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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, February 15th, 2004


 

Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: My Lifelong Passion for Baseball

by Stephen Jay Gould

Pointyhead in the schoolyard

A review by David Horspool

Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist, palaeontologist and great explainer and popularizer of science, had another incarnation, as a baseball fan. Gould, who died in 2002, began following his home team, the New York Yankees, in 1949, and continued the affair -- alongside, admittedly, an extended walk-out with his adopted hometown club, the Boston Red Sox -- until his death. Today, it seems unexceptionable that an eminent Harvard professor should choose to devote so much of his time, and of his published output, to sport. Indeed, one of the books Gould discusses in Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville is by an academic, author of "the first postmodern biography of a star ballplayer", The Meaning of Nolan Ryan. In Britain, writers and scholars are now constantly to be seen proving their passion for sport. When A. S. Byatt described David Seaman as "a striding scarlet lord, entirely comfortable in his beauty", ordinary football fans might have felt rather less than entirely comfortable. But now that sport is a badge that intellectuals are happy to be seen wearing, it is worth remembering that not so long ago, it was something to apologize for, or simply deny.

Gould's attachment to baseball is the opposite of such willed, artificial enthusiasm. His approach to the game in the essays, reviews and reminiscences printed in this book is uniformly serious, even when he's joking. The best essays are those that play to Gould's strengths, when he meticulously and patiently demonstrates the operation of a theory, without any embarrassment about going into inordinate detail. This belief in the intrinsic worth of the minutiae of sport came early. Gould realized as a "proto-intellectual" that "sports knowledge gives you a niche (marginal, perhaps, but still a niche) in boy culture". There is, consequently, something of the smart alec about the professor's statistical demonstration that the overall improvement in batting and pitching logically explains why no modern batter has exceeded the highest average of a former age.

This impression is reinforced when he reveals that baseball statisticians have given their study a name, "sabremetrics" (after the Society of American Baseball Research), and reprints a letter written to Joe DiMaggio enclosing a statistical explanation of the latter's fifty-six-game hitting streak ("the mathematical details need not be pursued, but the chart on the back of the second page will give you some idea of how remarkable and unpredictable your achievement was in statistical terms"). No wonder that a New York journalist reported on Gould and friends' high-toned discussions under the headline "Buncha Pointyheads Sittin' Round Talkin' Baseball".

That a man as intelligent as Gould refuses to treat baseball as trivial is a strong argument in itself for the game's importance in American life. One of the most recent pieces in the book comments on Barry Bonds's breaking of the seasonal home run record in October 2001, less than a month after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Gould is respectful but earnestly convinced that it is right to celebrate the achievement. He moves swiftly from a justification for this belief to his more familiar ground, the analysis of how such records come about. To Gould, there is little yardage in pondering the symbolic importance of a peaceful American achievement at a time of trouble; he is more interested in why Bonds's record comes hot on the heels of Mark McGwire's, only three seasons previously, when hitherto, such records had lasted about thirty years. Here is baseball as the embodiment of normal American life. For all the larger meaning imposed on it, this is often popular sport's most important feature: though it may be surprising, it is, in a larger sense, dependable. To the fan of less successful teams than the Yankees, the only uncontentious prediction to make is that "there is always next season".

If Gould's baseball writings illustrate the virtues of taking sport seriously, they also exemplify, to the foreigner, a quality which the American sports fan seems to possess above all others: isolationism. It might be hoped that a man whose field of study is unbounded by national borders would want to compare his favoured game to those of other nations. But when Gould makes a sporting comparison, it is with basketball and gridiron, also quintessentially American sports. When he refers to an article he wrote on "the greatest athlete of the twentieth century", the reader is meant automatically to supply the missing word "American". Gould is no sentimentalist about the uniquely American origins of baseball. An essay here unarguably skewers the game's foundation myth, pointing out that Abner Doubleday, the man officially credited with inventing the game, was almost certainly picked out because he ordered the first shots to be fired on the Union side at Fort Sumter in 1861, and that a game called base ball is mentioned in Northanger Abbey. But nowhere does he turn to explaining how baseball came to call its end-of-season finale the World Series. To outsiders, the American propensity to look inward in sport -- which is so often used elsewhere as a form of soft international diplomacy -- is the most glaring example of a refusal to engage with the world beyond their borders (the first of two Canadian teams, Montreal, only joined baseball's "world" in 1969). But in this, as in so much else, Stephen Jay Gould shows himself not just as a pointyhead trying to occupy his niche in the schoolyard, but as a genuine fan, complete with standard issue, all-American blinkers.

David Horspool is History Editor of the TLS.



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