our maternal grandfather, born in Eastern Europe in 1893, was visiting our house as we prepared to leave.
"Grandpa," I said, "Would you like to come and see the game?"
"No, thanks," he replied, with a sly grin, "I've already seen one."
As my brother and I drove to the game, I started thinking about why having witnessed one baseball game was enough to last my grandfather a lifetime, while the two of us couldn't see enough of them.
Thirty years later, my wife said something that reminded me of my grandfather's comment. I was watching a Monday Night Football game when she entered the room, glanced at the television, did a double-take, and asked, "Didn't they just show that?"
"Yes," I explained, "It's called instant replay. First they show a play and then they re-play the tape, sometimes in slow motion, so the TV viewers can see in greater detail what just happened."
She thought for a moment, then asked, "Isn't once enough?"
Here, I thought, was the same phenomenon I had encountered as a 20-year-old in Berkeley: two of the people closest to me, my beloved grandfather and my dear wife, couldn't comprehend a passion that my brother, my friends and I all shared: the love of American team sports. Shortly thereafter I was reading Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust's epic meditation on the passage of time, and my own book on sports began to take shape in my mind. For I realized that my own love of team sports had suffused my life, and that some of my most relaxed and enjoyable moments were spent concentrating on sports.
I came upon Proust's most Proustian passage, in which, as an adult, he bites into a tea-soaked almond cake (a madeleine). No sooner has he tasted this delicacy of his childhood "than a shudder ran through my whole body and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses...And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory...." I was struck by the similarity to my own feelings, which are not, to be sure, as intense as those recorded by the great French novelist, when I am sitting in a baseball park and bite into a mustard-slathered hot dog. At that moment I, and, I suspect, millions of other baseball fans, are reminded of childhood, and of the summertime, when we were free of school and all other responsibilities.
I started to think seriously about putting my love of sports into a book that would, I hoped, express to people like my wife, and to clarify for people like me, just what it is that draws sports fans to the sports we so enjoy, particularly baseball, football, and basketball.
My late father was an anthropologist who studied the culture and social structure of India. He made frequent field trips there, seeking to understand village life, the caste system, and the country's religions.
Inspired by his work, as well as by that of my late teacher, the great American sociologist David Riesman (author of The Lonely Crowd, among other books) I asked a basic question: what larger purposes does watching team sports serve for Americans?
Unlike my father, I did not have to travel far: I was, after all, already living in a nationwide community of fellow fans. We sports fans already had our own all-sports network, ESPN, as well as many magazines to which I subscribed, in particular Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine. I began reading and thinking about sports, using the same analytical approach I had brought to the writing of my eight previous books on history, politics, and foreign policy.
I found that sports lend themselves to a more personal and literary style of writing, one that uses similes, metaphors, and references not only to the vast writing on sports but also to the literature of religion and anthropology.
For I began to see that for a nation of people from different places and backgrounds, practicing different faiths, spectator sports had come to fill many of the functions of two great, earlier traditions: first and foremost of religion, and secondarily of the great festivals of drama to which the earliest Greek religion gave rise.
Instead of saints, sports produces Hall of Famers, and the virtues that sports figures of the highest levels of accomplishment embody are those that our civic culture most admires: hard work, discipline, dedication to a task, the ability to work with teammates and to return to the fray even after suffering defeats.
The great baseball player Hank Aaron was once asked whether he arrived at the ballpark every day knowing that he was going to get two hits and replied that he did not. "What I do know," Aaron went on, "is that if I don't get 'em today, I'm sure going to get 'em tomorrow."
Since no one's life is entirely free of vicissitudes, challenges, injuries, and setbacks, the examples that these athletes provide of rebounding from hurts, defeats, and failures, demonstrate to old and young alike the qualities that everyone needs to navigate the currents of life.
While the games we watch are often high dramas, they stand apart from the fabricated tales that Hollywood and Broadway produce in a crucial way: they are authentic. Actors in films and plays are not the characters they portray. To be sure, many become indelibly associated with a notable role, such as Ronald Reagan's portrayal of the legendary Notre Dame player, George Gipp ("the Gipper"). By contrast, Barry Bonds, Tom Brady and Shaquille O'Neal really do what the spectators see them do on the field and on the court. They are not playing roles. Their skill and courage are real.
Many sports books are written from the point of view of the athletes themselves, telling what it is like to play the game. The Meaning of Sports, by contrast, deals with the experience of the spectator, and the fan. But I have found that the book has sparked an interest, among people who know me, about my own athletic career. I describe the highlight of that career in a note at the foot of page 211. And to the question, posed by friends and students, "How good an athlete were you?" my answer is: "Better than you think, but not as good as I like to remember."